Friday, 15 July 2011

Night by David Harsent

Harsent is a highly accomplished poet who has also written verse libretti for the great avant garde English composer, Harrison Birtwistle.His collection Legion spoke of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia with immense power. Yet the same driving rhythms and dense use of rhyme ( like a latterday John Masefield) which helped give that collection its urgency and authenticity in my view undermine his latest collection, Night, which is apparently one of the main contenders for this year's Forward prize.

The style undermines meaning rather than enhances it, and I can't help but draw a comparison to the late Victorian poet, Algernon Swinburne. Highly regarded in his own day, later generations became disenchanted with the monotony of clever rhymes and insistent verse rhythms which distracted readers from the subject matter.

Harsent's approach is a strange mixture of Armitage like contemporary streetwise reference and diction (...I gave the door a little back heel/ then ferreted round in the fridge for an ice cold Coors) and traditional verse forms (e.g. he use of ballad form). Yet the urgency of the verse seems to speed one away from its meaning (unlike Armitage whose use of form strongly reflects subject matter and sense), or make it read like an adept exercise in the love of language and verbal interplay for its own sake.

Thus, The Duffel Bag, for instance, starts off in Armitage territory:

into a duffel bag and hooked up with the halt and the lame,
with the grifters and drifters, the diehards, the masters of bluff,

the very bastards, in fact, who are lifting the last of your stash.

and ends up referencing Homer's Odyssey (more recently Armitage territory too): your dream/ of Ithaca, that ghost town'.

It finishes with the words 'from the open road to the sight of the open sea', which is admirably mimetic but somehow lacks the real sense of personal - even folk - connection which you get with Armitage (as in 'Uz folk round 'ere, lad, don't like offcumdens').

The subject of Moppet the next poem gets buried under (sometimes) anaepaestic metre and internal rhyme. And so on... to be frank, I lose interest.

Perhaps the judges are right and this is a much better collection than I think. PerhapsIi should read, 'Elsewhere', the long poem which ends the collection, but I just can't motivate myself to do it. On reflection,I hope Geoffrey Hill wins, with the amazing Clavics. A collection I've read three times and will read many more, to unpick its subtle riches.

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