Books: Poetry Now: Sex, Gags and Chicken Soup ; This Week, Poetry in English Lost an Old Master, R S Thomas. Next Week, National Poetry Day Will Focus on Younger Voices. Michael Glover Asks What the Art's More Senior Citizens Are Doing. Carol Rumens Contrasts North American Sibyls with Their Witty Brit Sisters
Glover, Michael, The Independent (London, England)
When four male, English-language poets, all regarded as significant figures and all between 50 and 70, publish new collections of work, it is a good moment to take stock - even better, in the week when an authentic Grand Old Bard such as R S Thomas departs. What conclusions can we draw about poetry's present direction and value from the latest books by Tom Paulin (b. 1949), Michael Longley (b. 1939), Douglas Dunn (b.1942) and the senior Thom Gunn (b. 1929)? Is there any evidence that poetry of the present can be regarded as a radical art - radical in the way that, for example, the noisy Britpack of visual artists is widely regarded? Are these poets pretending to subvert anything; even, superficially perhaps, by offending common decency? Are they tearing down the building and creating something which we scarcely recognise? Are they that exciting?
Evidence from most of the formal elements in these books would suggest not. Take Thom Gunn, the Anglo-American poet par excellence of the postwar era. The great shift in Gunn's poetry took place after he moved to California in the 1950s. America liberated him emotionally. He accepted his own homosexual impulses as good and true, and began to write out of that knowledge. His verse, once so costive and secretive, opened up to admit sunlight, frivolity, the glorious sheen of the sweat-soaked male body. Yet his greatest book, The Man with Night Sweats (1991), arose out a tragedy: Aids. That book described, in terrible detail, how a generation of those glorious bodies had succumbed to disease and death.
Boss Cupid (Faber, pounds 7.99, 115pp) is something of a continuation. It remembers dead friends, and how those dead continue to make their emotional claims. It celebrates what he has been celebrating for many years: drugs, impulse, the itch of the flesh, which does not go away when you pass 70. And while continuing to celebrate the Dionysian experiment of his younger years, it also chronicles, poignantly, the decline of romance, and the rage against the cruel truth of the fact that a young man called Thom Gunn is now obliged to inhabit an old man's body.
Paradoxically, the book begins with a tribute to Robert Duncan, that most unrestrained of American modern masters, who loved to sprawl to avoid closure at any cost. In spite of his admiration, Gunn has generally been the opposite - formally punctilious, as he is in this book. And that is something of a bar to our enjoyment this time around. There is an awkward, even plodding, quality to some of this verse.
To shift from Gunn to the Belfast-born Tom Paulin is to move from an obsession with the need to pour content into form, to a man who seems magnetised by the sounds and etymologies of words alone, and only interested incidentally in how this enthusiasm might translate itself into formal patterning. Paulin's verse in The Wind Dog (Faber, pounds 7.99, 86pp) is that of a man in a state of perpetual agitation about the problems of fashioning verses from these obdurate things called words. By comparison, Gunn seems to be almost a writer of prose, treating poems if they were smoothly efficient vehicles of meaning and satisfaction.
On the page, Paulin's poems sometimes look a little jagged and provisional; like those of e e cummings, for example, that typographical revolutionary. Paulin's line breaks are wild, unpredictable; his punctuation ditto. Every line finds him thinking on his feet about how the line is being written, and how far the argument may have taken him. He doubles back, questions his own dark strategies, seems to be in some condition of partial denial of the way he has decided to address his audience - if he still has an audience, and it's possible he may have lost it somewhere along the poem's twisty, tacky way.
There are brilliantly luminous moments - describing painting, for example, or in "Bournemouth", written …
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Publication information: Article title: Books: Poetry Now: Sex, Gags and Chicken Soup ; This Week, Poetry in English Lost an Old Master, R S Thomas. Next Week, National Poetry Day Will Focus on Younger Voices. Michael Glover Asks What the Art's More Senior Citizens Are Doing. Carol Rumens Contrasts North American Sibyls with Their Witty Brit Sisters. Contributors: Glover, Michael - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: September 3, 2000. Page number: 10. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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