INDEPENDENT CHOICE: Pick of the week Harvey Shapiro: Selected Poems

About 10 years ago, a leading publisher told me that American poetry had become virtually unsaleable in this country, and that we should expect to see much less of it. It seemed to reflect a depressing intensification of our literary insularity, andone of the most encouraging features of the past three or four years has been a renewed interest in American writing. The four books reviewed here exemplify the range of what is becoming available.

Anthony Hecht is a formal, learned poet with a dark sense of humour. The first half of Flight among the Tombs (Oxford, pounds 10.99) consists of 22 poems in which Death speaks as a variety of characters, among them a Mexican revolutionary and an Oxford don. As the Mexican, Death tells us that "Wines of the great chateaux/ Have been uncorked for you".

The reader is a rich gringo tourist. Death recommends "the quail,/ Which you'd do well to eat/ Before your powers fail,/ For I inaugurate/ A brand- new social order/ Six cold, decisive feet/ South of the border". The chill conclusion characterises most of this group, which tend to limit themselves by ending a touch too neatly.

The second section of this book, "Proust on Skates", contains 14 poems, mostly elegiac in feeling, mostly underpowered. This is a disappointing book from a major poet, but it is redeemed by one longer poem, "Death the Whore". From its opening lines - "Some thin grey smoke twists up against a sky/ Of German silver in the sullen dusk/ From a small chimney among leafless trees" - we sense that the poet's imagination is fully engaged. This poem has the movement and the measure of some of Hecht's finest achievements, and will be read long after anything else here.

C K Williams was one of the poets whose work provoked the renewal of interest in American writing. Almost all the new poems in The Vigil (Bloodaxe, pounds 7.95) are written in one form, consisting of very long, almost prosy lines which allow Williams to build detail and qualify his judgements like a novelist - almost like a slightly more rapid Henry James.

"Old Man" begins "Special; Big Tits, says the advertisement for a soft- core magazine on our neighbourhood news-stand, / but forget her breasts - a lush, fresh-lipid blonde, skin glowing gold, sprawls there, resplendent./ Sixty nearly, yet these hardly tangible, hardly better than harlots can still stir me." The poet moves from this commonplace experience to consider what his youth did to his erotic self, an incident in Israel, a photograph "in a book on pre-war Poland", death and his wife's beauty before returning to the photograph. It sounds ragged, but a tremendously clear logic leads to the ending:

"Vamp, siren, seductress, how much more she reveals in her glare of ink than she knows;/ how she incarnates our desperate human need for regard, our passion to live in beauty,/ to be beauty, to be cherished, by glances if by no more, of something like love, or love." Although there are some duff pieces here, and although the danger of relying on one form is that it is harder to remember individual poems clearly, this is a rich, ambitious, rewarding book.

Carcanet is now at the forefront in publishing American poets, and the new selections it offers of James Tate (Selected Poems, pounds 9.95), and Harvey Shapiro (Selected Poems, pounds 8.95) join a remarkable list. Both Tate and Shapiro remember an earlier poet, Theodore Roethke (1908-63). Tate's "Conjuring Roethke" begins "Prickle a lamb,/ giggle a yam,/ beat a chrysanthemum/ out of its head/ with a red feather." This is a rather clumsy imitation of the side of Roethke's work which drew on nursery rhymes. Shapiro's "1949" begins with "Memories of Ted Roethke at Yaddo", where, "I came to wake him after my lunch,/ and he would rise, vomit,/ mix a pitcher of martinis and we/ headed for the tennis courts." Remembering an early poem's rejection, "Roethke's eyes filled with tears - / his poem already anthology famous but the wound/ open still. The Garden Master but/ tendril- tender all his short life." Although also echoing Roethke, Shapiro does so with an economy and accuracy which put Tate's poem to shame.

This difference is everywhere apparent. James Tate is a much-praised, prize-winning joky surrealist. Less deft than John Ashbery, he writes poems whose lack of evident content is in the end extremely tedious. This book shows us what an institutionalised avant-garde can come to. Harvey Shapiro, on the other hand, begins in a slightly too literary way but, over the years, comes to a lucidity and candour I found entirely gripping. A typical example is "Questions":

The idiot sound of someone's stereo

in the apartment below. The bass thudding

like something caught in a trap.

People live in that racket the way I live

with my questions, the things I don't know.

For example, an image of the successful life,

or what is the good, or how can I get

from here to where I want to be, and where is that.

It is in the hope of hearing such a voice that we read American - or any - poetry at all.

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