A hushed and controlled beauty
POETRY:Because Harry Clifton now allows more feeling into his work, there are some poems in his new collection that will be read as long as poems are read anywhere
The Winter Sleep of Captain Lemass, By Harry Clifton, Bloodaxe, 95pp. £9.95
HARRY CLIFTON’S REALM has always been somewhere in the distance, or close to the exotic, or it has been a borrowed space, or it is nowhere much. He is content to be out of place. Exile is for him a natural state where his uneasy companions are bemusement, calm watchfulness, restlessness, regret and warm intelligence. His poetry is a hard-won poetry of the self. The self in this instance has a solitary disposition, a well-stocked mind and is capable of a sour philosophy.
In his early poetry there is often a deliberate paleness in his diction, the poem becoming an exercise in reticence and restraint, a display of withholding. Clifton eschews what might be easy statement, or bright rhetoric, or colourful effect. This withholding comes also with a sense of command; each poem is as much as he wants it to be. Its minimalist music reflects a sensibility determined not to push the littleness of life too far towards the greedy exaggeration of art.
This idea of command is an essential element in his poetry. These are not random notes from a wanderer, but highly wrought poems alert to the full panoply of inherited tradition. Sometimes the tone seems to come of its own accord, from someone with a natural ear for cadence and sound, and a natural suspicion of this. In some of the early work, Clifton has reason to distrust his own facility; on the other hand, he displays it for all it’s worth in some other poems which use a longer line and a tauter stanza form.
In his previous book, Secular Eden, and his latest collection, The Winter Sleep of Captain Lemass, Clifton is not averse to allowing some of his diction to dazzle, or some of his phrases to startle by their sound or their originality. Oddly enough, this emerges just as the poems themselves can seem more occasional, dictated by a change in seasons, or a visit to a place, or a memory, or a book. In other words, there is an interesting meeting between what is casual in its origin and what is then worked on, crafted, chiselled, considered, revised and offered in a tightened form.