The Anxiety of Influences


New and Collected Poems
, Clive Wilmer (328pp, 18.95, Carcanet)
 

Beyond all the media glare, the prize lists, the squabbling in London, there are many poets in academia and publishing who simply carry on: every few years a new collection appears, the reviews are respectful, ordinary quotidian life and the quiet crafting and exploration of techniques continues. Clive Wilmer seems to be one of those poets. This gathering of his lifetime of poetry is not flashy, youthful or likely to suddenly dazzle on the poetry prize lists mentioned above but there are other virtues and strengths on display.
 
In his earliest poems, Wilmer wears many of his influences on his sleeve: 'The Exile', from his first collection The Dwelling-Place
(1977) is very obviously indebted to Thom Gunn, whose friendship is celebrated in other pieces and whose 1993 collection of essays Shelf Life was dedicated to Wilmer. A line like 'over the land I scarred I reared' strongly recalls the tough, glittering Gunn protagonists found in The Sense of Movement. These hard, heroic outsiders, however, are something of a false start and quickly fade into something more tentative.
 
Other poems from this early collection begin to delineate Wilmer's interest in the composed picture or the artifice surrounding it: 'The Disenchanted', based on an Atkinson Grimshaw painting, explores distance and composition, whilst architects, makers and artificers become totemic figures behind other pieces.  They continue to appear throughout all Wilmer's output, testifying to his somewhat scholarly distance.
 
The next two volumes, Devotions
, published in 1992 and Of Earthly Paradise, which followed exactly ten years later, find Wilmer refining his style to include a growing sense of spirituality. From the former volume, 'The Advent Carols' begins as a seasonal piece, the poet watching 'from afar', but strangely moved by a growing sense of 'rapture' expressed as an aesthetic sensation. 'Near Walsingham' a pilgrimage-poem, finds such springs buried, but traceable: 'meaning which haunts the shade/that falls by bridge and ford', whilst a third poem, 'For the Fly-leaf of a King James Bible', probes Jacobean and older texts, newly powerful 'in our needy time', like vintage wine laid down 'to mature' in 'virtue and beauty', speaking through ancient cadences. These poems recall some of the concerns of Canaan-era Geoffrey Hill, but are much more accessible and modest.
 
The pieces from Of Earthly Paradise
are much concerned with work, name-checking Ruskin, William Morris and Donald Davie, but a group of poems about Italian icons and Brueghel paintings widen Wilmer's concerns and it is no surprise to find a poem entitled 'At the Grave of Ezra Pound'. This is a tribute to Pound's early career, seeing him as a

                corsair
                who ranged the Mediterranean
                and brought home
                porphyry, alabaster, lapis lazuli...
 
It bears witness to the Pound of Personae
and Lustra, but characteristically lingers over the crafting of the white tomb stone- Wilmer often falls to considering the artistic effects of such lives, as expressed in work and craftsmanship, for example as in 'To Nicholas Hawksmoor' from the previous collection. This is often very lyrical, but not always personal: the personal pieces, such as 'An Autumn Vision' and 'Post-war Childhoods' speak of 'bombed-out houses / where childhood used to play' and 'an Eden of neglect', made up of wild fireweed and rhododendrons reclaiming bombsites. For me, these are very affecting pieces and it seems a pity that Wilmer chooses to spend much time in the later volumes collected here celebrating again the achievements of Gunn and Davie, for instance, rather than developing his lyrical gift.
 
There are three other collections included in this volume: The Mystery of Things
(2006) and two unpublished gatherings, King Alfred's Book and Report from Nowhere. Scattered throughout all these are striking individual poems: 'Casa Natal de Borges' praises the elegance and lucidity of Buenos Aires, and will interest admirers of the great Argentinian master of paradox, whilst 'W.S.Graham Reading' records Sydney Graham's quarrel with words at a Cambridge reading. Wilmer doesn't get legless with language with the same intensity as Graham, but he has travelled some civilised and fruitful roads and to read him is to appreciate his craftsmanship .
 
The final groupings of poems here give way to a generous selection of Wilmer's translations, mostly from Hungarian writers. The most recent of his own poems are somewhat occasional and brief, petering out with ageing, memories and epitaphs, as befits a poet who has been publishing his work for over thirty years. As a representative poetic career, gathered here, however, there is much to value and appreciate, even if it is never quite era-defining or making the costly creative leaps which Gunn and Graham managed.
 
     M.C.Caseley 2012