Two go back to poets' island

MOON COUNTRY: Further Reports from Iceland by Simon Armitage and Glyn Maxwell Faber pounds 7.99
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The Independent Culture
In August 1936, just after the Berlin Olympics but before the fall of Spain, W H Auden and Louis MacNeice sailed to Iceland. A "fancy turn ... sandwiched in a graver show", as MacNeice put it, the trip resulted in a book - Letters from Iceland - which managed to be thoughtful, functional and inventive in equal measure. The centre-piece was "Letter to Lord Byron", Auden's extended report on the 1930s. A humane combination of relentlessly jaunty rhythms and inevitably gloomy observations, the poem displayed Auden's brilliantly easy way with public affairs, and in itself justified the book.

This was important, because for one reason or another Letters From Iceland was a book the writers felt a need to justify. In among the poetry, then, and enhancing it, were maps, diagrams, and a section entitled "For Tourists", in which potential visitors were offered wry but unquestionably useful words of advice on all manner of things, from accommodation ("The Borg is called a first-class hotel but is not the kind of thing you like if you like that kind of thing") to diet ("It is not advisable

The reason Auden and MacNeice went to Iceland was that Auden, at least, was fascinated by the Sagas. The reason Simon Armitage and Glyn Maxwell went there, in 1994, was that Auden and MacNeice had done so, and consequently one can hardly avoid comparing Moon Country with its predecessor. And there can be little question that if one were allowed to take only one of these books to a desolate island it would have to be the original. That said, it would be preferable to take both, because while Moon Country never matches the quirky gravitas which makes the original so significant, it has qualities which make it something more than a pale imitation.

Of the two, and again the exercise invites such comparisons, it is Maxwell who seems to take the Auden role, with his extended verse drama "Harald and the Lonely Hearts" (the most fully imagined piece in the book) occupying the same kind of central position as did "Lord Byron". Maxwell's chief appeal lies in his ceaseless willingness to try out new forms, and "Harald" is a pro-digiously various account of the plight of the modern epic poet. The variations are not equally convincing, but as often as not Maxwell's rhythms are irresistible, and, like Auden, he uses them to buoy up his serious concerns. It is Maxwell, also, who comes closest to matching the humour of the original, and his account of an horrific deep- sea fishing voyage (he'd "like to have seen Auden try this") is genuinely, if sometimes rather too blokishly, funny.

Armitage's poetic contribution is a sequence entitled "From where we stand". More curious about place than Maxwell, Armitage is clearly fascinated by idea of being on top of the world, and "From where we stand" is a deft attempt to understand how Iceland's location might alter one's angle of vision. But it is in his travel-diary that Armitage articulates his sense of place most effectively, and in the end his compelling evocations of Iceland's strange geography leave the clearest impression:

"Iceland is one of the world's valves, a sort of ... wound in the Earth's skin that keeps mending and cracking, mending and cracking ... it was impossible not to be affected by the sight of a mountain rising from the ground in front of your eyes, or by the prospect of opening the bedroom curtains every morning and looking out on a different horizon."

Both as a collaboration and a sequel Moon Country is a book that never stops inviting comparisons. We learn to listen for the differences between Simon Armitage's spare, observational style and Glyn Maxwell's profusion, and it is the resulting counterpoint which proves the book's chief dynamic. Yet if they stand up to one another, neither stands comparison with Auden, and in the end, to read Moon Country is to feel the lack of a strong public voice in mainstream British poetry.

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