Book reviews: Poetry round-up

 

Suzi Feay
Sunday 19 January 2014 01:00
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Poets have traditionally written to tempt coy mistresses into bed, and Marvell duly turns up inside the covers of The Poetry of Sex (Viking £14.99). Published in time for Valentine’s Day, this anthology features a huge “X” on its cover. Is there such a thing as raunchy poetry? Does the editor Sophie Hannah want us to admire the enjambment or heat- up so much that, like Dante’s Paolo and Francesca, we tremblingly push the book aside and “read no more that day”?

There’s some hot stuff here, but it doesn’t necessarily make for the best poetry. An Auden fan would struggle to argue that “The Platonic Blow (A Day for a Lay)” is up there with “September 1, 1939”. Auden didn’t publish this vigorous, rhythmic workout under his own name, “because of its graphic portrayal of homosexual fellatio”, as Hannah says in her introduction, but also maybe because it’s a bit naff in places. Admittedly, Auden is unlikely not to have noticed or intended the bathetic changes in tone (“Nearly nine inches long, and three inches thick, / A royal column ineffably solemn and wise”). Maybe it’s just meant to be funny – that old cop-out.

Hannah, a fine comic poet herself, tends towards the humorous and witty in her selection. The sheer unreasonableness of lovers is highlighted in Dan Burt’s daring simile of suicide bombers – “Muslim martyrs are no different, / Dear, from you and me,” which builds to an unexpected climax. There are two poems about Bond actor Daniel Craig: “… he rises like a Christ newly baptized / in sky blue trunks”, gasps Rich Goodison, while Maria Taylor’s “Hypothetical” charts a madcap fantasy relationship culminating in the bewildered observation “I don’t even like Daniel Craig.” But it’s not all slap and tickle. Don Paterson is almost unbearably gloomy in the joyless “Buggery”, and his cocky yet anxious “Imperial” begins: “Is it usual to get this wet? Baby, I’m frightened –” Oh, please!

Grace Nichols’ “My Black Triangle” is not even about sex. The moist “black triangle” of the speaker performs its magic “beyond the dry fears of parch-ri-archy”. This probably needed to be said at the time of writing but it feels dated and silly now. But when was it written? Some dates are cumbersomely hidden in the acknowledgements, and biographical details are missing, which seems lazy of Hannah. Nonetheless, there are some gems here, and a generous portion of poems by women.

W B Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” is thoroughly sexy, and it’s about being raped by a giant bird. That’s just wrong. Yeats also turns up in Poetry Please: The Nation’s Best-Loved Poems (Faber £20), alongside Blake, Donne, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Keats, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Wordsworth, and practically everyone else, making this a perfect present for literary-minded teens. This treasury of perfect phrasing, compiled from the Radio 4 request show of the same name, which might explain some archaic choices and old favourites – “Abou Ben Adhem”, John Masefield, and rather more Robert Frost than you might expect.

Strangely, Frances Cornford’s “To a Fat Lady Seen from a Train” is separated from its witty riposte, “The Fat White Woman Speaks”: “Why do you rush through the fields in trains, / Guessing so much and so much … Fat-headed poet whom nobody reads,” demands G K Chesterton. Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”, we learn, is one of the 10 most broadcast poems on the programme. And Poetry Please passes the “Ozymandias” test. For some reason, Shelley, a most virtuosic poet, is always represented by this dazzling sonnet; but at least PP tops it up with “To A Skylark” and “Ode to the West Wind”. Few surprises, then, but all sound stuff.

Remember the hubris of that long-forgotten ruler whose shattered inscription reads “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” An Ozymandias moment is risked by the ever-game Simon Armitage in Stanza Stones (Enitharmon £15). You want to have a series of nature poems carved on rocks dotted about the Pennines? Send for Rhymin’ Simon! The six poems – “Snow”, “Rain”, “Mist”, “Dew”, “Puddle” and “Beck” are deft, though not extraordinary, but the book is charming in its account, along with stonecarver Pip Hall and landscape architect Tom Lonsdale, of the genesis of this grand commission.

Any fear that Armitage’s poems might somehow taint the natural beauty of the untouched sites is dispelled by Lonsdale’s observation that “the physical scale and impact of Pip Hall’s carving would be almost imperceptible … in relation to the vastness of the Pennine moors”. The stanza stones are already prompting hikers to plan special trips around them. Still, I wonder what distant generations will make of the shattered fragments, when “lone and level sands stretch far away”?

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