NEAR the end of a century that has seen repeated claims that the poet ought above all be a technical innovator. Tony Harrison comes as something as a shock. His work is intent not on formal invention but on speech rough and raw as you like, hammered into meter and rhyme. With minor variations he uses only one form in his new book V. and Other Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $14.95), a quatrain with alternate rhyming lines, a stanza that has its origins in ballads and popular broadsides.
Much of the zest of Harrison's work derives from his debt to these traditions, though he never descends into soap-box lecturing and he communicates the intimacy of ordinary experience with great feeling.
Harrison, who hails from Leeds, is well-known in Britain and America for his translations of the classics for the theater. The poems in this book make his gift for dramatic verse plain to see. He writes a heavily accented poetry, not in the least bit pretty, but which demands to be read aloud, though it can sound as harsh as sifting gravel. (He once wrote a poem celebrating the rebarbative sound of his work entitled "On Not Being Milton.") He runs head on into all the issues that interest him and gives the impression no subject is beyond his grasp. Harrison is a sane, pragmatic poet, a satirist who thinks aloud in his work, an anti-romantic who is also a love poet of frank sensuality.
The title poem of this book, perhaps a fraction too long but nonetheless a powerful composition, derives its nature from the letter "V" sprayed on gravestones in Leeds by drunken skinheads stumbling home after the football match. The "V" means "versus," and Harrison exploits it as a parodic symbol not only of poetry but of every form of social discord you can imagine, all of which poetry is powerless to change. But if "V." makes obscene gestures at Thatcher's Britain, it's also a homage to rhythms larger than those of mere politics. And the poem has some great moments. In its mid-section it presents a debate between Harrison and a skin with a spray-can. Their repartee, made out of gutter language, makes for an abrasive poetry of genuine wit.
Elsewhere Harrison, "obsessively engrossed in rhymes of social grief" evokes a world of jagged edges, of drunken soldiers swaggering onto airplanes, of petty infidelity, old men shuffing in and out of shops. A number of poems are set in North America and, in his reminiscence of VJ Day, August 1945, Harrsion produces a sequence culminating in the destruction of Hiroshima. With its sheer command over the dynamics of language and its comprehensive powers of expression, this is terrifying stuff.
Camp Phlegraei, Lake Nyos of Wum,
their sulphur could asphyxiate whole flocks
but combustibility had not yet come
to the femto-seconds of the Fiat Nox:
men made magma, flesh made fumaroles,
first mottled by the flash to brief mofettes
and Hiroshima's fast pressurizing souls
hissed through the fissures in mephitic jets.
WESTWARD (Knopf, $18.95; paperback, $9.95) is Amy Clampitt's fourth book since her first, The Kingfisher, was widely praised after its publication in 1983. Clampitt's ascension since then into the status of distinguished poet shows how easily in an age when poetry retains immense prestige as a literary form, but is read by almost nobody, it can slide into a puffed-up salon art incapable of upholding Mallarme's stern injunction to the poet to purify the language of the tribe. The chief characteristic of Clampitt's work is its appetite for verbal effect. For instance, from a poem about hearing evensong:
. . . that's entered only
by the strait stairwell of the ear:
the antiphonal, the as-though-single
exhalation of an entire community
informs the hollow, paired, frail
seashell-like neighbor to the brain's
immured and numerable corridors
with inklings of an omnipresence
Improbably, these lines seem to work variations on Tennyson and Hopkins at the same time. What may trick some people about Clampitt's work is its texture and density, its sheer accretion of words. But this is gongorism gone chic.
In poem after poem after poem Clampitt digs into the same bag of tricks: one tires of the bunching of adjectives ("Rain-drenched, Rhine-drained, cobbled, moated, durable") the crude circumlocutions ("ebony of cheekbone"), the compounding of nouns and participles ("nun culivated") and the tangled metaphors ("blizzards caromed screaming over Dakota") (Is "roamed" the crucial word here, the cliche elided by "caromed" in the quest for "poetry"?) Her major vice of style is an addiction to a relentless assonance that allows her to elasticize her syntax way past breaking point in the search for another internal rhyme. Those strictly inimitable poets come to mind -- Thomas and Bunting as well as Hopkins -- who understood it took all the discipline in the world to write a poetry whose principal esthetic was the sound it made.
Clampitt does have genuine powers as a nature poet of suffused, impressionist effect: the trouble is everything tends to be full bloom. She also aspires for the validation that ensues from using her poetry as a vehicle of public communion with writers and artists she admires. Her sense of history is Michelin-like; the past is a series of not-to-be-missed stopovers, each significant moment gift-wrapped in another burst of purple ("Having Lunch at Brasenose" in the current volume is a culpable example). Clampitt overwrites most of the time but every so often her language goes truly haywire and she produces blather which in its pursuit of the ineffable is merely inutterable: "the wind/ stirred grass, incognizant incognito/ (all flesh being grass) of the mind's/ resistance to the omnipresence of what/ moves but has no, cannot say its name." On the other hand when she decides to write plainly the words turn banal: "What is health? We must all die sometime," she declares and elsewhere, summarizing the fate of her cousin Muriel, comes up with a telegraphic list excised from the soaps: "mother of four, worn down by arthritis, her kidneys wasting, alone in a hospital/ somewhere in California . . ."
Marianne Moore -- evidently among the poets with whom Amy Clampitt would claim kinship -- once began a poem entitled "Poetry" with the words "I, too, dislike it." Some pondering of what Moore, a writer with a steely mistrust of the traps of language if ever there was one, may have meant by this heresy would do Clampitt's work a world of good. Her gifts are not negligible but for the moment she puts one in mind of Dr. Johnson's response to the maker of Ossian that someone "might write such stuff for ever, if he would abandon his mind to it." Louis Simpson
THE MOST interesting work in Louis Simpson's Collected Poems, which appeared couple of years ago, is in the first hundred pages or so of the book. Simpson set out with a genuine gift for the lyric with a singing line. Many early poems are about the Second World War -- Simpson saw combat in Europe -- which haunts his work as though it were the definitive experience of his life, the essential spark that ignited his poetry. His fascination with the war culminates in "The Runner" (1957), a compelling evocation of the soldier's life, perhaps the best poem he ever wrote.
His subsequent work, increasingly devoted to the verities of a simple, suburban life, packs less punch. One reason may be that in the early 1960s Simpson abandoned meter and rhyme, constraints that gave his language bite and bounce, in favor of what has become the generic late 20th-century poem, a wishy-washy academic modernism that is mostly watered-down Williams. One would have thought the possibilities of the mode were by now utterly exhausted, but this is the kind of poem that defines In the Room We Share (Paragon, $18.95), Simpson's first book since his Collected. The poems, which have middles and ends just like their beginnings, typically start this way:
The people come off the ferry,
cross East Broadway
to Main Street, and go into the stores.
The cars come down the ramp
and drive around, sightseeing
They admire the white church on the corner.
The effect is tidy, direct and dull. Simpson can certainly "write": He has a clean, transparent style, an elegant and easy way with words. But as this new book shows he is now master of the basic formula of our time, the non-poem: an open-ended homily, gently afloat in a wash of benign irony, almost numbingly accessible, a poem which looks as though it merely happened while the poet looked on, between classes. Vikram Seth
VIKRAM SETH writes a poetry of such reticence and quietness that it seems almost to hesitate to come into being at all. In fact he is the practitioner of a limpid high style, meditative in manner and very formal in its disposition, a kind not at all fashionable these days.
Fans of his verse novel The Golden Gate will recall how that remarkable book performed wonders for the art of dramatic narrative. One of the ancestors of The Golden Gate was Pushkin, whose Eugene Onegin is a masterpiece of dramatic verse, while the greatest single influence on Seth's lyric verse would seem to be Chinese poetry with its ingrained values of stillness, peace, self-absorption. All You Who Sleep Tonight (Knopf, $18.95) is less "Chinese" than Seth's first book, The Humble Administrator's Garden, though a number of poems still make their appeal to painterly landscapes defined by pine trees, croaking frogs and "the scent of imminent rain." In fact Seth's poems, with their exceedingly light touch, their wry sense of human failure and their implicit recognition of solitariness as an essential condition of life, seem to seek a spiritual condition where poetry is redundant. Seth knows this and in one poem gently mocks himself: "I see the light, I breathe the scent,/ I touch the insight, but a beat/ Of heart exacts its old designs/ And draws my hand to write these lines."
And yet the most impressive poems in this book are those written as monologues in voices not Seth's own. "Work and Freedom," in which the commandant of Auschwitz uneasily but also pleasantly dwells on his quality of life in the death camp, is a masterly poem. The ambition of its moral perspective, its strategically decorous language, its residual imaginative prowess and the delicacy of its characterization, all recall the work of another Asian-born writer, Kazuo Ishiguro. If a character from a novel by Ishiguro were to break into verse, this is how he would sound:
When I saw my children playing
Or observed my wife's delight over our youngest,
I would walk out and stand beside the transports.
The firepits, crematoriums, or gas chambers.
My wife ascribed my gloom to some annoyance
Connected with my work -- but I was thinking
'How long will our happiness last?'
Michael Heyward, an editor of the literary magazine, Scripsi, is finishing a book about the Ern Malley poetry hoax.