New British Poetry

by Don (Ed.) Paterson
ISBN: 0887847013

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A Review of: New British Poetry
by Todd Swift

A poetry anthology is like a bed: the most interesting thing about it is who is, and isn't, in it. And, when you've made one, you have to lie in it. New British Poetry is of course, just such a phenomenon. But it is more. The nature of the rather outrageous statements contained in its too-many-cooks souffl of foreword, preface and introduction, presents a suave glove to the rude cheek of the "North American"-offering a duel as if it were an opportunity, and not a challenge. It is, in othewords, a cheeky, controversial collection, and a disservice will be done to all concerned (editors and prospective readers) by ignoring its apparatus and proposed significance.
The collection, let it be admitted, is not so much a survey of the best poetry written in "England, Scotland and Wales" by poets born since 1945 (thus poor Craig Raine, born in 1944 is excluded) as it is a branding of a group of particular poets, whom someone wishes to make famous in "North America". This is the equivalent of record company executives in London vainly attempting to "break" Robbie Williams, the unwelcome British pop star, in American charts, where, it is assumed, the real fun is to be had. That such an analogy is appropriate is made plain by the unusually antagonistic Introduction from the successful and respected Scottish poet, Don Paterson, whose resume would seem to belie any need for such bile. However, bile there is. Rarely has an editor's own gloom cast such a pall over such a feast. It must be the weather. Back to the marketing campaign. Paterson, to explain the absence of the great contemporary Irish poets (such as Mahon and Muldoon)-whose work informs, enriches, and plays off of, the poets who are "British" and therefore qualify for inclusion-says they "tend to enjoy a far stronger US profile" than their UK counterparts; and thus need not be included this time around, as if anthologies were dance cards, not useful round-ups for overwhelmed readers. The "enjoy" is rich in meaning, and faintly sinister, in the context. Put another way: the guys from the North got their slice of the Yankee Pie, now it is our turn.
While it is perfectly valid to exclude Irish poets from such an anthology, it is also not the done thing, given the cultural interconnectedness of the isles involved. We are more used, these days, to formulations such as "poets from Britain and Ireland." This is not only polite, but factually captures the rich play between the cultures under discussion. The plain truth is, there is no poet currently writing (Edwin Morgan excepted and he is in his 80s) in England, Scotland, or Wales, with the gravitas, humanity, intelligence, or craft, of Heaney; nor one to better the cavalier verve of Muldoon; or learned elegance of Mahon, for that matter. One could go on. In the dimmed light of this collection, the assembled cast looks better than expected, which is a good way to sell things, if not do justice to one's readers.
This sense of the ulterior purpose of the book seems confirmed in the elaborate argument introduced by Paterson, really demonstrating a conflict between the "Mainstream" and the "Postmodern" poets with some of the agonistic grandeur of a war between the Ancients and Moderns. Paterson objects that "the Postmoderns" will "happily omit almost every poet in this book from the surveys of the contemporary scene they present to their students." Paterson proposes a tit for tat response in his collection, which he admits is "very partisan."
Behind every anthology is another anthology: something like a ghost haunting a king. In this case, it's the recent and admittedly controversial Oxford Anthology of Twentieth-century British and Irish Poetry, edited by Keith Tuma (2001), which willfully omitted some well-known and popular writers (like Paterson), instead focusing on authors like J.H. Prynne, the experimental, difficult and brilliant Cambridge don (a sort of Empson-meets-Bernstein) considered by many critics to be the best poet now writing in England. Paterson will find that exporting the, by now, tired British debate between the sons of Pound and the sons of Hardy will only leave many North Americans scratching their heads.
Paterson's fixation on the term "Postmodern" is inexplicable, given that it is surely not the right word to encompass his animus, in any case, as it now mainly refers to architecture and cultural theory best understood in the light of theoretical debates of the 80s and 90s of the last century. When a North American reaches for a Postmodern poem from the great memory hat, she might just as easily pull out a Ginsberg, or an O'Hara, or a Levertov, let alone an Olson or Kleinzahler. These might be odious authors to some readers, but they are surely not all to blame for the difficulty of academic Welsh poetics (say Peter Finch).
The kind of work Paterson considers "Postmodern" Canadians would likely describe as "avant-garde" or "linguistically innovative." Paterson seems particularly upset by the Language school which has few imitators in the UK. In short, Paterson is not likely to want more Sorbonne-inspired books by the likes of Bk. This might be a widely held sentiment in some quarters, but is not in itself the best way to judge a Scottish poetry contest. One needs to have an ear for what is "good English," as well as an eye on the "French bad." Anansi has long been open to the sort of cultural explorations into European theory and practice that Paterson deplores, so it is odd they have chosen to celebrate such a "Little England" approach, reminiscent of Larkin's observation that he'd visit China if he could be back by tea.
At any rate, Paterson wants his poetry "Mainstream"-and by that he means by "poets who still sell books to a general reader"-and there's that marketing again. Time and again, the basis of judgement here is on sales and popularity. We are told that the paradigm of artistic progress is "false and un-British," and that poets must "actively seek an audience." Not that any old means will do. Dylan Thomas (surely a crowd pleaser, and a book-seller, one would have thought) is dismissed as a dead-end tributary of the stream with the phrase "the florid operatics of Dylan Thomas." How can one trust an editor with no ear for the craft and lyric intensity of Thomas at his best? More to the point, in a world that now knows Em Dickinson sold six poems for publication in her lifetime, and Eminem (as rap-lyricist) sells millions, how can any but the Barnum among us think popularity and sales figures a literate benchmark? Oddly enough, Prynne sells in the thousands, and the Postmodern Pound also has spending power.
Enough blame has now been apportioned to the bad cop. Out of the shadows should now step, in what surely must be a buddy-role he wishes he hadn't taken, Charles Simic, the delightful award-winning American poet.
Simic has no stake in the turf wars this anthology proposes; nor does his taste or sense of what a poem is "compute." Reading his Preface before and after Paterson's essay creates the impression that an elaborate logic game is being perpetrated: surely, these two texts cannot both be telling the truth? For starters, Simic does not share Paterson's enthusiasm for the English tradition. How else to explain his dry comment: "Being asked to read and explain A.E. Housman to students in the Sonora Desert struck me as an absurdity worthy of a Dadaist cabaret." Indeed, to any reader who appreciates the "traditional ideas of form and poetic closure" which Paterson elsewhere celebrates, Housman is prized as an early twentieth-century antidote to American-led High Modernism, and the father, along with Hardy and Edward Thomas, of what is best in "Mainstream" British poetry, along with Larkin and Hughes. Furthermore, the idea that children in a rural American context can have nothing to gain from exposure to finely-written poetry informed by a brilliant classicism and a genuine passion for life and language is to deny the universal human goal of communication, across time and culture, which, in essence, is one of the chief values of poetry. Simic, as co-editor, is not on the same page.
Worthy of a Dadaist cabaret, however, is this additional comment from Simic, who welcomes British poetry as an antidote to the tiresome American poems that are all a "first-person, realistic narrative that told of some momentous or perfectly trivial experience." Not only does this description fit much of Wordsworth, it also applies to Larkin. Indeed, it applies to nearly every poem in this current collection. Or how to explain this squib: "The great British and Irish poets are voluptuaries of words, and North Americans rarely are."
We "North Americans" may have much to learn, but the language-loving commerce goes both ways. Pound helped Yeats explore a modern vernacular. Ashbery, Kees, Koch, Lowell, O'Hara and Stevens inspire more British eloquence in this book between them, than would be imaginable in an equivalent survey with the barrel of the lens turned in the other direction.
Not to be outdone, the Canadian onboard this shipment of poetry coals to Newcastle, the fine younger poet Ken Babstock, enthuses that in his Foreword he risks "making too much of the trade economies of national aesthetics"-and there we have that fiscal image-system again. A more ominous trope is that of hunger. Babstock claims this anthology collects "a feeding ground for many poets" of his Canadian generation; faced with Armitage et al., he "went at it, ravenous"; Maxwell and co. were "devoured at a furious rate." Babstock's resources, depleted grazing in Canadian fields, were restored in England's green and pleasant poems. What was missing? "Craft, possibility, ingenuity, and brilliance"; and "so many near-perfect" lyric poems. In short, Babstock has not been reading the poetry of English Quebec since 1945, which would have been cheaper to import. Poets like Harris, Solway, Van Toorn, Allen, Layton, Sarah and Klein, among many others, have long been working within such rich pastures.
There is something inadequate and disheartening in Babstock's query at the end of his Foreword: "How shall we attempt to play at the international level?" Well, for one thing, I would argue that Canadian poetry is already at such a level, and is indeed internationally healthy enough to be able to accept into its tradition the work, styles and manners of other English poetry nations and cultures, be they Caribbean, British, Irish, American, or Australian, for example.
We should not be nave enough to think, for one moment, that either Motion or Maxwell "devours" our writing, however, or that Scottish poets sit up late, thrilled by the "brilliance or craft" of Toronto or Vancouver or Montreal poets. And this is not because they do not read our books (though they rarely do) or because distribution systems are arcane and feeble (though they are) but because British cultural pride is (still) strong-as strong as when Richler was in London more than thirty years ago, and bemoaned it in the Introduction to a Penguin anthology of his; it might even be called arrogance.
It is unusual for anthologies to be fronted by so many pages of sheer nonsense; indeed, the talk in London's literary circles is that Paterson may have scored an own-goal by exaggerating the confederacy of dunces ranged against him. The question remains, what of the poetry selected, itself?
The editors have selected about thirty-five poets born after 1945, who have published more than two books, which means this is the post-Heaney, Hill, or Prynne generation (poets with a claim to some magnitude). Given the scope and range of the criteria involved, and even accepting the idea that this will be a "Mainstream" and "very partisan" selection, it still only does partial justice to the best poetry written in the UK in the last forty-odd years.
Indeed, while it may be almost forgivable to exclude important experimental poets such as Peter (or Denise) Riley or Tom Raworth on certain grounds (as discussed above) the exclusion of the best Welsh poet since either Thomas and Abse, Robert Minhinnick, is peculiar. Also missing are brilliant and accomplished poets like Pascale Petit, Mimi Khalvati and Sarah Maguire, who actually represent something of the elegance Paterson seeks. This author also misses the presence of George Szirtes, born in 1948, whose poetry has redefined the post-Auden/Movement style (surely the dominant mode in the UK since 1950) of wit and form in an austere but charming manner worthy of wider notice.
The poetry that is presented does fairly represent the highs and lows of the contemporary British poetry consensus. This can be described paradoxically as actively moribund. There are an astonishing number of successful quarterly small magazines in the UK open to amateur and professional alike, and poetry prizes are won and publicized in national papers practically every month. Poets regularly hold forth on the BBC: Paterson is correct to identify a less-than-dead Parrot when it comes to British public poetry. Nonetheless, with all the hustle and bustle, an Edwardian jumble-sale of fastidious if quirky mannerisms has emerged, no less troubling now than when Alvarez pounced on the English bloodlessness at the time of Plath and Lowell. I can think of no better way of describing the common "successfully published" British poem these days than as a sort of Hugh Grant character: polite, handsome, witty, affably stumbling towards an ultimately benevolent, if minor, conclusion.
It is not so much a matter of Mainstream contra Postmodern, then, but good versus less-good poetry. Paterson seems to have settled for an acceptable median of the popular/public, avoiding the great pitch we know is possible, from reading Eliot or Auden, for instance. Indeed, and ironically, the younger poets he selects (Armitage, Farley, McKendrick) often seem less formal and serious than one would expect from the generation or two following Hill, and more influenced by the New York School of poets; which is odd, given that Paul Hoover's Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry includes them as Exhibit A. That being said, these poets are very good at what they do.
I would recommend this anthology without reservation for the half-dozen or so poets within it who are essential for North American poets who wish to maintain a dialogue with the English tradition. These would include: Sujata Bhatt; Michael Donaghy; James Fenton; Gwyneth Lewis; Christopher Reid; Andrew Motion and Peter Reading. Of these, Fenton would appear to be the most serious English poet since the Eighties.
Of the better younger writers, I would single out Lavinia Greenlaw; Roddy Lumsden, Ian Duhig and Alice Oswald. Some of the surprises include the less accessible and more inventive poets such as Peter Didsbury; Kathleen Jamie and Alan Jenkins.
The poets who are undoubtedly either very brilliant or possess a remarkable facility, but tended to grate a little, included the Scottish poets (there are so many of them in this collection!) Robert Crawford and W.N. Hebert: the much advertised ludic tendency of these and other younger poets seems at times to verge on an ability to do a Robin and/or Raymond Williams impression: a vast spray of connections and references thrown out with erudite, if scattered, ease.
John Ash is a fine poet but does not really make sense in such company (he is very much a New York writer). And the highly-touted John Burnside is under-represented, giving the impression he is over-rated, at least to go by the editorial note which describes him as "the most quietly and pervasively influential voice" of the last twenty years. These flattering biographical notes would have been more impressive if each did not, in fact, read like the blurbs found on the back of all poet's books: each is the most "lucid, radiant, playful, brilliant" until we are quite amazed at how one generation could have thrown up quite so many marvels: our fortune to be alive at this time!
There are perhaps twenty-five very good poems in the collection. There seems to have been a tendency to go for the ones that American readers will "get", and this means a lot of local flavour has been drained. Some of the best include: Armitage's "Poem"; Dongahy's "The Bacchae"; Carol Ann Duffy's "Warming Her Pearls"; The three from Fenton; Michael Hoffman's "Lament for Crassus"; Jenkins's "Visiting"; "Pentecost" from Lewis; Lumsden's "An Older Woman"; and the five from Motion. That is more than most similar periods produce, so perhaps things are not so grim, after all.

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