Making toast for Dirk Bogarde

HOW POETRY WORKS ed Tony Curtis, Seren pounds 6.95

Asking poets to expatiate on their techniques is a bit like asking actors on to a chat show. At best you get some rib-tickling anecdotes, at worst the naked ego strutting without benefit of script or rehearsal. Ask them to yield up drafts of their masterpieces too (Don Paterson says he writes up to 80), and you may get enough preening to put you off poetry for life.

If the literary interview is the most overrated of all critical pastimes, the literary come-into-my-workshop runs it a close second, unless it happens to be the home of a Yeats or a Hopkins. Poetry doesn't really lend itself to guides, manuals and confessions, any more than sex does. It says eat me and drink me. Alice didn't need any further instructions, and nor should we.

Tony Curtis has assembled nine poets, ranging from seniors (Abse, Clarke, Longley, Stevenson) to juniors (Armitage, Paterson). "I'd ... be deeply suspicious of any poet who claims to understand ... the `process'," says Paterson, but within a few lines he's off: "God dispersed after the Big Bang, or after the Fall, and shattered into a million pieces, like a great glass hologram. The pieces are us. A poem is the literary analogue, a highly polished shard of the Great Epic ... the whole point of the exercise is to blow the reader's mind."

Paterson, for all his talent, swings between the grandiose and a cut- the-crap demotic that clogs up his diction. Simon Armitage also feels obliged to kit out the mystery in verbal Doc Martens: "My criterion for knowing or feeling that I have taken a poem as far as I can is to sit back, read through, and wait for that bloody-hell-I-wrote-that feeling." Both agree that "form can be a very slippery customer, like Dirk Bogarde in The Servant ... before you know it you're buttering its toast and ironing its shirts." That's Armitage, nippy as ever with a metaphor. Paterson's version of a related point is: "I ... find that the subconscious can operate a lot more freely if I throw the left side of my brain some indigestible intellectual doggy- chew to shut it up and prevent it from interrupting ... form is like the honey-cake you throw to Cerberus to placate him while you nip into Hades to steal Euridice back again."

What we end up with is words about words, little poetic flourishes designed to explicate little poetic flourishes, which is rather like Ptolemy's idea of putting circles on circles to explain the motions of the planets. What they did, you see, was to circle. What poetry does is to ... make things poetic.

Helen Dunmore worries about gender and the "hidden voices of women", which probably keeps both sides of the brain distracted, but finds consolation in her word-processor, "something as meltingly lateral as thought itself". Anne Stevenson disarmingly confesses, "I am hardly a more competent poet today than I was 30 years ago" but then tends to refute this modesty with an outline of the genesis of her fine poem "A Sepia Garden". Dannie Abse recalls the wartime boom in poetry sales which got him his post-war acceptance by Hutchinson. He goes on to bewail his early untutoredness, "unaware of literary criticism, mixing with [medical] students who owned no knowledge or theories about the craft of poetry". Nowadays the boom has transferred itself from sales to poets, thousands of them, bounding out of the creative writing schools and queueing up to appear in books like this one, with enough theory up their sleeves to secure tenure and power a thousand seminars.

Vicki Feaver, like Dunmore, felt done down by men, and liberated by Adrienne Rich, "who had been taught, as I had, that poetry should be `universal' which meant, of course, non-female". Harold Bloom has named this the School of Resentment. It transposes real (social, economic, psychological) injustice into an unreal aesthetics, riddled with the sort of logic that makes art responsible for oppressing women, just as it stamps on the face of the working class and privileges neurosis over a healthy game of rugby.

How Poets Work might be said to belong to the school of handy hints and post facto ruminations, useful for those just starting out, perhaps, or in need of solidarity - something you don't get much of at your desk, except when you pick up one of those dead white writers, of either sex.

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