British & Irish Poets (H-L)

Alan Halsey: Five Years Out (Galloping Dog Press, Newcastle, 1989); A Robin Hood Book (West House Books, Hay-on-Wye, 1996); The Text of Shelley's Death (West House Books, Sheffield, 2001, 2nd edition); Wittgenstein's Devil: Selected Writing 1978-1998 (Stride, Exeter, 2000, 146pp, £9.95); Marginalien (Five Seasons Press, Hereford, 2005. isbn 0-947960-34-1. 416pp, pb, £15.50); Not Everything Remotely: Selected Poems (Salt, Cambridge, 2006. isbn 9781844711062. 292pp, pb, £14.99/$21.95)

Alan Halsey is one of our more singular voices, and the Stride Selected Writing is a good place to start, if it can still be found. He has a number of scholarly and antiquarian interests that can leak into and inform his work as a poet; hence his prose 'treatment' of Robin Hood (maintaining an interest in British myth) and the Shelley volume which, in prose and in a loose-lined verse, tells the story of the title from various viewpoints, aping the scholar's variorum approach, but taking off into new directions with the writer's own sensibility interjected instead of the more reticent scholar's. But his latest career-summary, the beautiful Marginalien, which can be recommended both for its contents and as an object (a lesson in the art of design from Glen Storhaug of Five Seasons), was for me one of the books of the year in 2005. It should be part of any poetry enthusiast's collection. It's not expensive for what it is — given that £12.95 has become a normal price-point for slim hardback poetry collections. Marginalien, together with the recent Salt Selected Poems, will give you all the overview you need, unless you're an inveterate collector. Then you can pick up the 2014 collection from Shearsman, Rampant Inertia.

Lee Harwood: Selected Poems (Shearsman Books, Exeter, 2008. 140pp, pb, £9.95 / $17); Collected Poems (Shearsman Books, Exeter, 2004. 521pp, pb, £17.95 / $28); crossing the frozen river. Selected Poems (Paladin, London, 1988. 304pp, pb, out of print); Morning Light (Slow Dancer Press, London, 1998. 72pp, pb, £6.99).

Shearsman published Lee Harwood's enormous Collected Poems in May 2004. Further details can be had here. This contains just about everything you need, barring a few early poems that the author has decided should be excised from the canon. The only other comprehensive survey was crossing the frozen river, which has been long out of print and may be difficult to track down even through the second-hand trade. (I should add that the paper stock used for this edition was quite poor, and is subject to yellowing.) A thorough Selected, including some new work, appeared from Shearsman in 2008. The superb Fulcrum Press collections from the late 60s and early 70s are also worth tracking down: The White Room, Landscapes and The Sinking Colony, all of which I recommend unreservedly. Morning Light was his most last new collection (before the unpublished poems in the Collected) and ample proof that Harwood was still writing at full throttle, and with no decline in quality. Lee Harwood has been writing quietly, out of sight of the major taste-makers of the capital, since the late 1960s, and he should now be much more visible, something which the reviewers seem to agree with me about, judging my the universal praise accorded to the Collected since its publication.

Michael Haslam: Continual Song (Open Township, Hebden Bridge, 1986. Paperback, 94pp, £5.50 incl p&p); THE Music laid her SONGS IN LANGUAGE (Arc, Todmorden, 2001. 47pp, pb, £5.95); A Sinner Saved by Grace (Arc, 2005. 82pp, pb, £8.95); Mid-Life (Shearsman Books, 2007. 210pp, pb £11.95/$21; A Cure for Woodness (Arc, Todmorden, 2010. 107pp, pb, £9.99).

Michael Haslam is one of our most interesting and undemonstrative poets. It was a welcome departure when Carcanet put out what was effectively a Collected Poems, albeit heavily revised, drawn from all of Haslam's previous small-press publications. The three Arc volumes show him continuing to develop his very personal version of modern pastoral poetry. These three books, together with Shearsman's Mid-Life (which contains a revised version of the old Carcanet volume A Whole Bauble, itself a Collected Earlier—or more strictly Collected Middle) effectively give you the Complete Works as the author would like them seen: this is a career worth tracing and following further; indeed the quiet beauties of the Arc volumes suggest that Haslam has attained a level of mastery given to few in the UK at present. I find it hard to think of anyone writing better poetry than this in Britain at this time.

Randolph HealyGreen 532. Poems 1983–2000 (Salt, Cambridge, 2002. 128pp, pb, £8.95. $12.95. Isbn 1876857447).

This collection brings together a range of Irish small press books (including Rana, RanaArbor VitaeFlameDaylight Saving SexScales) most of which I'd seen before. The book represents a valuable introduction to Healy's work for British and American readers, however. This a powerful questing kind of verse quite different from that of his Irish contemporaries and not really like much of what's going on in the UK either. The title? "Green, at 532 nanometres, is the wavelength of light to which the human eye is most sensitive".

Seamus Heaney: Poems 1965–1975 (Noonday Press, New York, 1988. 228pp, pb, $14); Station Island (Faber, London; Farrar, NY, 1984. 123pp, pb,£8.99); Beowulf (Farrar, NY, 2000; Faber, London, 2000).

The first of these volumes is only available in the USA, and brings together the author's first four collections under one set of covers. I still believe these to represent Heaney's finest work. Station Island (US edition pictured above) strikes me as a largely successful long sequence, and easily the best of his later volumes. The books from after 1990 seem sloppy by comparison, which is rather sad, though it must be said that most critics do not agree with my point of view. There is also a vast Selected/Collected available on both sides of the Atlantic, which is rather indigestible and is almost useless in the sense that it is not a compendious Collected, and it is not a proper Selected that gives us a sense of what the poet himself thinks is important in his own work. The Noonday edition excises nothing from those 4 early books and allows the reader to see a powerful art entire. The Beowulf translation is good, if not quite as good as its boosters would have you believe. I would not be without Michael Alexander's version in Penguin Classics, but I think Heaney's is worth reading. The US edition is better printed and bound than the one from Faber, and is bilingual, with line numbering. It is therefore to be preferred, unless the UK paperback price is more of a draw. If you already have the UK edition, Penguin Classics does offer an original Beowulf text, with copious annotations, that you can use alongside it.

W. N. Herbert: The Testament of the Reverend Thomas Dick (Arc, Todmorden, 1994. 136pp, pb, £7.95); The Laurelude (Bloodaxe, 1998, 160pp, £8.95); The Big Bumper Book of Troy (Bloodaxe, 2002. 160pp, pb, £8.95); Bad Shaman Blues (Bloodaxe, 2006, 160pp, £8.95).

The Scottish poet W N Herbert is one of those writers that comes out of left field. He writes in Scots as well as English, but it's Dundonian Scots, and is understandable thanks to the foot-of-the-page glossary that is intermittently (!) provided. (But what of 'The canous can clorach in that ship's cabin, / bodach and cailleach lyk a pair o stanes' ?) He has also written a long poem in blank verse about Stan Laurel, which gives the second book its title. Herbert is the kind of poet that proves you can't lump everyone together in the so-called mainstream; that he's Scottish helps of course—I suspect he's allowed more leeway than an English mainstream poet would get, but that's not important. Put aside your prejudices and give him a go. Splendidly irreverent, but behind the puckish humour lies a fine poet, with an impressive command of his resources. The more recent Troy and Shaman books are excellent.

Geoffrey Hill: New & Collected Poems, 1952–1992 (Houghton Mifflin, New York, 1994, 228pp, pb, $17.95). There is a British edition from Penguin, although I think it misses out on the "new" poems, which are collected elsewhere anyway. Hill is one of our best and also one of our toughest. There's no doubt that this book is hard work, but it repays the effort. The Mercian Hymns sequence has to be one of the great poem-sequences published in Britain in the second half of the 20th century.

Canaan (Penguin, London & New York, 1996, pb, 75pp, £7.99). The Triumph of Love (Penguin, London & NY, 1998, pb, 82pp £8.99). Canaan is looser than the earlier work, but there is no loss of intensity. Triumph is a book-length poem of great power and complexity. Subsequent to this Hill has published Speech! Speech!, The Orchards of Syon, Scenes from Comus and Without Title (all Penguin in the UK). I've never come to terms with the first of these, which is easily his most difficult book to date, but Syon seems to me to be a move back to a more digestible style, while still retaining the density we have come to expect from this poet. Comus is more complex and I'm still trying to get my head around it; Without Title is quite superb. The edition of Syon pictured here is the US version, from Counterpoint of Washington, D.C. Geoffrey Hill may just be the finest living English poet, and I think there's no excuse for not knowing his work. It IS somewhat forbidding, in a different way than Prynne's, for instance, and quite unlike Roy Fisher—whose work I would take to a desert island before Hill's. Fisher's work is exciting and exploratory without seeming to be consciously striving to be 'Great' in the way that Hill sometimes seems to be. But I would not be without these books. An updated Collected Poems, which will include the many small-press collections that have appeared in recent years, is due in 2014.

Ted Hughes (1930–1998): Collected Poems (Faber, 2003, h/c, 1,250pp, £40); Crow (Faber, 2nd ed. 1972); Season Songs (Faber, 1976); New Selected Poems 1957-1994 (Faber, 1995, 332pp).

OK, this is no doubt where I start to get complaints, Hughes being persona non grata in all kinds of circles. The hell with fashion, though: Crow was a fascinating book, even if it was a failure, and even if it was never finished. Someone should try to reconstruct the remnants of the whole project—Keith Sagar can do it, judging by the analysis in one of his books on Hughes—so that we can get a better sense of its movement than is possible from the torso published as From the Life and Songs of the Crow (to give the publication its full title). Season Songs—ostensibly a collection of poems for children—is better than most of Hughes' adult work of the same period. The New Selected Poems is the best way to approach the cornucopia of his early work, up to the epilogue lyrics from Gaudete (but not the dreadful main prose text of that book...). The work thereafter shows a dramatic falling-off in quality, finishing with the dire, appalling Birthday Letters, which was a success because of prurience and not because of its poetic quality. In October 2003, Faber published Hughes' Collected Poems; this vast book is an interim edition pending a scholarly Complete Poems, but it does have the merit of including all published work by the author, including those very hard-to-find limited-edition books and stray magazine appearances that have hitherto been uncollected. By and large, the organisation of the book is excellent, although Crow suffers somewhat by not having all Crow-related poems published in one section (most of them are, but not all...). Because of the editorial decision not to include unpublished manuscripts, therefore, we still do not have the maximum extent of Crow nor the ability to judge whether it had the makings of a success or not. I continue to believe that that book (or project...) matters, notwithstanding the currents of fashion that have taken against it.

Elaine Feinstein's recent biography of the poet (Ted Hughes: The Life of a Poet. Weidenfeld, London, 2001) is a sad, if well-meaning, failure. To be avoided.

John JamesCollected Poems (Salt, Cambridge, 2002. 365pp, pb, £13.95).

This is a terrific book that represents a long overdue serious reappraisal of one of the most interesting figures from the so-called (& misnamed) 'Cambridge School' of poets. If you've been assiduous in acquiring his many small-press publications, you'll find little new here, but it helps to have it all between one set of covers. Most readers will be missing significant past work by James, though, as some of it appeared in very fugitive editions. Describing his work in a short space remains difficult, and it's a little too easy to suggest that he owes something to the New York School. He does, but the influence has been transformed into something quintessentially English. There's also the reading in German literature, the nods towards contemporary pop culture, the throwaway ironic tone. And theory? Well there is the wonderful old 'Theory of Poetry' here, a poem I've long treasured and which recommends that you "make your lines / bands of alternating colour". Good advice, and a book that should be on the shelf of any lover of modern British poetry.

Philip JenkinsOn the Beach with Eugène Boudin (Transgravity Press, London, 1978. Unp. Out of print); Cairo (Editions Grand Hotel de Paume à Palermo, London, 1981. Out of print); Travels with Kandy. Stories (Rigmarole Books, Clifton Hill, Vic., Australia. 63pp, pb, price?).

For once I've listed a prose volume, as it's the only obtainable book by Jenkins, albeit from Australia and with some effort. Cairo Books 1 & 2—the only parts to have been published in book form, although Book 3 has appeared in Shearsman magazine—is included, in toto, in my 1998 anthology from Stride, A State of Independence. The delightful surreal narratives in the Boudin book seem of a piece with the stories in Kandy. A piece of lost literary history. Jenkins is still writing, and I have a privately-published chapbook to prove it, but he needs encouragement to engage with a potential readership. Until he does, do try to track these books down.

Nicholas Johnson: Haul Song (Mammon Press, Bath, 1997, 52pp, 2nd edition); Land (Mammon, 1999, 76pp).

Haul Song is a remarkable achievement—a young poet's long poem that is successful, and not just with a patronising pat on the head. Land collects the poems outside of Haul Song and range in date of composition from 1983 to 1998. They prove the impression given by the earlier book, that this is a very talented poet. Haul Song is now announced as having been the first part of a trilogy, the second being The Lard Book and the third Show (etruscan books, 2001). The latter strikes me at this stage as being less immediately interesting than its predecessors, but the art is still developing. A later volume (Cleave, etruscan books, 2002) is out of sequence, and is a less successful book.

David Jones (1895–1974): In Parenthesis; The Anathemata; The Sleeping Lord (all Faber); The Roman Quarry (Agenda Editions, London); Wedding Poems (Enitharmon Press, London, 2002. £12, h/c, 83pp).

I don't understand why Jones isn't better recognised. All four of these volumes are essential to an understanding of English modernism. In July 2002 Enitharmon published two uncollected Jones texts under the title Wedding Poems. That, together with the four volumes listed above, makes for the complete poems. These two uncollected poems date from the war years and thus fall between the two great masterpieces pictured left and centre above; they are also small(er) masterpieces, that demand to be read. I would suggest that anyone who reads only Eliot, Pound and Bunting of the 'British' modernists needs to add this extraordinary poet to his or her pantheon. Jones was also a very singular, and an absolutely wonderful artist and calligrapher. If you do develop an interest in this poet, you should read his essays and other writings in Epoch and Artist and The Dying Gaul (both Faber), and you should also try to get an idea of his wonderful work in the visual arts, as painter, draughtsman and calligrapher.

There has been something of a critical industry around Jones, although it's sometimes hard to track the books down, which don't stay in print for very long. There is an excellent volume in the (Orono, Maine) National Poetry Foundation's Man & Poet series, edited by John Matthias; there are detailed explications available of The Anathemata, perhaps the densest major English poetic text of the 20th Century after The Cantos and The Maximus Poems. I have suspicion that Jones and Bunting, alongside Eliot, were the defining poets of England's 20th Century (adopting Eliot as English, and regarding Pound as American).

Trevor JoyceWith the first dream of fire they hunt the cold (Shearsman Books & New Writers' Press, Dublin. 2nd edition, 2003. 241pp, 9x6 ins, £11.95 / $18, ISBN 0 907562-37-X)What's in Store: Poems 2000–2007 (The Gig, Toronto, 2008; pb, 322pp, ISBN 9780973587531, £16 / €23 / $20 / C$20).

Dream is Joyce's Collected Poems up until 2003. Although this is Shearsman title—published jointly with New Writers' Press of Dublin—I have to say with all honesty (!) that it's a great book by any standards, and it forces a reconsideration of what modern Irish poetry is about. A quintessentially late-modernist volume, in that it builds on earlier 20th C. modernism but does not lose itself in post-modernist parody. A deeply serious and questing art, Joyce's poetry demands attention in a way that few do in these times.

A volume of Joyce's translations from old Irish, Courts of Air and Earth appeared from Shearsman in 2008. His post-Dream verse is collected in the edition from The Gig. It can be hard to track down, but US readers should go to SPD, and UK and Irish readers can apparently go to New Writers' Press to order it (contact details on The Gig's webpage—follow the above link).

Thomas KinsellaCollected Poems (Carcanet, Manchester, 2002, 378pp, £25 h/c).

I'm still in two minds about Kinsella, but there's no doubt that he's a whole lot better than I used to give him credit for. A very ambitious poet in many ways, showing clear signs of modernist influence but not using that heritage in immediately recognisable, or clichéd ways. I suppose a Selected would be a better bet for most people. This Collected supersedes the 1994 Oxford UP Collected, a poorly-printed and abysmally laid-out volume which thankfully has gone out of print. Considering that book simply as an object, the world is a better place without OUP's design butchery. I'm aware that I sound grudging here: I don't mean to be. I think Kinsella is a fine poet and worth reading.

Marius Kociejowski: Doctor Honoris Causa (Anvil Press Poetry, London, 1993. 59pp, £6.95, pb); Music's Bride (Anvil, 1999. 59pp, pb, £7.95)

Marius Kociejowski writes a resolutely unfashionable kind of poetry, the kind that is guaranteed not to get him on the Forward prize shortlist, the kind that won't get him published by Faber, the kind that will be looked at askance by both mainstream and alternative outlets. I like that contrarian kind of approach. Here are persona poems, monologues, narratives (gasp!), all those forms and preoccupations that are not to be found in the books reviewed in the broadsheets. What is also here is a preoccupation with craft, with honing the poems down to their irreducible minimum, with sonority and with the very matter of poetry. Unfashionable he may be, but Marius Kociejowski is without doubt one of the most interesting poets at work in Britain today.

Frank KuppnerA Bad Day for the Sung Dynasty (Carcanet, Manchester, 1984, out of print); Second Best Moments in Chinese History (Carcanet, 1997, 95pp, £8.95).

These are pretty weird books, albeit couched in unthreatening language and style. They are also funny. They are not masterpieces of the art of verse, but they have an integrity and pleasure that many more formally ambitious works do not achieve. Kuppner has written at least three other volumes of verse, only one of which appears to be in print, but the 'Chinese' volumes seem to me the best of the bunch. Try him out, and without preconceptions.

R. F. Langley: The Face of It (Carcanet, Manchester, 2007. 64pp, pbk, £8.95); Collected Poems (Carcanet, Manchester, 2000. 72pp, pb, £6.95).

The Collected is a slim but astonishingly fine book by a poet scarcely known to the wider reading public. This was one of the best books of the year 2000, and some of its longer poems in particular will eventually be seen as being amongst the most significant of the late 20th century in English. The 2007 release of The Face of It proves my point. The latter book brings together all of the author's subsequent work which had been appearing in chapbooks and magazines.

Shearsman Books published a selection from the author's Journals in October 2006.

Christopher Logue (1926-2011): Selected Poems (Faber, London, 1996. 145pp, pb, £7.99).

Logue's versions of parts of Homer's Iliad, now collected in the War Music volume, are justly famous and should be in any collection, but they have tended to obscure his own original verse, which is well selected here. Further instalments of his retelling of the Iliad appeared in 2003, All Day Permanent Red, and also in 2005, Cold Calls (also Faber).

Tom Lowenstein: Conversations with Murasaki (Shearsman Books, 2009. 116pp, pb, £8.95/$16);Ancestors & Species: Selected Ethnographic Poems (Shearsman Books, 2005. 156pp, pb, £9.95/$17); Ancient Land, Sacred Whale (Harvill Press, 1999, pb, 188pp, o.o.p.); Filibustering in Samsara (The Many Press, London, 1987. 86pp, pb, £4.95).

Filibustering is a wonderful book, and one of the best British poetry collections of the past 30 years. It partly has its sources in the author's anthropological & ethnographic researches but these are meshed with his own meditations into an elegiac form of modernist verse that does not have its like anywhere else. There is also a follow-up pamphlet Filibustering in Samsara. A Footnote (Poetical Histories, Cambridge, 1990), a pendant to this volume that I particularly value. The author's earlier collection The Death of Mrs Owl (Anvil, 1977) is less ambitious but still interesting. His later Ancient Land: Sacred Whale. The Inuit Hunt and its Rituals (originally a Bloomsbury hardback and since republished by Harvill in paperback, cover above right) is a retelling in verse and prose of the Inuit whale hunt rituals, a book in which the anthropological and the poetic blur and merge. His first Shearsman collection, shown above left, offers selections from Filibustering and Ancient Land, as well as a substantial selection of uncollected work on Inuit-related themes. Sui generis, and necessary reading. A new collection, Conversation with Murasaki, appeared from Shearsman in late 2009, and offers a view of another strain to his work, as does the remarkable prose work, From Culbone Wood (2013).

Mina Loy: The Lost Lunar Baedeker (ed. R L Conover; Farrar, Straus & Giroux, NY, 1996. 226pp, h/c, $22).

There is also a British paperback edition from Carcanet Press. Mina Loy is one of the best recoveries from the pre-war modernist years. A lot of forgotten poets deserve to be forgotten, but not this one. Some of it is too much of its time and derivative. but at other times Loy is way out on her own—reason perhaps why she was ignored despite Pound's support. Carolyn Burke's biography of Loy, Becoming Modern (also published by Farrar in the US) makes useful background reading.