Academic journal article Chicago Review

Selected Poems

Academic journal article Chicago Review

Selected Poems

Article excerpt

Douglas Oliver. Selected Poems. Jersey City: Talisman House, Publishers, 1996.

Since the early 1970s, a strain of innovative poetry has arisen in Britain that has received little notice in the United States (though at times even less in its own). Though not extensive, this work provides a strong contrast to the rather limited range of British poetry generally exported, which tends to err on the side of cleverness and complacency. These British poets have not only learned from immediate British predecessors (such as Basil Bunting, Gael Turnbull, David Jones, or Ian Hamilton Finlay), but also American poets like Louis Zukofsky, Charles Olson, and Gertrude Stein. For instance, the Northumbrian poet Tom Pickard combines the more Catullan pleasures of Bunting and Zukofsky with an emphasis on working-class politics; Allen Fisher, meanwhile, has applied Olson's poetic investigations of geographic locality to South London in his long poem entitled Place. Perhaps because such poets feel beleaguered on both political and aesthetic fronts, the resuits are often daring, and sometimes deserving of a wider readership.

The new selection of Douglas Oliver's writing, in both its breadth and accessibility, strikes me as an excellent point of entry into the byways of contemporary British poetry. In this extremely diverse volume, continuity is established not so much through style, but rather through Oliver's insistence on linking his own biography with the history of contemporary Britain. The interweaving of personal and political identity in Oliver's poetry is, in a general sense, not far removed from contemporaries such as Jeremy Prynne. Take, for example, a passage from Prynne's excellent Oval Window (1983):

What if the outlook is likely to cut short

by an inspired fear in the bond market.

The place itself is a birthday prank:

current past the front,

en premiere ligne

like stone dust on strips of brighter green.1

Prynne manages to be both lyrical and abstract, just as the landscape he describes is shaped by both human imagination and economic factors. His poems quickly shift between a wide variety of rhetorics, and might include professional language ("the bond market") in close proximity to colloquial expressions ("a birthday prank") or more traditionally poetic speech ("like stone dust on strips of brighter green"). While Prynne tends to compose through a process of condensation, Oliver's poems involve a greater degree of elaboration. For Oliver, imagination and politics come together in the poem's (often unusual) structure, rather than in a few lines.

Oliver's process is perhaps most evident in his long poem from 1985, "The Infant and the Pearl," wisely reprinted in its entirety in this selection. "The Infant and the Pearl" recasts the Middle English poem The Pearl in contemporary Britain under Thatcherism (beginning with the etymological connections between "Pearl" and "Margaret"). Just as the dreamer in The Pearl cannot understand the Kingdom of God while grieving for his dead daughter, the speaker in Oliver's poem greets the travesties of 1980s London with incomprehension. Oliver's own biography is relevant here, for as he notes in the preface to this volume, he had a child with Down's Syndrome who died young. Oliver negotiates the poem's complex structure with a bitter and often devastating humor. As the dreamer stands beside the Thames, Thatcher pulls up in a Bentley, offering a ride:

In such dreams the river kills time, and regret

faces those who fearlessly dive in:

they don't drown like Leander but like the Pearl Poet

awake no hero, having hoped for a life in

eternity. There was timor mortis in this rivulet,

green as grimy greenbacks and striving in

vain to meander. Though I didn't forget

that time is money, the time half alive in

all currency couldn't thrive in the current. …

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