Independent choice: poetry

Peter Porter long ago espoused the cause of the provincial dandy in poetry - the kind of poet whose polymathic wit was sharpened miles from High Table. Since a recent major anthology encouraged us to believe that poetry is chiefly a property of the Celtic fringe and the Middle Ages, it is worth reminding ourselves that we mostly live in towns and cities, however much we put out tendrils into nature and the past.

Porter has been a great force in English poetry for nearly 40 years. In his new collection Dragons in their Pleasant Palaces (Oxford Poets, pounds 6.99), he reflects ruefully on the rewards for such commitment in "The Deaths of Poets": "But, somehow/it all went wrong; death couldn't be postponed,/symposia and Festschriften rotted/ ... hoped for vindications, complete with jokes/and anecdotes, were never written or/were spiked by teenage editors". This mood - despite characteristic burrowings into his beloved Italy and the 19th century - pervades the book, and is not merely poetic and personal. As "The Western Canoe" says: "We're all in it together, paddling downstream/as in that clip from Sanders of the River..." Which is a poetical-polite way of saying up Shit Creek: drowning in technical jargon, TV wars, stranded in a place where "all roads lead to CD-Rom".

I'm not sure that this anger is right for Porter's muse. He began as a sardonic satirist of the consumer society ("love goes as the MG goes") and wits strike home best when cool, but no one can deny his right to be angry. An unexpected and more positive note of reconciliation with his Australian background is struck in "National Service".

Don Paterson wants to be more learned than the Oxbridge boys, while simultaneously starring in his own road movie. This dichotomy has him lurching about like a Paul McCartney, his quality control department AWOL. The best poem in his second collection God's Gift to Women (Faber, pounds 6.99), "A Private Bottling", laments a failed relationship in "a chain of nips ... the tincture of a failed geography", whereas another big set-piece, "The Alexandrian Library Part II" merely fails the challenge of Paul Muldoon. God's Gift to Women is artfully packaged with a lot of knowing jokes, most of which would have been better left on the dunny wall.

In the quieter carrels of his library, Paterson aspires to MacNeice's intensely graceful lyric moments. This influence inspires some of his best poems: "Siesta", "Candle Bird", "Imperial", "Advice to Young Husbands", the "Bottling". But his strongest suit is still the microtones of description. He's a kind of verse Nicholson Baker: "the snot-string of a knotted Featherlite", "the vacuum of a black Costa Rica,/the smell of it, capric, deeply provocative".

John Burnside was praised some books ago by Sean O'Brien for not being "a tweedy nature boy", by which he meant that Burnside writes from that neck of the woods that gave us rural incest rather than Harvest Festival suppers. In A Normal Skin (Cape, pounds 7), Burnside dissolves the unities of time and space into a half-lit world where the shed skins of other lives haunt and propagate themselves. Favourite words are drowned, vanish, veil, smoke, muffled, ghosts. There's a ghoulish edge: a poem on his father ends with "his taste for carrion". It has been remarked that nature poetry has virtually disappeared in the 1990s, with Burnside its lone successful practitioner. But he's no Edward Thomas, being as dandified as anyone with titles likes "Ukiyo-e", epigraphs from William Carlos Williams, fancy words like "haar" instead of mist.

The centrepiece of Sarah Maguire's The Invisible Mender (Cape, pounds 7) is a version of Marina Tsvetaeva's long sequence "Wires". This seems to me the voice Maguire is searching for: Tsvetaeva's torrential passion rendered as an electrical storm coursing down telegraph wires. In Maguire's own poems, feeling is muffled by imagistic throwaways. This is the downside of provincial dandyism: the belief that the oblique and polysyllabic can automatically carry the freight of emotion. They can't: "Your bunched, curled faces/magenta and saffron/phototropic with desire/inexorably riding the light". Chrysanthemums, actually.

Alistair Elliot is the wild (or rather tame) card in this batch. There is not much of any kind of dandy in him, although he does live in Newcastle. "Anniversary Photograph" in Facing Things (Carcanet, pounds 9.95), would have fulfilled Larkin's worst fears about marriage and the muse. Marriage is seen as "flattened grass" and the muse takes a beating too: "The bed is rumpled, a crumpled invitation". Elliot's is a decent, humane poetry, full of musings on people and places - a Yorkshire ammonite, an old bakelite wireless, lost household objects refound. "A Family Wireless" has more urgency than most: "I daren't retune it: set before the war/on Home, it doesn't know it's Radio Four." Perhaps he should have dared to shift that dial after all.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried