(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

George MacBeth once remarked that he considered the word “experimental,” often used to describe his work, to be a term of praise. Although he acknowledged the possibility of failing in some of his excursions into new forms and new subjects, he obviously felt the risk to be justified. His strongest impulse as a writer was to test the bounds of poetry and, wherever possible, extend them.

This daring push toward the limits of his craft is nowhere better revealed than in the fourth section of his Collected Poems, 1958-1970, where MacBeth employs his no-holds-barred approach and enjoys doing it. Indeed, the sense of pleasure that MacBeth manages to communicate, his pure delight in the shape of language on the page, is essential to readers because it helps carry them through poems that at first glance may repel rather than attract.

“LDMN Analysis of Thomas Nashe’s ’Song’” and “Two Experiments”

Two such forbidding poems that challenge the analytical mind in satiric fashion are “Two Experiments” and “LDMN Analysis of Thomas Nashe’s ’Song.’” The first of these poems, divided into two sections, presents a “Vowel Analysis of ’Babylonian Poem’ from the German of Friederike Mayröcker” and a “Numerical Analysis of ’Brazilian Poem’ from the German of Friederike Mayröcker.” If the ponderous and unlikely subtitles are not enough to warn the reader not to be too serious, the actual text should be sufficiently illuminating. The first section is a listing of vowels, ostensibly from the Mayröcker poem, presented in the following fashion: “U EE-EI A I AE-IIE-EIE UE EOE U EI; E.” Thus runs the first line, and the second section begins in the following way: “(. .2 2 6 2 3 5: 2 3 3-6 3 8: 3.” Clearly, these representations are meaningless, but they do make a point, not a very positive point, about the analytical approach to poetry: that critical analyses of poetry may make no more sense than these vowel and number analyses. A similar statement is made in “LDMN Analysis of Thomas Nashe’s ’Song,’” which offers an arrangement of L’s, D’s, M’s, and N’s, presumably as they might be extracted from the Nashe poem.

As might be expected, the response to such experimentation has not been universally positive, and a number of readers have questioned whether such strategies can properly be called poetry. Ironically, this may be the very question that MacBeth wants the reader to ask, the ultimate critic’s question: “What is poetry?” MacBeth himself is as sincere as any reader in his search for an answer, for he offers no dogmatic views of his own; he merely tosses out experiments in an effort to determine where the boundaries lie.

“Fin du Globe” and “The Ski Murders”

Other poems that are somewhat less eccentric but nevertheless experimental are “The Ski Murders” and “Fin du Globe.” The first is an “encyclopaedia-poem” consisting of twenty-six individual entries, one for each letter of the alphabet. The entries themselves are written in a prose style that might have been taken from a spy novel, and the reader is invited to construct his own story by piecing the vignettes together in whatever fashion he wishes. The second poem is presented as a game containing fifty-two “postcards” and four “fin du globe” cards. The players (the readers) are instructed to deal out the cards as in an ordinary deck and to read, in turn, the brief postcard message printed on each. When a fin du globe card is turned up, the game is over. Again, the question arises—Is this poetry?—and once again MacBeth is challenging the reader while exploring the limits of his craft and trying to extend his artistic territory. Even the most skeptical readers can find pleasure in these and similar experiments, for they are clever and entertaining, and one can sense the pleasure that MacBeth himself must have experienced in giving free rein to his imagination.

“A Poet’s Life”

Among MacBeth’s most successful comic poems is “A Poet’s Life,” which first appeared in In the Hours Waiting for the Blood to Come and has since developed into a kind of serial poem published in various installments. In its original form, the poem consists of twelve episodes focusing on various aspects of the poet’s life. The point of view is third person, to permit MacBeth as much distance as possible from his subject, himself. The result is a poem, which avoids the gloomy seriousness of typical introspection and yet focuses on some serious themes, showing the poet to be as human as anyone else. The first section of the poem is representative of MacBeth’s technique; it shows the poet at home, trying to write and jotting down the following lines: “today I got up at eight, felt cold, shaved,/ washed, had breakfast, and dressed.” The banality here reflects a larger tedium in the poet’s life, for nothing much happens to him, except in his imagination. It is not surprising, then, when his efforts to write lead nowhere and he turns to the television for an episode of the Avengers, a purely escapist adventure show.

Viewed almost as a specimen or as a caged animal might be viewed, the poet is an amusing creature, sipping his “peppermint cream” and sucking distractedly on his pencil; and yet he is also pitiable. There is, in fact, something of the fool about the poet, something reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp, for although he evokes laughter or a bemused smile there is something fundamentally sad about him. The poignancy comes from the realization that the poet, no matter how hard he tries to blend into the common crowd, must always remain isolated. It is the nature of his craft; writing poetry sets him apart. Consequently, when he goes to the supermarket, dressed in “green wranglers” to make himself inconspicuous, he still stands out among the old women, the babies, and the old men. He is “looking/ at life for his poems, is helping/ his wife, is a normal considerate man,” and yet his role as poet inevitably removes him from the other shoppers and from the world at large.

Technically, “A Poet’s Life” is rather simple and straightforward, but several significant devices work subtly to make the poem successful. The objective point of view enables MacBeth to combine the comic and the pathetic without becoming maudlin or self-pitying; this slightly detached tone is complemented by MacBeth’s freewheeling, modernized version of the Don Juan stanza. It is typical of MacBeth to turn to traditional forms for inspiration, to borrow them and make them new.

“How to Eat an Orange”

Not a poet to break the rules without first...

(The entire section is 2792 words.)