More than a 'Metre' from Hull to Prague

 

Poetry:To go out into the world rattling the intelligent change in your pockets, your wallet well padded with talent and discrimination is a fine start in life. To have such capacities and then start a substantial magazine whose own ambition and sensibility might create the taste whereby it and you yourself are judged, is remarkable.

Justin Quinn and David Wheatley are the founders of Metre, a magazine of just such scope and weight, and have written books that demand special attention and win prizes. There are indeed certain similarities between their two new books. Both place a high premium on formal control and are abundantly intelligent in their use of it. They share an elegant late classicism that is fully aware of its debt to modernity. Rhymes, pentameters, sonnets, couplets, lightly handled quatrains, figure greatly in Quinn and only to a slightly lesser extent in Wheatley, who touches some more experimental chords. And this is appropriate because Quinn's chief subject is history - its scale, copiousness, pathos and marshalling - while Wheatley's might be best described as a spiritual aesthetics.

Wheatley's aesthetics is playful on the subject of bleakness, with a faint debt to Muldoon ("and gaps in the clay / and speluncular drains", "the North Sea had become aldermanic/ finger food"), his delicacy sharp as an enamelled razor. This razor is set to deal with the experience of living in Hull where Wheatley teaches. The bleakness is down to unemployment and the wasting away of the old industries. Douglas Dunn began by writing about Hull in Terry Street, offering tight humane sketches of glimpsed lives, and Philip Larkin's treatment of it is well known, a kind of melancholy, infinitely touching withdrawal of life energies into distance and loneliness. Before them Andrew Marvell wrote his To His Coy Mistress, saying "I by the tide of Humber would complain . . .", energetic, striding, pragmatically flamboyant.

Wheatley is none of these things, and why should he be? His Hull is history stripped of people. There is barely a person to be seen in the poems about the city: it is inhabited by an aesthetic sensibility that ranges it at a shocked distance with only intimate concerns to keep it warm. Like Roy Fisher writing about Birmingham almost 40 years ago, Wheatley writes a series of "Instamatic" prose poems, into which the spirit of Wallace Stevens briefly and ironically billows. But still the place is untenanted except by the pained eye, the high-tension sensibility.

Wheatley's is not a sociable talent, but it knows how to sing its clear, precise, light-coloured melodies at the edge of depth, keenly at times, as in Scrimshaw:

I have stood by the pier so long

I am little more than quivering

blubber,

though you'll bleed from me . . .

Justin Quinn's city of crossed destinies is Prague, a far different proposition from Hull. It is an object of romance, offering vistas down vast historical avenues. Here people are part of a procession, emerging now and then, fully named and noted, before vanishing again into the mass ("Give or take a hundred people here/ whose different wavelengths splash into my own" writes Quinn in Pool). History is a high-ceilinged place overlooking the violence of the past, baroque and humane in a consciously Yeatsian way: "Our host is one who knows . . . And here's one who's just finished her first book . . . Another moving past/ writes film reviews for a magazine". Notes of Yeats and Mahon are clearly heard through the book, and in a fine resonant set of sonnets on the history of Prague there is a faint echo, though maybe less conscious, of Geoffrey Hill's An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England as it meets Joseph Brodsky's Lithuanian Divertissement.

The crowds in Quinn, as well as the moments of solitude in forests, by rivers, in high rooms, make for a warmth that is missing in Wheatley, a warmth that may be best seen in the short poems at the end, in poems like Zoetrope that "flickers and flowers"

scattering petals

of limbs and light

of stone and metal

from its round flight.

Mocker and Waves and Trees are gifted transitional books. Sometimes you find yourself with more to spend than to spend on, with more muscles in your toned body than exists to challenge it. The tragic sense felt on the pulse, the aesthetic sense bitten by apprehension of terror, are waiting in the wings.

Hungarian-born writer George Szirtes's most recent book of poems, Reel (Bloodaxe), was awarded the TS Eliot Prize in 2004

Mocker By David Wheatley Gallery Press, 74pp. €18.50 Waves and Trees By Justin Quinn Gallery Press, 78pp. €18.50