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This review is taken from PN Review 185, Volume 35 Number 3, January - February 2009.

RHYME AND RATIO JEFFREY WAINWRIGHT, Clarity or Death! (Carcanet) £9.95

One can tell a lot about poets' intentions by their allusions; in many cases, as with Clarity or Death!, these allusions are prods and prompts. The collection's title is, as proclaimed on the back cover, taken from a letter of Wittgenstein's. This fact, coupled with the quotation from American philosopher Jerry Fodor (author of such works as The Psychology of Language) which forms the epigraph to the sequence 'Mere Bagatelle', suggests an exploration of the relationship between thought and language. Fair enough; such is the very stuff of poetry, and quarrels, tensions, and (dare we say it) binary oppositions are the very skeleton of poetic thought too. Clarity or Death! is based on a quarrel which Jeffrey Wainwright is having with himself, in poetic lines which are often short, sometimes deftly managed, sometimes not, in idioms sometimes well-achieved, sometimes not: is there, or is there not, any point to what he is doing?

It is certainly arguable whether or not this inner debate is genuine. Were it genuine, though, perhaps some of the poems in the book might be a little less gratuitously achieved and really extend the thought-register of lyric poetry in English in the twenty-first century. However, in the book's worst moments Wainwright seems to be wearing the languages of philosophy, physics and mathematics almost as the poet's new clothes. From a poem entitled 'The abstraction of number is beautiful':

Gimme five, 'I'll give it foive', top ...


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