Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

If rhyme doesn't pay, then – when it comes to authorial bank accounts – crime more often does. While picking his way through a tangled domestic life (which included, of course, the childhood of his Oscar-winning son, Daniel), the poet Cecil Day-Lewis needed more ample funds than even a Laureate's career in verse will ever supply. Under the pseudonym "Nicholas Blake", he published 20 popular whodunnits over three decades.

More recently, John Harvey has juggled poetry with the dark-side misadventures of his jazz-loving Nottingham detective, Charlie Resnick. David Harsent – not only a prolific and award-gathering poet, but the librettist for Harrison Birtwistle's just-televised opera The Minotaur – has an alias as crime specialist "David Lawrence", creator of DS Stella Mooney in gritty urban mysteries such as Down into Darkness. Away from the strict police-procedural, but well within noir territory, the poet Sophie Hannah has published three suspense novels (the latest The Point of Rescue). Last week she struck a handsome deal with Hodder to deliver five more. The TV production company Hat Trick has plans for prime-time adaptations of her books.

Economics explains some of this enduring affinity between metrical stress and criminal distress. From the outset, poets know that their work may languish on the margins of the cultural marketplace, in that almost cash-free zone where (as WH Auden wrote) "executives would never want to tamper". In contrast, a steady-selling crime series with the odd screen spin-off can give writers the nearest that literature offers to a secure income. No wonder many versifiers find the bard's beret and the copper's helmet an equally snug fit.

But I suspect there may be more to this kinship than mere loot. Poetry in English (well, in Old English at least) begins with little narrative enigmas: not so much whodunnits, but whatisits. The 1,000-year-old Exeter codex that contains much of the Old English verse to survive features almost 100 riddles. These miniature teasers invite the reader to pick up the clues and propose a solution: "My dress? Darkness,/ though each adornment's bright,/ red-glittering, sheer:/ shining costume./ I misdirect/ the reckless/ guide a fool/ on his fool's errand..." That's a goblet of red wine, from Chris McCully's frisky and flinty new translations of Old English Poems and Riddles (Carcanet, £9.95).

For the past millennium, the task of verse has encompassed the pleasures of the puzzle, right up to the foetal riddler of Sylvia Plath's "You're": "Clownlike, happiest on your hands,/ Feet to the stars, and moon-skulled,/ Gilled like a fish. A common-sense/ Thumbs-down on the dodo's mode." Experts at enigma in the tight turning-space of metaphor, poets can prove quite as adept at the concealed meaning and the double sense over an extended plot. Just as relevant, they know that form heightens feeling. The rule-bound artifice of a sonnet, or a thriller, can condense rather than dilute the passion and pain behind the convention.

True, not every poet will want to grasp this link. I can't quite see the cerebral Geoffrey Hill surprising his admirers with a mass-market sleuth – for all that Hill happens to be the son of a Midlands policeman. On the other hand, TS Eliot first planned – with a nod to Dickens's Our Mutual Friend – to entitle The Waste Land "He Do the Police in Different Voices". (And that work does mount an opaque inquiry into the death of Western civilisation.) Poets today seem to excel at finding different voices for the police, though this clever entertainment on a second string may divert our gaze from a shocking unsolved crime. Who killed poetry as a widely popular art in Britain? Was it murder – or suicide?