Douglas Clark: Catching up on Books -- 4

       Seamus Heaney, Beowulf, 1999, Faber.
       Hugo Williams, Billy's Rain, 1999, Faber.
       Kathleen Jamie, Jizzen, 1999, Picador.
       W.N.Herbert, The Laurelude, 1998, Bloodaxe.
       Louis MacNeice, Autumn Journal, 1939, Faber.
       Tony Harrison, Laureate's Block, 2000, Penguin.
       Jo Shapcott, Her Book, 2000, Faber.
       Alan Jenkins, The Drift, 2000, Chatto & Windus.
       Thom Gunn, Boss Cupid, 2000, Faber.

`Beowulf' is a good easy read. I wouldn't have bought it if it hadn't been going for half-price at Amazon UK because I knew I would only read it once. Hugo Williams' `Billy's Rain' and Kathleen Jamie's `Jizzen' are competent books written by poets in full command of their material but are ultimately unexciting. `Jizzen' probably has the edge because of the use of Scots words which livens it up. Bill Herbert's `The Laurelude' is worth reading for the long title poem but he has crammed too much substandard material into the book. He tends to do this in his books although the larger bulk makes them value for money. I don't think Louis MacNeice's `Autumn Journal' is standing the passage of time very well on re-reading it. But few poems do.

Tony Harrison's `Laureate's Block' is an entertaining melange of occasional poems which are marked by the solidness of his verse structure. It reads very well but is not in the same class as work like `Sonnets from The School of Eloquence'. Jo Shapcott's `Her Book' is of 120 pages with about 40 pages to each of her previous three books, being very healthy selections. The first book `Electroplating the baby' left me absolutely cold, as it did when I bought it on first publication after all the hype. It is disconnected words, not connected language as is necessary for poetry. The second book, which I had not previously read, opens up in similar vein, but lo and behold, when she gets to her Alpine Tour halfway through the selection she actually starts writing language and I am so much happier. But not really a succesful poem in this section. Then I come to the third selection, from `My Life Asleep' which I bought last year at John Kinsella's instigation. And here, with fluent language, Jo Shapcott actually puts poems together and I am delighted. She is a poet after all and I was too thick to see it in her earlier work. It reminds me of when I read Wallace Stevens' `Collected Poems' about five years ago and found that for all the brilliant wordplay of `Harmonium' he didnt actually get down to writing poems until he reached `The Rock'. So Jo Shapcott is a poet after all, but it takes a lot of digging to find out. Alan Jenkins' `The Drift' is a readable book in a loose verse form but lacks genuine poetry. Thom Gunn's `Boss Cupid' is better when he is writing free verse than when he takes a formal approach but the poetry is much slighter than in the key section of his previous book `The Man with Night Sweats' which was extremely powerful.