POETRY IN BRIEF

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Professors of literature have their virtues but writing good poetry is seldom one of them. Robert Crawford is always lively and interesting when he has his critic's hat on, and the same intellectual restlessness fuels Masculinity (Chatto pounds 7), his fourth book of poems in six years. Poems need more than charm and intelligence, though, to justify all that blank white space in which they float; just as Scottishness, one of his recurring themes, needs more than the liberal use of "wee" for small, and joky spelling ("Heepocondry" for hypochondria), to be interesting.

Crawford proposes himself in the opening poem as "an in-between, quiet man, / Homo silens", like his dad before him. The next one pokes fun at the clubbable "chaps" who used to run the empire, like John Buchan, but despite a promising start it fails to keep up its satirical momentum. All the familiar details of a middle-class childhood are present and politically correct. There are some good jokes too, moments of pathos, celebrations of the local, the weird, the media-fed museum without walls sung so raptly by Muldoon and his imitators (see "The Elgin Marbles", one of the more substantial structures in the book), but there's little in the way of rhythm, weight, intimation, little that wouldn't have looked equally at home in Notes & Queries or an unusually good book review. The best things here tend to be the jokiest, such as the "Star Trek Epigrams": "Kirk to Enterprise 'I'm going back to my cabin / With a box of Kleenex. I want to experience / the loneliness of command'." And "The Numties" gets that contemporary mix of nostalgia and heartlessness just right.

Anthony Howell deserves to be rather better known than he is - he's not in the recent Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century Poetry, for example - yet somehow stops short of real distinction, perhaps because of a certain confusion in his lapidary style, which in his own words might be called "Post-modernist Roman". First Time in Japan (Anvil pounds 6.95) has a fetching monologue by a fridge-freezer, a good poem about a young imported eucalyptus tree, and many sighs to sigh about ageing and desire.

James Merrill and Hugo Williams come to mind in his loving dissections of glamorous minutiae, as of stuffs on a market stall that are "thrilling to finger". Underneath this dandified exterior there's a sharp mind meditating on "what it is to own a skull", or, in his Frigidaire persona, watching "the midnight raider bending over me, / Intimately kindled by my interior light". Erotica is never far away, nor late-Latin decadence and foreign climes, though sometimes it's not clear which country he's in and which sex it is that has him flaring his nostrils.

William Scammell

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