Douglas Clark: Catching up on Books -- 1

I have been doing a lot of reading of poetry books at the end of September and think I should write my thoughts down while they are fresh.

The best book was Peter Bland's Selected Poems (Carcanet, 1998). Peter Bland lived in Yorkshire till he was 20 then emigrated to New Zealand, apparently hopping back and forth between worlds since. He writes a conventional mainstream verse but his remembrances of England in the 50s and reconstructions of earlier times are uncanny. The purely New Zealand material seems weaker but a native New Zealander might disagree. It is a very strong book.

The most important book I read was lent to me by Fred Beake, all the others I bought. It is Worlds of New Measure (Talus, 1997) edited by Clive Bush which gives 100 pages each of a Selected Poems for five of the most influential avantgarde British poets: Thomas A.Clark, Bill Griffiths, Barry MacSweeney, Allen Fisher and Eric Mottram. My overall feeling was one of mediocrity, even for MacSweeney's Ranter over which I have raved in the past. There is one poem from MacSweeney's Pearl making me think that those who argue for that being his best work may be correct. Thomas A.Clark plows his lonely furrow repeating himself again and again and again. I think if you have read one of his Moschatel pamphlets then you have read the lot and I now very much regret not having bought his Down and out in Tighnabruiach which I saw in a Glasgow bookshop nearly thirty years ago, his first publication. Bill Griffiths didn't interest me and Allen Fisher seems just a pale imitation of Ezra. I would rather reread The Pisan Cantos and marvel at the connections. Eric Mottram wasn't really a poet but he did try hard. See his Herne the Hunter.

Penguin Modern poets 10 (Penguin, 1996) allows space to Douglas Oliver, Denise Riley, Iain Sinclair. I remember Doug's African poems which are an indicator for his forthcoming 1999 Bloodaxe book. A concern with Africa is very Scottish. Denise Riley turns out to be a poet after all. I bought a book of hers 10 years ago and it was dreadful. There is not much to say about Iain Sinclair.

James Tate, whose Selected Poems I am on the lookout for, edited The Best American Poetry 1997 (Scribner, 1997). Nothing sticks in the memory. It was just a collection of wellmade poems.

The Canadian Lisa Robertson's Debbie: An Epic (Reality Street Editions) has been much lauded but I am afraid it left me cold. I couldn't really see anything in it. The Australian John Tranter's Late Night Radio (Polygon, 1998) was not my sort of stuff either. Not really poetry at all. Another young Australian Alison Croggon in The Blue Gate (Black Pepper, 1997) displays a fine lyric touch but needs to find more substance before she challenges the likes of Anthony Lawrence and John Kinsella.

And finally a couple of new releases from the ridiculously cheap Everyman series. Emily Dickinson and Sappho. Helen McNeil, whose book on Emily I have, edits the Dickinson. I have a rather idiosyncratic view of Emily as a minor American poet who wrote one of the great poems in the language: (712). But I am being wicked because she has more than one poem. Rob Chandler has translated Sappho. Competently to my eye, although I think I prefer a woman translator for Sappho. More understanding of the delicacies. Margaret Williamson's Sappho's Immortal Daughters (Harvard University Press, 1995) tells us everything that is known or needs to be known about Sappho. To my mind she is a great poet on two surviving poems which support her reputation in Classical times.

And I will slip in that I have been reading Leopardi's The Canti in the translation by J.G.Nichols (Carcanet, 1994). Leopardi belongs to the distant early-19th century world of the Romantics. He is so remote from our era. It can be quite relaxing to return to an uncomplicated poetry where despite his physical drawbacks he is ignorant of modern Freudian conceptions and has a rosey tint on the world. He is invigorating.