BOOKS: All those sermons in stones

William Scammell on grunting for God, weather, marriage and schoolboy japes in some of the new collections

"NO ideas but in things" said William Carlos Williams, and wrote little poems about red wheelbarrows and cold plums to prove it, turning his back on those hobbling about on the stilts of high culture. Polemic has always ranked high in American "redskin" poetry. It comes with puritanism, sincerity, freedom. Freedom for what? To break out of the conventions, formal and substantive. Road movies not Racine. Leaves of grass instead of laurels. Spontaneous, sexy free verse over the stifling nuclear family of iambics. Ignorance as the highest wisdom. Speaking in tongues, grunting of the kingdom of God.

Hence A R Ammons's Garbage (Norton £7.50), which has added yet another National Book Award to his long list of honours. If the ordinary is more real and holier than the extra-ordinary, then garbage, a more neutral and matter-of-fact word than our "rubbish", is realer than it was before uselessness and entropy set in to make it so. "Boy!, are you writing that great poem/the world's waiting for" asks the opening page, or just "wasting your time painting/sober little organic, meaningful pictures?" Organic, meaningful, crumble into dust before our eyes. Throw away that old meaning and find a better one. Grunge up!

Sure enough, the poet is soon glossing Wordsworth and Whitman: "garbage is spiritual ... the everlasting flame ... for/where but in the very asshole of comedown is/redemption?"

Don't laugh: "this is a scientific poem/asserting that nature models values". So it does, but do we need 121 pages of solemn verbiage to tell us that there are sermons in stones? Drily self-mocking, Ammons soon works himself up to a single monotonous register, high in the ether with Walt, and lets us have it, occasionally descending to particulars, which lights things up a little, or telling himself off for being a "blabbermouth". If you like rhetoric salted with down-home wisdom, and colons whizzing past like railroad ties, this might be your kind of poem.

Faber has given its list a new look with white covers and small colour reproductions. Maurice O'Riordan's A Word from the Loki (Faber £6.99) is pretty ordinary for two-thirds of its length, with nods and glimmers in the direction of Heaney and Muldoon, but suddenly lights up with "Milk", an excellent poem about a marriage in trouble, and thereafter earns its status as a Poetry Book Society choice. There is a fine tribute to Lucretius, and to "the pure exchange of intelligence" that went on between torturer and torturee in a Spanish Inquisition chair. Maybe this last is not a million thematic miles away from what goes on between husband and wife in the measured domestic poems, though O'Riordan's tone is more kindly and regretful than spiteful.

Katherine Pierpoint's Truffle Beds (Faber £6.99) tackles the natural world in long, breathy lines that occasionally read like a cross between Amy Clampitt and Ted Hughes:

"They're a wooden herd of pregnant flanks now, ribs pushed up and out./ Some, cocked high, listen with their entire bodies/For the first signal remembrance from the sea;/Others in the dwindling channel slowly point in many directions at once,/Stiff fingers seeking old patterns on piano keys./ Walrus elders napping, one-buttocked on the unforgiving pew" ("Boats").

She loves water, stone, weather "Like a painting broken over you" and the sort of muscular, precise language that might be adequate to the grandeur of it all. Occasionally she strains too hard, and the high-pitched attack grows monotonous or unconvincing ("the nowhere of everywhere at once"), but for the most part this is an exhilarating and accomplished dbut.

Harry Smart has been described as "tough-minded", and so he is, but he doesn't quite seem to know where to direct his anger in Fool's Pardon (Faber £6.99) except at easy targets like politicians, British poets ("total moral bankruptcy/and a pure poetic line" - disputable on both counts), and history, "the fiery destruction of the innocent". There's a touch of the Peter Readings about all this:

Nothing is worse than moralising, he said,

That's why I'm so demoralised, said he.

Everyone should be demoralised, he said,

It's absolutely the only decent thing to be".

Good things here include "Furnace", "The Leader" and "Shelling Bihac", which has something of Fenton's canny light-verse way with heavyweight subjects, but other poems remain parts rather than wholes. "How should one profess faith,/With a spoiled mouth, from a damaged life? Like Adorno?" he asks in "Application for Relief". Well, maybe with poetry.

Ian McMillan and Geoff Hattersley write the sort of garrulous, prosy stuff that elicits ready chuckles on the reading circuit and helps keep them busily engaged in school classrooms. "A sur-realism of the provinces" says one admiring critic, but it's more like the bumper book of fourth- form gags, parading such titles as "Ted Hughes is Elvis Presley" or "Frank O'Hara Five, Geoffrey Chaucer Nil".

McMillan's Dad, the Donkey's on Fire (Carcanet £7.95) comes to life a little when he stops being merely in-gratiating and injects a little reality into the humour of "The er Barnsley Seascapes", or sends up media clichs about northern life in "The Grimness". If he'd set his sights higher, McMillan could get out of the banal singles market and join the grownups. Hattersley's Don't Worry (Bloodaxe £7.95), though, settles relentlessly for the lowest common denominators of tabloid tat.

The emotional logic of Medbh McGuckian's "womanly" poetry tends to pass me by, however hard I try to concede her referential arbitrariness and hang on to the shreds of plot. Captain Lavender (Gallery Press £6.95) contains an elegy for the author's father, and another longish piece dedicated to Derek Mahon, whom it resembles as seaweed res-embles a house. How you stay afloat in:

The incised triangle,

the angle of the sciatic notch,

divides the month from the year

in my father's birthdate:

as bone becomes transparent

against the background of viaticum

("Constable's `Haywain' ")

I don't know.

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