Books: The new romantics

Move over, Ted Hughes: a fresh batch of poets has decided to kiss and tell all. Carol Rumens experiences bed-and-bard
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Post-Modern Love

by Colin Falck

Stride Publications, pounds 6.95

Bursting the Clouds

by John Sewell

Jonathan Cape, pounds 8

Rembrandt Would Have Loved You

by Ruth Padel

Chatto & Windus, pounds 7.99

Glass and God

by Anne Carson

Jonathan Cape, pounds 8

Poets have recounted their love affairs, by means of the poem- sequence as well as the individual lyric, for hundreds of years. The sonnet, naturalised in England by Thomas Wyatt in the time of Henry VIII and brought to astonishing levels of flexibility and expressiveness by Shakespeare and Spenser, has long been the favourite form for such sequences. They rolled almost as happily off the tongues of Victorians as Elizabethans.

You might imagine that a modern poet wanting to discuss matters of the heart at length would opt for something rangier, as Ted Hughes does in Birthday Letters. But the sonnet sequence has attracted so-called confessional poets, such as Robert Lowell and John Berryman. After all, the sonnet can be stretched this way and that, and still remain itself, while the historical "baggage" may well be regarded as an asset.

In , Colin Falck declares his historical influences at once. George Meredith's Modern Love, a sequence of 16-line sonnets, is a desolately compelling Victorian masterpiece. Homage aside, Falck's title opens the way to various literary devices. There is the fictional narrative framework: these poems, it transpires, are being addressed to a 23-year- old woman student by her middle-aged poet-tutor. A new relationship is initiated while the bitter-sweet 1960s marriage is unravelled, its progress signalled in sly asides from "Would you like some tea?" to "There's wine on the kitchen floor./ Would you like to open it?"

Would a self-respecting 23-year-old really sit so biddably through all this middle-aged marriage-failure stuff? Briefly admired at the end for her not unpredictable assets - sexy looks and "A-grade mind" - she functions as little more than a 20th-century Muse.

This may be the point. The narrator has a bracing sense of bookish irony. But the final shift of gears, the sense of being surprised by genuine emotion, is telling. This sequence seems to be driven by the push-pull dynamic between irony and sincerity, knowingly unreliable narrator and hand-on-heart poet.

The literary side-show, with its liberal pepperings of quotation, is deft and entertaining, but it's the personal insights and memories that justify the exercise. Those tender recollections of idealistic young fatherhood, for instance: "I'd bake them half-birthday cakes/ to slow it all down.../ I'd build them bird-cages, teach them knots - or languages!"

is perhaps sharper as a portrait of a decade than of a marriage. Its best quality is a tonal amplitude that lets in the whole speaking voice, from donnish witticism to enjoyable crustiness about personal betes noires - including popes, mullahs, "family values" and the North Welsh, who "wouldn't recognise love if it screwed them up the arse". All this while negotiating the rigours of the form (14 lines, roughly Petrarchan rhyme-scheme). Falck's virtuosity calls to mind that marvellously modern formalist, the late Gavin Ewart, in particular his 1971 sequence The So-Called Sonnets.

Like some of Falck's devices, the cinema-verite metaphor governing "Scenes from the Cutting Room Floor" - the culminating sequence of John Sewell's Bursting the Clouds - can seem superfluous, an unnecessary justification for the tale's multiple viewpoints and long shots. The jacket blurb tells us that these neatly- made, if intermittently rhymed sonnets are "sex poems": is this a new genre? When is a love-poem not a sex poem, even when it's by Christina Rossetti? Of course there is a higher proportion of sweaty limbs and sperm- soaked sheets of paper in Sewell's work: sinnets rather than sonnets, perhaps?

The title, in fact, derives from a vivid Chinese euphemism for a sexual position: "I kneel in front of you and your body/ comes towards me as towards a supplicant." It is brave to be honest about lust and masturbation, and not always to seek the resonance of "love", but this can have a short- circuiting effect on some of the poems, soaking up too much resonance of any kind.

Rhythmically, Sewell may in fact be too decorous for his own good. That he is a gifted observer of the natural world is demonstrated in the more allusive triplet-sequence, "Rhea's Days by Black Waterfall". Perhaps we should simply recoup love to include wild flowers and spawning salmon, as well as Liz and Dave in flagrante.

With Ruth Padel's new collection, we enter a different realm. The love story itself has fewer emotional cliches than those told by Sewell and Falck. It does not chart a "rise and fall". Rather, disappointment, uncertainty and absence are built into the erotic adventure from the start: "the folk- song called/ Not-Here-Most-of-the-Time".

Immediacy is Padel's keynote: the sense of describing events as they happen, not in tranquil recollection. Such urgencies, at the level of diction and rhythm, give the book the quality of a breakthrough. Whereas Sewell's work describes muscular sex, Padel's has the effect of seeming to enact it.

The diction can be almost ruthlessly slangy: "So you think I don't give a toss/ How you work your ass off?/ Hmmmm It's in me all the time, plus/ Other looking-after stuff/ I can't keep my mind free of" ("Myths of the Origin of Fire"). The modern world is raided for metaphor, occasionally mixed a bit too boldly: "It's a website of alien muscles/ losing their hair-trigger touch on a soul/ Blowing Christ knows where" (which describes the lover's body as he falls asleep).

Padel's linguistic energy presses at the edge of form, without destroying it. These poems may not be sonnets, but they are strongly constructed. Strong forms are certainly needed to encapsulate the imaginative exuberance, the reckless magic-realism of poems that go anywhere: into space, to Brazil and Kazhakstan, to "neon, nitrogen and old stars", while remaining in the moonlit room with "Blue Velvet syruping away on the tape". ("Deep Blue").

Women poets in the past took over the tradition and subverted it by stealth: Elizabeth Barratt Browning, for example, who subtly promotes her own female point of view in Sonnets from the Portuguese, while retaining formal and rhetorical decorum. We live at a more interestingly dangerous juncture. Now the womanly erotic, with all its self-conscious demandingness and mad generosity, can be allowed to invent - in Auden's phrase - "new styles of architecture" to match the change of heart.

"The Glass Essay", the opening sequence of Anne Carson's selected poems Glass and God, is a memoir that recalls love and rejection with a man named Law, and interweaves it with a poetic essay on Emily Bronte. Carson, a Canadian writer, pushes the formal boundaries wider than the other poets here. She is immensely skilled in free verse and prose-poetry (if we're allowed to dust off an unfairly discredited term), but I feel uneasy when her academic's voice encroaches on the poetic. Others, and presumably the poet herself, may feel that the banal prosy parts are necessary relief, so vividly is the pain focused elsewhere. It appears both in images (iced landscape, blasted trees) and sorrowful generalisations: "the hardest thing about losing a lover is/ to watch the year repeat its days."

This poem is constantly loosening and tightening. When not seeking relief from its own intensities, it has a fierce bravery that is indeed reminiscent of Emily Bronte: "Everything I know about love and its necessities/ I learned in that one moment/ when I found myself/ thrusting my little burning red backside like a baboon/ at a man who no longer cherished me."

Carson is a moral philosopher with a Pascalian flair for aphorism: "TV is inherently cynical. It speaks to the eye, but the mind has no eye." The best poetic expression of this rare gift occurs in "The Fall of Rome: A Traveller's Guide", a spine-tingling account of dread and isolation abroad. Loneliness breathes off the pages of Carson's work. But then, it is present to some degree in all these poets: the loneliness of the long-distance love-poet, perhaps?

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