The Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland.
Edited by Simon Armitage and Robert Crawford. Penguin 1998. 443 pp. £10.99 (paper)
Other: British and Irish Poetry since 1970.
Edited by Richard Caddel and Peter Quartermain. Wesleyan University Press 1999. 280 pp. $19.95 (paper)
Conductors of Chaos. Edited by Ian Sinclair. Picador 1996.
488 pp. Out of Print.
Keith Tuma, Fishing by Obstinate Isles: Modern and Postmodern British Poetry and American Readers.
Northwestern University Press 1998. 297 pp. $19.95 (paper)
O'Brien, Sean, The Deregulated Muse: Essays on Contemporary British and Irish Poetry.
Bloodaxe (Distributed by Dufour) 1998. 317 pp. $25.95 (paper)
I: Penguins, Conductors, and Others
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
Thomas Hardy, 1900
...Wrong from the start -
Ezra Pound, 1920
Britannia's own narrow
miracle of survival
was gifted to us by cryptanalysts...
The Bletchley magi!
Geoffrey Hill, 1999
My attempt in this essay will be to conduct a survey of some British poetries at the turn of the millennium. Any number of books besides the five listed at left might also have provided an occasion or excuse for the undertaking, but these five - three anthologies and two books of criticism - will serve. It is perhaps a propitious moment for Americans to look again at British poetry. (I will only glance at the Irish. America is in love with Irish poetry and does not need to hear anything more at the moment about Harvard's Heaney, Stanford's Boland, or Princeton's Muldoon.) One does have a sense that the smoothly running machinery of the post-Movement, post-Larkin, Oxbridge-London establishment has finally broken down, that in spite of the recent appointment to the Laureateship of Andrew Motion, Larkin's biographer and co-editor of the Penguin anthology the three anthologies under review seek to displace, even the Palace and Prime Minister have recently had to consider the merits of poets as diverse as Carol Ann Duffy, Geoffrey Hill, Tony Harrison and Benjamin Zephaniah. The ghost in the machine, the Y2K virus of modernism and postmodernism, has been mutating largely undetected for quite some time. Finally it threatens to kill off its host.
Not, however, without some resistance. I suppose it's unfair to characterize the Armitage/Crawford anthology as a book that represents the mainstream in its derivation from a kind of Hardyesque ethos epitomized by Philip Larkin in his poetry and by Donald Davie both in his early critical writings and in his polemical Thomas Hardy and British Poetry of 1973. Among other things, there are too many Scottish eccentrics in its pages. Too many Irish and Welsh poets as well. And yet not only does one fail to find any of the younger experimental poets included in Iain Sinclair's Conductors of Chaos, but the selections which overlap with the poets represented in Other are chiefly those from Guyana and Jamaica: an attempt to achieve a racially diverse table of contents following an introduction called, importantly, "The Democratic Voice." And democratic it is, in a serious sense to which we will turn in due course. But the book also has the disconcerting feel of a democratic document of an almost Clintonesque kind - a book that might have resulted as much from reader polls and focus groups as from fiercely independent editorial judgment.
My first epigraph above, taken from Hardy's "The Darkling Thrush," is meant to suggest, without irony, that the native bird is indeed still singing its song. But it's also meant to remind us what an "anthology piece" is, whether in 1900 or 2000 - a poem which, as Davie said in his Hardy book, cannot possibly give offense, whether a bird or a dog. In spite of the importance of certain unexpected selections to which I will return, Armitage and Crawford have edited a book more than half-full of anthology pieces - from Muir and Auden to Motion, Duffy, and Fenton. But I do not mean to characterize the inoffensiveness of anthology pieces in Davie's sense of innocuous composition. I mean inoffensive entirely with regard to over-familiarity and reader expectation. Ted Hughes's "The Thought Fox" is hardly innocuous writing, but in a strange way it cannot possibly any longer give offense. It is not the same poem in this Penguin anthology that it was in The Hawk in the Rain in 1957. Larkin's "This Be the Verse," Heaney's "Punishment," and even Plath's "Daddy" have suffered from a similar anthological domestication over the years: all these former foxes are now wagging their tails by the hearth. The reader, having encountered these poems in a dozen other anthologies or studied them in school, expects to find them here; he opens the book and there they are.
I in fact respect Armitage and Crawford highly, and I like their refusal of the typical editorial vice of making their anthology a showcase for their own work, which indeed is not in the book and which, in the case of both poets, is much better than a lot of work that is. But where they say their book "is the kind of anthology in which [they] might have liked their work to appear," I find myself thinking how much more interesting it would be to find it in a volume like Keith Tuma's forthcoming Oxford Anthology of Twentieth Century British and Irish Poetry, where it would be read with a wide range of poetries written from aesthetic assumptions wholly different from their own - alongside, in fact, the work of many poets appearing in Other and Conductors of Chaos.
While it is still too early to examine more of the Oxford anthology than its table of contents kindly sent me by the editor, Tuma's book will clearly attempt to establish a dialogue, if not a reconciliation, among pre-modern, modern, antimodern and postmodern poetries generally assumed to be antagonistic to one another in the three anthologies under review while rescuing from oblivion certain foundational works of British modernism which will tilt the volume, which covers the entire century, in a direction favored by the American angler who fished by obstinate isles rather than the one upon the shore with arid plains behind him. Tuma's critical volume attempts to do something similar. Neither the Caddel/Quartermain Other nor the Iain Sinclair Conductors of Chaos are interested in anything like a dialogue with the majority of poets appearing in the Armitage/Crawford Penguin. Of the 144 poets appearing in the Penguin, which covers poetry from both Britain and Ireland since 1945, only three poets appear also in Conductors and only eight in Other. While Other includes British and Irish poets only since 1970, Conductors gives itself a longer memory by the innovation of making room for personal selections of poets from an earlier generation made by five of the younger contributors: J.F. Hendry by Andrew Crozier, W.S. Graham by Tony Lopez, David Jones by Drew Milne, David Gascoyne by Jeremy Reed, and Nicholas Moore by Peter Riley. This is to my knowledge a wholly original idea and constitutes the particular genius of this very odd book. Interestingly, two of the three poets in Conductors who are also in the Penguin are David Jones and W.H. Graham. The third, the only poet to appear in all three books - a perhaps unenviable distinction - is Denise Riley.
What is familiar, and perhaps over-familiar, in Other and Conductors is not a range of anthology pieces or a large group of famous poets. In fact, aside from some few readers who make it a point to consult British small press publications and journals, most Americans will be encountering these poems and poets for the first time. The familiar aspect of these books has to do with their editors' aggressive presentation of a self-consciously avant-garde agenda and their selection of poems and poets working in international modernist and postmodernist modes that share many evolving and often contradictory assumptions with several generations of American experimental writing: the early modernists, the Objectivists, the New York School, the Black Mountain poets, the Beats, and the Language Poets. Other affinities which these poets variously share are mostly continental or Russian: Rilke, Celan, Rimbaud, Tzara, Apollinaire, Pessoa, the Futurists, and the Constructivists. In his critical volume and, implicitly, in the contents of his Oxford anthology as well, Keith Tuma takes a qualified stand - qualified by his understanding that one must remain alert to local contexts - in favor of this lingua franca of internationalist poetics which "seeks to either transcend (momentarily) or resist all cultural practices that gather identities too quickly and rigidly into the nation." Deriving his title from Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, he finds the resistance among many in Britain to the poets included in these anthologies to be a form of "obstinance." "Wrong from the start," said E.P.'s London critic...
"No, hardly...." And yet one does worry a bit about the continuing authenticity of an aggressively avant-garde stance at the turn of the new century. Ezra Pound, as Davie has shown, is sometimes at his most attractive when, in his private correspondence, doffing his hat along with his public role as impresario of the new, he seeks to make accommodation with Hardy himself: "I don't think mere praise is any good - I know where I can get it.... Forgive me if I blurt out this demand for frankness." So let it be said that, frankly, although my own sympathies, like Keith Tuma's, are generally attuned to much of the work in Other and Conductors, there is something almost silly about the way in which the work is presented, beginning even with the titles of the books. These lightning rods and creatures from the black lagoon! The editors of both volumes, like Armitage and Crawford in their different way, narrate a version of cultural history intended to favor the work they present, a story told at greater length and with greater nuance in Tuma's critical volume and given a thoroughly different focus and moral in O'Brien's The Deregulated Muse.
The Other and Conductor's version of this oft-told tale goes something like this. After the war an exhausted Britain was only able to launch that nominally challenged movement called The Movement. Enshrined in Robert Conquest's anthology New Lines, Philip Larkin and his friends held the high ground unchallenged until A. Alvarez, in The New Poetry, attacked them for gentility and prefaced his selection of postwar British poets not only with a fighting introduction but with poems by Lowell and Berryman and Plath and Sexton as a kind of lesson in intensity for the anemic Brits. But Alvarez got it wrong. The real stateside news was not to be found among the confessional (or, as Alvarez called them, "extremist" poets), but from Donald Allen's The New American Poetry, itself in mortal battle against the academic-oriented Hall/Pack/Simpson anthologies of the period, with its New Yorkers and Projectivists and Beats. By the late sixties and early seventies, centers of opposition to the mainstream had established themselves around Jeremy Prynne in Cambridge and Eric Mottram in London. While Mottram briefly opened up The Poetry Review and The Poetry Society itself to innovative and experimental work, Prynne influenced (or actually taught) an entire generation of poets including Andrew Crozier, John James, Wendy Mulford, Peter Riley, Rod Mengham and Tony Lopez. Journals such as The English Intelligencer and Grosseteste Review were established, and presses actually edited by poets among the Others and Conductors briefly flourished. Late work by indigenous British modernists like David Jones, Hugh MacDiarmid and Basil Bunting was published and even more fully marginalized figures like the English Mina Loy and the Irish Brian Coffey began to be noticed again. While multicultural, multiethnic and feminist influences began to make themselves felt as part of the alternative poetry scene, the establishment regrouped. The Arts Council purged Eric Mottram from The Poetry Review, Andrew Motion and Blake Morrison edited the Penguin Book of Contemporary Poetry (which promoted the work of all the wrong Irish, working class, and feminist poets and which thoroughly misunderstood postmodernism), Craig Raine took over at Faber and Faber while also launching The Martians, and Bloodaxe published the deceptive Hulse /Kennedy /Morley New Poetry anthology (which, like the Motion and Morrison, also backed the wrong Irishmen, working stiffs, and ladies, and which possibly misunderstood postmodernism even more thoroughly). This book more or less coincided with the arrival of the New Generation, with Simon Armitage as the point man, and a good deal of vulgar but commercially effective media hype on behalf of the lads.
Caddel and Quartermain oppose their anthology to "the narrow lineage of contemporary poets from Philip Larkin to Craig Raine and Simon Armitage" and to their attendant "collectives" (the Movement, the Martians, and the New Generation). They oppose the typical poems by these poets because they find them to be "a closed, monolineal utterance, demanding little of the reader but passive consumption." Iain Sinclair, who manages to mock and deride almost as many of his friends as his enemies in his introduction, ultimately finds only Donald Allen's book and the 1987 Andrew Crozier/Tim Longville anthology of mostly Cambridge-based and Prynne-influenced poets, A Various Art, to be in any way models for his own. He rejects a "politically correct scorecard" of race, sex or educational status and anthologies with anything other than an aesthetic agenda. The New Generation poets, he says, "have arrived in our midst like pod people." The work he values "is that which seems most remote, alienated, fractured." In his selections, he admits only to "registering a prejudice, not essaying an historical survey." If Sinclair's and Caddel-Quartermain's reading of recent poetry wars seems to an outsider verging on paranoia, it's worth noting that Caddel and Quartermain report that it's "no accident, in this adversarial context, that when Rupert Murdoch's media empire News International took over the Collins publishing group, an early priority was to close the Paladin Poetry series (in which a number of the most innovative writers featured here had appeared), destroying much of the remaining stock."
If there is something legitimately embattled in these two introductions and in the contents of some of the poetry itself, there is also something disturbingly exclusionary, self-protective, and maybe even deluded as well. When Keith Tuma first mentions Conductors of Chaos in his book, he does so in the context of worrying the bone of authenticity as it is debated by theorists of the avant-garde like Peter Burger, Renatta Poggioli, and Charles Bernstein. Willing in the end to accept a "neo-avant-garde" with its "traditions alongside other [competing] traditions," he questions Burger's rhetoric of genuineness and Poggioli's insistence on avant-garde "agonism" and "alienation." The poetry among the Conductors and Others that Tuma likes to read can be read as well in the seminar room as on the battlements. It can also instructively be read beside valuable poetries deriving from "other traditions." The problem with many among the Others and Conductors is in part their unwillingness to understand that Simon Armitage and Robert Crawford are not Rupert Murdoch and Bill Gates, that a late stage in an art's development might legitimately produce an atmosphere of accommodation and catholicity of taste, that, as Tuma says, avant-garde traditions now exist alongside other traditions and that the work itself might properly "leave its first coterie audience behind and enter the public sphere" without pretending that "radical subversion of institutions or large-scale social change is likely to result." If Jeremy Prynne really ought to read Geoffrey Hill and if Hill should really read Prynne, certainly those of us who buy these books need to read both of them. It says something about the stage which the avant-garde tradition has reached, even in Britain where the going has admittedly been difficult, that anthologies published by a major university press like Wesleyan and a commercial press like Picador can even exist. And at this writing it is Oxford (OUP in Britain rather than OUP in New York, which will indeed publish Tuma's anthology) - owned by Oxford and not by Rupert Murdoch - which has recently scuttled its poetry list, a list not known for poets among the remote, the alienated, or the fractured.
My last epigraph above is from Geoffrey Hill's The Triumph of Love, certainly one of the great books of British poetry published during the century's last decade. It may be a symptom of an oversimplified oppositional tactics, of pitting "them" against "us" and "their" notion of a unitary culture against "our" ideas of pluralism and diversity reaching back to a fourteenth century plain full of Saxon, Norman and Cymric folk, that Geoffrey Hill is seen in Other only as a poet of "stylized anglophilia" like Philip Larkin. His poetry could not, any more than Paul Muldoon's, Peter Reading's, and any number of others' in the Armitage/Crawford Penguin, possibly be characterized as "closed, monolineal utterance." Without engaging the question of who might be more remote, alienated, and fractured than thou, it's worth noting the polyvocal strategies and oblique encodings of Hill's recent work at this millennial moment of cultural dis-ease that might, in its sometimes almost autistic soundings, be read inside, rather than outside and against, the context established by work appearing in Other and Conductors of Chaos. Did Hill and Prynne know each other at Cambridge? Do they even now read each other's work with any sympathy? My guess is that the answer to both questions is no. But it is these two ferociously difficult and demanding poets who seem to me to have produced the most challenging work to come out of Britain in the last twenty years. Hill's brief evocations of Bletchley Park during the war in The Triumph of Love move me enormously. Here was a moment when the remote, the alienated and the fractured - all those mathematicians, linguists, chess grand masters, crossword-puzzle addicts, proto-computer nerds, misfit musicologists, men and women of every conceivable arcane and dubious passion - sat down together to break the Nazi codes and save the world. I like to think of Hill and Prynne and certain related poets in these books among them - Penguins, Conductors, and Others - born again as Bletchley magi working on a common poem in common cause.