Poetry CHARLES TOMLINSON Voice Box, South Bank Centre, London

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Settling down to listen to Charles Tomlinson reading his own poetry - an excursion which takes you through almost half a century of wanderings across the boulder-strewn deserts of New Mexico, the marl pits of Stoke, the variously congenial landscapes of his adoptive Gloucestershire - is a little like the experience you might expect from a recently retired professor of English at Bristol University. It is a punctilious affair, with each twist and turn carefully mapped out and signposted, and many passing references to other writers who have been important to him from the 1940s onwards.

The atmosphere is one of shared intellectual betterment, and it begins something like this: "As an Englishman and a European, I have always had a strong sense of gratitude to those American poets who helped me to re- imagine England. It was William Carlos Williams who said that place is the true core of the universal." Is this a lecture or a poetry reading? We ask ourselves. It is somewhere between the two, and not too much the worse for that.

The fact is that Tomlinson generally does it like this. He is not a man who comes to a reading with the intention of persuading anyone to buy his latest book. Rather, he is here to explain himself in his entirety; to demonstrate the growth of one poet's mind over 40 years of writing; to tell you where he has been in his life and what he has found under each particular stone - and stones, especially limestone, that "humanistic rock" (in the words of Adrian Stokes), are at the heart of his poetry.

It all begins in Stoke, where he was born in 1927, and "At Stoke", his best-known poem, describes what that unpromising landscape gave him. Writing about the city and its environs - much blacker then than now, of course - made him aware how it had an emotional hold on him, for all that it may have seemed desolate and diminished to the superficial eye.

As he reads the poem, Tomlinson hammers down violently on his Ts: "Every tone and turn have had for their ground / These beginnings in grey-black..." He is teaching us a severely professorial lesson in the art of tonguing our consonants. Unfortunately, this habit of scrupulous over-emphasis never quite goes away.

In the 1940s, Tomlinson took a job in Italy: it was his first break from the constraints of post-war England, and the first stage in the growth of a new poetic awareness. The second was the influence of America upon him, its poetry and its various landscapes. The absorption of Europe and America into his writing has taught Tomlinson to inhabit space differently - the mind's acorn shell, having been expanded in the deserts of New Mexico, is later invaded by the oak itself.

To the eye and to the ear, Charles Tomlinson can seem the very epitome of the restrained English poet/scholar - only the extravagant jet ring on his second finger, at least an inch in length and as elegant as a long, narrow shield, reminds us of the more outlandish tracts of his mind.

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