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This article is taken from PN Review 50, Volume 12 Number 6, July - August 1986.

'A Big Sea Running in a Shell': the poetry of Gillian Clarke Jeremy Hooker

The survival in poetry of a language of primary emotion has in recent years been due mainly to women poets. As the poetry of Gillian Clarke shows, this is not achieved without vulnerability, and the strength of the poetry may be defined in terms of risks successfully taken. Most obviously, her concern with birth and death and love, in emotive metaphorical language, risks inflation, and her directness and simplicity risk sentimentality. What is achieved when she succeeds, as she usually does, is a rare integration of unforced seriousness and strong emotion. Her poetry is also vulnerable in another sense - to an energy that beats against the formal control barely containing it, so that all that is positive and creative and disciplined in her poetry is tense with the pressure of a powerful destructive under-tide. In consequence, a first acquaintance with her work may suggest a pleasurably sensuous, affirmative, fairly predictable poet with whom the reader can feel comfortable: domestic (in the narrow, middle-class sense), natural, essentially female. At a closer reading, however, she emerges as a much more powerful poet, who has no comfort for complacency: domestic, (in the Homeric sense), in her concern for family, home and native land, natural in her deep implication in the rhythms of life and death, female in the interaction of biological and cultural constraints, and satisfactions, from which she writes.

Many of Gillian Clarke's poems have as their occasion an experience of birth or death, and are notable for ...

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