Monday Books: Life is fab in the language lab

SPIRIT MACHINES BY ROBERT CRAWFORD, JONATHAN CAPE, pounds 8 OUT OF THE AIR BY JEFFREY WAINWRIGHT, CARCANET, pounds 6.95 APPROXIMATELY NOWHERE BY MICHAEL HOFMANN, FABER & FABER, pounds 7.99

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 Nevertheless, linguistic display is still prized by poets and critics, and the pensioned-off Martians have since been replaced by the bright young followers of Paul Muldoon at the centre of attention.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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice