Poetry: Shock of the new in a slew of selected poems

Tom Paulin, Harry Clifton, Noel Monahan and Paul Perry all have new collections

A selected poems offers not just a useful way to gauge the continuities and changes in a poet’s work but also a different vantage point on the broad field of Irish poetry in recent decades.

Noel Monahan’s Where the Wind Sleeps: New and Selected Poems (Salmon, €14) collects work from five previous collections and a substantial set of new poems. Monahan’s poems are sociable and realist, and readers will recognise the world he describes and his perspective on it.

An extract from Diary of a Town simply goes around the houses, juxtaposing "Mary Verdon is dreaming of dying before Christmas / But that happens every year" with "Busty Mahety joins Hughie Small and The Danger Smith / In the Star Bar", while The Funeral Game surreally remembers a childhood game, "John Joe beat the dead march on a saucepan. // We held wakes, issued death certificates / To old crows, kittens, chickens."

The more recent work is smoother but less distinctive: the funerals and elegies are for real now, which may be why the poems feel toned down.


Harry Clifton's The Holding Centre: Selected Poems 1974-2004 (Bloodaxe, £12) is an interesting and more puzzling collection. A "textual note" states that the book collects work Clifton published before The Winter Sleep of Captain Lemass (2012), but in fact it also includes previously uncollected poems and revises others (including the title poem) while skimping on Clifton's bulky "comeback" collection, Secular Eden: Paris Notebooks (2007).

In spite of this, Clifton’s selection emphasises his remarkable consistency. Poems progress fluently line by line and stanza by stanza to similar, often jaundiced reflections on the strained relationship between the poet and the modern world:

I shut the window, bank the fire,
And pick up Plato on The Good.
The lumberjack who gives us wood
For nothing, I see him across in the bar
Where a girl is slicing lemons, tidying shelves,
And shadows argue, the porkpie hats
Of failures home from Canada, playing skat
And fourhand poker.

(At the Grave of Silone)

Clifton addresses the consistency of the work, as a problem, in Mort Feldman, another of his "portrait of the artist" poems: "Trapped in a groove, / Attacking myself for failures in love, in art, / Might I from your quietness take heart, / Your still, small voice, that called the bluff / Of multitudes, and never raised the roof?"

This short passage is typical in many ways of Clifton's sardonic art: the joke on "mort" in the title plays on the dead composer's first name, Morton, while Elijah's depiction of God's "still, small voice" is transferred to the composer's work; the lines also highlight the talky phrasing of Clifton's later work, introducing a less literary register with poker verbs ("call" and "raise") and the cliched "trapped in a groove", while the almost-rhyme of "roof" and "groove" jars against the steady iambic rhythm of the poem's rhetorical question. While it catches the continuity of Clifton's tone and line, the selectivity of The Holding Centre misses the cumulative impact of his Paris Notebooks or the long Portobello sonnet sequence recently published in Poetry Ireland Review.

Tom Paulin's New Selected Poems (Faber, £14.99) offers a bracing alternative to Monahan and Clifton. Where they absorb their different worlds into smooth lines and regular form, Paulin seeks out ways to shock and disturb. Initially, the poems took it on themselves to revive the radical protestant republican tradition and attack the pieties of unionist culture. Since Liberty Tree (1983), his poems also began to pay more attention to their own surfaces, and to enjoy being sidetracked and derailed by them.

Paulin resists lyricism and relishes instead the way things don't fit our preconceived ideas. In What's Natural a sunrise is " – splittery / splattery / all over the scrake / – the wheeze and piss / of dawn." Paulin's impasto technique makes even the most occasional of his poems entertaining, marked as they are by his agonised and comic anxiety about getting things right, even as he knows that a poem makes things up. It's a technique that pays dividends away from political subjects too, in moving later love poems such as Kissing Ms Khosa and Love's Bonfire.

Always minded to bring other cultures to bear on the arguments he is making, this selected poems is enriched by drawing on his translations: opportunistic and localising, they plug his own dynamic obsessions into other people's poems, as when he titles his Pushkin version A Nation, Yet Again:

I'm tense now: talk of sharing power,
prophecies of civil war,
new reasons for a secular
mode of voicing the word nation
set us on edge, this generation,
and force the poet to play traitor
or act the half-sure legislator.

Paul Perry's Gunpowder Valentine: New and Selected Poems (Dedalus, €14.99) collects four books and adds new work. From the outset, Perry demonstrated his interest in writing narrative poems and a more associative, unpunctuated lyric influenced by WS Merwin. His best poems combine the two modes, as when Wintering waits out "whatever / calamity the cold has to offer us / in the same way orchids do", or when The Gate to Mulcahy's Farm makes the gate strange, first as a headboard "sunken into the earth", then as "a reliquary of misplaced passion".

Perry’s new poems strive for the appearance of artless spontaneity, finding a striking image to which the poems return and riff on.

Less interested in documentary accuracy than his older peers, but just as interested in addressing national or historical issues, he runs the risk of sounding piecemeal and rhetorical in snapshots like To the Republic:

imagine they walked through our city again
what a parade it would be
we might stand about in disbelief
take pictures or lower our eyes in shame –
poets come back to life
give us our daily bread