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11 September 2014updated 15 Sep 2014 9:58am

Style over substance: three poets’ attempts to master their form

However long a poet struggles to establish a style that answers the questions of form, voice, tone or subject haunting his imagination, the real work begins after the discovery is made.

By paul batchelor

Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth 
Ruth Padel
Chatto & Windus, 80pp, £10

Fire Songs 
David Harsent
Faber & Faber, 80pp, £12.99

The Stairwell 
Michael Longley
Jonathan Cape, 96pp, £10

Ruth Padel’s Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth mixes details from the cultures of the Middle East with visceral imagery of the region’s conflicts and some well-worn bits of scripture. The central sequence, “Seven Words and an Earthquake”, superimposes contemporary torture techniques on to the Crucifixion. The self-righteousness with which the violence is described is reminiscent of The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson’s deranged film: “They do this week in/week out: jam someone’s naked spine/and scapula, oozing sheafs//of opened muscle, against rough timber . . .”


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Each of the poem’s sections ends with one of Christ’s sayings on the cross. Here, Padel’s hubris leads her to gloss Christ’s words with a mixture of fighting-talk cliché and therapy-speak:

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There’s more where that came from,
    the whole human brew
of jealousy and spite. So you displace.
    You think of the others.
Father forgive them for they know not
    what they do.

Elsewhere, many lines read like attempts to get as many “poetry words” as possible into a single sentence. “A sepia/penumbra clears round a moon of blood” comes close but “Shadow-green patina, faint turquoise wash/over wafer-thin kaolin” probably takes the biscuit. Such lines are interspersed with fridge-magnet wisdom: “The past is not lost/but covered up by time.”

“The Just-World Hypothesis” attacks Tony Blair for his self-serving religious beliefs and his certainty that, because he considered himself to be a good guy, everything he did must have been good. Fair enough, but Padel’s belief that as a liberal poet she must be incapable of writing an exploitative poem is equally self-justifying.

The final line in the book claims: “Making is our defence against the dark.” The glib universalism of that first-person plural is a giveaway. Padel’s certainty that she is on the side of the angels (and knows how to defend them) is as uninterrogated as Blair’s.

David Harsent’s Fire Songs has plenty of blood and guts, too. It opens with a description of the immolation of the poet Anne Askew, who was condemned as a heretic to be burned at the stake in 1546: “the pucker and slide of her skin, the blister-rash on her eyeballs . . .” Harsent revels in his descriptive prowess until he wrong-foots us with a self-accusation: “Anne, you are nothing to me.”

It is a quintessential Harsent moment: greedily appropriating yet self-aware, pitiless yet sympathetic. This is a balancing act that few poets could sustain but Harsent’s best work manages it, in particular the outstanding collections Marriage and Legion. Harsent returned to more autobiographical material in Night, which was strangely unconvincing. Fire Songs is more concise but it, too, falls short of his best work.

Without the risky games of projection and exploitation that a third party enables, most of Harsent’s poems rely on murk and mystery. As in film noir, it can be hard to tell what is going on but the atmospherics are often impressive. Also like noir, there is an abiding interest in traditional gender identities, though having the damsel in distress turn out to be a femme fatale is no substitute for genuine complexity. The centrepiece of Fire Songs is “A Dream Book”, in which we find: “Man of Secrets; Woman of Guile/His artless mime; her willing smile . . .” This builds to: “He plays the fool; she plays the whore.”

That line might have appeared in any number of poems by Harsent and many of the core images in Fire Songs – rats, hares, dreams, shadow play – are too predictable to capture his imagination. The same cadences, vocabulary and syntactical patterns seem to be tightening their grip on Harsent’s work and there is a nagging sense that such stylistic elements are making ever more decisions for him.

Michael Longley’s The Stairwell is a quieter affair. In the first half, flora and fauna are observed and births and deaths marked; the second half consists of elegies for Longley’s twin brother. Many poems feel like private utterances, or gifts, relegating the reader to the role of onlooker, or even intruder. At his best, as in his 1995 poem “The Ghost Orchid”, Longley weaves together issues of intimacy and intrusion: “Just touching the petals bruises them into darkness.” Nothing in The Stairwell can match that, but a faint echo can be heard in “Wild Raspberries”:

Following the ponies’ hoof-prints
And your own muddy track, I find
Sweet pink nipples, wild raspberries,
A surprise among the brambles.

Longley’s virtues are clear enough: the understated musicality, the sureness of the rhythm, the tender attention with which the moment is honoured. But those nipples aren’t much of a surprise. Longley has become too familiar with his processes: the inclusion of “inappropriate” details now seems a rather overworked technique for preventing the well-made poem from being, or appearing, too well made. When he depicts First World War soldiers, he notes the shit stains on their knees; a cagey poem for Heaney describes a boat with “flatulent” sails; an elegy for his beetroot-loving brother asks, “Will your pee be pink in heaven?”; and a newborn baby’s faeces are compared to an otter’s “shitty sequins”. Similarly, his ability to play off a conversational tone against a more ceremonial impulse often falters, leaving many poems sounding throwaway or mannered. This is self-consciously “late” work but much of it lacks distinction.

However long a poet struggles to establish a style that answers the questions of form, voice, tone or subject haunting his imagination, the real work begins after the discovery is made. Style never stops trying to divorce poets from the claims of the material, tempting them to write something merely plausible. This is the challenge that these poets face.