John Greening, Vapour Trails – review

In his introduction to Vapour Trails Greening writes, ‘A half-decent poetry review should be readable well beyond its original publication date and entertain you whether or not you are interested in the book (or even the genre); it must give you some idea, pretty economically, what the poet’s collection is like; and it should offer you a way in to the work, suggesting with greater or lesser subtlety whether it’s worth your time.’

So what makes these reviews still worth our time? Partly it’s the sweep and penetration of Greening’s judgements, partly the sheer pleasure of his language.

Making clear distinctions is key to his approach. Enviably well read, he’s always implicitly or explicitly comparing the work he’s discussing with that of other writers, both looking for what’s distinctive about the poets he reviews and measuring their achievement against that of others. He responds warmly to very different kinds of poetry but without flabby indulgence: describing a poet or collection, he trenchantly defines weaknesses and limitations as well as praising strengths. Of Charles Tomlinson, for example, he writes ‘while one would not often call his poetry lyrical – he finds it hard to keep his head out of his heart – he can move us with the intensity of his saying’. Such highly compressed summative descriptions are preceded or followed by a more extensive teasing out of threads, in which a particular poet’s expressive techniques are both explored in themselves and related to deeper aspects of his or her character and imagination.

About two thirds of the poets he discusses are dead. Only two out of fifty were born after 1960. This limits the appeal of the book in one way and gives it weight in others. Above all, Greening takes a longer view than the poetry news cycle tends to, considering work in unusual depth. This is particularly valuable in longer pieces on good poets who’re not much talked about now. Fine articles on Patricia Beer, Edwin Muir and Vernon Watkins should give fresh life to the interest of older readers who (like me) may hardly have thought of them for many years, and might well give younger readers and poets a new interest in them. Poets like Thom Gunn and Robert Lowell may still be very much part of the conversation but I found the strong clear lines of Greening’s assessments of them thought-provoking .

Greening’s hard analyses are beautifully complemented by writing of a more imaginatively evocative kind, in which the poet and lover of music achieves an eloquence rare in critical writing and in which the perspective of the fellow-practitioner, looking at how a work is made, links arms with that of the connoisseur savouring the result. For example, analyzing the ‘formal grace’ of Vernon Watkins’ ‘Great Nights Returning’ he writes ‘the unrhymed feminine endings … give the dead patrol of each line a resonance, like the echo in a grand hall after a solemn speech’.

Altogether this is a stimulating and highly enjoyable book for the reader who wants to look behind immediately contemporary poets to a number of significant twentieth century predecessors, including Lowell, Bishop, Berryman, Sexton, Clampitt and Merrill, but mainly focused on the poetry of the British Isles.

John Greening, Vapour Trails, Shoestring Press, 252 pp., £12.50 pbk

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