V: Unfinished Business, Current Events

So why is there no anthology of British poetry that represents both Prynne and Hill, both Raworth and Fenton, both Riley and Maxwell, both Allen Fisher and Peter Reading, both Roy Fisher and C.H. Sisson? At this writing, Keith Tuma is trying to edit such a book for OUP, a book which will moreover recognize the sources of various contending traditions discussed above by reaching all the way back (with long and sometimes surprising selections) to Hardy and Eliot, Edward Thomas and Mina Loy, Robert Graves and David Jones, Basil Bunting and W.H. Auden. Along the way, the book will recover work by Joseph Gordon Macleod, Charles Madge, Nicholas Moore, John Rodker, Lynette Roberts, Rosemary Tonks, F.T. Prince, and David Gascoyne, while going on to print Gael Turnbull with Thom Gunn, John Riley with Tony Harrison, Andrew Crozier with Craig Raine, and Maggie O'Sullivan with Carol Ann Duffy. Instead of giving the reader the almost meaningless tiny selections common to most anthologies, Tuma will print, for example, all of Bunting's Briggflatts, all of W.S. Graham's The Nightfishing, all of Tony Harrison's V, the whole of "Introit" and "The Return" from Fisher's A Furnace, and fifteen sections from Hill's Mercian Hymns. Such full-scale generosity to long works has in the past mostly been accorded only the likes of Eliot and Pound. Although Tuma is acutely conscious of the strengths of Britain's multicultural poets - E.A. Markham, David Dabydeen, and Benjamin Zephaniah are in the book - the anthology will not strive to implement things like gender balance, affirmative action, or other kinds of politically correct pieties in formulaic ways. It will not assume that skill is democratic, even though the muse may be deregulated. Political equality does not mean that people are given an equal ability to write good poems. But the anthology is also willing to risk including radically experimental poems where aesthetic standards like those confidently put forward by O'Brien and Armitage-Crawford must be willingly suspended. When we are truly entering the unknown - as we do in some of the poems that Tuma will print by poets who appear in Conductors of Chaos - we must acknowledge the difficulty of placing value on unprecedented experiences which we are in fact having for the first time. Along with the work of many fine Irish poets whose poetry I have excluded from this discussion in order to focus on at least some of the Brits, American readers will at last be able to compare a range of poetries generally antagonistic to one another and decide for themselves if some kind of dialogue between them is possible or interesting without having to subscribe to six or eight small press catalogues, or surf the Web for distributors of books and pamphlets published in tiny editions across the water.

Until Tuma's anthology appears, we seem to be left with the Armitage-Crawford Penguin, the Caddel-Quartermain Other, and the news (just in) that Conductors of Chaos is not only permanently out of print but also - no doubt intensifying the British alternative poets' sense of exclusion by and hostility toward the mainstream - that it has in fact been replaced at Picador by The Firebox, an anthology much like the Penguin, edited by Sean O'Brien without as high a degree of openness to experimental work as one had sensed in The Deregulated Muse. O'Brien's introduction, like Armitage-Crawford's, makes much of notions of pluralism. So does the introduction to Other and that of the 1993 Hulse-Kennedy-Morley New Poetry anthology. Ideas of pluralism are extended in these books to race, religion, region, class, language, gender, sexual preference - to everything, in fact, except poetics. There each book pretty much draws its own particular line. O'Brien's new Picador includes even fewer of the younger poets who appeared in the Iain Sinclair anthology it has just displaced than the Penguin, and the Penguin includes just one. I suppose Keith Tuma will be attacked in some quarters on the Obstinate Isle as an American interloper willing to extend pluralism to poetics. But he has the blessing of this reader. He sails in a big ship and will land a big and various catch.

Finally, rereading this essay, my own omissions disturb me. While discussing British poets, I have intentionally written only about the English, not making it sufficiently clear that the editors and authors of all these books, and Armitage and Crawford in particular, are clear that much of the most interesting poetry being written off the mainland of western Europe is written at a time of political devolution by poets from Wales and Scotland, some of them not writing in English. And my earlier contention that American poetry readers already know enough about the mainstream Irish poets certainly ought not to imply that I think they know anything at all about poets in Other like Randolph Healey, Billy Mills, Maurice Scully, or Catherine Walsh, whose work derives not so much from Yeats, MacNeice, and Kavanagh as from Coffey, MacGreevy, and Beckett, or that they are any better acquainted with the poems in Irish by Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill than they are with the poems in Scottish Gaelic by Sorley MacLean. The best way, under the circumstances, that I can make a sudden exit from an essay that has grown very long through wanting to quote at length some work I know my reader will not have seen, is to quote yet one more time. The poem by Peter Finch, a Welshman, appears in Other. It is called "Why Do You Want to Be English?"

You can't do English much
a lot of them
really don't have much to do with English
I'm English they are going to steal my cattle

Does doing an English
overlaid with a false English
mean you are not British
English is a straw dog, a real dilemma

I am interested in English as one blossom
one hundred percent English free of guilt
not my ancestors ran the Roman Empire

The choice:
Cambridge English
English Bengali like the remnants of Bosnia
I could go on

English disjuncture like a blind stick
please speak clearly after the long tone
archipelago consensus     no longer a land mass
do not write anything down