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Poetry: Beauty in a rare, spare art

"PROBABLY THE MOST POWERFUL, spare poet of his generation; recognition of his genius cannot be much longer delayed." It is now almost a quarter of a century since Martin Seymour-Smith made that pronouncement in his Guide to Modern World Literature. He was talking about the poet Cliff Ashby.

Born in 1919, Ashby is hardly yet a household name, but he ought to be, at least among those who care for poetry. He has just published what must be the most remarkable swansong offered by a writer in their 89th year – 16 new poems in a chapbook entitled A Few Late Flowers, it costs only 3 from HappenStance Press.

Unpromising title, modest provenance, but this little book may one day be a collector's item. A sequence of quietly original poems, it is the bittersweet distillation of a lifetime's experience. One poem, "It Being Lent", must stand to demonstrate what makes Ashby good:

It being Lent, my vows but one day old

I should have passed The Rutting Stag

but from the public bar hysteria was unleashed,

My entry was unnoticed, madness was abroad

And I was afraid.

On the bar a small white dog was sat,

Around its neck a Leeds United scarf,

Under its nose, half-drunk, a pint of beer

Lying beside the dog a set of plastic teeth

Shrilled out their clockwork mirth.

The dog it caught my eye,

The teeth cried out

'This night your soul may be required of you.'

I left in haste

Heart pumping, body in a muck sweat.

That seems to me a wholly acceptable piece of what you might call natural surrealism. There are other poems as quirky and as memorable, in particular "A Report for Ann", where the poet addresses his dead wife, and an uncommonly candid poem on religion called "Bothered by God". Ashby's themes are, in fact, the classic themes of love and death, but treated with a complete lack of fuss, much deep thought and feeling packed into homely images. His collected poems are worth seeking out, published long ago by Carcanet under the characteristic title Plainsong, but this little book is the perfect introduction to his work.

Aonghas Pdraig Caimbeul, alias Angus Peter Campbell, was praised by Sorley MacLean as "one of the few really significant poets in Scotland". That's good enough for me to take seriously Meas air Chrannaibh (Acair, 13) which could well be the first book of poems to be published simultaneously in three different tongues – Gaelic, Scots and English. The English name of this three-headed creature is Fruit on Branches, and as a mere Sassenach I have to judge it by its author's own translations. Here is the beginning of a love poem called "Multiformity":

I don't know anywhere where you are not.

When I see a cat lying in the sun,

there you are. When I see a bird on the wing,

there you are. When I see a jet going westwards,/that's you.

There's not a river in Uist where you don't swim.

There's not a phone that rings that you're not at the other end.

There's not a single thing there is in which you're not.

More than half the charm of the original incantation may be lost, but this reads like a translation of a good poem, perhaps not just a love poem but the love poem which it has been in this poet's gift to write. There are poems here on a wide variety of subjects, but if he didn't have this lens of love, enabling him to see everything as it were close-up, that variety would count for nothing.

Incidentally, J Derrick McLure's Scots version of Campbell's "The Rainbow" ends with what seems crucial to this poet's world view when it speaks of tsunamis on the televised news as "faur awa, on the benmaist side o the clachan". Campbell for the most part writes about what isn't far away; his village is the human heart as he knows it.

Robert Crawford's Full Volume (Cape Poetry, 9) contains versions of old Gaelic poems, haiku, stabs at Tony Blair and all sorts of other matter. I like best five lines entitled "Kiss" which manage to inject a nursery rhyme with what may be some authentic personal feeling:

For want of a mountain a primrose was lost,

For want of a primrose a love song was lost,

For want of a love song a sly kiss was lost,

And that was the thing that mattered most,

Yes, that was the thing that mattered most.

Real blood seems to flow through this vein of literary memory, as it does in another short poem, "Advice", where the poet exhorts us: "When you are faced with two alternatives/ Choose both" because "Nothing is ever single". Elsewhere this philosophy produces a riot of cleverness, quickening nothing much save a demonstration of Crawford's extraordinary gift of the gab. Despite their intelligence, his poems don't bear the weight of their own pretensions, but that "Kiss" is an exception.

Robin Robertson's Medea (Vintage Books, 12) is a lively version of the play by Euripides, apparently done in a week using the Loeb edition by David Kovacs as a primary source. Robertson explains that his main concern was to give an English version "that is as true to the Greek as it is to the way English is spoken now". I suppose he succeeds, though when he has Jason shout: "Filth! Child-murderer!" it sounds a bit like one of the stone-throwers attacking the latest paedophile brought to court in a police van. The drama tears the heart, but that is more Euripides than Robertson.

Jen Hadfield is an English poet who lives in Shetland. Her Nigh-No-Place (Bloodaxe, 7.95) is effervescent, full of verbal high jinks – though I wish she didn't use Shetland dialect when she has only been there two years and seems to have spent some of that time travelling across Canada. Her book is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, if that doesn't put you off.

 
 
 

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