Poetry in brief
Sunday 21 February 1999
The poems in Stephen Romer's third book are even more pared down than usual, as befits their fastidious study of love and loss. Many of them revolve around the attempt to "construct a grammar of recovery / based on untenable articles / and in the teeth of 'good advice'" ("Tribute"). The end of a relationship means "being forced to disassemble you / into everything else that I love" ("A Lesson in Materialism"). Romer's range is impressive, encompassing the mystical, the learned, the humorous and the down-to-earth, and delighting in "philosophies of natural being". Most contemporary poems can be read once, and sucked dry. These quietly yield up more at each reading.
The Laurelude by W N Herbert (Bloodaxe pounds 8.95)
Scottish poetry has lost three of its senior citizens recently (George Mackay Brown, Norman MacCaig, Iain Crichton Smith) but continues in excellent shape with a younger generation that includes Kathleen Jamie, Don Paterson and W N Herbert. Herbert ranges widely over Scottish history and verse forms, rehabilitating doggerel and political satire, happy to mix up high and low culture in a big postmodernist bowl. His title poem attempts an ambitious, surreal marriage between the worlds of Stan Laurel (born in the southern Lakes) and that of Wordsworth's Prelude. Cultural chaos rules, also a serious effort to renew the lyric and the visionary in the midst of media madness. Herbert writes equally well in English and in Scots, though I wish his spellings were less eccentric. Bloomian "anxiety" is cited in his epigraph, and lit crit gets incorporated into his poems too, a pre-emptive strike which pays rather low dividends. By and large I preferred the shorter poems in this cornucopia to the bravura sequences and metamorphoses, though there are fine things throughout.
Prometheus by Tony Harrison (Faber pounds 8.99)
"Fire and poetry, two great powers / That make the so-called gods' world ours." This is the text of Harrison's latest poem-film, a full-length feature which tracks the promethean myth of fire through ancient and modern times. A preface tells us about Harrison's long study of Greek myth, poetry, and socialism, which are the triple pillars of this enterprise. He also enthuses about the "poetry of film", quite rightly, though whether it can take this weight of words, and the unwieldy mix of high and low speech that is put into the actors' mouths, we shall only find out when we see it on the screen. He has done heroic things with iambics in the past: I worry about their increasingly didactic thump.
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