Two 'no sorry's
UNRESTRICTED MOMENT by Peter Dent, £7.95, Stride
GETTING THERE by Matt Simpson, £8.95, Liverpool University Press
There was a time I felt I could engage with the work of Peter Dent.
That was in the days when his poetry, in its turn, had some engagement
with traditional notions of poetry – lucidity of meaning, beauty of
effect, etc. – and, therefore, at the same time I was necessarily
tolerant of his desire to innovate. There is nothing wrong with,
and much to be gained by, innovation within an established tradition
of cultural effectiveness. I have never doubted that, say, Wordsworth’s
‘Daffodils’ or Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 94’ could be done differently.
But once one passes beyond this into ‘unrestricted moments’ of playing
the verbal registers to no purpose other than to hear the tinkle not
of life but of the aesthetic bell alone, then it is just like the
opening and shutting of a cash register machine without taking any
money, or practising with a camera you never load with a film. Consequently,
as I say, Dent lost me some time back; and reading Unrestricted Moment leaves me a doubter.
Not the reader of writing which ‘persuades the reader to abandon the
illusion of thought as a sequence, and to rest the attention, in stillness,
on each individual moment…’ No, sorry.
As for Matt Simpson’s latest volume, I have a similar but very different
problem of engagement. His is much more the traditional approach to
poem-making; and he can write beautifully at times:
…Dust falls on things
which have practically
what vital roles they
in all our bright entanglements…
True, he likes to present life, often, as a rather smell object –
whether writing of his beloved city of Liverpool or doing snapshot
autobiographical poems of his various travels – but such a bias never
matters if it’s well done.
The trouble with this latest book is that it reads like a Selected
Matt Simpson, yet one from which his better poems have been excluded.
One doesn’t mind a bit of family history navel-gazing, clutches of
travel poems, or poems that seek to memorialise friendship, provided
it is well done – i.e. made interesting for third parties, namely
readers. As Housman argued, it’s all in the way
of saying, not what’s said. Thus it is that ‘Funerary Monuments, Aegina’ works well with its ‘Simple enough distinction.
The dead / always seated, the living standing by.’ for
…it’s easy to imagine
love streaming through
tingling in fingertips.
easy when the writing is well done.
But in this collection, Simpson often loses artistic detachment and
we have to endure poor efforts like ‘Whalewatching – Vancouver Island’, where the writing descends to
Then thar-she-blows! And there they were – orcas!
skimming and skipping
and puffing towards us,
in their insouciant
otherness, exotic unconcern!
We idled the boat…
and three, my god, went underneath!
I tilted vainly forward,
with all the thwarted briny love
in my seafaring-family
is Simpson spouting back at the spouting whales an embarrassing gush
of sentimentality. So, for very different reasons than those concerning
the Dent book, I have to say to these, mostly plodding poems of Matt
Simpson, another No, sorry.
© William Oxley 2002