BOOKS POETRY/FICTION; Feeling it with your head

REST FOR THE WICKED by Glyn Maxwell, Bloodaxe £6.95
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"ENCASED in talent like a uniform/The rank of every poet is well known" wrote Auden in the 1930s, tongue in cheek perhaps, since the rank of poets tends to be disputed only less hotly than that of prima donnas and pre-war sports cars. "They can dash forward like hussars," he added. Prominent among recent dashers is Glyn Maxwell, self-styled "Shake-speare of Welwyn Garden City" (cf Dylan Thomas's "Rimbaud of Cymdonkin Drive"), who has the young Auden's or Hardy's promiscuous delight in stanza-forms, metres and rhyme schemes, plus a highly-developed sense of the possibilities of allegory and personification, both allied to the sardonic voice-over of Nineties scepticism.

Nothing if not prolific, Maxwell's third collection follows hard on the heels of his novel Blue Burneau and the three verse plays collected in Gneiss the Magnificent. As before, the mixture of brilliance and opacity is both exhilarating and tiring. His playful formalism is driven by a sort of Range Rover syntax whose four-wheel drive and multiple gears will happily toddle round the suburbs or take off for the Karakoram Highway and deposit you on the star-kissed summits of a thirtysomething philosophy of life, one in which the cold comfort of wisdom seems easier to attain than the specifics of love. Girls tend to be "foreign", "innocent", unreliable - "She vowed and lied to me and won her case" - whereas "western civilisation" and the like never stops instructing him in how to be sadder and wiser than the other kids on the block.

This bitter-sweet apprehension might arrive in the form of light verse, at which Maxwell excels - see "As You Walked Out One Morning", which lives up to its Audenesque title - or as a brief memento mori ("A northern hill aghast with weather / Scolds and lets me hurry over"), or an excursus on the "State of the Nation", or a witty deconstruction of "The Great Detectives".

He's at his most attractive in poems which slow down a bit and pay attention to a particular experience, such as "The Margit-Isle", rather than those which hurry towards closure, and in the semi-humorous, semi-desperate allegories like "A Force That Ate Itself", "The People's Cinema" and "The Sentence". The first of these is an anti-war poem that redeems the genre, full of imaginative flair and unsentimental energy:

They trod the world so small the men they found

Up ahead, quite mad,

Were their own tail but they cut them to the ground

In innocence, and once

Begun it could not be stopped, not until

Each General

Had shot himself from behind and shuffled on.

The reworking of "The Chariots of the Sun" episode in Ovid's Metamorphoses, however, which is done in a series of dramatic monologues, seems stalled in a flurry of idioms that are too self- conscious by half.

Auden's pervasive influence, ruefully acknowledged in "Don't Waste Your Breath" ("Writing things that sound like Auden / In his sleep") is both a help and a hindrance. Like the master, Maxwell constructs feelings out of thoughts and trusts to his brain to do much of the work normally assigned to other faculties. Line by line this entails a loss of physicality and immediacy, that lovely slap and tickle of language you get in the poems of Seamus Heaney, where sound echoes sense.

Perhaps Glyn Maxwell should attend to the expressive means of his other great hero, Bob Dylan, who does such extra-ordinary things with vowels and consonants, as though they were his life's blood. Maxwell has plenty of gifts, though, and the courage to try everything, including Shakespearean songs (there's a selection of them from un- published plays).We'll just have to take the smooth with the rough.