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.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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