Lucky Dip: Thoughts on Recent American Poetry
A Short History of the Shadow, Charles Wright. FS&G, 2003. 96 pp., $14.
Skid, Dean Young. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002. 112 pp., $12.95.
Lawrence Booth's Book of Visions, Maurice Manning. Yale University Press, 2001. 72 pp., $12.
House of Poured-Out Waters, Jane Mead. University of Illinois Press, 2001. 112 pp., $14.95.
Me and poetry haven't been hitting it off for a while. Apart from the recent John Burnside (The Light Trap, £8.00, Jonathan Cape) there's been little to engage with; and the local bookshops' poetry shelves continue to shrink and I'm sure will soon disappear completely. Even the Charing Cross Road bookshops, the London “flagships” of the major bookshop chains, have little to offer. So, apart from the odd secondhand delight from Peter Riley's splendid sales list, I've been sticking to fiction – Tim Winton, Huraki Murakami and Jonathan Coe, since you ask. But it was beginning to feel like make-or-break time: was I going to find new poetry, was there in fact new poetry out there to find, or should I just call it a day and forget about the wretched stuff?
An hour later, Amazon.com had my money and I had gambled – relying on a mix of strangers' recommendations, review quotes, sample pages and minute reproductions of book jackets – on a number of poets mostly unheard of to me. What's interesting to me is how younger American poets (or some of them, anyway) are able to produce a hybrid of Language (and other Postmodern) poetries and the kinds of domestic narratives that swamp the market here. The way they write, however, isn't the focus of the work – they don't wear their “avant-garde-ness” or “experimental processes” on their sleeves, they simply get on with using it, producing witty, accomplished poetry that has taken many things on board, in a way that is rare to those accustomed to the unambitious poetry offered to us by the major UK lists.
* Dean Young's Skid, one of the nicest designed books I've seen for a while, seems to me to share with books like Joshua Clover’s Madonna Anno Domini its way of working and the resulting poems of dislocation and surprise. Based on dislocation and collage, with a hint of John Ashbery's sly humor, these poems ask more questions than they answer and always end up somewhere other than expected. Clover is more obviously quirky, perhaps, with titles like “Romeoville & Joliet” and poems such as “Zealous” clearly showing their construction (an A-Z acrostic). Young is slicker and stranger, more surreal, the poems slither all over the place, appropriating, juxtaposing and simply abandoning, yet also building upon, ideas gone before.
* Maurice Manning's Lawrence Booth's Book of Visions is more troubling. Well, it isn't troubling, it's brilliant, a fragmented saga of a child growing up in the South – we're talking Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner territory here – narrated by not only the boy himself, but his black friend with learning difficulties, the narrator and other characters. Imaginary and real friends, events, toys and stories, all manner of dialects and voices, combine to present a technicolor widescreen version of Lawrence Booth and where and how he lives. Troubling? Well, I can't see much "poetry" in the book, I simply read it as broken prose, it's the story that intrigues. Well, the language, too, but there's no music or shape for me that makes it a poem; it's not really even prose-poetry. That aside, I still rate and recommend the book.
* Jane Mead seems the more traditional poet, seemingly writing [sometimes auto-] biographical narratives, particularly in her earlier The Lord and the General Din of the World (Sarabande Books) where her father's and her own drug/drink problems and their violent relationship is a backbone visible throughout the entire book. For my taste there is too much declaration and assertion in this earlier volume, the reader gets told and shouted at far too much, something that has been put to rights in House of Poured-Out Waters. Here, the poems are less verbose, quieter and more thoughtful, often gathered in sequences that hover and buzz around a central theme. The language is more compact, fresher and more original, although there is in the end perhaps still too much pondering and thinking aloud, too much focus on declamation and "saying something important" rather than on letting the language move the poem [and reader] along. But I like her quirky take on things – "That music in the background, trying to be / of use S" – and her gentle clear lyricism when she gets it right.
* Charles Wright's A Short History of the Shadow shows how literary and artistic allusions, thought processes, and conversational tones can inform, indeed be the very substance of, good poetry. This is sprightly, entertaining and moving work that references many authors, painters and philosophers, yet never wears "learning" or "knowledge" like a badge. This is simply the world Wright inhabits, as real as the landscape around him, the light and shadow, the stars and sun, and the possibilities of belief which concern him. These sprung poems, full of hard-worked and hard-won lines that stretch to fill the page, ponder the known and unknown, look forward and back in time, see anew the human condition. For me, Wright is one of the best poets writing today; this, one of his finest volumes to date.
Rupert Loydell's The Museum of Light is forthcoming from Arc. He edits Stride Magazine.