Saturday, 19 April 2008

Some Poetry Reviews

Since I've been reading a fair bit of poetry in the last few months, I thought I'd go through a few collections here. They're only very short reviews, and at least a couple of them are quite old, but hopefully they'll be of some use.

Sophie Hannah, Hotels Like Houses, (Carcanet, 1996)
Pessimism for Beginners (Carcanet, 2007)

It probably doesn't come as a surprise to anyone that Sophie Hannah is my favourite poet. These two collections, her second and her most recent, both contain everything that makes her so wonderful: acid wit, a use of rhyme and form that is both clever and playful, and an ability to use apparently light poetry as a way into some of the more serious areas of human emotion. Of the two, Hotels Like Houses is the one that strikes the more upbeat note, with poems on everything from falling in love to learning to drive. There are too many high points to pick out just a couple, but 'Double that Amount' and 'Preventative Elegy' are particularly good.

Pessimism For Beginners is a little more sombre, with fewer poems on the beginnings of relationships and more on their end. In between, she touches on everything from imaginary friends to the problems faced by new mothers. All are dissected with the sharpest of eyes and a knack for finding the least obvious of rhymes (Who else would have thought to pair sex with Toulouse-Lautrec, as she does in White Feathers?). For me, the best poems are probably the title piece and 'No Ball Games etc.' but the joy of reading her work is that there's enough variety and skill in it to suit practically everyone.

Tracy Ryan, The Willing Eye (Bloodaxe, 1999)

This is a very different collection, certainly on a technical level. Tracy Ryan avoids most of the traditional forms and rhymes that Sophie Hannah plays with, choosing instead to bind the poems together with strong, sudden images. And what images they are. She has the knack of taking the smallest details of everyday life and, by connecting them unflinchingly to emotion and personal experience, making them seem anything but ordinary. With some other poets, it's an approach that can lead to a closed off feeling, as though the poem isn't for anyone but themselves, but in this collection Tracy Ryan's mix of perfectly chosen language and imagery that is immediately powerful make it impossible not to connect with the poems.

Julia Copus, In Defence of Adultery (Bloodaxe, 2003)

Julia Copus is probably a little less immediate with her images than Tracy Ryan, building them up slower and seeming to linger with them. In the best cases, as with 'Love, like water', that results in a feast for the reader's senses. In a few (but only a few) other cases, that probably results in poems that run a little longer than they should, or at least longer than their matter can contain. She's better, and the perfect example here is 'Essence', when the focus is a little narrower, forcing the language to push against the edges of the lack of space. Her evocations of places are particularly powerful, as in 'Glimpses of Caribou', and help to make this, overall, a collection well worth reading.

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