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This review is taken from PN Review 218, Volume 40 Number 6, July - August 2014.

Eschewing Mastery lawrence sail, The Key to Clover and Other Essays (Shoestring Press) £9
peter hughes, Allotment Architecture (Reality Street) £9.50
j.o. morgan, At Maldon (CB editions) £9.99
brendan kennelly, Guff (Bloodaxe) £9.95

Running through Lawrence Sail’s The Key to Clover and Other Essays is a division of the world into that which can be captured in language and that which cannot. When he writes, of the gardens at Giverny (in which Monet painted his waterlilies), ‘Of course it is possible to give an accurate description of the scene in terms of its creation and history’, he implies a confidence in historical objectivity which is perhaps out of step with contemporary academic fashion, but also suggests there is something – more resident in sensory experience – which it is not possible to get accurately into language. He goes on to say that, as ‘lists of plant names devolve into pallor’, ‘there are some experiences […] which artists can hope only to approach rather than master’.

This alignment of accuracy with mastery raises a question which comes, with increasing urgency, to face contemporary poetry. That is, to what extent is it possible, or even desirable, for a poet to maintain mastery over language, let alone the material ostensibly conjured by the language? Following this, then, we have to wonder – as our lists of plant names begin to pall and to dissolve – how we think about our approach to the gardens and streets of the world; how to draw attention to the strengths and weaknesses of the expressive tools with which we come at the things we want to evoke and describe. Recent books by Brendan Kennelly, Peter Hughes and J.O. Morgan represent three various ...

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