Chistmas Books Special - Part Two: Poetry

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The Independent Culture

Why not give your philistine friends a book with poetry in the title that actually contains none of the stuff? Watch their relief as they realise no effort is required! See them smile as they discover that poets can be funny, in both senses of the word! The Bloodaxe Book of Poetry Quotations (Bloodaxe £9.95) is the result of Dennis O'Driscoll's filleting of 20 years' worth of articles, interviews and reviews. It is as gossipy as it is epigrammatic, as grumpy as it is affirming. If the collection's most quoted author, Seamus Heaney, tells us "poetry is language in orbit'', then Wendy Cope confides that Keats "was the first poet I got really excited about. In fact, I was rather in love with him until I found out how tall he was.'' And what would literary life be without the occasional character-assassination? J D McClatchy damns Sylvia Plath as "spoiled, petulant, phony, cold, ambitious'' then asks, "Can Hughes (her husband) himself have been a bowl of cherries?'' Mischievously, this quote appears directly below a passage of Ted Hughes on Plath. (O'Driscoll's parties must be fun.) Who knows if a book like this will turn people on to poetry or confirm their prejudices? Either way, it's fun to browse.

Two American poets born in 1936 celebrate their seventieth birthday with substantial volumes. Leafing through C K Williams's Collected Poems (Bloodaxe £20), the reader is first struck by the poet's long lines breaking on the right hand margin like waves. They are a marvellous expression of Williams's originality, the ideal form for his attempts to capture the workings of a mind simultaneously hesitant and discomfortingly candid. This is a compelling body of work, a holiday from the cramped verse of these islands. One of Williams's half-dozen entries in the O'Driscoll volume serves as a good introduction to his writing: "A poem can't just be interesting. It has to have some passionate meaning somewhere in it. Or it has to create a passion.''

Frederick Seidel, heir to Robert Lowell and another poet of the Whitmanesque long line, weighs in with a daunting Selected Poems (Faber £14.99). Omnivorous, writerly, tackling politics and history with a cast ranging from Robert Kennedy and Socrates to Klaus Barbie and the Shah of Iran, it is as substantial as many poets' complete works. Seidel's imagination is dizzyingly associative, and the pleasure lies in his poetry's novelistic capaciousness. If you enjoy poems as likely to leave you baffled as emitting grunts of recognition and/or surprise, then Seidel is your man.

One of the most influential American poets of the past 50 years, Elizabeth Bishop (1911-79) has a new volume out; a famous perfectionist who allowed little into print, she would probably be surprised. Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box (Carcanet £16.95) is a careful assemblage of drafts, fragments and unpublished poems presumably aimed at Bishop fans and poetry anoraks. Newcomers to her work would not see what the fuss is about, for all the inventiveness and nimble versification of this disjecta membra; a number of pieces crumble away or have too many lacunae to be truly satisfying. The book's front cover misleadingly refers to "uncollected'' poems (that is, work published somewhere other than in a book). Not only does this not seem to be the case, but 12 pieces, including the title poem, were entirely crossed out by Bishop. That she did not destroy her notebooks is no licence to ignore her scrupulousness, so this volume is something of a guilty pleasure. Disconcertingly, three poems from the book have already found their way into a new anthology of love poetry.

Surveying five centuries of English verse, James Fenton's The New Faber Book of Love Poems (Faber £17.99) includes generous selections from the work of Blake, Tennyson, Browning and Auden. The alphabetical arrangement results in some oddly appropriate bedfellows: Hugo Williams next to John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, and Cole Porter's "Night and Day'' serenading Craig Raine's "The Onion, Memory". Fenton favours poems that scan and rhyme ("song" recurs on the contents page and the book includes a number of lyrics), so there are few poems from the modern era. Well, anthologising is a polemical act, though I would have preferred anything by C K Williams or Frederick Seidel at the expense of the achingly dull verse of Robert Browning or the folderol of Noel Coward. Four-fifths of the writers are dead; among the living, Fenton gives the largest selections to Wendy Cope, to the Larkinesque American W D Snodgrass, and to himself. As capable as he is of producing memorable verse, however, Fenton is not at his best as a love poet: fluent, witty but strangely hollow, the six poems anthologised are in want of a score to warm them up.

One of the great English poets of the last century, Ted Hughes, is another absentee from Fenton's anthology, though his writing certainly does not lack for heat, a quality as evident in his translations as in his original work. The poems and texts for performance in the characteristically bracing Selected Translations (Faber £20) include work by Euripides, Homer, Pushkin and Lorca. Among the less familiar names, the Portuguese Mario de Sa Carneiro (1890-1916) sounds intriguingly contemporary, while the "very oddity and struggling dumbness'' of Hughes's word-for-word method results in a wonderful addition to Hughes's eccentric oeuvre, Ferenc Juhasz's "The Boy Changed into a Stag Cries Out at the Gate of Secrets":

his long skull treed with antlers,

bone boughs bursting to bone leaves,

his face closely furred to the chin,

his nostrils slit and slanted in.

The great antlers knock against trees,

roped veins lump on his neck,

he strains fiercely, stamping he tries

to put out an answering cry, but in vain.

it is only a stag's voice belting

in the throat of this mother's son