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Guest Review: Muckle On Rowe and Sheppard

John Muckle reviews
Three Lyric Poets by William Rowe
Warrant Error by Robert Sheppard

William Rowe’s Three Lyric Poets is a study of Lee Harwood, Chris Torrance and Barry MacSweeney – a triad of the best of the ‘British Poetry Revival’ or ‘New British Poets’ who began to write modernist-inflected work in the sixties. There is much to enjoy in this concise, well-turned book of admirable sympathies, and a validity to his suggestion that theirs has been a new kind of lyric poetry: “Instead of the lyric as an expression of yearning that can be accommodated to the status quo so that reader and writer can go on living as before, poetry which spits in the eye or pulls out the rug.” But the twin themes of commodification and non-unitary subjectivity rather dog these essays: an academic Marxist’s tics hopping around in the pelts of three very different writers.

Torrance’s utopianism and determination to live in a different way led him from a safe berth as a gardener in Carshalton to hoeing and planting potatoes in mid-Wales; MacSweeney offered bitter commentaries on the class struggles and destruction of his region, lyrical celebrations of its beauties, a deal of personal myth-making and a passionate celebration of his own fragile loves; Harwood explores and celebrates moments of relationship and solitude and through a series of casually improvised, haunting fictions. All of them, in their different ways, anti-capitalist poets, but none easily assimilable to the mantra-doxas of contemporary academia. It’s really in the book’s concluding chapter that pulling out the rug and spitting in the eye of consumerism are given their head; the wracked, death-haunted, politicised lyricism of Barry MacSweeney closely fits Rowe’s bill and calls forth his most spirited essay: an exploration of MacSweeney’s roots, his strong desire to “renew language by returning to the source”, his ‘nodal’ compositional methods, his debts to Chatterton and Rimbaud, as well as to Bunting, Pound and the Objectivists.

Rowe is most convincing when he enthusiastically expounds the poetry. In one arresting passage he scores Harwood’s punctuation and spacing, measures it against a recording of the poet in performance to give a close-read musical sense of the subtlety of this delightful poet’s approach to meaning: his broken narratives, his gaps, his questioning suspensions. Harwood is characterised as a poet of uncertainty who challenges boundaries between self and other, and Rowe makes a by now familiar but valid point that the apparent openness and unfinished quality of his poems demand the reader’s active collaboration. Chris Torrance’s sporadic life-epic ‘The Magic Door’ is celebrated for its brave embrace of drift, of making it up as you go along – an unpredictable process of self-creation. A poet with an amazingly light lyrical touch, often staggering under the weight of disastrous ideologies – astrology, necromancy, the whole trip – Torrance’s poems are, as one of his best titles puts it, ‘Acrospirical Meanderings in a Tongue of the Time’, and he greatly deserves this sympathetic reconsideration of his bold project:

That the affairs of man be planned
by gods I do not, I do

Robert Sheppard’s political sonnets take as their starting point the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 9-11 and its spin-offs, further ramifications of the ‘war on terror’, or ‘warrant error’. These events are woven into a fragmentary account of the world economy in meltdown, haunted by the ghosts of fascism and last century’s failed revolutions, all accompanied by a cheesy non-stop erotic cabaret of threadbare Western dreams. Sheppard attempts to realise a globalised consciousness and, in his own inimitable way, to draw these apparently disparate phenomena into an account of early 21st century capitalism geared up for war:

A managed democracy dances in tune
to a spread-cleft litany, as the Queen’s English
warbler, toned to death, unstrews his truth

Hijab porn stars, comedy terrorists, bag-faced boys and Adam Smith, Bin Laden, Blair, Bush, Saddam Hussain and the retired poet laureate – all are to be found flitting through Warrant Error. Sheppard combines the cartoon quality of mass media and the intensity and the affectlessness of an internet data overload; but his sense of the contemporary world is both analytical and powerfully persuasive: the reader has a sense of being dumped amongst the viscera and cultural detritus of a thousand battlefields. His approach to the sonnet is fresh and challenging, yet it’s the sheer impacted condensary of his execution, its worked torsions, devilishly sour humour and relentless verbal ingenuity which drag you, nodding and shaking your head in unequal measure, through this brilliant, disquieting book:

You ride on a bus called Peter Kropotkin
Past shops with names like Quaff and Klodhoppers
This is not the dream but lines of the poem
That carry your dream in which
A nightmare Neo-Con indites you alone

You are the unclean skin from the fertiliser plot
You’d blow up all those slags dancing around

You are the gas fitter who plans mass murder
You cannot even spell al-Qaida
He deploys smart certainties against
You asleep he invades your interior hunger

You listen to the charges against your name
Quick guilt ignites
Beneath the soft armour of your rising denials

 John Muckle is a poet, novelist, critic, and former poetry editor for Paladin.
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