A Profound Arbitrariness

A Worldly Country
, John Ashbery (76pp, £9.95, Carcanet)
Raving Language: Selected Poems 1946-2006
, Friedericke Mayrocker
(Translated from German by Richard Dove, 216pp, £18.95, Carcanet)
A Book of Lives,
Edwin Morgan (105pp, £9.95, Carcanet)

     crazy espadrillos: Mr Jesus Christ
     on the little wall in the morning sun
     with his hat between his knees behind him
     the signboard I'm hungry

     Less and less sightly, Lord!
     The cheap shoes you sent us yesterday
     are back today with force, mouthing with precision
     whatever wisdom is printed on the wrapper's .......

     And yet en una noche oscura
, as we know from the words of swarthy much-
             buffeted John of the Cross.
     In the darkest night, from a dungeon, a real one, rich in hideous shit and
             chains and slime and moss,

Not that these little extracts are plainly Christian poets, not at all, I have quoted selectively: but what fun they are, whatever they take on they bring a smile to the world (if you will smile with them) and - to make this heavy - this is what will be lost when the Apocalypse is upon us, as it is. Not that I believe Christ will return, only that what has been made will go down the drain, everything that we have been and are down the plughole. It's one image, another is: will be burned alive. Of everything, these books, for instance.

In order they are from Friedericke Mayrocker (b.Vienna 1924), John Ashbery (b. Rochester, New York 1927) and Edwin Morgan (b.Glasgow 1920). I have left their lines hanging in mid-flow because that precisely is what is there: flow. It is something that happened this way in the 20th century: the voice as if conversing but in quite other terms.

Any subject might turn up in these poets. They might reasonably be thought to speak with a version of the collective voice of where they are, picking up the vibes, celebrating, demurring, but they are beholden to no-one, their subject, one might say, is consciousness itself. Or one might say they are freelance poetry trackers.

Edwin Morgan does the important taking stock. His poem commissioned for the opening of the Scottish Parliament is here (he is that nation's laureate), he has a sequence beginning 20 billion BC and ending 2300 AD, taking in, among other moments, Copernicus, Darwin and 9/11. He responds to paintings in Scottish collections, including Dali's Christ. His poems are thoughts, he has things to say overtly, plainly and worth hearing. The form varies as thought requires it.

I confess I keep forgetting Friederike Mayrocker is a woman. The translator tells us 'some commentators in the German-speaking world have criticised Mayršcker's work for its alleged hermeticism,' and the accusation has to do with a form of surrealism rather than a more (female?) eccentric mysticism. The translator mentions Hšlderlin and commends us readers to 'go with the rhapsodic flow.' Perhaps this is the hardest kind of poetry to translate; I'm glad it's been done, much English-American poetry has been mere happy-clappy in comparison.

Not Ashbery. I have said to my students, 'this is the flow, this is the apparent ease that isn't easy but a life-time's achievement.' And it is an interesting question whether he, too, chronicles, only not the way Edwin Morgan does it; and he's not surreal, only matter of factly on a wander through his life and such of the world as he knows or imagines. And, look, listen, aside from the noise of language, language takes us on this walk and this and this. Not without thought, of course, but listening in, not overlaying but (if we can face this) with a profound arbitrariness.

      © David Hart 2007