Capping the psychic gushers: William Scammell takes a tough line on new American poets

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The Independent Culture
THE FIRST thing to say about American poetry is that there's an awful lot of it. Tanker-sized anthologies of crude regularly set sail for the critical refineries on campus, where they fuel a million academic careers. The second is that most of it is about as interesting as marquetry, or the Empire State Building picked out in cigarette butts.

Time was when British poets were regularly lectured on the superiority of the transatlantic article. We were amateurs, they were hard-boiled pros. We rode bicycles, they blasted off to inner space, rushing to cap the psychic gushers like so many Red Adairs. Our consulting room was a second-hand bookshop, theirs was a high-tec madhouse stocked with all the latest in chromium-plated horror. Alvarez prepared the wreath, Hugh Kenner affixed the headstone.

How are the mighty fallen. The new Norton anthology Postmodern American Poetry ( pounds 14.95), edited by Paul Hoover, demonstrates just how awful most contemporary American poetry is, flailing around for something to say and an 'innovative' way of saying it. So we have the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets on one hand, who want to return us to the nursery, and the New Formalists on the other, who have Eureka'd their way to the discovery of metre and rhyme. Along the way come the Projectivists and Open Fielders, the Beats, the Black Mountaineers and the New York school, with John Ashbery as head man. Hoover's copious notes solemnly inform us that the latter 'captures the philosophical spirit of the age, as otherwise reflected in the thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Jacques Derrida', that well-known Tom and Jerry of catch-all 'indeterminacy'.

The roll-call according to Hoover runs from Olson and John Gage to Amy Gerstler and Diane Ward via Bukowski, Levertov, Koch, O'Hara, Ginsberg, Ashbery, Creeley, Corso, Snyder, the Rons Padgett and Silliman and on to the unknowns, closing with no less than 18 of those indispensable credos about Poetics, God, the universe and all. Formalists, new and old, are excluded of course, and so are James Wright, Robort Duncan and other luminaries, perhaps because they turned out the odd poem.

There are maybe a few dozen things worth fishing out of these 700 pages. The sad truth is though that Lowell & Co are gone, the senior generation (Hecht, Merrill, Simpson and so on) have long woven their laurels, and America's best poets are now a Pole and a Russian, Milosz and Brodsky.

For a while, Australian poetry took to the open road too, turning its back on the tainted colonialism of the iambic pentameter. Much of it still does, but then Les Murray happened along, who was sufficiently large to embody and reconcile the open and the closed, the cooked and the raw, Surrey and Sausalito. This may have had an influence on Geoffrey Lehmann's excellent Spring Forest (Faber pounds 6.99), which soberly yet memorably records the life and times of a small farmer in New South Wales: 'No one added up how many acres / make a living, / and I

mortgaged my life / to a low interest loan / with a thirty-year term.'

It's a big book by modern standards, 171 pages, and it tackles the big soulful subjects in the voice of someone who is part cowboy, part scientist ('Some musical intervals survive / from when the ice sheets began retreating . . . My tall frame is on loan / from some disgruntled ghost who lived in a peat bog'), and part downhome philosopher, musing on the long perspectives. Most writers run a mile from 'wisdom' nowadays (perhaps in fear of a stiff caning from the theorists) or bury it deep in their grammar. Lehmann's is occasionally a little pat, but mostly this is a brave, honest, rueful and convincing book.

Roy Fisher is usually filed under 'experimental' and 'neglected', with some respectful comments about his twin talents for jazz and poetry. In Birmingham River (OUP pounds 6.99) we meet a good old-fashioned liberal humanist with an eye for bizarrerie, who attends exactly to the workings of the mind - see 'The Host', a brilliantly revisionist account of memory - and whose pawky humour alternates with moments of real depth. 'They Came Home', for example, says all that ever needed saying about that 'poor / vestige of common ceremony', cremation, and its time-honoured opposite, burial. Elsewhere we have 'Six Texts for a Film' ('Birmingham's what I think with') and 'Seven Figures from Anansi Company', skilful enough setpieces but not up to his best. Try instead the impressive pair of openers 'The Collection of Things' and 'The Sidings at Drebkau', where he rummages about in language and things at his own quirky angle to creation. 'A land with the lights turned down, / hugging its powerless good sense to itself . . . ' This is Poland, denatured 'by a monstrous / pair of hinged wars . . . dragging / some of us back through time to our lost, dirty cities, / yellow haze, poisonous rivers; home'. As the last word suggests, maybe it's us too.