Douglas Clark: Waffle -- 6

Ric Caddel and Peter Quartermain have provided a much-needed anthology [Other: British and Irish Poetry since 1970, 1999, Wesleyan University Press] of the innovative poets of Britain and Ireland. It is a beautifully-produced book of 280 pages. Essential reading.

But the book reminds me that the avantgarde is as mediocre as the mainstream. Only a few gleams of light. On a first reading the poetry that seemed worth rereading was that of John Agard, Fred D'Aguiar and Barry MacSweeney's three `Pearl' poems. Douglas Oliver and Peter Riley presented a solid ordinariness. I would pick out Tom Leonard's `The Evidence' as the best poem.

I wondered about the selection. I have always thought Barry MacSweeney to write best when he is talking about Sparty Lea. None of that here. And I used to follow Kelvin Corcoran. Nothing here to remind me why. And nothing from Douglas Oliver's `The Infant and The Pearl'.

But, all in all, it is a book to buy and is probably read best in conjunction with Maggie O'Sullivan's anthology of innovative women poets [Out of Everywhere, 1996, Reality Street Editions]. Women poets (and Irish) are not too well represented in `Other'.

Keith Tuma has written a fabulous critical work [Fishing by Obstinate Isles, 1998, Northwestern University Press] to try and encourage Americans that there are things going on in contemporary British poetry that are worth bothering about. He has an enormous detailed knowledge to back him up in his 298 pages.

I found the first 140-page half of the book offputting regarding British poetry, against his intention, because of his continual interest in The Movement and Philip Larkin. Then he didn't help himself bu a concentration on the unknown (to me) Joseph Gordon Macleod.

But in the second half of the book he becomes much more enticing with chapters on Mina Loy, Basil Bunting's `Briggflats', Alternative British POets (Peter Riley, Allen Fisher, Geraldine Monk, Tom Raworth and Roy Fisher), Edward Kamau Brathwaite's `X/Self'. But I find it difficult to take Mina Loy seriously as an important poet. What delighted me was to see `X/Self' treated on the same level as `Briggflats'. For another poem of similar quality one would have to look to Geoffrey Hill's `Mercian Hymns'. And that is a toy by comparison.

But the impression I get from the first half of `Fishing by Obstinate Isles' is of a complete confidence in the superiority of American poetry. I recall that a few months ago I read James Tate's edition of `The Best American Poems of 1997' (1997, Scribner) and could hardly find a poem worth spending a moment on. But then I have since read James Tate's `Selected Poems' (1997, Carcanet) and find that he can hardly write a poem himself, so it is no wonder. Fred Beake tells me that James Tate is a poet you have to listen to rather than read on the page.

`X/Self', the third book in Brathwaite's second trilogy,is a tremendous work. It is much superior to `Sun Poem' and `Mother Poem', the preceding books. I have not been able to get hold of his first trilogy `The Arrivants'. I see in it what is missing from most of `Other'. An organic feel for language. (Is it the same thing as `voice'?) Very few of the poets in `Other' have that and some in only a pedestrian way. Something akin to the poetry Keith Tuma quotes in his book (both mainstream and innovative). I just can't understand why people don't respond to language. Keith Tuma and I differ here. His instinct is to look first at the meaning whereas I dive into the mesh of words that is the language of the poem. It may be years before I skulk out the meaning of a poem I like (if ever, thinking of Geoffrey Hill's `Funeral Music'). In my opinion the only two poets dealt with in Keith Tuma's book who have that quality of language are Bunting and Brathwaite, but Keith seems not to notice,

I haven't discussed Basil Bunting, whose `Briggflats' speaks for itself, preferring to emphasise the lesser-known Edward Kamau Brathwaite. There are people who string words together into poems and then there are the very select few who can write poetic language. Bunting and Brathwaite have demonstrated the gift on marvellous occasion.


Don Share's translations of Miguel Hernández (1997, Bloodaxe) leave me wondering where the poet gets his reputation from. I can't help but think that he isn't a patch on Antonio Machado, who was also a victim of the Spanish Civil War.

Nicholas Johnson's `Land' (1999, Mammon Press) shows a great feel for language, particularly in the 80s poems, but I am not sure as to how effective he is at turning the words into poems.