Books: Independent choice

Poets, hip and holy

A rash of books for aspiring poets has appeared recently. The Teach Yourself guide, by Matthew Sweeney and John Hartley Williams, includes some basic advice on what you must do to ensure that your poems seem up- to-the-minute: not too many heretofores; not too many references to the Dansette record player in which, when the curtains are drawn after a long, hard day of wordsmithing, you take secret delight.

Yet human beings, being complicated creatures, don't live in any identifiable common present. They live in part-make-believe worlds of simultaneity, some stuck in the Coronation years, others sitting beside John Lennon at that lovely white piano. And some people live most fully inside books.

All this is well demonstrated in a batch of new British poetry. Where does Lee Harwood live in his mind, for example? Harwood first came to attention as a poet in the late 1960s. He was a cross between New York School and Black Mountain College - and he still is. Morning Light (Slow Dancer Press, pounds 6.99) has his habitual rather dreamy, soft-focus, neo-Romantic quality - although the subject matter of some poems is tougher.

The general effect is of a kind of painterly lyricism. Various turns of phrase are pure John Ashbery - that habit, for example, of leaving unanswerable metaphysical questions hanging in the air. And yet I have no reason to doubt that Harwood - a gentle, unassuming man born in Leicester - still works at some post office in Brighton.

David Scott, on the other hand, inhabits a world of candle snuffers, albs and extremely precious editions of George Herbert. He is, in short - as Rector of St Lawrence and St Swithun, Winchester - the complete parson- poet of our day. Is this somehow weird and anachronistic? Almost certainly - if you have a very narrow notion of where the present is living. Scott's Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, pounds 8.95) show that he also happens to be a very good poet indeed, with an ability to feel his way into subjects that have nothing to do with any exploration of his own feelings about them. In a poem about David Livingstone's arrival at Victoria Falls, for example, Scott proceeds not by lyrical spurts, but through close, sinewy argument across whole stanzas, letting local detail shine out like silver spoons in the vicarage drawer.

The commonplace argument is that the writer works through literary influences in pursuit of his "own" voice. These poems prove that George Herbert was there at Scott's beginning, and will be there, a solid, guiding spirit, up to - and, perhaps, beyond - his end.

And now, at last, to enter into the realm of the completely hip: a first collection called The Boy from the Chemist is Here to See You by Paul Farley (Picador, pounds 6.99). We know it is hip not only from the endorsements of fellow poets but from the cover photograph, with Farley wearing the obligatory black leather jacket that all poets living in the present must wear as proof of their Nowness.

This is gritty, vernacular stuff straight out of chilly Bootle - Simon Armitage replanted on the other side of the Pennines next to a grey, buffeting sea. The best poem is an excellent one with bold, imaginative reach, about the observation of a minute's silence on the football pitch. Many of the others stop short - undoubtedly clever, but emotionally wanting. The grit's blown into his eye.

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