Monday Books: Life is fab in the language lab


POETRY IN Britain is, happily, a more diverse and open art than in Eliot's day, or even in the early 1980s, when Craig Raine and friends delighted some readers and irritated others with a mock-Martian's take on things. Nevertheless, linguistic display is still prized by poets and critics, and the pensioned-off Martians have since been replaced by the bright young followers of Paul Muldoon at the centre of attention.

The Scottish writer Robert Crawford is one of the most distinctive of these new virtuosi. A gifted critic as well as poet, he relishes the language game, but also keeps a grasp on more emotionally challenging matters - notably, in this collection, the father-son relationship. Readers, however, should be prepared to contribute a taste for arcane words; a Scots dictionary will not go amiss. If you're a bit of a classicist with nerdish tendencies, then better still. Check out "rhotacised", "brecbennach", "nanomachine", "florilegium" and "difference engines". Crawford's pleasure in the sciences typifies a distinctly Scottish tradition; his predecessors include John Davidson, Hugh MacDiarmid and Edwin Morgan.

But this poet's pleasure is double-edged. "Blearily rummaging the Internet" (Crawford's favourite "spirit machine" is the computer), the writer-surfer enters the underworld to meet his late father via a bizarre kind of computer- game: "tanks manoeuvred round the hearth and range/ Smashing duck eggs, throwing up clouds of flour./ Fleeing the earth-floored kitchen, an ironing table/ Hirpled like girderwork from bombed Cologne/ Into the study where my Aunt Jean studied/ How not to be a skivvy all her life".

In this poem, "Alford", as in others, the media of connection also separate: they divide son from father, the old employees from the young ("Time and Motion"), or spirit away the beloved landscape ("Deincarnation") in dangerously seductive ways. It's when he surfs his own imaginative Internet that Crawford achieves real integration of mind and matter. "Impossibility," a 60-stanza dramatic monologue spoken by the 19th-century author Margaret Oliphant, is replete with magical leaps. The sea is the poem's rich governing metaphor; its tone is passionately playful: "When Alexander Diving Bell invented the xenophone/ I heard his voice calling, `The sea! The sea!'/ Hollowly into a shell/ As if he could contact Robert Louis Verne/ Or all the impossible, massed, forlorn spirits/ Edinburgh exiled". The prolific, brave and neglected Oliphant would surely be delighted to have such a "medium" as Crawford's poem to invite new generations to "Read, read".

Jeffrey Wainwright, older than Crawford by some 15 years, may not belong to the cyber generation, but science also proves for him an important imaginative resource in the writing of elegies. Science cannot console us in the way of religion, but perhaps its grand overviews offer the nearest secular equivalent. For Wainwright, the focus is on physics and geology, with the title sequence taking oxygen as its guiding "image", one that links "the blue-green algae of bacterial seas" with "the draught in Men's Medical this afternoon" and the speaker's sigh: "O that you could catch your breath again."

"Anne's Shells" is a baggy, rangy work that, like Crawford's Oliphant poem, appears liberated in rhythm and metaphor by its feminine focus. Wainwright's imagination is always emotionally drawn back to the inescapability of loss: "At length what we will both together be is calx:/ I, municipal tilth, you, by incidentals/ Abraded and raised elsewhere in the firmament/ And nothing can say this is just a different way to be." These elegies are immeasurably strengthened by their sense of personal mortality. And, while Wainwright is attuned to linguistic subtleties and engages in some quiet experiments, he never pretends, or pretends to pretend, that language and the play of art are sufficient ends in themselves.

Michael Hofmann, German by birth, educated in the US and England, was nominated (like Crawford) a few years ago as one of the Poetry Society's "Best Poets under Forty". He is a stylish writer but the style is casual. The foreign tags are slipped in among the slang-words. Tautly brilliant effects rub along with the occasional colloquial laziness. Robert Lowell is sometimes too clearly a mentor: "The nouveau oil building/ spoils the old water town, spook town, old folks' town./ My old parents, like something out of Le Carre,/ shuffle round the double Georgian square/ tracing figures of eight, endless figures of eight/ defected ice-dance trainers or frozen old spooks" ("Cheltenham").

But Hofmann is more straightforwardly confessional than Lowell. Despite the montage technique, a quest for the self is at the heart of the enterprise. This self, dominating even the elegies to the poet's father, is witty, vulnerable and Peter Pan-ish: "I can really only feign disapproval/ of my youngest/ dibbling his semolina'd fingers/ in the satiny lining of her red coat" ("Vagary"). The games Hofmann plays are, finally, with identity more than with words.

Carol Rumens

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