Different Angles

Sea Table, Kelvin Corcoran, (121pp, £9.95, Shearsman)
Versions of Martial
, Alan Halsey (215pp, £12,KFS)
On Narrowness
, Claire Crowther (67pp, £8.95, Shearsman)

With 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 poems.

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 in blinkers,
   left a horse in a field of light ecstatic
   capering tip-toe, 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 darkness,
   an x-ray of the score and my hands thinking.

Alan 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.

Claire 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 Home
, 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 idiots minutes.
   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 mawkishness:

   No grown ups here
   but me. Quarried
   hill. Exposed chalk
   I'm sorry they're not old too...

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.

     © Steven Waling 2015