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This review is taken from PN Review 119, Volume 24 Number 3, January - February 1998.

HOOLIGAN OF WIT? JOHN FULLER, Collected Poems (Chatto & Windus) £20.00

In a poem from his 1973 collection Tiny Tears, addressed to his grand-daughters, Roy Fuller included a wryly affectionate warning:

Your suitors will wait for you uneasily,
Caught in the hall by the expert on
    Auden
          And invited to join him
          In some devilish word-game...

That particular unease will be familiar not only to the suitors but also to readers accustomed to the blend of pleasure and perplexity which John Fuller's poems - especially if met at breakfast-time, filling a column in the TLS - can provoke: as his father fondly implied and as befits the publisher of Nemo's Almanac, he can be an infuriatingly clever sort of chap. Yes, one grudgingly concedes, they're very beautiful inventions, like certain kinds of exotic insect, but what are they actually for?

If one purpose of a Collected Poems is to demolish such simple stock responses, Fuller's succeeds splendidly. He isn't, it turns out, that sort of poet after all; or, at least, only sometimes. The brittle allusions, deft mimicries and ironic exclamations of the earlier poems now seem to be components of an easily familiar mode, not least because they have reappeared more recently in the work of his distinguished exstudents. The verse letters, on the other hand, were always likely to wear badly: fun for those of us who remember the Review, incomprehensible to those who don't, inevitably overshadowed by Byron and Auden. For similar reasons, I expected ...


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