Suspicious of beauty

Jeff Nuttall regrets the drift of poetry into stand-up comedy
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One of the problems facing the British poet is the embarrassment and scepticism extended towards poetry by the British public. Kathleen Raine and Alan Ross are left over from a time when this was not so. Unabashedly, they both write in a state of trance; they both pursue beauty in their subject matter and in their way of writing; they both write in lyric, which is to say poetic, language which doesn't feel it has to disguise itself as conversation, stand-up comedy, community activity, consumer commodity or encounter therapy.

Raine's On A Deserted Shore (Agenda, 5 Cranborne Court, Albert Bridge Rd, SW11 LPE, pounds 6.00) is a sequence of 130 irregular stanzas about the death of a lover. The very subject matter places Raine in danger: this is an ocean wherein many have swum, from Keats's Isabella watering her basil to Nelson Eddie seeing spring break through again. Raine is doubly prone to this danger because she sees her dead love immortalised in dream ("only in sleep / Sweet island voices that make us weep") and nature ("Was waterfall, was fleeting flame, was empty air"). Even Christ Himself appears ("she took him for the gardener") and consoles the bereaved by embodying undying love: "a face too merciful / For my devil-peopled soul to bear."

So skilled a poet is Raine, however, so complete is her intensity of belief and feeling, that she soars above all the pitfalls. Cliches do not appear, nor a single scrap of tired language. We may not share her faith in the psychic muscularity of love but its hold is firm enough to keep her work fine. A similar faith incidentally, held firm for Francis Horovitz who comes to mind as Raine's main follower.

Alan Ross maintains his poetic identity at quite a different level. I doubt if a mind as acute as Ross's could be entirely unaware of the convincing charisma he achieves by presenting himself as a character not a million miles from the heroes of Greene and Conrad. The poems in After Pusan (Harvill, pounds 9.99) constitute a creative re-start when Ross took a trip to Seoul in Korea after a breakdown in the mid-Eighties. He went in the wake of Isabella Bird, a Victorian travel writer whose account of an Oriental paradise contrasts wryly with the modern Korea with its Demilitarised Zone, where long hair and sandals are not admitted, and its Buddhist monastery where the monks sell kitsch and watch baseball on TV. This is recounted in the prose introduction, a piece of crisp journalism that recalls the days of Penguin New Writing and the London Magazine. James Cameron comes to mind, another Englishman with a broken heart and an impenetrable decency.

Ross's verse, when we get to it, is not Imagism but it is rooted in Imagism. It seems appropriate that a man who finds his regeneration in the war- torn East should take so much from the translations of Pound and Waley. The contrast between images of modern war and of an ancient culture serve him well. Perfumes evoke lost loves and moments in passing places are snapped into vision, often with graceful rhymes. Sometimes, as in the short poem "Amethyst'', he achieves greatness.

It was during Ross's editorship of the London Magazine that British poetry began to get prickly palms about beauty as the defining concern of art. It was then that poets, bursting their typewriter ribbons to make verse sound like casual speech, virtually created the mode of the alternative comedian. Matters of moment, i.e. life, love and death, are covered in a tone appropriate to the ordering of groceries, a sort of widow's shrug. Suburbia governed the arts, the sangfroid of the privet hedge and the muslin curtain, moderation and reserve in the service of respectable privacy.

John Hagley actually is a sort of stand-up comic, the most recent in the line of performing poets from Beachcomber through Ivor Cutler to Spike Hawkins, though he lacks the obtuse oddness of Cutler and the crazy Dada of Hawkins. Love Cuts (Methuen, pounds 8) is his fifth volume of disposable comedy. There is a crafty deployment of assonance and a jokey punning. One autumn a dog gets "knocktober." Someone takes precautions with his "safe spex." There are faint echoes of a remembered Catholicism and politically correct bisexual punchlines. The whole takes place in a seedy urban consensus of boredom, telly and playground nostalgia, the very home of alternative comedy.

U.A.Fanthorpe has stronger religious echoes. In Safe As Houses (Peterloo Poets, pounds 10) her cycle of poems about William Tyndale, who translated the first English Bible, have him levelling the high Latin with neighbourly English common sense. Fanthorpe shares with Stevie Smith the voice of a quirky female individualist, without pretension but with a refusal to be deceived that borders on a refusal to be convinced; and with a hoydenish sense of mischief. She is at her best applying this voice to received texts (by Kierkgard, Ibsen, Sir Thomas Browne etc.) but she can also be moving and exact in her details about the Second World War, an event in which the British suburban spirit discovered its strength. "O rare little world," she writes, "Imagined to gentle the English through war and Depression, and war, and peace and anything else, cheap, unpretending, with your faith in solutions..." Although Fanthorpe can puncture the cosiness of such a world with some traumatising descriptions of the Blitz, this is the world in which she operates.

Andrew Westerman also has an optimum pull towards the Forties and Fifties. The title sequence of The End Of The Pier Show (Carcanet, pounds 8.95) is linked with references to a faded seaside resort, another happy-hunting-ground of the British suburban vision. Waterman writes with a tense controlled sadness about his fading eyesight in a world which is fading anyway. The sometimes irritating perfection of the metre sounds in the ear as a level, dogged voice, articulating its way through a life that is certainly no better than it should be and quite a bit less than might have been expected.

In the suburban vision, a stoic pessimism is only sensible. Michael Glover observes it faithfully in Possible Horizons (Sinclair-Stevenson, pounds 7.99). In the deserted seaside town where Glover finds himself, he casts himself as clown which is a mistake: there is nothing clownish about his view of poetry and the human predicament. Poetry is "debased, sullied, frail, absurd''. It emerges as a rat to gnaw the party debris. Humanity licks at sunbeams and tastes filth. On a trip to France, Glover is rescued from his pessimism by Picasso, Blanchot and Braque, but he is only a tourist. His last poem sees him back home, painting the sea grey.