Literature: Poetic licence

A third of the way through Iain Sinclair's third novel, Radon Daughters, just reissued by Granta, there is an extended account of a poetry reading at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, happened upon by Todd Sileen, the one-legged, X-ray-addicted, failed novelist hero.

Each word is weighed with such savage, hilarious precision that the description starts to admire itself, in a manner that pays mimetic tribute to the anonymous poets: "Has it begun? Is this a poem? Or is it the preamble, the excuses? He's quite tall, Sileen thought, for a poet. Drooping, sub- eloquent, weak-necked: a Stalinist Noddy. A dead-voiced, language-abusing crooner. A gesticulator. A stopper. A starter. A self-eraser. A manic autodidact. A Charles Fortean assembler of inconsequential facts... Take a grip. Sileen was running away with himself. He was becoming a poet."

There is more than a hint of self-mockery in this passage. For one thing, Sinclair was a published poet long before his novels, and last year's non-fiction magnum opus Lights Out for the Territory established him as the arch-chronicler of nether London. But it's also a coded riposte to his critics, those who marvel at his compacted, adjective-crammed and verb-thin digression, but find it troublingly opaque, even obscure.

"The self-absorption of the poets is a comment on myself as much as anything," Sinclair explains, "but it touches on the way fiction and poetry get ghettoised. I'm interested in forcing different narratives into one form. They don't need to be exclusive." He is currently working on a follow-up to Lights Out, based on a walk starting at the Millennium Dome and zigzagging round the M25.

Sinclair, quitting TS Eliot's wasteland for Betjeman country, leaves a post vacant for a poet laureate of the inner city - one which all 15 of the versifiers converging on Islington International Festival, from Patience Agbabi to Jem Rolls, are eminently qualified to fill. All, that is, except for John Cooper Clarke, long lost to the wilds of Colchester.

Iain Sinclair reads on Mon at Frenetic Poetics, Highbury Fields, N1 (0171-288 6700), and on Wed at Waterstone's, Islington Green, N1 (0171- 704 2280)

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