Stride Magazine -



GRASS SCRIPT: Selected Earlier Poems by Robert Gray, £7.95, Carcanet
SELECTED POEMS by Jamie Grant, £6.95, Carcanet
BY AND LARGE by Chris Wallace-Crabbe, £6.95, Carcanet

Robert Gray is a profoundly committed poet of observation. He even quotes, with approval, one of Ezra Pound's shallower dicta, 'With the natural object, an artist has all he needs to express himself'; and shores up this assertion with Aristotle's 'Nothing in the mind that isn't first in the senses'. Well, as a matter of truth and fact there are many things in the mind that aren't first to be discovered outside of it; and poetry isn't just about things observed in the world, but involves what the poet feels about such things.

It is very interesting to see how Robert Gray's belief (or beliefs) work out in this volume. There are far too many poems which are beautifully descriptive of landscape; but that is all they are, description. Naturally, given the unavoidable honesty of being a poet, he has turned to the one non-Western culture which compresses and confines (represses) feeling and experience to the concrete image - the Chinese (and its brilliant subsidiary culture of Japan). This provides him with a poetic methodology, imagism; and a philosophy, Taoism, to justify his praxis. But, in the final analysis, if poetry is - as Auden said - 'memorable speech', then not much is memorable in these collected utterances, as interesting as they are in taking us into natural landscapes many of us are not familiar with.

It is only when the poet turns his hand to portrait, as in 'Diptych' or 'Mr Nelson', that one is moved, that feelings are aroused, and one enters more memorable, or better memorialised, spheres of experience. There, something changes and the abundant imagery at last conspires to those 'poetry shapes to be read / someday in… maroon leather Milton'. The problem of imagism is it cloys easily:

a cliff-face was built of shale:
the silverfishes' newspaper stack.

and it induces an indiscipline leading to evermore absurd conjunctions whose 'shock' fades with increasing rapidity. In essence, of course, feeling generates music, gives measure to words and cadence to phrases; imagism doesn't: its effect is static. There is no music in this book, only the play of intellect made vivid.

If it wasn't for the fact that most of Jamie Grant's poems are set in Australia, his is a very English poetry of the sort that, like Edward Thomas's or Philip Larkin's, displays a deeply traditional, restrained and deftly metrical modus operandi. But in one thing Grant is superior to those authoratives cited, and that is in a real gift for narrative. In his poem 'The Valley Murders', or in the traditionally-narrative manner of 'yarning' even in anecdotal poems like 'How Old Are You?' or /The Parapet', his is the genius of the short-story writer. In fact, it is often unclear why he has chosen to pursue his writing life in verse rather than prose. It is only perhaps in a compulsive personal meditation like 'Mysteries' that one realises he has concerns which poetry alone can at all adequately contain. Les Murray sums Grant's work up effectively on the cover of this book as containing 'poems of scrupulous craftsmanship and unblinking intelligence, poems which pay acute attention to the contours of experience'. An accurate judgement of a poetry much removed from Murray's wordy, rural, visionary sprawl (excepting, of course, Fredy Neptune), and one that I could not improve upon.

Grant's is a poetry that has never ventured into the post-modern pastoral cyberspace of a John Kinsella; nor has been exposed to those streetwise wizards of oz pissing about on Bondi beach whom we are most accustomed to associate these days with the Great Down Underworld. Or if he has, the poet has kept a suburban and classicist's anorak on. He is even too cultured and calm to nostalgically associate with the long gone colonial world of the likes of Adam Lindsey Gordon. A thoughtful, if not exciting poet, whose strengths are narrative, as I've said, coupled with the occasional wise insight:

Rage is like that: it's
Something no one forgets.
And no one else forgives.

I was at ease with this book, and suspect that many English readers would be too.

Chris Wallace-Crabbe has the most distinctive voice of these three Australian poets; not because he has more substance to say necessarily, but because he makes words work better for him. And he knows it too:

But let them not proclaim I am
A lathe for literary production
For I spin magic from the clam
And weave a bright web through deflection.

The self that I was going to be
Language has blocked out and picked
But what I will be writing next
Nobody living can predict.

A tone of assuredness does not always give authority to writing, but it helps fashion style, and this poet has style. At the heart of By and Large are 40 modern sonnets collectively entitled 'Modern Times', written, as the poet says in number 34, because 'It's crucial for some to think disconcertingly'. There is a panache about all of them; there is no questioning their excellence; they are the best thing in the book. Wallace-Crabbe comes over in them as an highly-intelligent ruminant inclining towards the satirist: a cultivated protest poet; but not one like Pound of even Eliot who thinks he has the answers, or even some of them. A secular liberal mind in the heart of what I would term the 'modern fix'. One who looks round the world, sees and understands what's going on; doesn't like what he sees: the multinationals' hegemony, for example; and doubting that 'When Mammon's web gives over / We'll have the millennial wonderland'. But this is as far as he can get:

From Queanbeyan to dovegrey Paris now
There rise in broken, dopey ranks
The newer generations of despair;
Saved by odd loyalties, some god knows how,
And reborn many times, I give my thanks
For psychic space, and this aromatic blue air.

A position of fatalism, of course, but can most of us do much better? Or even be as honest as this poet and confess with humility, 'A meaning of my life is far beyond my reach'? Chris Wallace-Crabbe is the Peter Porter who stayed at home; and that is another reason for reading him.

© William Oxley 2002