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

WORD-SCEPTIC Michael Hamburger, Collected Poems (Carcanet) £14.95

Michael Hamburger's unpublished first collection of poems was called Itinerary. His best-known poem and the title of one of his principal collections is Travelling. The breadth of his travels as a poet beyond his youthful itinerary has been vast, and he has 'long ceased to recognize' most of his apprentice work as his own. Indeed, so critical of his early verse is Hamburger in the introduction to this handsome Collected Poems ('it had no stomach at all for the roughage of lived experience') and in his book of memoirs, A Mug's Game (where rhetoric, literariness, prolixity and derivativeness are among the charges), that there seems little for the reviewer to add.

The surprising thing about the opening section of this book is not, therefore, that it is factitious and cold but that parts of it fail to live down to our low expectations. Some poems, including 'From the Notebook of a European Tramp' and 'London Tomcat', make interesting thematic connections with later verse. Others, especially 'Hölderlin' and 'Rimbaud in Africa', are good poems in their own right. Having tried various personas for size, Hamburger found a perfect fit in the detachment and disenchantment of Rimbaud:


Any strumming will do, if it titillates.
There's your glory for which a poet pawns his soul
And vivisects himself . . .


The 'word-scepticism' evident from the Rimbaud poem was to lead Hamburger in the direction of the unornamented and untitillating ...


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