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.