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This review is taken from PN Review 90, Volume 19 Number 4, March - April 1993.

NEEDING MIRACLES Austin Clarke, Selected Poems, edited by W.J. McCormack (Penguin) £7.99
P.J. Kavanagh, Collected Poems (Carcanet) £18.95

For most English readers, Austin Clarke is probably a shadowy figure hovering between the vast, mythopoeic presence of Yeats and the friendly, contemporary one of Seamus Heaney. If a Penguin selection gives his writing greater currency, it is performing a valuable service to poetry.

Some of the difficulties of approaching his work can be related to his lack of particular gifts possessed by Yeats: above all, the powerful, abstracting, generalizing imagination and the resonant address that allows Yeats's work to make topical or trivially personal dramas exciting and emblematically significant to people who know and care nothing about their factual context. Clarke's topical and personal poems lack this abstract power. In some cases, even when obscurities of reference are cleared up by notes, their emotional impact can seem faded like old newspaper clippings. At times his approach to his material can seem tentative and evasive to such a degree that the poems end up in an introverted, uncommunicative mumble.

These faults are the obverse of his particular gifts. He doesn't subdue the personal, local and contingent to an autonomous world of myth and emblem as Yeats so often does. One of the glories of his work, something that contributes to its vivid and enlarging humanity, is how crowded it is with other people, often given specific names and set among named streets and districts. Named or anonymous, 'real', fictitious or mythological, these characters bring their own lives, their own selves and preoccupations, into the poetry, ...


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