Books: A week in books

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In this space last week, I was bemoaning the poverty of poets (Yeats's "old perplexity, an empty purse"). Since, this side of Utopia, a superseller of the Birthday Letters kind will come along only once a decade or so, the day-job (Larkin's "toad, work") will continue to squat on the bardic life. What shape should it ideally take? Major modern poets have worn a vast array of wage-earning hats, from secretary (Stevie Smith) to ambassador (Saint-John Perse) via insurance executive (Wallace Stevens). Almost anything goes, so long as it leaves time for creativity. The medics (William Carlos Williams, Miroslav Holub, Dannie Abse) have fared better than most; but, when healing fails, it's time to call the undertaker in.

In Milford, Michigan, that post is filled by Thomas Lynch, whose third volume of verse - Still Life in Milford - has just appeared from Cape (pounds 8). His title is a sly and pointed joke, since it refers not to cadavers buried in the MidWest but to a canvas painted in New England (at Milford, Connecticut, in fact). You get the point: enduring art against end-stopped life, an ancient trope Lynch reworks with deadpan wit and grave sententiousness ("I tend towards preachment", he admits).

Too much has been made by critics of his job. Last year, the more portentous chunks of his prose work The Undertaking hinted that Lynch had begun to act up, to gratify their curiosity. He stood in danger of becoming (as it were) a one-trick pony from a one-hearse town. Here, the few poems that do essay a sort of autopsy-room swagger left me cold. More commonly, these tender and confiding meditations on life, death and the art or love that trumps it ("don't forget becomes the prayer we pray") owe precious little to the mechanics of his trade. They owe more to poetry itself, especially in its elegiac vein, from Yeats and Housman through to down-home US masters such as Frost. And they owe most to Lynch's sober art, the true "still life" that "covets the moment in which nothing moves".

That skill, and not the profession that pays the bulk of his bills, confers authority when the poet connects those "oddly rhyming pairs: sadness, gladness, sex and death, nuptials, funerals". To think otherwise is to slip into the modish Biographical Fallacy that judges a writer by the length (or weirdness) of the CV rather than the words on the page. A dullard can travel the world, earn a brace of fortunes, hobnob with stars and statesmen - and produce the novels of Jeffrey Archer. A genius can sit in the corner, the poor relation in a chilly house - and produce the novels of Jane Austen. Without gift and vision, grafted experience or expertise leads nowhere.

In the recent Cost of Letters survey from Waterstone's, the poet (and former probation officer) Simon Armitage dealt briskly with fans of "real life": "I don't think that driving around Manchester looking at babies with cigarette burns on their arms is any more or less real than writing at a desk." For the poet (and current rock guitarist) Don Paterson, all artists "make things up. When Delacroix wanted to paint a tiger, he used his cat as a model and made it big and stripy; it turned out all right." Memo to aspiring poets: forget that exotic job; just make sure the work is big and stripy.

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