Poetry now: sex, gags and chicken soup

This week, poetry in English lost an old master, R S Thomas. Next week, National Poetry Day will focus on younger voices. Michael Glover asks what the art's more senior citizens are doing. Carol Rumens contrasts North American sibyls with their witty Brit sisters  
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When four male, English-language poets, all regarded as significant figures and all between 50 and 70, publish new collections of work, it is a good moment to take stock - even better, in the week when an authentic Grand Old Bard such as R S Thomas departs. What conclusions can we draw about poetry's present direction and value from the latest books by Tom Paulin (b. 1949), Michael Longley (b. 1939), Douglas Dunn (b.1942) and the senior Thom Gunn (b. 1929)? Is there any evidence that poetry of the present can be regarded as a radical art - radical in the way that, for example, the noisy Britpack of visual artists is widely regarded? Are these poets pretending to subvert anything; even, superficially perhaps, by offending common decency? Are they tearing down the building and creating something which we scarcely recognise? Are they that exciting?

When four male, English-language poets, all regarded as significant figures and all between 50 and 70, publish new collections of work, it is a good moment to take stock - even better, in the week when an authentic Grand Old Bard such as R S Thomas departs. What conclusions can we draw about poetry's present direction and value from the latest books by Tom Paulin (b. 1949), Michael Longley (b. 1939), Douglas Dunn (b.1942) and the senior Thom Gunn (b. 1929)? Is there any evidence that poetry of the present can be regarded as a radical art - radical in the way that, for example, the noisy Britpack of visual artists is widely regarded? Are these poets pretending to subvert anything; even, superficially perhaps, by offending common decency? Are they tearing down the building and creating something which we scarcely recognise? Are they that exciting?

Evidence from most of the formal elements in these books would suggest not. Take Thom Gunn, the Anglo-American poet par excellence of the postwar era. The great shift in Gunn's poetry took place after he moved to California in the 1950s. America liberated him emotionally. He accepted his own homosexual impulses as good and true, and began to write out of that knowledge. His verse, once so costive and secretive, opened up to admit sunlight, frivolity, the glorious sheen of the sweat-soaked male body. Yet his greatest book, The Man with Night Sweats (1991), arose out a tragedy: Aids. That book described, in terrible detail, how a generation of those glorious bodies had succumbed to disease and death.

Boss Cupid (Faber, £7.99, 115pp) is something of a continuation. It remembers dead friends, and how those dead continue to make their emotional claims. It celebrates what he has been celebrating for many years: drugs, impulse, the itch of the flesh, which does not go away when you pass 70. And while continuing to celebrate the Dionysian experiment of his younger years, it also chronicles, poignantly, the decline of romance, and the rage against the cruel truth of the fact that a young man called Thom Gunn is now obliged to inhabit an old man's body.

Paradoxically, the book begins with a tribute to Robert Duncan, that most unrestrained of American modern masters, who loved to sprawl to avoid closure at any cost. In spite of his admiration, Gunn has generally been the opposite - formally punctilious, as he is in this book. And that is something of a bar to our enjoyment this time around. There is an awkward, even plodding, quality to some of this verse.

To shift from Gunn to the Belfast-born Tom Paulin is to move from an obsession with the need to pour content into form, to a man who seems magnetised by the sounds and etymologies of words alone, and only interested incidentally in how this enthusiasm might translate itself into formal patterning. Paulin's verse in The Wind Dog (Faber, £7.99, 86pp) is that of a man in a state of perpetual agitation about the problems of fashioning verses from these obdurate things called words. By comparison, Gunn seems to be almost a writer of prose, treating poems if they were smoothly efficient vehicles of meaning and satisfaction.

On the page, Paulin's poems sometimes look a little jagged and provisional; like those of e e cummings, for example, that typographical revolutionary. Paulin's line breaks are wild, unpredictable; his punctuation ditto. Every line finds him thinking on his feet about how the line is being written, and how far the argument may have taken him. He doubles back, questions his own dark strategies, seems to be in some condition of partial denial of the way he has decided to address his audience - if he still has an audience, and it's possible he may have lost it somewhere along the poem's twisty, tacky way.

There are brilliantly luminous moments - describing painting, for example, or in "Bournemouth", written after a poem by Verlaine. The very subjects seem to tie him down, for a moment or two. Then he is off and away, back again burrowing deep into the interstices of his own ungovernably questing mind.

How peaceful life seems then when, after the intellectual agitations of Paulin, we arrive on the fairly tranquil shore of a new collection by another Belfast poet, Michael Longley. Longley is a master of the singing line, a lover of flowers and herbs, and of the antique rural machinery of Co Mayo. But all is not quite as it seems. His poems in The Weather in Japan (Cape, £8, 68pp) often begin in tranquillity and then, all of a sudden, swerve off to bring us face to face with jarring detail.

Which leaves us with Douglas Dunn, that dyspeptic man from Fife, who ten years ago was telling me that poetry was coming so slowly to him these days. His fears, we now see, were quite ungrounded.

Poetry has had a firmer grip on him this past decade than ever. First came the long, uneven Dante's Drum Kit, then two more books this year alone: the narrative poem Donkey's Ears (Faber, £7.99) and now the predominantly lyric collection The Year's Afternoon (Faber, £7.99, 81pp). It finds him writing more musically, and poignantly, than ever. This book casts long backward glances of elegiac regret, but is none the worse for that. An exquisite technical control keeps us engaged, and often enthralled. It's quite the best of this bunch.

Where does this leave us? Is poetry ahead of the game? Has it fallen woefully behind? Is it in hock to the past? Or rushing into the arms of the future? Swinging from traditionalism to games with language, the answer would seem to be: six of one, half a dozen of the other. MG

Poetesses across the pond

Has the continent that gave us Dorothy Parker produced any heirs to the Algonquin dining-chair? American and Canadian poetry are vast territories, still inadequately mapped for British readers. But, judging by the most visible women poets, the answer appears to be no.

Emotional intensity, intellectual ambition, free structure and high seriousness characterise such writers as Louise Gluck, Adrienne Rich, Margaret Atwood and Sharon Olds. Anne Michaels, a poet before she became a novelist, now joins the unsmiling array with her collected Poems (Bloomsbury, £6.99, 209pp).

Though fearless of abstractions, Michaels's earth-loving imagination allows her to evolve into concrete metaphor or allegory with an almost unnoticeable jolt: "Language is the house with lamplight in its windows,/ visible across fields ("What the Light Teaches"); "Memory drags possessions out on the lawn,/ moves slowly through wet grass ("Skin Divers"). Topography lives and breathes. The work may shift into an elevated, preachy register when using the generalising third-person singular. But Michaels triumphs in sensuous particularities, as in these lines from the lovely elegy, "The Hooded Hawk":

At the table your favourite ghost sat with us, the poet, Heine, who knew home is in the mouth: not just language but carp in raisin sauce, lamb with horseradish and garlic - even in Paris, surrounded by cuisine.

Readers who enjoyed Fugitive Pieces will admire the cuisine of Poems, but most will probably love the home-cooked moments more.

Sharon Olds has always pushed boldly against poetic boundaries in her search for the physical description that is emotional revelation. It's questionable, though, whether her use of scientific, Latinate vocabulary in certain poems in Blood, Tin, Straw (Cape, £8, 116pp) really succeeds in opening up the more difficult body zones and psychic spaces. Surprisingly, for such an accomplished writer, Olds lets her poetic registers sometimes become garbled. "What did it mean, to them, to see/ their comminglant pour that sour particulate/ refreshment to the back of her throat,/ to the liquid jewel of the uvula/ and drive it across the sill?" ("Aspic and Buttermilk"). The parents' experience of force-feeding their child is here engulfed rather than exposed.

Olds's rich seam of father-daughter poems continues. "Where will Love go?" is a fine example, framing its pained metaphysical questions with rhythmic urgency and authentic whiffs of physical detail: the "dark red pores" of the father's leather chair, the "40-pound/1932 Underwood,/ the trapezes stilled inside it". More experimental departures, such as the film-sequence "The Watchers", excel in the politics of observation. Such poems have a vigorous, materialistic simplicity that leaves space for the readers to click into their own imaginative hypertext.

Across the ocean of style and form, Joanne Limburg makes her debut with the engagingly-titled Feminismo (Bloodaxe, £6.95, 64pp). A Jewish writer, like Anne Michaels, Limburg registers the pressures of witness and piety, but the result may be as fiercely funny as "Mother Chicken Soup": "I don't expect gratitude - /only that you should do as much/ for your own children./ Turn me up to 150/ when you get in. Mum". On Seder night, though, the ancestors are allowed the last word: "I say that all I want/ is to live my life./ Without us you would have no life." ("Seder Night with my Ancestors"). Mostly, Limburg is observing an urban, secular, assimilated community, and the "nightmare of history" does not erase the small-scale personal alienations - those of confused old age, for instance, in "The Old Ladies of Cricklewood":

An old lady knows her own front door, even if it is the wrong colour, the lock won't work, and there's a stranger standing behind it.

Though a realist, Limburg knows when to shift gears and execute a zany free-fall. Poems with cheery conversational beginnings ("Never underestimate/ the ecstacy of chucking out") are flicked wryly into the surreal: "A text that could edit itself would know it./ Linen, being boiled, would know it." ("Travelling Light").

She has fun exploring the notion of a woman poet in touch with her "inner bloke", and there, in that ability to laugh at herself, lies an important source of her appeal: "There's nothing he won't/ turn into a joke/ including me."

In The Back and the Front of It (Bloodaxe, £7.95, 64pp), Connie Bensley is characteristically objective - or cleverly appears to be. The title poem delineates the repulsion of opposites: "he" likes the back-view of the peacock, "the muscular plaque which raises the fabulous fan", whereas "she" goes for the full-frontal brilliance. (I found myself wishing that "she" had been the wrong-side devotee.) Though they rarely come to blows, these anonymous he's and she's go about their business with murder frozen in their hearts ("Natural Selection"):

Get ride of that Dog he frowned - but died himself. She and Dog exchange smiles.

Bensley registers the cruelties all right, but can be sunny-funny too. She is at her best when slightly oblique and when she resists letting metrical considerations argue her out of her natural briskness. Both Limburg and Bensley could be offered as evidence that Dorothy Parker's heirs are now living on this side of the Atlantic. Is it ungrateful to propose that High Seriousness and Wry Irony ought to get introduced some time? CR

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