Douglas Clark: My Best Poetry Books of 1997

There are three books which stick in my mind, two of which were published late in the year. In the early part of the year Everyman brought out Heinrich Heine: Selected Poems for the price of two pounds and until the publication of Sally Purcell's Fossil Unicorn and Barry MacSweeney's The Book of Demons it was my favourite book. Now I wouldn't want to choose between them.

Heinrich Heine (translated and edited by David Cram and T.J.Reed), Selected Poems, 1997, Everyman.

I love the way Harry Heine sings even when he is in the greatest despair. He is an irrepressible figure. This book is finely translated by David Cram and Jim Reed. And I have lived with it for many months. Constantly turning over the pages. If you don't know the great 19th century German Jewish poet Heine then you must read him. He is a life-force.

Sally Purcell, Fossil Unicorn, 1997, Anvil.

Sally Purcell writes brilliant snowflakes of poems. Her sharp crystal language is perfect for the short gasp of her work. This is her fourth book and nowadays she seems to publish a book every ten years. Sadly her health is not well and she is being treated for cancer in Oxford.

Her poems seem perfect when restricted to the few lines of a page. When she tries to extend herself, as in the poem of Ovid in Tomis here she loses her crispness. And she is a poet who has to be read when you are in the mood. Caught at a bad moment her words can appear dead on the page. But when fully flavoured she is one of the best we have.

From the notes to her books it will be apparent that she is a very learned poet. But she wears it lightly in the text. The new book is probably the best yet but it pays to read the earlier work. She is most rewarding when caught in the mood.

Barry MacSweeney, The Book of Demons, 1997, Bloodaxe.

`a poet through and through' is how MacSweeney describes himself in this book and it is to the credit of `The Royal Literary Fund' and `The Society of Authors' that they believed him and supplied funds for his detoxification from alcohol addiction which resulted in this marvellous book.

The book is in two sections. Firstly `Pearl', which I thought most inferior to Ranter (Slow Dancer Press, 1985) when I first read the pamphlet from Equipage. But now, in its correct place, as a warm-up for the main section `Book of Demons' it is a pleasant piece of work. Running through it are two words on MacSweeney's brain: `borage' and `argent'. They crop up again and again.

The main section `The Book of Demons' is a chronicle of MacSweeney's sad drying-out. The fluid brilliant language proceeds at a tremendous pace keeping pace with his fertile brain. It is a tour de force as slabs of poetry are chopped up into poems. There is even one orthodox poem on Anne de Bretagne `When the candles wre lit' worthy of a place in the anthologies. But the impact is from the continual energy of MacSweeney's language which never flags.

After thirty years this must be counted his first mainstream book, and a Poetry Book Society Recommendation to boot. Ignoring the early flurries back in the 60s. The Prince of Sparty Lea has gained his recognition. I hope that he can continue to write as well without the alcohol. But he has the Irish genes.

And a word about what makes a poet of MacSweeney's class. (And there are very few of his quality in these islands.) A world is invented in the head and obsession over a generation hammers it home. It plays word games within the skull and evokes similarities to Richard Wagners' leitmotifs. This world is then written down in bits and pieces evoking an alternative reality into which the reader may wander. It stretches from earliest childhood to the present. The themes are everpresent. It is only when the poet's work is viewed as a whole that the vast picture created is revealed. It is best to tag onto these poets early so that the vision can unfold over a lifetime. I have followed MacSweeney for thirty years and am always being rewarded. So few poets have this vision. His work is all of one piece. He is the Prince of Sparty Lea.