A Conservative Approach

Collected Poems
by David Constantine
[12, Bloodaxe]
A Living Language
by David Constantine
[7.95, Bloodaxe]

At their best, David Constantine's poems are immediate, well-made and genuinely affecting. He is a fine elegist, as the early poem 'In Memoriam 8571 J.W. Gleave' ably demonstrates. Each of the poem's nine constituent verses is effective in its own right, but it is their cumulative effect that is the poem's greatest achievement: through these variations in form and tone, and by drawing the reader's attention towards his craft, Constantine's poem moves the reader without being sentimental. His best work is represented in microcosm in his reflection that there are

     ...some dead we see and even see by;
     They glimmer for a generation, our looking
     Lends them more luminance.
His most successful poems are written in this mode: anecdotal, yes, but shot through with a quasi-mystical sense that moves them beyond the quotidian and makes them precious.

Despite their individual merit, however, the success of these poems is limited by a sense of having seen it all before: it is difficult not to think of the final lines of Larkin's 'High Windows' when reading the end of 'Mid-afternoon in another narrow bed' for instance:

     Higher than the highest floor of their flung-up hotel
     Higher than the ravenous swifts, higher than the snow
     Into the blue itself, the keen
     Cold infinite and insatiable blue.

Constantine's poetry conspicuously lacks a sense of development, both within itself, and within a broader poetic context. He makes no attempt to engage with any of the current debates or formal experiments of some of his peers. This effect is reinforced in longer poems like Casper Hausen
, where the anecdotal technique of his shorter poems is grafted onto nine cantos of terza rima: rather than embracing the long poem as a different form to which to adapt his art, Constantine has simply written a poem with a lot more lines in it than usual.


Constantine's is a conservative approach to poetry. In 'Pleasure', for instance, he states that a 'poem, like the clitoris, is there/ For pleasure', which seems to be the crux of the problem with his poetry. Fundamentally, a poem is nothing like a clitoris. (For this reader at least, a poem is generally easier to identify.) And I'm not sure that the pleasure one gets from reading a poem is really equivalent to sexual pleasure. Pleasure in Constantine's terms is synonymous with entertainment, but surely poetry should be about more than just recreational entertainment. If poetry's worth is to be judged by how entertaining it is, where does that leave 'difficult' poems? Paradise Lost, to name but one example, is undeniably hard work, but does that mean it's an inferior poem? It is inevitable that an idea of poetry as narrow as this will limit the scope of the poems written according to its understanding.

A Living Language
collects together three of Constantine's public lectures: readable and well thought out, they offer interesting critiques of a variety of poets from Keats to Keith Douglas, and, reflexively, foster a better understanding of Constantine's own art.

         Alex Latter 2005