The 20th century gave us such a taste for lyric verse – poems on a relatively small scale that generally celebrated the exquisite emotions of the speaker - that it seems quite hard to remember that the Victorians excelled in story telling through poetry. Is story telling coming back into fashion amongst poets? Well, one fine collection of the new year is certainly firmly rooted in that tradition.
In Darwin – a Life in Poems (Chatto & Windus, £12.99), Ruth Padel has written what amounts to a condensed biography of the great scientist whose direct descendant she happens to be. The idea of a biography conjures up a terrible welter of often tediously superfluous detail. This is not the case with this book. It consists of a series of often quite short poems which focus upon key moments in the life of Darwin - call them small-scale epiphanies of self-discovery if you like. In spite of the fact that there are relatively few words in this book, it feels throughout much fuller than that because it seems to possess the emotional weight - and perhaps even the emotional resonance and the quite ponderous atmosphere - of a substantial piece of substantial Victorian fiction. A double-decker at the very least. Here is Darwin, warts and all, perpetually a prey to anxiety about his religious doubts, a situation whch was made all worse by the devoutness of his wife. This is a rich and very readable book.
When we think of the poetry of Northern Ireland which came to maturity during the decades of The Troubles, our mind immediately alights upon the name - and the fame - of Seamus Heaney. In fact, there is a near exact contemporary of Heaney’s who is quite his equal in talent and emotional and intellectual reach, and that is Derek Mahon. Mahon is, in the words of the late Michael Donaghy, the master of ‘the singing line’. He is an exquisite wordsmith whose poetry often seems inexhaustible. In his latest collection, Life on Earth (Gallery Press, 11.95 euros), the range of subject matter is as ever extraordinarily wide-ranging – from a poem which conjures up the atmosphere of Goa, to a meditation upon the life of his late friend, the novelist Brian Moore. The finest poem in the book is a beautifully crafted meditation upon insomnia, and it conjures up those lonely hours when the mind habitually roams and preys upon itself.
Sometimes it is appropriate to celebrate the staying power of a poet. Peter Porter, born in Australia, but for many decades resident in London, has been writing and publishing substantial collections of poetry for more than half a century, and his new book, Better Than God (Picador, £8.99), is his best in a decade. Porter writes intimately, but he is also breezily connected to the foibles and the passing fashions of the world. By turns satirist and elegist, he writes with a worldly crispness and deftness, and a delight in the small-scale absurdities of life.
Quite dramatically different in mood and manner is the poetry of Luxembourg’s Anise Koltz, whose first full collection to published in the United Kingdom – At the Edge of Night (Arc Publications, £9.99)- gives us the French text side by side with an English translation by Anne-Marie Glasheen. These are small, intense, spiky and emotionally vertiginous poems, full of fear, nausea and acute apprehension, in which the speaking voice of the poet often seems helpless in the face of both personal experience – some of the harshest words in the book are reserved for her own mother – and human wickedness. They are acidic, troubling and extraordinarily memorable.
David Constantine sculls us towards more visionary waters in Nine Fathom Deep (Bloodaxe, £8.95). Constantine is a poet who has always dreamt wayward dreams in his poetry – one of the best of his earlier books was a full-length recounting in verse of the tale of Caspar Hauser, that boy who was kept shackled like a beast for many years, and then appeared, all of a sudden, in a small German town, beating on the door of a house with his forehead. Oddities. Odd human behaviour. Strange, quasi-religious moments in which we seem to be winged, snatched beyond the realm of the day-to-day. This is Constantine’s poetic terrain.