The middle and later periods of poets tend to be overlooked. Those who might have been father figures to poets of my generation, poets with major reputations, poets who were influences, movers and shakers, helpers or critics of others, have fared variously. Peter Porter always did remain a major figure, important to the most prominent publishing houses. Late Porter is no whit less strong than early Porter - in fact it is clearer, subtler, of wider range. Vernon Scannell's reputation seems to have gone underground for now, but I am confident it will rise again. Alan Brownjohn's has risen, through sheer vigour. The publishers let go, but he has not. He has worked with a furious energy. Dannie Abse is unshaken, a proper living monument. Elaine Feinstein remains important and energetic and Fleur Adcock, who wrote little for years, has now returned, her cool crystalline voice tinged with irony.
This post is really about second wind in poets, the power of maturity. Both Anthony Thwaite and Moniza Alvi made their reputations early, and when their work is found in anthologies, latterly more Alvi's than Thwaite's, it is the poems with which they made their reputations: Thwaite as a distinct figure in Larkinland, that is the say with the sensibility of post-war Britain in slightly fancier mode (I think of those Victorian Voices) and Alvi (a little like me, but more so) as a representative figure of multicultural Britain.
Both have moved on to what, to my mind, is more exciting territory. Thwaite has hit the clear gravity that was always at the core of the poems but was rarely the whole poem. There was in the early poems an occasional sense that the poems articulated something that might have been articulated almost as well in prose. The late poems though have a depth, a distilled unsentimental pathos, while retaining the playfulness. It is as if the poems had fallen naturally into place: the language is simple, the idea still clear, still capable of being paraphrased, but paraphrase is less apt. The perception has become fully poetry.
Moniza Alvi's work caught fire for me from 2000 onward, once the search for the balance between Pakistani and British identity was over, or at least shelved. Since then she has written ever clearer, ever more vivid poems, poems that spring out of a less dutiful imagination. The language is clear, indeed clearer, but the ideas are ever more ambitious, ever more playful, ever more surreal, ever more realised. The images leap into being and blaze more brightly.
Here's Alvi's poem, Fish, one from the book where she imagines being a husband and having a wife, Carrying my Wife (2000)
I envied my wife her nightly visions.
She'd lay each one proudly on the bed
like a plump, iridescent fish,
and ask me to identify it.
Some nights I'd even manage to trap
my own by concentrating hard,
submerging the net into blue-black waters.
I'd place my catch on the rippling sheet.
So we'd have our own two fish, almost
indecent, nuzzling each other's mouths,
soul-fish, awkward in our hands,
hungry, as if our lives were a host
of crumbs to gulp in greedily.
They'd beat their tails very fast
until we could only see the one dream
moving between us, or feel stirring
one enormous fish, with our own lives
grieving, joyful, growing in its belly.
And here is Thwaite from his pamphlet ,'Late Poems',
A light goes on:
Something is telling mw
The camera is too full of memories.
Before I take another picture
Some must be cancelled.
So I must choose:
Blank out some bits of past,
Or print what's thre and leave room for the rest
While there's still time. Which shall I press?
What shall I lose?