A CHARACTER of Randall Jarrell's somewhere identifies himself as "a poet -- that is to say, a maker of stone axes. What a shame (he reflects) that I hadn't lived back in the days when they made stone axes! And yet, why make them now?"
This question still haunts contemporary English-language poets, as the reading public seems to incline more and more to the view -- not aways unjustifiably -- that poetry is an obsolete art, at best an amusing, at worst an incomprehensible, act of self-indulgence.
Yet there are poets writing now, as always, for whom the life of poetry means just that: Poetry as co-extensive with life itself, and even a little bit beyond. Peter Porter, approaching 60, expresses it wryly, "Poetry goes on being made from sounds/ and syntax though even its friends confess/ the sad old thing is superannuated . . . its task is still to point incredulouly at death, a child who won't be silenced."
Younger poets may or may not find death, as Porter now does, "the real meaning underneath" everything, but for the best of them real meaning is still the goal. They continue to forge their stone axes for the same reason Wordsworth did, to clear a space, to "see into the life of things." Porter is again to the point: "No reprimand will stop the writers/ Proving fops and clowns and biters. But when they've gone, a line/ May fill with light and shine."
Within the past year, four poets from England and Ireland have published books attesting, in their different ways, to the vitality of contemporary verse (not to mention the surprising and enlivening persistence into contemporary verse of traditional poetic forms). Peter Porter, Tony Harrison, Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon are not the only, nor all of them necessarily among the best, poets writing now from across the Atlantic: England also has Ted Hughes and Geoffrey Hill, and in Ireland, though they all write in Heaney's shadow, there are John Montague and Richard Murphy and Thomas Kinsella. (Muldoon, in any case, currently resides in the United States and Heaney teaches part of each year at Harvard.) But the strengths of these four are representative.
AN AUSTRALIAN expatriate who has lived most of his writing life in England, Peter Porter has not always enjoyed a reputation for luminousness. Indeed, his Collected Poems (1985) showed a man who, except in his most recent work, was close to being the "automatic oracle" he invokes as the title for his new book, The Automatic Oracle (Oxford, $8.95), at once grandiloquent and facile. If Porter did not actually produce poems on automatic pilot, he certainly, or so it seemed, had a poem handy for every subject. Yet despite the plethora of subjects and the poet's glittering erudition, even admiring critics occasionally wondered whether Porter really had anything to say.
Lately, though, in volumes such as English Subtitles (1981) and the present book, there has been a simultaneous deepening and simplifying of language and concern that has resulted in some profoundly moving poems. Porter is still capable of manufactured occasional pomp (such as "The Rest on the Flight," a hymn to Boeing) and his old willful obscurity ("The Loud Bassoon"), but struck, or shocked, as he seems to have been by the fact of his own mortality, he is all of a sudden like St. Thomas Aquinas discovering on his death-bed that his life's work is "all straw." The discovery does not stop Porter singing, but it concentrates his music wonderfully.
Having promised to renounce obscurity (though he admits "Temperament trips you up"), Porter squares up to death in language as direct and tough as body-blows:
Better to suffer the nightmares natural to
The body and tell what you have heard
Among your fellow-sufferers and hope
The story's end won't choke you on a word.
("Sticking to the Text")
Yet The Automatic Oracle is not a grim book. Surprisingly, Porter's voice is more supple and resonant than it has ever been, now rueful or ironic, now positively relieved, even jaunty, as when he engages in badinage with his own detractors ("Music will last," he warns, "until/ The brain has massacred its ambient creatures." The book as a whole offers the fascinating spectacle of a man who has soberly taken the measure of the game ("The rules remain: you are the books you write") publicly coming to terms with his own achievement.
THERE IS no rarefied nonsense, either, though much compressed and musical brilliance, in the Selected Poems (Random House, $15.95) of England's 50-year-old poetic wunderkind, Tony Harrison.
Son of a Leeds baker, Harrison studied classics at the University of Leeds and went on to various academic positions, a lot of foreign travel, and international fame as a poet, translator and librettist. Yet he still lives and works in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in northern England and, despite his schooled eloquence, it is clear from this collection how much he has owed and continues to owe his northern working-class origins. Tony Harrison's poems are products of the charge released when, as Seamus Heaney has said of his own poetry, his roots were crossed with his reading.
In early books like The Loiners (1970), the electricity seemed almost more than he could harness, as he discharged large amounts of coruscating, prodigiously clever, often scatological verse. Years later, in a poem to his dead mother entitled "Bringing Up," he puts this period of youthful exuberance in perspective: "But I still see you weeping, your hurt looks:/ You weren't brought up to write such mucky books!"
Yet even early on, passion was reined in by discipline, of form if not always of sense: Harrison has been a consistently accomplished technician, a master of rhythm and rhyme, yoking conceits together with a wit as daring as the Metaphysicals': "Mon e'gal!/ Let me be the Gambia in your Senegal." ("The White Queen") or this from Leningrad: "I wanted you to watch with me from bed/ that seamless merger of half dusk and dawn,/ AURORA, rosy-fingered kind, and battleship/ whose sudden salvo turned the East half red" ("The Viewless Wings").
Tony Harrison's achievement in his later work -- in Continuous (1981) and some new poems included here -- has been to channel this flamboyant rhetorical impulse into something altogether more deeply felt. With age and, more specifically, the deaths of his parents, his poetry has taken on responsibility, sympathy, a new meditative weight. A poem like the stunning "Marked With D," an agonized reflection on the cremation of his father, shows what Harrison is now able to risk successfully. The old outrageous wit is still there, in the parallel between baker's oven and crematorium or the pun on the word "rise," but this macabre, theatrical element is undercut, then transformed, by the plain force of the poet's emotion and the plain language ("dead," "cold," "sorry," "bread," "ash") even his inarticulate father would have understood.
When the chilled dough of his flesh went in an oven
not unlike those he fuelled all his life,
I thought of his cataracts ablaze with Heaven
and radiant with the sight of his dead wife,
light streaming from his mouth to shape her name,
'not Florence and not Flo but always Florrie'.
I thought how his cold tongue burst into flame
but only literally, which makes me sorry,
sorry for his sake there's no Heaven to reach.
I get it all from Earth my daily bread
but he hungered for release from mortal speech
that kept him down, the tongue that weighed like lead.
The baker's man that no one will see rise
and England made to feel like some dull oaf
is smoke, enough to sting one person's eyes
and ash (not unlike flour) for one small loaf.
THE HAW LANTERN (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $12.95) is the seventh book of poetry by Ulster-born Seamus Heaney, by far the best known and, to many, the greatest contemporary Irish poet. Heaney's earliest work, beginning with Death of A Naturalist (1966), is by and large a celebration of origins, the heaven which lay about him in his infancy in rural Derry. Subsequent volumes include poetic meditations upon language, history, conscience, memory, art and, obliquely, the war in Ulster, generally growing denser and more opaque (to use a word Heaney likes) from one book to the next, as he puts his instinctively sensuous imagination to the harsh labor of thought.
In all his poetry, though, whether simple lyric or a complex sequence like "Station Island" (1985), Heaney has cultivated a highly individual quality of utterance; like Wordsworth, he writes as one "who hath among least things/ An under-sense of greatest; sees the parts/ As parts, but with a feeling of the whole."
Though a slighter book than Station Island, The Haw Lantern is no exception: even the lightest poem in it, "A Peacock's Feather," written for an English niece's christening, harks back to old issues of identity, the "opaque fidelity" of a "dispersed people," with all Heaney's familiar authoritative eloquence. Actually, the book as a whole represents less a poetic advance than a reprise, a loving lingering on the past and on past themes, a looking back "As from his small window/ The astronaut sees all he has sprung from,/ The risen, aqueous, singular, lucent O/ Like a magnified and buoyant ovum" ("Alphabets").
The book itself suggests that this pausing to remember may have been occasioned by the death of the poet's mother: a magnificent sequence of eight sonnets "in memoriam M.K.H. 1911-1984," entitled "Clearances," is placed at the exact center, dominating the book both forwards and backwards and giving it a kind of moral unity.
"Clearances" celebrates not just Heaney's origins and ancestors but these things as the source of his life's meaning. The final sonnet of the sequence begins with two lines he had already used in the third canto of "Station Island," a meditation upon the death of a young relative. Re-cast here, with altered line-breaks, these lines can be read as a metaphor for his concerns in The Haw Lantern as a whole. As for the sonnet, which mentions neither "death" nor "mother," Heaney has nowhere written anything more beautiful:
I thought of walking round and round a space
Utterly empty, utterly a source
Where the decked chestnut tree had lost its place
In our front hedge above the wallflowers.
The white chips jumped and jumped and skited high.
I heard the hatchet's differentiated
Accurate cut, the crack, the sigh
And collapse of what luxuriated
Through the shocked tips and wreckage of it all.
Deep planted and long gone, my coeval
Chestnut from a jam jar in a hole.
Its heft and hush become a bright nowhere,
A soul ramifying and forever
Silent, beyond silence listened for.
ANOTHER wunderkind, another Irishman, but a very different kettle of fish from either Harrison or Heaney, Paul Muldoon is a not so easily acquired taste. Now on his fifth book, Meeting the British (Wake Forest University Press, $5.95) -- and with his Selected Poems (Ecco Press, $16.50) about to appear next month -- he is still writing poems which are either gorgeously inaccessible or -- where they are accessible -- trifling to the point of self-effacement, "one Pernod-sip,/ one tremulous cre`me-de menthe." It all depends, I suppose, on whether or not you like Pernod.
Muldoon, who teaches now at Princeton and Columbia and is still only in his mid-thirties, reminds me of a clever jackdaw, hopping about among jewelled words, ransacking the treasure house of literature to line his well-made nests of poems (but where, on peering into this or that nest, is Heaney's inspiring egg, the "magnified and buoyant ovum"?). So fertile is Muldoon's imagination that, once started on a poem, it typically proceeds by means of tangents, one sensuous image generating the next; the logic is dream-logic, the finished poem a lovely but frustrating closed system.
"Something Else" bears quoting as both description and example of Muldoon's creative method: "When your lobster was lifted out of the tank/to be weighed/ I thought of woad,/ of madders, of fugitive, indigo inks,/ of how Nerval/ was given to promenade/ a lobster on a gossamer thread,/ how, when a decent interval/ had passed . . . and his hopes of Adrienne/ proved false,/ he hanged himself from a lamp-post/ with a length of chain, which made me think/ of something else, then something else again."
At worst, the "something else" process produces elegant inconsequentiality, which is what I find in more than half the poems in Meeting the British. At best, when Muldoon really finds himself possessed of a subject (as in "The Soap-Pig," an elegy for a dead friend and colleague, or the long sequence "7, Middagh Street," part homage to, part debate with, some of Muldoon's cultural mentors), his technical and imaginative gifts reveal themselves. And he can be very funny. Dealing, for example, as all Irish poets must, with the ghost of Yeats, he opts for mild, but needle-sharp, satire: "two girls, I thought, two girls in silk kimonos./ Both beautiful, one a gazebo."
Poetry, like much else, is a matter of taste. Paul Muldoon's poetry is not especially to mine and yet there is enough in the brew that is original, witty or beautiful that I can see why some find it intoxicating. At the very least, he is not a poet to ignore. :: Elizabeth Ward, a Washington writer and editor, is the author of "David Jones: Mythmaker."