Kelvin Corcoran, (121pp, £9.95, Shearsman)
Versions of Martial, Alan Halsey (215pp, £12,KFS)
Claire Crowther (67pp, £8.95, Shearsman)
the sudden death of Lee Harwood, poetry has lost one of the greatest unknown
poets of the age. Lyrical, modernist, unassuming and open, Harwood's poetry
revealed the beauty inherent in just living at this point in time.
However, we still have among us the considerable talents of Kelvin Corcoran,
whose Sea Table
reveals a poet of considerable depth and sophistication, who on the surface
seems perfectly clear and lyrical. He once said, 'No-one thinks hard enough
for poetry', as if what we were about to get were something barbed and
head-scratchingly difficult; but that was a provocation. Like Harwood, and
many others of the 'British Poetry Revival' era, the difficulty is
exaggerated as much by unfamiliarity with the form as by anything in the
The four sets of poems gathered in this collection are different in theme,
but there is a kind of musical binding to the whole collection, as if they
were four movements of a symphony. The first concerns the sudden onset and
recovery from a debilitating illness; the second is light-hearted romp around
his various musical and literary tastes; the third considers the story of
pianist Glenn Gould; the fourth returns to the theme of Greece, with the
story of voyage out and back again.
Throughout the book, the lyricism never lets up, and never becomes cloying or
evasive. In the final eponymous set, we are in at once the real Greece of
economic meltdown and in the ancient mythical land of the Iliad and the
Odyessey, Echoes of ancient poetry mingle with mention of current Greek
government's economic policy; and this is what makes the set so compelling.
Throughout this book, echo and recapitulation are used to move the reader
through the various themes and I kept getting gripped by the aptness of
phrase. Yet it's difficult to quote because the effects are cumulative, like
in any reasonably complex music. Nevertheless, here are a couple of verses
from near the end of the third set, Glenn Gould and Everything:
I drove through New York
left a horse in a field
of light ecstatic
bounding the scales of day;
try variation 1, try
leaping the fence,
a rhythmic continuity as
if just born.
I nailed my 32 theses to
the church door
of the 30th
street studio - tap tap done;
I remember the saraband
and street songs
ghosting the Goldberg in
an x-ray of the score and
my hands thinking.
Halsay's poems come at Classicism from a very different angel. His versions
of the ancient Latin epigramist are racy, sometimes scatological and very
very earthy. No doubt in keeping with the man himself. I think I may have
translated the odd bit of Martial when I was at grammar school; but they kept
us away from the really rude epigrams; and Alan in any case has taken
considerable liberties with his sources, with references to New Labour and the
Big Society. Here's one such:
New Labour puts us all
on first name terms
so if you're talking to M
you can drop the Mister.
His name is ÔLord'.
This is not the kind of poetry one can have serious conversations about form
and metre about; or discuss the meaning of in great detail. The meaning is as
plain as the pikestaff on the end of your nose and often scurrilous,
satirical, startlingly rude and frank about sex, and in general, not the kind
of poetry you want you very religious aunt to read. Well, maybe you do want
her to read it, but you end up losing that £5 Postal Order for Christmas. And
that £5 postal order just might be the final instalment of the money you need
to buy this fine collection of versions of an ancient Roman poet who could
dish the dirt like anyone.
Crowther is an altogether quieter and politer poet than the ancient
epigramist of Rome. That shouldn't put you off, however, as this poetry
reveals its beauty slowly through its accumulation of imagery and line and a
wide attention to the world around it.
Precision of language, depth of field and a tight hold on language
distinguish these poems, but there is also an edge of innovation that sees
her writing poems that sometimes bring you up short. In The Candidate Goes
for instance, she uses a full stop to disrupt the syntax and make it sound
like someone talking in short bursts:
Is it there it is relief
relief more red.
Cars stolen than any
other shade buggered.
If I'll change colour for
Into the boot my contacts
book oh jesus.
Tuesday what time OK OK
OK OK lots...
This is not disruption of syntax to confuse and bewilder the reader, however,
but to expand the poem's meaning and to make you read again, to see the
emotion behind the words.
What I also like about this collection is its approach to form is not to
reject it, but to use it where necessary and to make it work for its
position. A poem is in syllabics because it needs to be not because the poet
is showing us their working. The poems deal with some deep issues: the
four/seven syllable lines of Infant Cemetery, for instance,
alongside the discretion of the language, turns the poem into memorial not
No grown ups here
but me. Quarried
hill. Exposed chalk
I'm sorry they're not old
Throughout, I'm remind both of Thom Gunn and Lee Harwood, and that's no mean
feat in this lovely collection of lyrics. Crowther is one of the finest
lyricists I've read in a while.