Stirring your tea is only a normal activity if you stop doing it relatively quickly

John Redmond

  • A Word from the Loki by Maurice Riordan
    Faber, 64 pp, £6.99, January 1995, ISBN 0 571 17364 0
  • After the Deafening by Gerard Woodward
    Chatto, 64 pp, £7.99, October 1994, ISBN 0 7011 6271 6
  • The Ice-Pilot Speaks by Pauline Stainer
    Bloodaxe, 80 pp, £6.95, October 1994, ISBN 1 85224 298 1
  • The Angel of History by Carolyn Forché
    Bloodaxe, 96 pp, £7.95, November 1994, ISBN 1 85224 307 4
  • The Neighbour by Michael Collier
    Chicago, 74 pp, £15.95, January 1995, ISBN 0 226 11358 2
  • Jubilation by Charles Tomlinson
    Oxford, 64 pp, £6.99, March 1995, ISBN 0 19 282451 1

In a recent radio programme, Simon Armitage and Glyn Maxwell, two of the most prominent of the New Generation poets, retraced the journey undertaken by Auden and MacNeice in Letters From Iceland – a sign of the renewed interest which younger poets are showing in the poetry of the Thirties. Although Yeats and Eliot were publishing some of their greatest poems during the Thirties, it was Auden who created the style which most of his contemporaries sought to imitate, and it is Auden, more than Yeats or Eliot, who is influencing younger poets today.

Why Auden’s early style should matter so much sixty years later can be explained, I think, with reference to the success of Northern Irish poetry during the last twenty-five or thirty years. Ever since Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion gave the primacy of this work semi-official status in The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary British Poetry, the question has been what gives Northern Irish poets their edge. Many reasons have been advanced for the phenomenon: Ireland’s verbal culture; the concentrating pressure of ‘The Troubles’; the higher esteem in which the Irish hold poets. What is sometimes overlooked, however, is the symbolic coherence of Northern Irish poetry. From the largest and most obvious motifs (the father working the land, the declining Big House) to the more quirky ones (the prevalence of otters, badgers and mushrooms), Northern Irish poetry displays the kind of integrity and intertextuality which English poetry last had in the Thirties. The way in which poets as diverse as Heaney, Muldoon, Longley, McGuckian, Carson and Mahon are to a certain degree sustained by a single symbolic world is something that poets like Armitage and Maxwell are trying to copy.

In Maurice Riordan’s first collection, A Word From the Loki, the title poem reflects the practice, which Northern Irish poets have adopted in recent years, of glossing individual words, so that parts of their poems sound like dictionary entries. Riordan, who is from County Cork, tells us about a particular word from the Loki tongue which ‘might be glossed as to joke’, and which is incredibly difficult for outsiders to pronounce:

The skilled linguist can manage, at best,
a sort of tattoo; whereas the Loki
form sounds of balletic exactness.

The practice of glossing words became firmly established in Heaney’s Wintering Out, a collection which included several poems about local place-names. The best-known of these, ‘Broagh’, describes the place’s ‘low tattoo among the windy boor-trees’ as well as its own pronunciation,

that last
gh the strangers found
difficult to manage.

Note that Riordan also uses the words ‘manage’ and ‘tattoo’; and just as at many points he echoes the language of Northern Irish poetry, he also borrows its symbolic figures. ‘Shadows’, for instance, a correct, conventional and quite successful sonnet, is yet another poem about a poet’s father working the land, a figure so recognisable that he has become the object of parody.

One of the main symbolic characters in Thirties poetry was that of ‘the vertical man’, ‘the Truly Strong Man’, usually a Communist revolutionary, an athlete, or an airman (examples of all three can be found in Auden’s The Orator). Onto this figure many of the Thirties poets projected their hopes for dynamic action against The Enemy (capitalism, sexual repression, nannies and the like). By contrast, poets in Northern Ireland, who are trying to move beyond sectarian projections of The Enemy, have preferred such diplomatic values as attentiveness and balance. As Heaney’s famous bog poems ‘The Grauballe Man’ and ‘The Tollund Man’ remind us, Northern Irish poetry has replaced the unstable, vertical man with a stable, horizontal one. Riordan’s poem ‘L.S. Lowry’s Man Lying on a Wall’ expresses the hope that this horizontal man does not have to be a corpse (‘I’m asleep, you say, possibly dead’) and also indicates a debt to Michael Longley, who wrote a similar poem about Lowry’s painting. Whereas the vertical man was supposed to carry out dynamic acts of construction, the horizontal man is open to sober acts of reconstruction and it is the latter category which dominates A Word from the Loki.

In poems such as Paul Muldoon’s ‘Immram’, Blake Morrison’s ‘Dark Glasses’ and Armitage’s ‘About His Person’, reconstruction allows the reader to feel that he is playing detective. It is one of the dominant models for the contemporary poem – less a set of images and more a set of clues, demanding a close reading not of itself but of the world. The first poem in Riordan’s book, ‘Time Out’, has the narrator immediately assuming the horizontal position as he stretches out on a sofa. Realising he is out of fags, he, unwisely, becomes vertical, gets as far as the shops and then, inevitably, is flattened by a cab:

Around 2 a.m. he’s put on ice, with a numbered tag.
Around 3 a.m. a child wakes, cries, then wails for attention.
But after ten minutes, unusually, goes back to sleep.

Riordan often gives the time or the date of an action as if for the benefit of Columbo or Kojak. ‘Milk’ begins with similarly pregnant details.

This notebook on which he used to sketch
has, on its expensive-looking cover,

a sprinkle of whitish stains: of the sort
sure to detain the unborn biographer.

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