There's no place like Homer

POETRY The seaness of sea and the skyness of sky ... William Scammell on new poetry

After spending much of his life on the fringes of Bohemia, poking his tongue out at the establishment from Paris and the Royal Court, Christopher Logue is now a fully-fledged Faber poet, though the only one whose Selected Poems (pounds 7.99) flag the reader down with a shocking pink cover. Those of Ban the Bomb vintage, who marched to Aldermaston and bought the first issue of Private Eye, will have fond memories of such classic artefacts as his poster-poem instructing us to vote Labour, of his manifesto "To My Fellow Artists", above all of his poetry and jazz EP Red Bird, in which the rhythms and colours of Neruda were flung at the tranquillised Fifties like pots of poster-paint.

Logue has now achieved fame, respectability and, one hopes, fortune from his jump-cut, filmic versions of The Iliad, praised by George Steiner and other critics, damned by certain Greek scholars. It's not exactly Homer, but then nor is Pope. It's readable and exciting, though, and certainly the best Logue we have had so far.

Satire, lyric, ballad, narrative, haiku, agitprop, snatches of epic - Logue has a go at everything, more or less, in the 150-odd pages of his Selected, and yo

- !"#$%&'()*+,-./0123456789:;<=>?@ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ[\]^_`abcdefghijklmno qrsuvwxyz{|}u can read off the influences and impulses one by one. "The Song of Autobiography", for example, comes out of George Barker's "True Confessions" and that fashion in the early Fifties for writing elegies about oneself, most memorable of which was John Heath-Stubbs's "Epitaph". The diction is impossibly grandiose: "Nine times November had passed through me when / Germany's iron womb let out its holy man", and the crude juxtaposition of registers fails to pin down a believable grief, only a literary one.

Later there are some long sequences spoilt by Eliot (whose tall shadow flickers throughout the book) and Pound. "New Numbers" and "The Girls" mix up private and public matters in surreal, phantasmagoric nightmares that, for all their local felicities, never cohere into any graspable narrative or emotional unity. The collage- like technique, fragments of conversation, excursions into blank verse, are meant to function like the modernist nuts and bolts of Eliot's "Unreal City", but the rhythms are either imitative or arbitrary, the voices too angry or pietistic, the plots difficult to disentangle from the inchoate poetics.

National Service brings Egypt and prostitutes for sale in the bumboat, civvy street is a chaos of boredom, racism, capitalism, and personal ambition. The indignations are real enough, but the means used to express them are a medley of styles and modes picked up off a barrow and never quite achieving a fit.

And yet for all the posturing, and a philosophy of life pitched somewhere between Fitzrovia and the Liverpool Poets, there are moments when Logue can describe the a sound of a weir, the sweat on a girl's silk back, moods of elation or despair, with memorable clarity. Perhaps the next instalment of Homer will purge the struck attitudes and concentrate his hard-won gifts.

The publicity hand-out for Alice Oswald's first book, The Thing Said in the Gap-Stone Stile (OUP pounds 6.99) unwisely mentions Homer, Dante, Ovid and Barbara Hepworth as influences, names which would sink many a weightier voice than hers. A gardener by profession, she hymns the seaness of sea, the skyness of sky, all the lyric tug and flow of elements and seasons. "Grass lifts, hedge breathes / rose shakes its hair, / birds bring out all their washed songs, / puddles like long knives flash on the roads." One whole section of this poem reads "Listen Listen Listen Listen", which lifts it high on the breathless hush charts but leaves it rather low in protein.

There's a good poem on "Sleep", however, and much to like in her passionate evocations - cucumbers as "long green lungs ... of air", woods "creaking after rain", flowers that "quiddify the month", a man's head "in a bad / controversy of midges", an owl "about the size of a vicar / tumbled across in a boned gown", etc. There are Hopkins-like sonnets too, and gardeners "considering the life / and knocking the mud off". A long last poem about the three wise men of Gotham fishing for the moon doesn't quite believe enough in its own magic, and so interjects things like, "the interface / between two wastelands", which holes imagination with facile scientism. Still, when she's not too obviously "in the hollow of God's hand", Oswald is an attractive and enjoyable poet.

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