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This review is taken from PN Review 126, Volume 25 Number 4, March - April 1999.

ON THE OFFENSIVE GILLIAN CLARKE, Collected Poems (Carcanet) £9.95
ANDREW MOTION, Selected Poems (Faber & Faber) £9.99
JOHN AGARD, From the Devil's Pulpit (Bloodaxe) £7.95

Gillian Clarke was one of three judges for the 1983 National Poetry competition which I, aged fifteen, entered for the first time. A young Scottish poet called Carol Ann Duffy won and I didn't. It came as a daunting surprise, then, to be reviewing Clarke's Collected Poems. It came as an even greater surprise to open the book randomly at a poem called 'Post Script After judging the poetry competition':

Each page committed. Your last poems burn.
Out with the cliché, archaism, weed.
They drift the hill and my mind's clear again.
New year and a fired language is what we need.

Apart from the personal pain of imagining one's own juvenalia being burned with hedge-clippings, 'Post Script' is a good idea well executed, and a good introduction to Clarke's work. The image of fire has been a recurring and key motif throughout her career. It has allowed the poet to deal with the domestic on one hand, and on the other with such core ideas as cleansing and rebirth. It is indicative that Clarke has purged her output of its weaker moments: Collected Poems is really a generous selection. She has remained a poet with a definite sense of her own work and of what poetry in general should aspire to.

The poems of Clarke's first two collections, The Sundial and Letter from a Far Country, show a poet with a strong feeling for Welsh national identity ...


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