Echoes and Grumbling

Diffractions: New and Collected Poems, Peter Dale (304pp, £16.95, Anvil)

If you are an occasional reader of the established, medium-sized poetry magazines, you will have come across the poetry of Peter Dale. For many years his work has regularly appeared in Agenda, Acumen, Stand and many other publications. This is a fine, comprehensive collection of his lyrical poetry; it moves on from the 1996 selected poems Edge to Edge by adding the 2002 volume Under the Breath plus another 70-odd pages of new work including pungent epigrams (of which, more later). I do wonder, however, at the wisdom of bracketing the central volumes with this new work: this seems to be something publishers are playing with at the moment, and the wisdom of it escapes me: surely this is not a volume for the casual reader, but for someone who wants to be able to trace the writer's development chronologically?

This caveat aside, it is a substantial and rewarding read, particularly the early work. Dale's poetry is intimate and personal, precise and English. The sequences of love poems are particularly effective in an almost epistolary manner, many of these being characteristically short - sonnets or a couple of stanzas being typical. At times, the reader feels able to trace part of an argument or discussion fairly close up. On the other hand, at a distance, early poems from the 1960s such as 'Obtainable from all good Herbalists'' display a winning naivety, whilst 'Eighth Period' describes 'last year's sex-kitten', seen from a classroom window (Dale was a secondary school teacher for many years) with her 'lassitude of hair' as she haunts the school grounds. The poet is drawn to observe her, yet aware of her prowling, feline power, and aware, too, that others will choose her route through life.

Dale is often drawn to landscape, shifting light, the sounds of birds - in places Peter Levi seems a kindred spirit - but often there is a strange sense of generality in some of the poems, speaking as they do of 'the old pear tree', 'flowers' and 'gardens' and sometimes it seems as if Dale is writing on ̉automaticÓ - a scene will be sketched, only to conclude, often in a photograph or a memory. This is a technique used fairly often: Dale wants the reader to see, but doesn't always stoop to the precise, exact descriptive image in order to furnish this. Perhaps it is unfair to expect the microscopic vision of a Hardy or a Clare, yet Dale is praised for his 'precision' on the back cover; I didn't always find this.

The late poetry of a prolific writer often seems a place full of waning power or elegy, but in the case of Dale, the snarling epigram seems a specialty: the final 'Foursquare' sequence provide fifty pages of terse quatrains. Some spear their subject effectively - Eliot settles 'for cats and your reverence' - but others are simply irritating. Larkin is reprimanded for getting the concluding image in 'The Whitsun Weddings' 'wrong' according to Dale, and there is a growing air of the curmudgeonly old whiner which gradually creeps up on you. The wit here seems often mis-timed and more like grumbling. Then you realise that actually, there are quite a lot of complaints throughout the poems and tone becomes very schoolmasterly and hectoring in places.

The earlier poems seem to be where the sharp, imagistic moments of vision lie: a silver birch tree is 'a delicacy of white feathers / that can cut the hand' ('Silver Birch'), a stag-beetle accidentally trodden on 'creaked like wickerwork' ('Walk from the House'), pressed flowers are 'a gentleness in my grasp' ('Pressed'). These rewarding moments are where the poet's eye sees keenly and powerfully; the later work seems more like indigestion at the end of a long afternoon.

     © M.C. Caseley 2012