Lyrical fuzz

Selected Poems 1956-1993

Gunter Grass, trans Michael Hamburger <em>Faber & Faber, 160pp, £9.99</em

It has been said that a novel is a lazy poem. There is something in this. A good poem meets Coleridge's demand for "more than usual emotion, more than usual discipline" with a level of all-round concentration a novel cannot sustain, nor should it. You have to travel a novel's circuit whereas you can be everywhere in a poem at once: it is intended for scrutiny not just as words, but parts of words, even patterns of letters.

I should think most novelists have written a poem, as diversion or extension, or for the novelty of a different acoustic. Of those who do, most remain, rightly, better known for their prose; but sometimes a reputation as a novelist can overshadow some very fine poems. How many people who read Hardy, Lawrence, Emily Bronte or Malcolm Lowry know their poetry or its worth?

Gunter Grass and Michael Ondaatje both started out as poets and have continued as such while being far better known as novelists, above all for books that became hit films, The Tin Drum and The English Patient. Grass grew up at a time when German literature was dominated by poets: Gottfried Benn and Bertolt Brecht. Both died in 1956, the year his first collection appeared. Grass reconciles Benn's intellectual surrealism with Brecht's social engagement, and shares their mutual taste for brusque comedy and even brusquer horror. More broadly, Grass belongs among the poets of postwar Eastern Europe. Born in Danzig/Gdansk in 1927, conscripted at 16 and growing up in the East, Grass has had to negotiate the conflict between individualism and political constraint. As with the Pole Zbigniew Herbert, this is expressed as forceful idiosyncrasy and a taste for the satirically absurd.

His poems are full of displacement and shifts of power amplified by reversals of subject and object, cause and effect - a device used by Rilke, an altogether different kind of poet. "I don't know whether my garden fence/wants to shut me in or out" says Grass. He knows the meagre details that constitute identity in transient lives: "How sad these changes are./People unscrew the nameplates from the doors,/take the saucepan of cabbage/and heat it up again in a different place."

Grass's earliest poems are his most rigorous and playful. The tighter his focus, the further the poem travels and here he concentrates on small things: mothballs, buttons and beetles in "Open Wardrobe"; frostbitten turnips, shrivelled apples and dreamt-of cherries in "Flag of Poland". He uses fable, fairytale and songs for their simplicity and unreality. In "Nursery Rhyme", this sing-song form becomes a nastily circular argument: "To laugh here now is treason,/The laughter has a reason." Grass is also an artist and plays some wonderful visual games. His nuns are " . . . made for the wind./They always sail, even without sounding the depth", an image that does all it should in being startling but exact while making a point to boot.

These early poems are familiar as framed glimpses of Grass's fictional world. Those that follow are looser, longer, more contemplative, not a window but a mirror. Grass uses them to question his own effectiveness. There is a repeated image of his pockets stuffed with old entrance tickets while he can't find his car key. He berates himself: "Impotently, I protest against impotent protest." There are allusions to steam, pointless hot air.

Poems taken from The Flounder and The Rat don't survive being cut off from their source and are notably shapeless when compared to the ensuing sonnet sequence, "Novemberland". This is Grass's vision of reunification Germany: the last gasp of an exhausted, colourless land where every transaction carries a price. Fear and retrenchment culminate in a bleak inversion of hope: "The water tap's been lagged against sudden frost again,/the parcels tied up, ready for mailing; and/imminent Christmas threatens our Novemberland." This excellent section comes, properly, with parallel German texts. Michael Hamburger's versions have the sure and imaginative judgement of someone who knows the work extremely well.

Grass's poetry declares the strength and character of his prose: "Let the bridge slowly,/so that the writing keeps pace,/collapse./Before that calculate its value as scrap." That of Michael Ondaatje is less affirming. This gifted, at times mesmerising, writer has a tendency towards lyrical fuzz, suffusing everything with a glow of ponderous significance. An earlier poem, "Claude Grass", has an epigraph from Gosse about "making beautiful forms of the landscape compose in its luscious chiaroscuro". I devoured Ondaatje's novels up until The English Patient, when I found myself overfilled with "luscious chiaroscuro".

Ondaatje has incorporated poetry into his prose more successfully than Grass. The unforgettable acuity of Billy the Kid bursts quite naturally into poetry - "my eyes/magnifying the bones across a room/shifting in a wrist". There are the portraits that punctuate Running in the Family; and the elided, off-beat syntax of Coming Through Slaughter.

His selected poems, The Cinnamon Peeler (1989), showed that even when writing about his native Sri Lanka, his influences were American: Snyder, cummings, Berryman, O'Hara. In Handwriting, the echoes are of classical Tamil and Sanskrit poetry, as Ondaatje modestly explains. Perhaps because of this, these poems have a palpable air of mediation, not unlike that of Pound's versions of Propertius or Li Po. This is an attractively awkward effect in such a smooth writer as Ondaatje.

Handwriting explores Sri Lankan history, geography, ceremonies and myths. It is crowded with scintillating images, such as a tightrope-walker caught in a power cut, beautiful colours and textures. Several poems are arrangements of fascinating details that don't do anything but sit and look pretty. Too often, their measured cadences grow flabby and their linebreaks jar.

The book springs to life in "What We Lost" a list of arts that are both beautiful and practical. Ondaatje ironises their loss: "All this we burned or traded for power and wealth/from the eight compass points of vengeance/from the two levels of envy". For once his images are applied. Subsequent sections deal with recent atrocities: "The main causes of death/were 'extra-judicial execution'/ and 'exemplary killings'." "The heat of explosions/sterilised all metal./Ball bearings and nails/in the arms, in the head."

Ondaatje's determination on luminescence leads to some irritating improbabilities and is ultimately confining. You long for some friction, exertion or ugliness to break these beautiful surfaces. In a prose piece, "Death at Kataragama", Ondaatje admits to a tendency to be exactly this kind of impervious surface. He contemplates entering the soul of a red woodpecker but worries that he would "enter as I always do another's nest, in their clothes and with their rules for a particular life", adapting but neither absorbing nor revealing. Or he could "leap into knee deep mud potent with rice" and join the water buffalo he heard making a sound he fabulously describes as being "as if creatures of magnificence were undressing and removing their wings". The poem suggests that he'll choose to get out of his car and jump in the mud. Let's hope so.

Lavinia Greenlaw is poetry critic of the "New Statesman"