Poetry collections round-up: Wild nature, haunting grief and a whole lot of love


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Iain Banks is perhaps not the first novelist you associate with poetry. But, as fellow science-fiction Scot Ken MacLeod notes in his introduction to Iain Banks and Ken MacLeod Poems (Little Brown, £12.99), the clues were there. The occasional poem in obscure anthologies, a couple of lines inserted into Banks's weird and wonderful body of prose.

MacLeod shares this first collection, and is probably braced for his fluent, often politically motivated verse to lurk in the shadow of Banks' limelight. Although Banks apparently revised these poems until his premature death in 2013, most works are drawn from the 1970s. Some inevitably feel like a writer struggling to hear his own voice. The staccato "Signpost at Midnight" wrestles with Beckett's dying falls: "However,/This one,/She was…/She was like one I loved,/If memory serves,/I am not sure…Maybe I'm wrong/And I have never loved/Perhaps so."

It is inevitable, if unfair, to read these often grimly vivid pieces of free verse with Banks' fiction in mind, but admirers will recognise the wild black humour and contempt for religion in "Outward Siege": "Fuck me (said Buddha from/the pyramid on Calgary), 'If/I'd known it was going/to be this sort of party/I wouldn't have come." There is also a keen eye for nature's fearsome beauty. "Thermal" describes "Vultures, pinned to blue/Hang in the air." The slow movement of the next lines turns this image like breeze across a gothic children's mobile: "Hooked to the air/In a rising spiral turning/An orb of eye surveys/The carrion possibilities." Who is watching who here is left nicely open. I like to think it's Banks preparing the vision of his dark novels. MacLeod offers a lighter, more traditional counterpoint. His parody of The Waste Land, "A Fertile Sea", is good fun.

Vikram Seth is a rather better known poet-novelist, having published more volumes of verse than fiction (his masterpiece was 1,500 pages long, so the imbalance is forgivable). The formal precision of Summer Requiem (Orion, £14.99) feels oddly old-fashioned after Banks. The ornate stanza of "1768; 2007" does a fair impersonation of George Herbert's "Easter Wings", for instance. Rhyme and rhythm lend other poems the inevitability of nursery rhymes: "This was a day that came and went/I don't know how the day was spent./The sun rose up and reached its height./The sun went down and it was night."

Seth's plainness can disarm, like Wordsworth's desire to pin down "The Thorn"'s "little muddy pond": "I've measured it from side to side:/'Tis three feet long, and two feet wide." Is this badness or an artless desire to say the thing right out? The thing, in Seth's case, is death, which pours ironically through the collection like rain from a cloudless sky. Winter might have kept TS Eliot warm; summer gives Seth Keats-ian chills: "The fear that oozed/Through sun and dust/Is moon-appeased./I must/Not tremble for what died/Nor mourn for culm or grain/But case the root/For spring to quicken again." Something like a longing for oblivion underpins this awareness of grief: "Nor is the darkness new, nor this ungiving game/That waits till it or I am finished." Whether "it" refers to Seth's long-awaited A Suitable Girl remains to be seen…

With Valentine's Day looming like a giant pink marketing exercise, Radio 4's Poetry Please has published Poetry Please: Love Poems (Faber and Faber, £9.99). Most usual suspects are present: Burns' "My Luve Is Like a Red, Red Rose", Auden's "Lullaby". Quite what Philip Larkin's "Talking in Bed", Fleur Adcock's "Against Coupling", Eliot's "Prufrock" and Keats' "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" are doing here is less obvious but more interesting. These anti-romances hover darkly, like over-friendly waiters ruining that dinner date. If you want something amorous, you could do worse than Gavin Ewart's "The Lover Writes a One-Word Poem": "You!"