Taking the Occasion, Daniel Brown, Ivan R. Dee, 80pp, £13.95 (hardback)

Two hundred years on, Wordsworth’s stricture about using ‘the language of men’ in poetry still throws light over our criticism and reveals an interesting divide between poems written in British and American English. On this side of the Atlantic, essays, belles lettres and commentary – whether tabloid or high brow – almost universally employ an easy-going vernacular: now on stilts, now in clogs, as Dryden characterised Chaucer. Writers like Tony Judt and Jonathan Raban are in high demand at the New York Review of Books. Indeed the NYRB is a bastion of the British polemic style; compare its geopolitical essays with those published by the equally American, but much more academic, Foreign Affairs. American polemicists, by contrast, seem to find the the language of men (which I take to mean chat, the rhythms of common discourse) a daunting proposition. American imaginative writers from Elmore Leonard to Philip Roth and almost all their poets are more at ease with it.

Perhaps this is because the American poetic tradition, from Whitman and Dickinson onward, is ‘making it new’ and writing (to adapt a line from Marianne Moore) in ‘plain American which cats and dogs can read’. American imaginative writing seeks an idiom at once private and accessible, like the voice of someone you know pretty well. American poets, therefore, find a personal style quite quickly. Those of us who spend many years teaching our received pronunciation and orderly syntax how to relax, or to do so without dressing down, as it were, or donning some penitential T-shirt, envy the American immediacy. But things even out. Quite a few American poets of my acquaintance envy our ability to employ without self-consciousness language laden with literary capital. Even in a demotic age, we can from time to time employ this, slyly or with irony. As any A-level student knows, Seamus Heaney’s poems are not, in the usual sense of the word, ‘difficult’. But they are quite weighted; they adapt a great tradition to individual and historical circumstance. Read a Frank O’Hara poem, by contrast, and you may find that he is simply adapting Wednesday to Thursday.

These reflections move across the page when you run into a new reputation – new here, at least – like Daniel Brown’s. Brown is a middle-aged, mid-career mathematician; a music teacher, a business systems professional and the author of an on-line study of Bach. His poems talk and think aloud, but not introspectively. The chat, and the line, is easy in the way of a Swing Era lyric.

It happened back in college.
I Was crossing the quad early one
Evening – maybe no sun
Any more, but still a sky

To speak of, if not to go
On about: the ritual
Indigo of nightfall –
Crossing, as I say, when who

Should happen to be approaching on
An intersect course but one
Eigenmeyer, i.e, the one
Genius level mathematician

Among us undergrads…

You want to read on, meet Eigenmeyer properly, see what transpires. And what does transpire has to do with an interesting space where bird flight, ornithology, and maths, or math as Americans call them, meet. There is a Robert Frost serendipity to Brown’s work which is very appealing. One or two other poems do not echo so much as remind me of that sour comic poet from New York, Alan Dugan, oddly neglected here. I kept thinking, as I read Brown, how good American poets can be at the quotidian. He knows how to trap inconsequential aspects of life and, like founding father Walt Whitman, coax a true occasion of poetry from them.

Applying ornithology to poets, Brown is categorised in the US as a New Formalist. Witty American poets, like George Starbuck or X. J. Kennedy or John Hall Wheelock were rather suspect forty years ago, when I used to teach American poetry. This seems to be no longer the case, as Taking the Occasion won the New Criterion Poetry Prize. Buy it, or download it, quick as you can.

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