Taking tea with a king's son
New Selected Poems 1964-2000
Douglas Dunn Faber and Faber, 340pp, £20
This book is the distillation of 11 collections over a 35-year career, and will certainly confirm the position of the author as one of this country's foremost poets. Douglas Dunn, who is 60, is interested in history, in the politics and power of place and the workings of the imagination. His work straddles the personal and the political with apparent ease, negotiating a flinty, hard-edged language of engagement with its chosen subject.
The poems of his first collection, Terry Street (1969), have been compared to the work of Philip Larkin. They were based on close observation of the run-down part of Hull in which Dunn lived while a mature student at the university, where - already a trained librarian - he worked alongside Larkin. These were short, observational poems in which Dunn was feeling his way. In "On Roofs of Terry Street", for instance: "Television aerials, Chinese characters/In the lower sky, wave gently in the smoke./Nest-building sparrows peck at moss,/ Urban flora and fauna, soft, unscrupulous . . ." But though there is a superficial similarity in the choice of urban details and the studiedly conversational tone of these poems, it would be wrong to stress the similarities too heavily. The attitude is entirely different: where Larkin would be wistful or nostalgic, Dunn has a steadier eye that is less concerned with his own state than with developing an almost affectless kind of poetic reportage.
Terry Street was published to considerable acclaim at a time when a young poetic set was already coalescing around Dunn in Hull, most prominent among them Sean O'Brien and Tom Paulin. But it is not until his fourth collection, Barbarians (1979), that the poet's recognisably mature voice emerges. The anger and class consciousness are clarion-sharp: "The Come-on" considers how to deal with the disdain of the professional classes for the workers, and imagines a time when "We will beat them with decorum, with manners,/As sly as language is./Take tea with the king's son at the seminars -/He won't know what's happening."
Other poems describe the dignity of old photographic portraits of First World War soldiers, confetti falling in the gutters at an urban wedding, and the "fastidious longevities" of smug familial wealth as transmitted through the medium of an heirloom watch.
Barbarians was followed, in 1981, by St Kilda's Parliament, a profound exploration of his native Scotland, which some consider Dunn's most accomplished volume. The gently elegiac title poem imagines the return of a photographer to the now abandoned islands a century after taking pictures of the men of that remote community, gathering in the main street to allocate the work for the day. This meeting is known as the St Kilda parliament: "On St Kilda you will surely hear Gaelic/Spoken softly like a poetry of ghosts/By those who never were contorted by/Hierarchies of cuisine and literacy . . ."
In the year of the publication of St Kilda's Parliament, Dunn's first wife died of cancer. The intensely personal poems born out of that experience (which were later collected as Elegies, and won the 1985 Whitbread Prize) introduced Dunn to a wider readership. The two following collections - Northlight (1988) and especially Dante's Drum-Kit (1993) - bolstered his reputation still further, with an increasing range of reference and style. Weeding a garden provides the occasion for a meditation on the nature of the citizens' republic. Watching a game of bowls leads to philosophic reflections on time, death and the generational gulf.
Dunn's most recent book, The Year's Afternoon (2000), shows him at his best. He may feel himself sinking "like a slow root/Into the herbaceous lordship of my place", but there is no diminution of energy or commitment here.
At well over 300 pages - and that, remember, is without the many poems that Dunn did not preserve here - New Selected Poems is an enviable testament to a prodigiously fertile career.
Adam Newey is poetry critic of the New Statesman