Sunday, 11 October 2009

Hendrik Jackson: taut, suggestive, contemporary

The long shadow that expressionism cast over the course of twentieth-century German poetry have resulted in two curious absences from the mainstream: musical structure and elegance. I was happy to discover Hendrik Jackson, a young poet, whose collection Dunkelstroeme has just been published in the reputation-making Kookbooks Reihe Lyrik (2006) series. Oblique, with suggestive verbal darts in seemingly strange directions, the poems nonetheless aboud with emotional charge and real qualities of song, as for example in Dachkammer
im Blindflug Richttoene glaenzende
Schwingen ueberlappende Ringe von Frequenzen
Bandbreiten unerkannt flatterndes Schwarz
-interfieriend- Sginale.
A powerful mind is at work here, finding his way through tightly formed stanzas. One to watch.

The Damnedly Sensitive Anne Michaels

The first three collections of prize-winning novelist Anne Michael's poetry are available as Poems (Alfred Knopf, 2001). The world of Michaels is always dissolving, hollowing out, drowning and so on: all of which have become rather obious ways of talking about the experiential content of metaphor. Sinuous, fey, loose narratives about the 'distance between us' with little regard for form, punctuated with flashes of wonderful precision, Michael's poetry wears its gendering on its sleeve ('pregnant, androgynous with man...' ) and one soon tires of this display of post-Kristeva feminine sensitivitiy. Glib references to the holocaust and 'history' are further irritations. There is never enough definiteness of language or form to warrant one's interest. It is a pity that one of her finest, and most precise phrases, 'We become inaccurate' serves as an epitaph on the work as a whole.

Americana, Manning and Hartley-Williams

Maurice Manning has a big heart. His collection A Companion for Owls (Harcourt, 2004) is almost at pains to suggest a straightforwardness and simplicity of emotion that is hard to do without sounding banal. The central imaginative world sustaining the poems and from which they derive their life is the Kentucky of the settlers' period (a rather needless personal connection with which is signalled in Manning's dedication to his father 'True Son of Pioneers'). The poems are a kind of poetic biography (called a 'commonplace book') of Daniel Boone (1734-1820), a woodsman and settler. The indwelling of this landscape is a metaphor for a post-European poetics, and a plea for the specificity of the settler sensibility. Behind this is the deeper commitment (On Being Raised a Quaker) to a tolerant form of non-doctrinal Christianity, instinct with Old Testament grandeur and wonder: words such as 'dominion' abound. This can produce affecting small-scale poems, such as That I am Essential to Creation, with its comment on the worms 'thinking I am a tree, fallen on their behalf' and its coda
Season of summary,
vessel and yoke of sleep,
make me your spit and clay;
hollow should be my name.
At other times, the prophetic-lite tone jars with the folksiness of the attempt to record Boone's specifities of thought and language, making the entire thing feel like an exercise in antiquarianism: at the close of Eight Anayltical Questions, we find the line: 'Upon my soul, I wonder who invented beauty?', which is both bathetic and fake. There is a rather flat feeling to his rhythms, and one cannot quite understand why one line ends where it does.

Mannig's failure, however, is more at the level of intellect and structure. There is simply not enough care done to control tightly the play of meanings in and between words, leaving everything existing at the level or statement or suggestions. In mimicing the simplicity of his heroe's Walden-like indwelling, Manning has sacrificed too much of the attempt to beat and fight his language into an individual style, with some sense of controlling intelligence. Some much needed density is missing. Manning is an academic, teaching English at Indiana, and yet it is precisely the attempt to gird onto his poems an intellectual appurtenance that is the mark of his most signal weakness. Whereas the poems offer little by way of pleasures for the mature or well-stocked mind, this lacuna is over-compensated by some lengthy endnotes. These range from the shockingly banal (p. 97 'However long the day, are ever truly finished with the question of God?') to the wayward; an example of the latter would be his suggestion that Coleridge and Wordsworth were in fact decisively influenced in their Romanticism in Lyrical Ballads by descriptions of the American Frontier, in particular, Kentucky. There is an academic essay here (perhaps), but the poems give us no sense of what it is to be human in 2004. Indeed, the obvious commentary necessary on this kind of revisionism of lyrical balladry would be one of the sheer difficulty of such a project of return. Manning, a man to whom one instinctively warms, could avoid such a task by articulating in a more uncompromising way, vision and luminosity, but that is not quite his way. What then, do these formally loose poems achieve in the end? We are left rather between antiquarian and folksy, with glimpses of the half-transcendent beyond that redeems, in a relaxed and comfortable sort of way. Let's hope that next time there is more integration of play, intelligence and the sense of mystery with Manning's undoubted humanity.

The imaginary landscape of America is also the setting for John Hartley-Williams Bright River Yonder, which was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation in its day (Bloodaxe, 1987). A more self-consciously self-modern piece of negotiation between the past and the present, the past once again being settlers' America, a mythical Wild West town called Doomsburg. Bloodaxe is a press that's hard to like and this exercise in 'imagination' at the expense of sensibility does not help matters. JHW is a tutor at the Arvon foundation and has won prizes, but in vain does one look in this book for musical structure, a powerful mind or phrases to remember. His thing is baroque little narratives which move in unexpectd directions. But this sense of surprise is a rather comfortable cosying up to the bric-a-brac of stereotypes in the late twentieth mind: it is a surprise always at the level of plot or sudden association and never a genuine risk of exposure, of sensibility or intellect.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Andrew Duncan is wonderful

The sheer amount of intelligence that Duncan packs into a single line is more than most poets manage in a whole poem. His latest collection, 'The Imaginary in Geometry', is a book to sit down and weep with envy at the level of talent on offer. I just flick open a page at random (perhaps there should be a new Sortes duncanianae) to find: 
    a beach of coloured grains where acuity fades away
ending the first stanza of Abundance. Everything about this line is perfect, from the cadence to the fact that the word is coloured and nothing more 'precise' (language as expression, not mere description) to the faint half-rhyme between grains and away. 

Clearly not quite yet a 'mainstream' figure, his poems are nonetheless in that venerable tradition of poets singing for the sheer pleasure of 'new forms', rather like the crazily inventive (though neither will like this parallel) rhyming of Eminem. A poem as good as 'Radio Vortex' with its manifesto of 'primary forms/composite' (you have to love that line break) can almost only merely be pointed to as class act rather than explained, and in fact, less pointed to than experienced and read out to friends. Again and again, one finds oneself knowing one could never have done what Duncan has, because the sensibility is beyond most intellects. Other contemporary poets I hymn for their technique or their breadth or their humanity, but none has the intellectual virtues that Duncan does. He is simply the smartest poet around.