TOO often poets are portrayed as meek and mild, emollients in an age scarred by abrasiveness.
John Burnside, it is a pleasure to report, is not of that genus. As he has demonstrated in memoirs such as A Lie About My Father, he is honest almost to a fault and never attempts to wrap feelings some readers might think insensitive or harsh in cotton wool. For him, there is as much in the modern world to abhor as adore, especially in regard to the environment.
In Burnside's view, human beings are capable of great cruelty and equally great stupidity. Our custodianship of the natural world, if such it can be called, is a case in point. Meadows disappear and in their place come "junkyards and dead allotments,/ guard dogs on tether, biomass, factory outlets/ the half-light of ersatz dairies petering out/ on rotting fields/ of rape and mustardseed." (Travelling South, Scotland, August 2012)
Loading article content
Rape is the operative word. Not only is its effect malign and brutal it is disfiguring and long-lasting. Burnside lives in rural Fife, which seems merely to exacerbate his sense of change and decay and outrage. In Erosion, for example, he describes his neighbour, a farmer, in the most unflattering of terms: "Soon he'll have turbines up; soon he'll buy out/ my better neighbours, building, field by field,/ his proud catastrophe/ of tin and mud."
Such naked contempt in a poet is unusual and bracing. There is a terrible beauty to Burnside's anger. Ironically, for solace he looks to the past, a place he has previously depicted as about as appealing as a weekend spent mucking out pigs. In poems such as Sticklebacks ("summers were always for hunting") and On the Vanishing of My Sister, Aged 3, 1965 ("It was Tom Dow who brought her home,/ tears in his eyes, the boy we had always known/ as the local bully...") there is an intimation of nostalgia but it is charged with a sense of loss that lies heavy on the heart.
I have long been an admirer of the work of Alexander Hutchison in whose company it is always a pleasure and a privilege to spend a few hours. In his latest collection, Bones & Breath, he moves adeptly and inventively between Scots and English. His interests are wide-ranging and at times he can have you scurrying to the dictionary as in 24 and 26 to Be Precise ("Polycyclic aromatics/ (like diesel engine fug)/ are hydrocarbon ancestry/ for bird and boar and bug"). But you never feel he is a mere clever dick. On the contrary, one senses he is restlessly curious and views the world with the wonder of a child. Here, he speaks on behalf of a willow tree (Parable of the Willow), muses lyrically on a woman spied getting off the train at Polmont (The Welcome) and, in Hermeneutics ("Nae muckle caa noo for whins/ and wheeps t' sort oot the elders./ Or linin up t' get a lick aff Mrs Lot"), considers how religion is losing its grip. As Hutchison remarks in his witty explanatory notes, "there is always something for poetry to make a noise about, provide a counter or reminder, sly or otherwise."
Shamefully, the name of Gottfried Benn was new to me, though I must have read of him. As Michael Hofmann, his translator and champion, writes, Benn's readers were many and diverse, including in their number TS Eliot, John Berryman, Henry Miller and Frank O'Hara. Hofmann suggests that he is of the eminence of Wallace Stevens and says that "most Germans" think of him as their greatest poet since Rilke.
Benn's first publication, Morgue and Other Poems, appeared in 1912, shortly after he had qualified as a doctor in Berlin. By all accounts he was a bit of a card and something of a chameleon. He had at least four guises: ladies' man, doctor, military man, and poet. "He ran from woman to woman," writes Hofmann, "but also from woman to poem, from poem to uniform, from uniform to lab coat, and back again, with all possible variations. Style trumps facts, he said, and good stage-management trumps fidelity." Born in 1886, he died in 1956.
Hofmann blames his lack of recognition among English speakers on poor translations, which made appreciation of him nigh impossible. This edition of the selected poems should redress the balance. What is immediately striking is Benn's breathtaking directness. In Circulation, for instance, he writes, "The solitary molar of a streetwalker/ whose body had gone unclaimed/ had a gold filling./ All the rest were gone,/ as if by tacit agreement." Meanwhile, in Beautiful Youth, he tells of rats feasting on the entrails of a girl "who had lain long in the rushes".
There is something of a surgeon's coldness in his language - he is a doctor and dissection is part of his routine - but beneath that is a fierce, independent, singular intelligence. In the 1930s, he flirted briefly with Nazism and Fascism but the reality was he couldn't abide politicians of any sort. By 1938, he was banned from writing altogether. If you want to find reasons not to read Benn, they're not, as Michael Hofmann concedes, hard to find. But they're far outweighed by the evidence on the page.