An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman

Damian Grant

  • Selected Poems 1964-1983 by Douglas Dunn
    Faber, 262 pp, £9.95, November 1986, ISBN 0 571 14619 8
  • Terry Street by Douglas Dunn
    Faber, 62 pp, £3.95, November 1986, ISBN 0 571 09713 8
  • Selected Poems 1968-1983 by Paul Muldoon
    Faber, 109 pp, £8.95, November 1986, ISBN 0 571 14603 1
  • Essential Reading by Peter Reading and Alan Jenkins
    Secker, 230 pp, £9.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 436 40988 7
  • Stet by Peter Reading
    Secker, 40 pp, £5.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 436 40989 5

Douglas Dunn’s Selected Poems includes the greater part of his published poems, from Terry Street (published in 1969, and reissued with this selection) through four more volumes to the widely acclaimed Elegies (1985). Terry Street and the two following volumes, The Happier Life and Love or Nothing, were well received as plain unvarnished poems of Northern suburbia: and now the inventory of working-class clothes, foods and pastimes has a certain period interest. This is the beginning of the end of that culture mourned by Jeremy Seabrook among others:

                                       A landlord stares.
All he has worked for is being destroyed.
The slum rent-masters are at one with Pop.

But there are obvious limitations to this vision, cued by the ‘stare’ here. These are poems of people watched, an alien species; often watched through windows (one poem, a contemporary ‘Statue and the Bust’, is actually called ‘A Window Affair’). These people can also watch back:

This time they see me at my window, among books,
A specimen under glass, being protected,
And laugh at me watching them.

Dunn seems trapped at this stage outside a two-dimensional world: ‘I grasp only hard things, windows, contempt.’ People are irredeemably plural, generic, abstract. There are too many ‘things doing nothing’, too much contiguity without connection; too many of the poems operate exclusively on the metonymic plane, without climbing the trellis of metaphor in search of another perspective. True, there is explicit sympathy for the old dying alone, for exploited husbands and overworked wives, for the young with their fragile illusions: but it is all cold comfort. ‘They’ are marched up and down their streets without much sensitivity, either imaginative or metrical; the flat caps are matched by a flat-footed rhymeless pentameter. Dunn reproaches himself in a 1981 ‘Envoi’ to that time: ‘A curse on me I did not write with joy.’ We can see what he means.

A few of these early poems do rise clear of reportage, either through their formal purity or greater imaginative concentration. ‘Close of Play’ is a fine poem on the sinister forces sensed even in suburbia at dusk, when ‘the golf course becomes a desert,’ and ‘rapists gather under hedges and ditches’ (in 1969, this probably was a metaphor). ‘A River Through the City’ is another memorable poem which begins with an authoritative image,

The river of coloured lights, black stuff
The tired city rests its jewels on,

which can then sustain the larger reference to worldwide corruption:

They know the secrets behind sordid events
In Central Europe, in America and Asia,
And who is doing what for money.

The closing line (‘Iron doors bang shut in the sewers’) goes on reverberating in the mind. In another mode, there was the comic paranoia of ‘A Dream of Judgment’ (‘Posterity, thy name is Samuel Johnson’), where the Doctor delivers infallible negatives on the poet’s work – what else should a Scot expect? – and the fine satire ‘A Poem in Praise of the British’, where the tatters of Empire drift through the dreams of ‘old pederasts on the Brighton promenade’.

Barbarians (1979) marked two significant and related developments. First, Dunn discovered his political voice, proving his ability to speak on behalf of rather than at people; second, he began to explore more complex metrical forms, including the use of rhyme. Poems like ‘Here be Dragons’, ‘Gardeners’ and ‘The Student’ are products of the new entente – the last, with its perception of the links between political and cultural power, reminding one of Tony Harrison. There is something, too, of Harrison’s angle on the familiar in Dunn’s arresting four-line poem, ‘Glasgow Schoolboys, Running Backwards’. The ‘Ballad of the Two Left Hands’, on the unemployed, and a fine elegy for Lowell (compare Heaney’s), confirmed Dunn’s greater range and assurance. I only regret the omission from this selection of ‘The Artist Waiting in a Country House’, a sophisticated meditative poem to be read alongside James Fenton’s ‘A Vacant Possession’. The title poem of St Kilda’s Parliament two years later set the tone for another politically conscious and responsible collection. The poem ‘returns’ to a photograph taken of the men of St Kilda in 1879, fifty years before the island was abandoned.

It is a remote democracy, where men,
In manacles of place, outstare a sea
That rattles back its manacles of salt,
The moody jailer of the wild Atlantic.

By contrast with the early work, this is a poem of celebration and connection: even though what it celebrates is about to be destroyed. The last lines develop a sense of mutual regard, again in pointed contrast to the voyeuristic watching of the early poems:

                   looking at them,
As they, too, must always look at me
Looking through my apparatus at them
Looking ...

The idea of a camera as no mere keyhole but an agent of reciprocity is also found in Derek Mahon’s rich poem ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’: and Mahon turns up as the dedicatee of one of Dunn’s poems here.

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