Douglas Clark: A lifetime of poetry

Thirty years ago Basil Bunting published Briggflats (Basil Bunting, Briggflats, Fulcrum, 1966) and set the standard for subsequent English poetry. He exhibited a dazzling surface texture of language whilst telling a story. The story dips in and out of the shimmer of his words. Bunting had learnt his techniques in Rapallo at the foot of Pound. It is a hard sinewy language where each sharp sound counts. A hard-packed Northumbrian English.

In the thirty years since, the standard bearer of surface texture in poetry has been Jeremy Prynne of Cambridge. He was involved with Olson in the late 60s and developed as a precursor of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. However the dense wealth of his text is, to my way of thinking, flawed by his lack of story-telling and sparseness of emotion. His pamphlets are gathered together in Poems (J.H.Prynne, Poems, Allardyce Barnett, 1982). Amongst the English postmoderns only Barry MacSweeney has demonstrated a comparable influence. MacSweeney can arrive at superb texture in his poetry but, paradoxically, his best work is the emotional narrative Ranter (Barry MacSweeney, Ranter, Slow Dancer, 1985). Here he sacrifices the artifices of his vocabulary to tell the tale. He is most typically good when talking about Sparty Lea, his homeland.

These two poets, Prynne and MacSweeney, belong to the little-read English avantgarde. But Geoffrey Hill, who has close affinities, has always been claimed by the populist mainstream channels. As early as Funeral Music (Geoffrey Hill, King Log, Andre Deutsch, 1968) he was demonstrating a taste for language at its most brilliant and arcane. In Mercian Hymns (Geoffrey Hill, Mercian Hymns, Andre Deutsch, 1971) he contructed an amalgam of rich language and mythic history that tantalised the popular imagination. And in the progression of his career up to the current Canaan (Geoffrey Hill, Canaan, Penguin, 1996) he opts for the lavish texture of fine rhetoric over the striving to present a simple tale in words. Geoffrey Hill is currently thought of as the great poet of England.

This view of quality of language and its pursuit by the poets is our inheritance from the Modernists. Mainstream English poetry has deviated towards the path of Edward Thomas where everyday language is used, albeit in a rural synthesis of great beauty. This is the work to be found in the contemporary literary magazines. What was striking about the early Auden was his vigorous use of language, always at the expense of sense. It is the natural original flair for language that marks out the genuine poet. Everybody has emotions and many can parse them into commonplace words.

It is pleasing to see young poets with a deep feeling and interest for language. Nicholas Johnson has this in his Haul Song (Nicholas Johnson, Haul Song, Mammon, 1994). His weakness is that he has still not learnt how to insinuate his story into the text. And the young Scots poet Kathleen Jamie lives within the language in her Queen of Sheba (Kathleen Jamie, The Queen of Sheba, Bloodaxe, 1994). So the true excellence of poetry in its love of language is winning out over the everyday emotional truisms propagated in the mainstream publications.