From Scotland to suburbia: A landscape of current British poetry
A Landscape of Current British Poetry
The perceptions of one’s own country by a stranger may be puzzling, irritating or amusing, but they are bound, if they are honest, to be educational, since seeing the familiar through an untutored set of eyes can not fail to give one a new perspective on it. This lesson was brought home to me in a small way some years ago, when I made the acquaintance of a young Greek who had come to pursue postgraduate studies at a university in California. After I got to know him a bit, he asked one day if he could put a question to me. Why, he wondered, were there so many insane people in the United States? I replied that I wasn’t very happy either about what was going on in Washington. But it turned out that his question was not a figure of speech: he wanted to know why so many people who clearly had mental health problems were to be seen wandering the streets of America’s cities.
I remembered my Greek friend’s question later when I was introduced to a Japanese engineer who had just arrived in the US. What, I asked him, was the most surprising thing he found in America? The huge size of people’s living quarters, he answered immediately, and to me, surprisingly, since I happened to know that the apartments in the building where he was living were by American standards tiny.
On reflection, I found these perceptions not only startling, but also educational. I knew of course that Japanese homes tended to be small, and that Greece’s social welfare programmes and strongly family-based society provided almost everyone with at least enough care to keep them off the street. But it would never have occurred to me that these particular manifestations of American affluence and of American social dysfunction had progressed to the point where they would be the first things which a foreigner would notice.
It is in the hope that my own callow observations on the contemporary British poetry scene may similarly because of their very naivetï¿½ prove of interest that I have undertaken to set them forth here in the following survey of the current British poetry scene by one who is an outsider to it. The purpose of my remarks is not to pass any definitive judgements on the state of that scene, a task for which I am hardly qualified, but rather to provoke the sort of puzzlement, irritation or amusement (and if at my own expense, so be it) which might initiate in my readers a train of thought which can lead them to a new perspective on their own poetic world.
Not, however, that I have no qualifications for the task beyond my own lack of preconceptions. Though my own reputation as a poet is tiny, it is there, and is based primarily on the generosity with which a handful of British poets and editors have received my work. Moreover, British poetry from Chaucer to Dylan Thomas has been a life-long love and study of mine. But my familiarity with more recent British poetry has heretofore been confined to a limited acquaintance with a few of the most prominent names. Nor may I justly claim to provide any insight on the subject as an American poet or an American critic, since such a claim would imply a substantial involvement with the contemporary poetry scene in America, whereas my own modest poetic work has been accomplished in almost complete isolation from the current literary and academic establishments of my own country. A further difficulty was imposed by another sort of isolation: living as I do six thousand miles from London, the sources of very current British verse available to me are scarce and erratic.
I have nevertheless been able to put together what I hope is a roughly accurate map of much of the state of British poetry over the last three to four years, based on the poetic content of recent issues of such magazines as Acumen, Agenda, Ambit, Angel Exhaust, Chapman, The Dark Horse, London Magazine, The London Review of Books, Madam X, The Poet’s Voice, Poetry London Newsletter, Poetry Review, PN Review, Rialto, Stand, Swansea Review, Tabla and The Times Literary Supplement, collections by current British poets, mostly published since 1994, from Bloodaxe, Carcanet, Peterloo, Smith/Doorstop and The University of Salzburg Press, the majority of the Oxford Poets volumes published in that same period, and a few other sources. I also was able to gather quite a bit of material from the Internet, in forms which I will describe later. That this material despite its diversity represents a rather random sampling of the current poetic scene in Britain may be as much an advantage as the reverse: if it means that I have missed important areas of activity and overemphasized peripheral ones, it also ensures that no preconceptions will have been smuggled into my interpretations due to their being based on material selected according to pre-existing notions of its proper significance.
There has emerged in my mind from my experience of this literature a landscape of current British poetry as including five schools of poets, who practice five types of styles. These schools are not very sharply defined: most poets only more or less belong to one, and some poets can be put into more than one. The styles also are to be considered more as general tendencies than as absolutely definable genres; and though I find that each style tends to be particularly characteristic of one group, in practice you can find examples of most of the styles in most of the groups. In spite of their blurred boundaries, I feel that the schools and styles are identifiable enough for it to make sense to talk about them.
The first clear impression I formed when I began my research was that today’s best British poetry, or at least that which is most to my taste, is associated with Scotland – I mean by this the work of poets who publish in Scottish magazines, or whom I have found in other magazines but whom I infer from various indications to have a Scottish background (and it might be appropriate to add here that the present essay was researched and to a very great extent written before I had any idea that it might eventually be published in a Scottish magazine). These poets constitute the first of the schools I have perceived, and I will for convenience call them the Scottish school, even though some of its members may not actually be from or in Scotland.
The work of these Scottish poets exemplifies many of the qualities which I personally find most appealing in poetry: a diction which is both naturally colloquial and deliberately poetic, the ability to express intense emotion with unapologetic directness but without sentimentality, an unaffected delight in lyric songfulness, an ability to be humorous while still being serious and, often, a non-polemical political and social consciousness which gains conviction from the quietness of its rage. These are, I think, old fashioned virtues, or at least currently neglected ones. At any rate, Scottish poetry seems to me to have kept alive the great modernist tradition which started to fall into discredit in Britain and America around 1950. Indeed, to read today’s Scottish poets, one might think that the great post-modernist revolution in British and American poetry had never happened. Nor is this their only attractive quality. Although other poets, such as John Lyons and Matt Simpson, have made interesting attempts to make dialectical English of various sorts into a credible vehicle for modern verse, it is the Scottish school which by far makes the most extensive and ambitious attempts to employ the resources of dialect for other than strictly comic ends. For example, of all the poems which I read in preparation for these remarks, I thought that one of the most purely wonderful was W S Milne’s translation of a lengthy passage from Dante into the thickest of Lallans. Another appealing feature of many Scottish poets is their ability to write verse with political implications which gains in credibility by its lack of ideological tendentiousness. For example, the work of a number of Scottish women poets, such as Maureen Sangster and Joan Lennon, seems to me to illustrate how effective feminist poetry can be when it eschews any externally determined political agenda and instead gains its authority by speaking honestly from a position which could be imaginatively realized only by a female consciousness.
I further find the Scottish poets to be the most distinguished practitioners of two of the stylistic trends which I have perceived in current British verse. The first of these is the Lyric style, by which I mean pretty much the text-book definition: a short, melodic poem expressing erotic, melancholy or exuberant emotion. Lyric of course is commonly found also among other schools, but elsewhere it usually seems very much an exercise; by and large, it is only the Scottish poets who seem to have kept the ability to write lyrics which are emotional expressions rather than literary demonstrations. For instance, it almost only among them that I have found lyrics which I could imagine someone in real life actually giving to someone else whom they wanted to seduce. More generally, the songfulness of Scottish poetry even in non-lyric modes is something I too often miss elsewhere. Even a random glance through the poets I’ve mentioned reveals an instinctive songfulness as a common element among radically different styles, from the Neolithic chant of :
Who’s at the Hoy shore, by starlight
Simmering two fish?
The King of Stars and Oceans.
to the balladic reel of:
Noo gaither roond baith quine and loon
and a nitherin screed Eh’ll read
o hoo auld Scrapie Powrie stole
thi sowels of thi still-waurm deid.
the pure folk song of:
Come awa in ben
Come oot o’ the stour,
Dark is the nicht
Oot there, an dour.
the Dylan Thomas-like oracular tolling of:
Where long dead sorrows melted in my mouth,
And cherry nipples arched to a dappled sun
That fledged the marrow of my youth
the dialectical resonance of:
Oa, cum an in an doan’t stand at thee doar!
I doan’t get meny cum ti see me noo.
the slyly precise aural interweavings of:
My scales slip so sweetly,
my tongue forks so
and even in a less traditionally lyric poet such as, who can evoke a music which suggests an atonal :
I try to picture you
in that east-facing room,
the sky a hot blue,
waves of pear blossom
at the tall window.
Whatever their stylistic differences, none of these poets has forgotten that poetry is utterance, not scribbling. It is significant that Tom Scott, one of the finest of Scottish poets and perhaps the most impressively songful of all, indicated that he considered the art of sound to be the salient characteristic which raises poetry above the level of being mere verse in his comment, “Poetry is verse that sings with its own unique music.”
The second style which I find particularly characteristic of the Scottish school, though again it is not their exclusive property, is what I would call the Colloquialist. Colloquialist poems are written in language which is deliberately vernacular, everyday and non-academic. In the hands of a skilled poet, it can be at the same time quite poetic. Many Colloquialist poems are dramatic monologues giving a ï¿½slice of life’ episode that sums up an important aspect of the speaker’s existence, often in a manner reminiscent of Browning. Sometimes these dramatic monologues, like Browning’s, are historical set-pieces; others employ a contemporary setting in order to make a political or social statement rather than a historical one. In such monologues – recent examples include Jackie Kay’s ï¿½Ghost of a Girl Collier, 1837′ and Gerry Cambridge’s ï¿½An Old Crofter Speaks’ – we see brilliant realisations of one of the most important points in the modernist agenda, the revelation of the genuinely tragic stature of very ordinary lives.
Other Colloquialist poems – good examples would be some other of the poems of the versatile Jackie Kay – are less formal and less traditionally literary monologues, characterised by contemporary themes, a lively, often comic, diction and vivid, sometimes racy playing with everyday language, along with an underlying seriousness. In this combination of qualities, this particular variant of the Colloquialist style might be compared with the best of the stand-up comic genre – I’m thinking of people such as Lord Buckley, Lennie Bruce, Richard Pryor or George Carlin, who are verbal artists on a level that the faintly derogatory term stand-up comic fails to convey. Though poems in the Colloquialist style sometimes risk the danger of descending into the banality of mere entertainment, I think that at its best verse in this style is one of the most admirable things happening in the current British poetry scene, since it provides an example of a valid poetic which is particularly well and effectively integrated within its general culture.
It occurs to me that I might clarify the appeal of today’s Scottish poetry by invoking a concept which could also prove useful later in describing my reaction to other schools. That concept I call the implicit preface. I believe that any poem can be seen as having a preface which derives from the culture in which it is written. Occasionally this preface is made explicit, as with the ancient Greeks in the most famous of all such prefaces, ï¿½Sing, goddess’. But more often the preface is left implicit: for the Imperial Romans, for instance, that preface was, ï¿½Here is a poem worthy of what our culture must now be’; for medieval poets it was, ï¿½Here is a prayer’, for the Elizabethans, ï¿½This is our new world’. Victorian poets, with their magisterial sense of moral obligation, might be said to preface their works, ï¿½It is my duty to inform you . . .’, while the poetry of the first half of the twentieth century, which is what I mean by the modernist era, begins ï¿½Here is a way to make sense of this mess’. The Scottish poets, with their instinctive songfulness and unassuming though impressive technical skill and clear sense of commonality with their wider society, seem to me to preface their poems, ï¿½Here is a song I wrote’.
The poets of the second school which emerged from my experience of current British verse are associated with a geography, not of the map, but of the mind. Their poems seem to take place in a generic, somewhat posh, suburban landscape which could be anywhere: neat, prosperous houses, manicured gardens, terribly nice people. This is the home ground of this second school, and the setting for most of their work. I will therefore call them the Suburbanites. The phrase may be a bit misleading, since their poetic environment is not confined strictly to suburbia, but even when their poems are explicitly set in a city, it seems to be in one of the leafier, gentrified, low-density neighbourhoods rather than in the gritty urban core. But more often, the identification with bedroom communities is quite open: one poet whom I associate with this school has even written a sequence of poems entitled ï¿½Suburban Myths’.
It would be difficult to imagine a group more different from the Scots. Indeed, when I progressed from the Scottish poets to the Suburbanite ones, I felt as if I had wandered out of a conclave of bards and stumbled upon a creative writing workshop. Suburbanite verse tends to be aggressively quotidian in its content, which is typically marked by familiar references to driving the family car, watching TV, putting the kids to bed, divorcing and taking a lover, looking at old snapshots and remembering one’s grandmother. This poetry seems to be aimed at a comfortable, upper-middle-class suburban audience, to whom it offers the same sort of pleasure of recognition as do the ï¿½lifestyle’ articles one finds in the feature section of the newspapers, on topics such as ï¿½Problems with a Step-daughter’, or ï¿½Encountering an Ex-Lover’ or ï¿½Are We Numb to Violence on the News?’ One, at least if one is a certain kind of a one, reads these things with narcissistic delight: why, that’s just what my friends and I talk about. All in all, I would say that the implicit preface of this school’s poems is, ï¿½Darling, guess what’s happened!’
The Suburbanites, if I understand them (which I admit I may not), conceive poetry as a vehicle for transforming muted personal anxieties into thoughtful exercises in literary craftsmanship, and I have come to think of their way of writing as the Well-Crafted style. Much of this sort of poetry follows the same, predictable rhetorical strategy. It begins with a teaser, a rhetorical tugging at your sleeve to get you interested in what’s about to happen. Many of these teasers aim at arousing a puzzled interest by employing the Pronoun Mysterious in the first line: “Driving to meet you . . .”, or “She had always hated orange”. Alternatively it can present an unexplained portrait, on the assumption that we’ll respond by wanting it explained: “Roses litter the frosty alley . . .”, or “The women are singing in the patisserie”. And there are other techniques. Then comes the pitch, the substance of the poem as a satisfaction of the sense of incompleteness which the teaser has deliberately aroused. And finally, in the last line or two, the fillip: a brief, striking, pithy sentence or phrase which uses wit, irony, or humour to reinforce, undercut or give a new perspective on the pitch: “But chocolate never tasted right again”, or “ï¿½I knew he’d let us down,’ says Sandra”. Three of the preceding six examples I have made up in the spirit of parody; the remaining three are actual quotes from Suburbanite poets. It will no doubt be obvious to the reader which are which.
It is clear where this teaser-pitch-fillip pattern comes from: it is the standard rhetorical strategy of advertising. Look at almost any advertisement in any medium and you are likely to find an example. For example, I have before me as I write this a recent issue of The Economist magazine, which contains a full page ad for IBM headed, in huge blue letters, CARRIER PIGEONS. This is a teaser aimed at making me say, “Carrier pigeons? What can that have to do with IBM?” Reading the ad’s text to satisfy my curiosity, I’m given the pitch that no matter how much communications hardware a world-wide business may have – fax machines, phones, email, even carrier pigeons – it still needs a business database, and IBM specialises in supporting such databases for its customers world wide. The article ends with the highlighted phrase, “IBM: Solutions for a small planet”, a fillip which puts a clever slant on the ad’s theme of IBM’s world-wide database services to suggest with bland effrontery that this huge and ruthless multi-national corporation is a member in good standing of the Greens. It really shouldn’t be too surprising that even poets are influenced by this rhetorical strategy, since they like everyone else in our society are exposed to it dozens of times a day.
In addition to a standardised rhetorical structure, the Well-Crafted style is characterised by a predilection for a few particular types of ornamentation. One popular trope is the Brief Catalogue, a series of three or four related words or phrases, such as “walls, clock, kettle”, or “eyes, brows and chins”, or “chat, chips and baked beans”. Apparently the rule is that you may do this once, and only once, per poem. A related and even more common device is the “deep, blue sea” construction, consisting of a sensitively chosen adjective followed by an even more sensitively chosen adjective, after which, to great fanfare, enter the noun: “soft, uneasy huffs”, “babbling, silvered sky”, “cool, surgical music”, “immense, empty prairie”, or “dark, impossible bridge”. (The foregoing are all real examples.) Another quality which particularly marks this group is that a remarkably high percentage of their poems occupy between two thirds of, and exactly one, page, as if their authors had in mind maximising their output’s marketability by providing editors with conveniently page-sized blocks of verse.
Suburbanitism is a tendency rather than an absolute category, and many of its practitioners can be seen as belonging also to other schools; in particular, there is a great deal of similarity and even overlap between the Suburbanites and the Academic school which I shall describe presently. But perhaps the most purely Suburbanite poets whom I have encountered are Julia Copus, Katherine Frost, Carol Satyamurti, and Penelope Shuttle, with Suburbanite influence also perceptible in Maura Dooley and Moniza Alvi, though these latter two succeed in some of their poems in escaping it. It should be pointed out that what unites these authors is a style rather than a subject matter; most of these poets also write poems which are deliberately removed from the Suburban milieu, which nevertheless still exhibit the Well-Crafted style and other Suburbanite characteristics; while on the other hand, the verse of Stewart Conn demonstrates that it is possible to write poems about the home routines of contemporary life without being a Suburbanite in the literary sense, though this may have something to do with his being a Scot.
Well, taste is the king of all, and although the ubiquitousness of this type of poetry is evidence that it is to many people’s, I have no doubt been unable to conceal that it is not to mine. I have much more positive though ambiguous feelings about the poets of the next school that emerged from my explorations, whom I call the City Kids, because they are (at least as one conceives them from the imagery and tone of their poems) young, urban and hip. I take them to be the avant garde of the current British verse scene; certainly they are the ones who seem to me most seriously experimental and most committed to extending the resources of language in order to explore fundamentally new ways of saying things. Poems which I have seen by Michael Ayres, David Bircumshaw and Norman Jope are particularly good examples of this school.
The style most closely associated with the City Kids is what I would call neo-surrealist, since it tries to extend the surrealist agenda along the lines pioneered by William Burroughs, whose ï¿½cut-up technique’ attempts to create, not (as the surrealists did) a language which could go beyond ordinary meaning in order to reveal the deep structures of the mind, but rather a language which could go beyond meaning itself. Two lines from a recent poem by Anthony Barnett seem to sum up the neo-surrealist method:
You see, I mix up my words in a
confrontation between vacuum and atmosphere
The neo-surrealist style of the City Kids has, I think, major virtues and major weaknesses. In its attempt to go beyond meaning, neo-surrealism raises inarticulateness to a means of elaborate expression: the unspoken preface to this type of poem might be, ï¿½Well, like, man, you know . . .’ The language employed by these poets reminds me of Homer’s description of Odysseus, whose flow of words was like a blizzard of rhetoric dazzling his hearers. But whereas Odysseus’s verbal blizzard was meant to smother all reluctance to be persuaded, the City Kids in their neo-surrealist verbal blizzards seem interested in covering up the streets and hills and trees of reality with a deep blanket of linguistic snow just for the pleasure of then being able to contemplate the weirdly abstract new contours of the resulting world. These lines from‘s prose poem ï¿½Cornucopia’ are a good illustration of what I mean:
Roads of black olives, trampled; sleepers zebra’d with
an onyx mud slashed over turquoise glebes, desert fringing
them with skins of caramel that marslight varnishes; such
are the lineaments of other kingdoms. Here is a horn of
plaster, melted cheeses sleeking under, the skies condensed
to milkwhite weather fronts.
That is as fascinating as a kaleidoscope; the question is whether it is any more meaningful. At their best, these poets can make us look at language itself differently, which is a considerable contribution, and which makes large patches of their work intriguing on a first reading. But I’m not sure if their method has the potential to do more than that. The risk of literary experimentation is that the new and interesting pathways it opens up may turn out to be dead ends. The City Kids deserve a great deal of respect for taking that risk; in my opinion it remains to be seen whether it will pay off.
It is possible that the City Kids bulk larger in my impression of the current British poetry scene than they would in that of most of my readers because they are the school which has so far best established its presence on the Internet, which made their poems as easily accessible to me in California as any published in San Francisco. I would like to digress and expand briefly on this subject to offer a few speculations on the propagation of British verse. In order to do so, I must first describe the present character of that propagation as I understand it.
As I read through the current British verse available to me, I formed an impression of a rough but clear sort of cursus honorum among British poets, consisting of successive publication in 1) student and very local or short-lived poetry magazines, 2) small but well-established regional magazines which one British poet of my acquaintance has described as “hobbyist”, 3) the more prominent regionally based magazines which have a national reputation, 4) major national magazines like Agenda, Chapman or London Magazine, or inclusion in an anthology published by a highly regarded commercial or academic publisher, leading finally to 5) induction into the Valhalla of an individual Selected or Collected poems by such a publisher. No doubt the situation is more complex than this, and I haven’t been able to take into account such factors as performance or prize competitions, but at least a couple of the British poets to whom I have communicated this impression have told me that overall it is generally recognisable.
The key concept underlying such a situation is that of a hierarchy of prestige among the various channels for communicating poetry. At the very bottom are methods such as posting one’s poems on the sides of buildings or reciting them in pubs in exchange for a pint: though this may be publication in the broad meaning of the term, it is not considered real publication in the careerist sense. Real publications have three characteristics: they are printed on paper bound into books or magazines, they are sold in shops or by subscription, and they are refereed by editors with generally recognised credentials for doing so. It is this last point that chiefly determines the amount of realness – that is, the prestige – of a given publication: the greater the respect commanded by the academic or commercial institutions with which the referees are associated, the more real, or prestigious, the publication will be.
The impact of this way of propagating poetry on the poetic life of a nation is immense, since it has the effect of establishing a structured class of literary mandarins as the arbiters of what type of poetry will be encouraged to establish itself. And because its own prestige depends on the legitimacy of current perceptions of literary and academic respectability, this class, whatever their politics may be, will in the literary sense be deeply conservative.
It is no doubt rash to predict the future course of either literature or technology, but since poets are supposed to be prophets, I will take the risk and predict that the Internet will bring about the end of the predominance of this hierarchy of poetic respectability. It will do so, I believe, by eroding that hierarchy’s most fundamental power: the ability to attribute different amounts of realness to various publications. The appearance of on-line magazines with a professional level of design is already making it difficult to define a hierarchy of prestige in verse propagated via the Internet, and fortunately the situation is very likely in the future to become even more confusing. If these trends continue, the effect could be the increasing isolation, and eventually the supplanting, of the currently established hierarchy of verse publication by a much more freewheeling and diverse body of work which will be exempt from the necessity of conforming to the requirements of the literary mandarins and will thus really be free to establish its worth by competition in the marketplace of public taste.
I suspect that the developments which I have just predicted will be particularly unwelcome among the poetic school which I am about to describe now, and which I call the Academics, for two reasons. First, it is apparent from references in their own poetry that they often are academics in the proper sense, that is, faculty members at colleges and universities. But their work is also academic in the wider, descriptive sense of being formal, bookish, and in conformance to an implicitly shared body of rules. In spite of their frequent modernistic acceptance of traditionally unpoetic subject matter, there is something about these poets that recalls the eighteenth century, when the right style was considered to be that practiced by the right people, the right people being those who practiced the right style.
And in fact this Academic school is the one which is most closely of all associated with a single dominant style, which I have therefore come to call the Academic style. It is this style which separates the Academics from their close relations the Suburbanites, with whom they seem to share the same upper middle class milieu and concerns. The Academic style is typically characterised by the display of traditional humanistic learning and a high degree of technical poetic skill. Rhyme, either full or slant, is often used with remarkable deftness, and the flow of imagery is maintained with both vividness and discipline.
Among the poets who share these general stylistic characteristics, a number of subspecies may be distinguished. One of these I would call the Pure Professors, since their work is the most purely Academic stylistically, leaving the most distinct impression of, as Peter Mortimer has written, “the verse of the academic, like the faint hint of a passing perfume”. The clearest examples in my experience are probably Peter Porter, Lawrence Sail and Charles Tomlinson, all of whose work is characterised by such consistent elegance, thoughtfulness and craftsmanship that I found I could not get through any one of their collections of verse without starting to groan towards the end, “Oh God, not another one!” Another group might be called Safe Experimentalists, since they, like the City Kids, are engaged in what is ostensibly experimental poetry, but unlike those impressionistic anarchists, they avoid the risks involved in experimentation by confining themselves to carefully controlled repetitions of experiments which have long since proved profitable – for instance, George Szirtesï¿½s use of such innovative techniques as drawing parallels between poetry and photography or refurbishing the symbols of classical literature as a context for treating important contemporary problems like the turmoil in Eastern Europe, or Christopher Middleton’s bold explorations of territory minutely mapped by Wallace Stevens over half a century ago. A third subset, or perhaps it should be called a small related school, is Academic in that its primary goal seems to be to demonstrate that you can too write good and accessible poems about contemporary life. This group I find the most readable of the Academics. An example is Ron Butlin, whose poetry, if it too often reads like examples provided by a creative writing workshop leader, is still enjoyable and unpretentious. Perhaps here as in the case of Stewart Conn we have the case of a poet whom the salubrious influence of Scotland has enabled to rise above his category.
In addition to its manifest skill, the Academic style is marked also by a reluctance directly to express intense emotion, which seems to me a very strange characteristic for a poetry to have. I read the Academics with admiration, but I am always left wondering what all this ingenuity is in service of: I put down their poems with a feeling of impressive technique in search of something to mean, and a reluctant conclusion that the technique of the Academics is exercised ultimately for its own sake. Accordingly I must report if I am to be honest that, as impressed as I am by the undeniable accomplishments of these poets, emotionally most of their work leaves me cold.
I think that the reason for this failure to mean in emotional terms derives, paradoxically, exactly from the fact of the Academic school’s success. The Academic poet’s primary goal, I suspect, is to establish and retain membership in a currently dominant school of poetry by demonstrating that he or she is able to employ the right style and therefore must be one of the right people. The implicit preface of this type of poetry is, ï¿½Here are my credentials’. Those credentials compel respect for their skill and learning. But they do not for me fill the emotional hole at the heart of this type of poetry.
This credentialing process, that is, this claim to official relevance and credibility, can also be seen at work, I think, in the nature of the titles which currently tend to be given to the collections of poetry published by the most well established presses. Like the names of business firms, the titles of these books are carefully constructed to convey a definite image, if possible an image which will suggest by flattery that the business (or poetry) in question has a claim to the attention of, and a proper place in the life of, the potential customer (or reader). In the commercial sphere, a good example of what I mean is the name of a wildly popular restaurant chain, Hard Rock Cafe, which suggests to its patrons an alluring combination of retro innocence and bohemian sophistication. For examples from the literary world, consider the titles of a random selection of poetry books, the majority of them authored by Academics or their close relations the Suburbanites, published by prestigious presses in the past few years: Best China Sky, Blind Field, Bridge Passages, Building a City for Jamie, Building into Air, Changing the Subject, Histories of Desire, Intimate Chronicles, Jubilation, Maiden Speech, Millennial Fables, News from the Front, Phrase Book, Possible Worlds, Provisions of Light, Striking Distance, Taxing the Rain, The Air Show, The Chair of Babel, The Country at my Shoulder, The Door in the Wall, The Shuttered Eye. The first thing one notices about these titles is the prevalence of puns. ï¿½Bridge Passages’, for instance, can be segments of music or pieces of writing about real or metaphorical bridges; ï¿½Changing the Subject’ can mean switching to another topic or altering the consciousness of a perceiver; and similar word plays may be seen in most of the other titles. This use of puns is intended to create an image of the author as someone who is playfully yet seriously creative with language, and also to rope us into reading the book by giving us at the outset the pleasure of a small joke which we are intelligent enough to share with the author. On further examination, a second quality of many of these titles becomes clear: they offer us a promise, as attractive as it is absurd, that poetry will enable us to overcome the impotence to participate meaningfully in society and in history which has been imposed on us by current political and cultural conditions. ï¿½Building a City for Jamie’, for instance, or ï¿½Intimate Chronicles’, or ï¿½Histories of Desire’, all suggest that we can derive from various types of personal relationships, and from the poetry written about them, a sense of significance equal to that which we could gain from meaningfully affecting the historical process, if it were possible for us to do such a thing.
The final school which I perceive in current British poetry is not really a school, but an eclectic collection of poets who don’t at all belong to any of the other schools. For a long time I could not think of a name to put to them, but it finally dawned on me that they all did seem to have one thing in common: they have to a significant extent rejected the post-modernist traditions which have dominated English-language poetry since the mid-century. I will call them the Starters-Over, because I see in them an attempt to return to the great Anglo-American modernist tradition of Yeats, Pound, Eliot, Stevens, William Carlos Williams and Dylan Thomas, not in order to imitate or revive it (since we cannot follow an antique drum), but to use it as a place to back up to, a place from which to start over again in hope of finding new directions in poetry which will be more valid than the post-modernist trends which also started from there. I imagine their poems as being prefaced, “Here is how we should be doing it, maybe”.
I would include in this class James Keery, a master of quiet technique whose nature poems achieve a Japanese minuteness of observation; John Lyons, who uses English in a new way to capture the tropical vibrancy of an important but neglected heritage of English-speaking peoples; William Oxley, a distinguished example of a poet who through a commitment to extending the modernist project has been set somewhat outside the mainstream, which speaks poorly for the mainstream; and the really excellent Sophie Hannah, a sort of hip, 90s Stevie Smith whose talent for pointed and polished wit also embodies an older, specifically English tradition which goes right back to Dryden. There is also Jeremy Young, whose verses show how good academic poetry might have been if it had not been left to the Academics; and Peter Mortimer, whose vigorous fancy is an inheritance of the specifically 1960’s beat and hip incarnations of modernism. And there is Matt Simpson, whose scouse dialect poems are attractively muscular, and who can be impressive in some of his working-man’s slice of life pieces, which suggest a sort of Philip Larkin of the docks. These poets are clearly a very mixed lot, but they all, I think, share in one way or another a commitment to reviving and extending the true tradition. If we combine the loyal independence of this eclectic group with the street-wise curiosity of the City Kids and the tough and bracing winds blowing from the north, we can see that behind the domesticated facade of verse which official taste has enshrined in commercial and academic respectability, there exists a contemporary British poetry which is as energetic, ambitious, diverse, and morally serious as it has ever been in its long and splendid history.1
An earlier version of this paper was delivered by invitation at the University of Salzburg's 1996 conference on Contemporary British and Irish Poetry in the Making, and appears in the conference's Proceedings. For their help in researching this essay, and with no implication that they necessarily endorse the opinions or the judgements on individual poets expressed in it, I would like to thank Fred Beake, Douglas Clark and Tim Love.
Published 21 April 1999
Original in English
First published by Eurozine
© Contributed by Chapman / EurozinePDF/PRINT