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This review is taken from PN Review 125, Volume 25 Number 3, January - February 1999.

PALPABLE DESIGNS SEAN O'BRIEN, The Deregulated Muse (Bloodaxe) £10.95

Sean O'Brien's ambitious new book of 'essays on contemporary British and Irish Poetry' offers an analysis of these islands' most important poets over the last three decades or so. Whether or not we agree with his choice of poets, or with his assessment that 'this is a particularly interesting poetic moment', O'Brien's project seems an admirable one. Recent studies by Corcoran, Kennedy and Gregson have gone some way towards mapping the more significant poets and movements in the post-war period, but O'Brien still conveys something of the pioneer's excitement: albeit not quite virgin turf, post-war poetry has yet to become as downtrodden as most literary subjects.

Faced with such diversity of material, O'Brien has solved the problem of structure by making diversity his theme. As his title suggests, he believes that 'the very variousness of contemporary poetry seems to prevent, or any rate dispute, the emergence of a dominant line'. This is not an original position: David Kennedy, for example, argues something similar, and it is also the principle behind The New Poetry, which Kennedy co-edited. However, O'Brien avoids arguing that this makes our age any different from the past: 'This may not be an historically unique state of affairs.' He also acknowledges that the fashionable NewGen collections of today may be the untouched crumbling tomes of tomorrow. Nevertheless, O'Brien still hesitates before the possibility that a celebration of variousness may simply camouflage an inability to distinguish between good and bad poetry.

The theories established ...

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