Collected Poems, by Alan Brownjohn

An Everyman who rages against life's malign force
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The Independent Culture


Alan Brownjohn, whose Collected Poems celebrates his 75th birthday, belongs to the poetic generation after Larkin and has always been associated with writers such as Peter Porter, George MacBeth and Anthony Thwaite. His early poems followed Donald Davie's dictum: "a neutral tone is now preferred". The result was more tidy and self-limiting little poems: "It is no good any way one takes, / The sin is travel if roads are mistakes, / The plague is feet if it's no good proceeding: / I do not think this is too misleading." That was William Empson he was ven-triloquising, Empson being a favourite of Larkin's followers.

Brownjohn hit his stride in the Seventies. His satires of that period are mostly amusing but innocuous, but more pungent is Brownjohn's savaging of an anonymous highway, the A202: "an exhausted / Grey zigzag of stubborn, unassimilable / Macadam". By the end of this dispiriting tirade you want to protest, "Not the road's fault, surely?" This is, the author admits, "my road".

Brownjohn is at his best in poems of defiance against a range of malign forces. In "Breach", "a completely unselfish / Unkind-to-no-other-people act of love" is celebrated against his usual scenery of "the general soilure of the world". This good-deed-in-anaughty-world mood surfaces again in "Through Binoculars": "Between forgetting one hypochondria / And registering the next, there comes / An interval of an hour or two called 'Health', / When the world leaps into clarity". The most revealing poem is "You Ask": the poet wants to sail away on a "bloody great boat" and return with a different persona that allows him to make "Everyone stop and listen and behave, / striking clarity into your souls at last."

This is a very large book; Brownjohn might be better served by a judicious "Selected Poems" because some excellent work is too thinly scattered. "Sadly on Barstools" is an almost perfect short lyric (and a great title) that catches life in any bar, in any town, with desultory conversations about problems great and small. Another wonderful title, packed with promise that delivers, is "Holding Hands with Pregnant Women". A man and woman, old flames, share a bus in South London: she radiant and magnanimous in pregnancy, he racked by regrets and a longing for "that poignant high adventure of plunging into young women still unsoiled / By cash and security". Brown-john's best poems are written by, and for, Everyman.