Poetry: Seamus and the shaman
Which poet was partial to blackened baked potatoes? Who has an uncanny ability to remember old grocery packaging? And which one strangely resembles Clint Eastwood? Stephen Knight has all the answers
Sunday 07 December 2008
Britain's omnivorous poetry imprint Bloodaxe Books this year celebrated its 30th anniversary with the misleadingly titled In Person: 30 Poets (Bloodaxe £12). (There are actually 31 poets in the anthology.) An accompanying DVD has the poets reading their work, and among its many pleasures are the different ways they deal with the camera: some glance anxiously at the lens, others face it with confidence and savour their words. Neither demeanour is necessarily relative to the quality of the verse. One of the quieter poets, David Constantine reads his excellent poems powerfully, as does the American C K Williams, whose long lines have a momentum confirmed by Pamela Robertson-Pearce's film. She is an intriguing off-camera presence who sometimes seems to bark at her readers (presumably because she's closer to the microphone). I would have liked to see her face as she filmed the Scottish poet W N Herbert sing-reading "Bad Shaman Blues". A wonderfully bonkers turn, it is a highlight of the DVD.
Mick Imlah, another poet from north of the border, produced the outstanding volume of the year. The Lost Leader (Faber £9.99) is a virtuoso performance which surveys Scottish history as well as aspects of the poet's private life. The book has already won the Forward Prize for Best Collection and must be a favourite to take this year's T S Eliot prize. If it did, Imlah would be only the third poet – after Ted Hughes and Sean O'Brien – to do the double. It would be just reward for 20 years of work.
Poets often diversify into novel-writing (Gerard Woodward and Helen Dunmore are notable successes) but it is rare for a novelist to switch to verse, so Adam Foulds's The Broken Word (Cape £9) was a talking point from the outset. That rarity in contemporary poetry, a verse novel, it examines the Mau-Mau uprising in 1950s Kenya with a series of lyric poems, some shocking in the brutality of their detail. Its ambition impressed this year's judges of both the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and the Costa Poetry Award, for which it has been shortlisted.
Wendy Cope's Two Cures for Love (Faber, £12.99), a selection which includes eight uncollected pieces (presumably to tempt fans who already own the individual volumes), will surely become a bestseller. A quote from a Ted Hughes letter to Cope identifies her "deadpan fearless sort of way of whacking the nail on the head", and these predominantly end-stopped, full-rhymed poems certainly don't mess about. Her comic verse and her parodies have found her a large readership, but it would be a pity to undervalue the quieter pieces. The two about her grandmother, "Names" and "Present", are particularly touching.
There is even more of a whiff of the textbook about The Collected Prose of Robert Frost (Harvard £25.95) – small print, comprehensive endnotes, and trivia such as Frost's preference for baked potatoes with blackened skins – but this shouldn't deter the general reader because Frost, one of the great American poets, is so perspicacious about his craft. By turns gnomic and practical, his thoughts on the writing process, the importance to poetry of sound – "The surest way to reach the heart is through the ear" – and his distinction of metre and rhythm might not amount to a primer, but are essential for anyone interested in the art. "No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader" should be copied into the notebook of every aspiring poet, as should a quote from Frost's eightieth year: "I don't call myself a poet yet. It's for the world to say whether you are a poet or not."
Another American writer, Robert Lowell, once said "Memory is genius", an observation Dennis O'Driscoll might have used as an epigraph for the 500-odd pages of Stepping Stones (Faber £22.50), his interviews with Seamus Heaney. Amounting to a quasi-autobiography, the book is a must for Heaney's many aficionados, for whom the contexts of his writing will be fascinating.
Like Frost, Heaney is an acute commentator, and he also possesses a marvellous ability to recall the detail of his life, right back to childhood. At one point, he recollects the brand names of the groceries of his early years, down to the illustrations on the packets. O'Driscoll asks awkward questions about the literary rivalries as well as the friendships, the dissenting reviews as well as the awards, so the book mercifully lacks the feel of hagiography. There is, too, a sense of Heaney's twinkling humour. I will never think of R S Thomas in the same way, now that Heaney has described the dour Welsh poet as a "Clint Eastwood of the spirit".
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
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