BOOK REVIEW / Poetry

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The Independent Culture
WILLIAM SCAMMELL is valuable because he's one of the few poets to continue the Byronic / Audenesque tradition of unfrivolous light verse - a tradition only slightly honoured in this country and not at all in the US. The rhyming quatrain comes in handy, but in Scammell's new book, Five Easy Pieces (Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 7.99), there are other things on the menu: childhood memory in compelling prose; cameos that mix their originality with feyness; vers libre, mystery, hints of Beckett and Kafka and how silence has been murdered by machinery; even what used to be called 'beauty': 'Into the body-bag with it (quiet) / raped and murdered beside the wheat / that clicks in the wind, unseen, unheard, / to fall upon its own cut beard.' The descriptive-satirical is another of his modes: 'All over Britain, up the ends of drives, / from middle earth to Glastonbury Tor / the hippies fetch their twigs of metaphor / and dive into the rookery . . . Gandalf thrives'.

Scammell has talent for writing in the Byron / 'Beppo' and the Burns stanzas. His poem on Philip Roth - demotic literary criticism - shows it at its least inspired, with the rhymes all over the place. But 'Muddy Waters', a light-verse reconstruction of Jane Eyre in abab quatrains, is splendid, and also criticism of a kind, both entertaining and trenchant. Equally enjoyable is 'Botany Bay', which uses the personae of a sea captain (James Eastman, real) and a sailor (invented?), taking convicts to Australia in 1787. The captain's log contains entries such as: 'Vitealld the flieet. Att 4am waid / anchor and went through the needels / the wind att SE Light Brease / 64 Cags brought off Sirous'. (Unrhymed quatrains at the beginning, rhymed ones at the end. Civilisation overtaking Australia?)

'The Northern Station' does the same sort of thing for a Russian political prisoner. But would he say, of his lawyer, 'Lury is nobody's food'? This must be part of the perennial war of publishers and printers against poets (ie 'food' = 'fool').

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