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Aristocracies of One
Posted By Hannah Brooks-Motl On October 28, 2009 @ 2:22 pm In Essays | 1 Comment
On British and American Poetry
What is the difference between British and American poetry—especially contemporary poetry—and why are they different? Because the two poetries are written in the same language, it seems to make more sense to ask this question of them than to ask, for example, what the differences between Italian and Spanish poetry are, or to what degree Polish poetry differs from Russian poetry. But, though those countries share as much or more history than England and the United States, their poetries are not worried over in quite the same way. While the US and the UK have different histories, social fabrics, class structures, educational systems, geographies and climates, there remains the suspicion that some other explanation must exist for why their poetries do not match. They are different and nobody doubts it, but everybody wonders why and, perhaps even more, wants a description of how.
In the twentieth century, anthologies often opened with an attempt to explain the differences between American and British poetry. W. H. Auden’s introduction to the Faber Book of Modern American Poetry (1956) is almost wholly consumed with teasing out the differences between the two cultures’ verse. “From Bryant on,” he declares in the first paragraph, “there is scarcely one American poet whose work, if unsigned, could be mistaken for that of an Englishman.” Auden sees the defining characteristics of American poetry to be diversity (“no two poets could be more unlike each other than Longfellow and Whitman”), an uneasy relationship with nature (“in America, neither the size or condition or climate of the continent encourages . . . intimacy”), a restlessness that skewers the human relationship to both the past and the future, and a slightly self-deluded belief in the terms of its originality (“There is indeed an American mentality which is new and unique in the world but it is the product less of conscious political action than of nature, of the new and unique environment of the American continent”). These attributes stand in contrast to British poetry which prizes continuity, cozy landscapes and the longest view possible of literary tradition, so that the contemporary poet, laboring at the wrong end of the telescope, knows himself likely to be very insignificant indeed. Auden quotes Eliot’s famous tradition quip, but to ironic effect: “He [any European critic] would not, of course, deny that every poet must work hard but the suggestion in the first half of the sentence that no sense of tradition is acquired except by conscious effort would seem strange to him.” Auden is making the point that American poets, who must earn their long views, are more likely to feel themselves “a literary aristocracy of one.” That is, they write in their own peculiar vacuum, sure that what they are doing is at once more original and more necessary than anything done before, mainly because they feel no real connection to what has been done before, if they’re even aware of it. Before he makes his anthologist’s apologies, Auden quotes Tocqueville’s prophecy on the kind of poetry a democratic society would produce: “’I am persuaded that in the end democracy diverts the imagination from all that is external to man and fixes it on man alone. Democratic nations may amuse themselves for a while with considering the productions of nature, but they are excited in reality only by a survey of themselves. . .”
Auden’s observations of American poetry sound like today’s symptoms of it. The criticisms leveled at contemporary American poetry often revolve around its obsessions with the self, its skittishness, its lack of interest in craft and its emphasis on style, which can seem to insist on originality to the point of parody. In thinking about how American poetry has become the thing it has, re-reading some of these older tracts is helpful: critics like Cleanth Brooks and Donald Hall both agreed that a defining feature of American poetry—one that set it necessarily apart from British (though they did not agree on whether that was a good thing)—is its emphasis on originality. “American poetry . . . has always been outrageous,” wrote Hall. Talking about American poets’ early 20th century revolt against British influence, Brooks wrote “one effect . . . was to set a higher premium on originality itself.” Both Hall and Brooks were interested in the relationship between British and American poetry, the points at which the two had diverged and the consequences of that parting.
For Hall, the divorce saved American poetry from continuing to be the bad verse of the 1950s. “From the mid-twenties until very recently,” he wrote in the introduction to Contemporary American Poetry (1962), “American poetry has functioned as a part of the English tradition. The colloquial side of American literature—the side which valued ‘experience’ more than ‘civilization’—was neglected by the younger poets.” When the “younger poets” moved away from the civilized British tradition espoused by Eliot, free verse, colloquial speech and a “kind of imagination new to American poetry” could finally exist. The “new imagination,” according to Hall, required a different sort of reading, one that wasn’t concerned with “accuracy to externals” but with subjective experience. Brooks, of course, thought differently. While he believed that “the net result of the revolt was probably healthy,” he worried that American poets, in revolting against Victorianism, had actually narrowed their ability to make new poetry. By refusing not just the Victorians but the whole of the English literary tradition, Brooks argued that American poets were merely offering “a crust of modern American materials” on pies that were, essentially, yesterday’s leftovers. Brooks identified an emphasis on both surface and the “materials of poetry” as a result of the “revolt”; however, with no real interest in the past, poets could not “determine the relationship of these new materials to the older ‘poetic’ materials.” Inviting cars and colloquial speech into poetry did not automatically guarantee that anything other than vocabulary had changed. For Brooks, the surface shift concealed a deeper stasis.
The American relationship to “older ‘poetic’ materials”—English literary history—is often cited as the defining difference between British and American poetry. Donald Davie, who taught for many years at Vanderbilt, maintained that though Chaucer and Dryden and Pope were all available for Americans to claim, American poets simply did not want them. They were “pre-history” in that they were anterior to the American poetic moment. As an example, Davie recounts his amazement at opening an anthology of American poetry to find that more than three quarters of its poets were born after 1890. Differing views of literary history have by necessity shaped both what and how literature is taught in the two countries. According to Edward Lucie-Smith,
[t]he American sense of the past, of what is established and historic, remains different from ours. On their side of the Atlantic, for example, the year 1800 seems considerably more distant. Most of American literary history has taken place since that date; the bulk of ours happened before it . . . in the 20th century the modernist element has been an integral part of this American literature, and has perhaps been especially conspicuous in poetry. The result is that the study of modernist approaches and attitudes is a necessary background to the study of classic American texts—texts which in British terms may seem too recent even to merit inclusion as part of a standard degree course.
The quote touches upon a number of relationships that have more to do with both what kind of contemporary poetry is written these days—and how it is written—than perhaps Lucie-Smith realized. First, his assertion that the American sense of literary history is different from the British is not particularly new, nor is it particularly worth disputing. More interesting is Lucie-Smith’s emphasis on curricula and so the role of education itself. American students of poetry exist on a diet of American poetry that is less than 200 years old and mainly modernist; British students have a much longer history to work through, and many more styles—from madrigal to metaphysical—to digest. Lucie-Smith foregrounds the role of study and scholarship in the two approaches to literary history, and I would argue that education, perhaps more than anything else, has determined the contemporary poetry output of the two cultures.
In his introduction, Auden noted “that curious American phenomenon, the class in ‘Creative Writing.’” For Auden, the appearance of such classes showed just how distrustful Americans were of “the professional . . . the man who claims authority as a member of an elite which knows the law in some field or other.” By allowing that everyone could be a poet, creative writing classes stripped the role of any malingering specialness. European poets had status and rank and were read by “those who govern the country”; in the US, Auden believed, it remained “up to each individual poet to justify his existence by offering a unique product.” Poetry depended on personality; since everyone had some sort of personality, everyone could write poetry. This led to the proliferation of creative writing programs and MFA degrees and the dull debates that have encircled them for the last two decades. In the UK, the situation is a bit different. An MFA degree has recently been offered at King’s College in London, but the majority of creative writing degrees are something called an MLitt. They are year-long programs that consist of weekly workshops and at most one or two seminars. As a student pursuing an MLitt you are not required to teach undergraduates, take any classes other than those offered by your seminar, or pursue internships or any of the other “career-building” activities MFAs in the US advertise. It is a year to read what you want and write what you want. And, as a post-graduate course of study, it still generates a fair amount of suspicion in the UK. The belief that you can “teach” someone to write goes against the plain fact that for hundreds of selectively-remembered years all the best poets have had regular jobs. If you could teach someone to be a poet, the odds are they wouldn’t be a good one anyway. Similar to the anti-MFA arguments, anti-MLitt diatribes don’t carry as much weight because, in my experience (I completed an MLitt in creative writing in 2008), the MLitt is not threatening to transform British poetry the way the MFA has transformed American poetry. And that, I think, has to do with the differences between British poetry culture and American poetry culture.
Recently on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog, Annie Finch posted her thoughts on the British poetry scene after a quick trip she had made to England. She described what she felt as a sort of “lessness”—fewer magazines and presses, reading series, perhaps even poets themselves—but contrasted that to the firmer ground on which poetry seemed to stand: “I think the U.K. may still have a grip on that elusive general poetry audience that the U.S. has pretty much abandoned as a chimera.” It does make sense to talk about “mainstream poetry” in the UK in a way that it does not in the US. Mainstream poetry in the UK is the poetry that is published and reviewed every week in the Guardian and the TLS; it is also (usually) the poetry published bi-weekly in the London Review of Books. It is the poetry broadcast on BBC Radio 4. It is the poetry featured on the London underground. It is, also, the poetry published by major publishing houses like Faber & Faber, Picador, and Jonathan Cape. In the US, having your first book published by Norton or FSG is a big deal, but perhaps no bigger deal than having it published by Wave Books or Flood Editions. It seems likely that about the same number of people will read it and though a big-name publisher may mean a review in the New York Times Book Review, it definitely does not guarantee one. In the UK, though, the publishing house matters. The big three are joined by a few poetry-only presses like Carcanet, Bloodaxe, and—more recently—Salt. The poetry reviewed, bought and read by the general public is, to a large degree, published by one of these six houses.
The limited number of publishing options could explain why MLitt courses don’t emphasize the “publishable manuscript” outcome that MFA programs in the US do. While poetry competitions are popular in the UK, they most often award single poems; prize publication for an entire manuscript is much rarer. And because MLitt programs are far less numerous, students emerging from them do not really expect—as MFA graduates in the US do—to get a teaching position in a university. And because they don’t need the book credential, there is much less emphasis placed on publishing one. All of this does seem to be changing, of course. There are new chapbook imprints and small presses springing up and who knows what kind of energy MLitt courses could develop, and what changes that new kind of energy could bring to British poetry in the future. The poets on my course were all well-read, smart and extremely interesting people, but none of them had applied with the idea that this was to be their entrée into the poetry world. In fact, many of them were already quite comfortably in that world. When we graduated, they went back to it—and to their full-time jobs.
So who are the young poets in the UK these days? What is their style? Who are their influences? Where can I buy their books? To an American reader, these questions may occasionally appear as thought-experiments, occasional puzzles with too many missing pieces (the last one is easier to answer than ever, though: Amazon). American poetry spent much of the 20th century attempting to define itself in relation to British poetry: as late as the 1985 Faber Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, Helen Vendler was still trying to hammer out the reasons why American poetry did not resemble British poetry (her reasons resembled Auden’s). And then, quite suddenly, American poetry seemed to forget that its British counterpart existed at all. There was a break-up and one can’t help but feel that America dumped the UK, rather ungraciously. In the seventeen-page introduction to 2006 Oxford Book of American Poetry, David Lehman mentions British poetry exactly once (Keith Tuma, in the 2001 Anthology of 20th Century British and Irish Poetry, published by Oxford University Press, spends most of his introduction trying to counter “the long history of American dismissal of British poetry”). Lehman, in noting the dual presence of Auden and Eliot in both his and Christopher Ricks’s 1999 Oxford Book of English Verse, mentions that “[t]he way the two poets traded places in parallel career paths . . . marked a high point in Anglo-American literary relations: the last time the two cultures seemed to have a common poetry.” Many of the responses to Finch’s blog post came from poets in the UK. One comment noted the “binaries” Finch’s post drew: “reservation and inhibition vs. willingness to take risks,” “mainstream” vs. “marginalized.” Roddy Lumsden, a major force in the UK who edits a chapbook series called Tall-Lighthouse that spotlights young poets, noted that much American poetry offered “the sort of pzazz [sic]” that British poetry lacked. John Burnside, in an article for Poetry Review called “Mind the Gap: On Reading American Poetry,” opposed the British love of “polish” to the American willingness to “improvise.” Burnside read contemporary American poetry as poetry of process: poets are interested in showing an “internal dialectic,” in presenting “a way of thinking, a way of seeing, that is new.”
If there is a secret thinking on British vs. American poetry, it goes something like this: the former is dull and traditional, the latter outrageous and ever-new. One gives us the thought itself, the other the mind thinking. This is not a new dichotomy. In fact, it seems merely to take the older dichotomy of “raw” vs. “cooked” (US) or Movement vs. Modernist (UK) and internationalize it, sweeping up local differences into two tidy categories. Of course there are differences in the way Americans and British poets write (and differences between the varieties of “British” poet as well; but that’s another article). And thank goodness. In my MLitt course, my work was often called “American.” It could sound neutral (I was writing about American subjects) or slightly accusatory (I was writing in some American way). If we do an experiment, though, we can see how quickly these narrow definitions of British and American styles break down. Here are excerpts from two poems that play on an archetypal Jack figure. One’s by an American, one by a British poet. Can you tell which is which?
So Jack’s your man, Jack is your man in things.
And he must come along, and he must stay
close, be quick and right, your little cousin
Jack, a step ahead, deep in the hedge, on
edge, a kiss a rim, at pinch, in place, turn
face and tip abrim, each inch of him the
folded leaf, the important straw. What for.
He’s slippery and hot. He slides in blood.
He galloped through the chill.
His purse rattling with pills.
On his tongue a desolate trill.
He pried a sack of rice
From a man with yellow eyes.
His name was Jack and Jill.
Both poems utilize sing-song rhyme and absurd or surreal imagery to atmospheric effect. Both are referential without being particularly narrative; or, their narratives have been shattered, upended, so that childhood is suddenly turned spooky. Jack and Jill have morphed into one pill-popper; Jack—is it the Jack of all Trades?—has gone manic and is terrifyingly everywhere at once, perhaps even inside you. The second example proceeds in six-line stanzas of fairly regular iambic trimeter while the first is un-stanzaic but mostly in iambic pentameter: though adhering to stanzas could be seen as a British trait, I think that either poem could have been written by either nationality. But since I asked, the first was written by R. F. Langley, a British poet, and the second by Mark Levine, an American. I wanted to start with this example because Langley is often identified with the Cambridge School in the UK. And the Cambridge poets were, some would argue, the closest thing to experimentalism Britain ever got around to offering.
American students of literature often believe that modernism started in London with the publication of The Waste Land. What British students of poetry used to be taught, though, was that modernism never happened in Britain—or at least not in the way it did in America. A. Alvarez’s influential anthology The New Poetry offered, like Hall’s Contemporary American Poetry—and with Donald Allen’s influential counter-anthology—in the US, a version of British literary history that, unofficially, became official. In his famous introductory essay, Alvarez proposed a dialectical view of twentieth-century British poetry: the experiments of Eliot and Pound, he argued, were always associated with America and so never quite took hold in Britain. The poets of the 30s, led by Auden, reacted to the difficult poetry of the 20s; the neo-romantics, led by Dylan Thomas, reacted to Auden; the Movement and the Group poets, led by Larkin, reacted to the neo-romantics and looked back to the figure-head they thought mattered: Thomas Hardy.
Hardy, in this view, is the fount from which all other British poetry flows; the sons of Hardy (Larkin, Hughes) influenced the next generation of mainstream UK poets like Tony Harrison, Douglas Dunn, Seamus Heaney, Peter Porter, Geoffrey Hill and a handful of others who have since influenced poets now in their 40s and 50s (Sean O’Brien, Carol Ann Duffy, Don Paterson, James Fenton, Simon Armitage, Jo Shapcott, Lavinia Greenlaw, to name a few), many of whom now teach on MLitt courses. It is not by any means a perfect history—it must leave out the influx of contemporary post-colonial poets writing in the UK, as well as the important and very vibrant slam and performance poetry scenes that exist in London and other large cities. It also can’t account for those other “British” poetries: work being done in Welsh or Scots, or indeed work by Welsh or Scottish poets who are influenced less by Larkin and Hughes and more by W.S. Graham or R.S. Thomas. And the Cambridge school that Langley is often associated with cannot fit at all into this timeline; it must be regarded as a blip, a sort of erratic development that, like modernism itself, never gained much purchase in the UK. This simplified take on British poetry wants complication, of course, and there is a growing recognition that, as Tuma writes, “if it is true that modernism has not exactly triumphed in Britain and Ireland, that does not mean that it has not existed, or that we can be comfortable in our definitions of it—or even in our evaluation of it.” Towards the end of his introduction, Tuma offers a vision of contemporary British poetry that is experimental (Herbert over Paterson, Muldoon and not Carson, Peter Reading rather than Porter), material, influenced by other media, post-colonial, working class, and to an average American reader, probably pretty surprising. But Tuma is arguing for an alternative history and poetics; his project is to combat the narrative of Britain’s mainstream. What is different between American and British poetry is that, in the last few decades or so, American poetry hasn’t needed to worry about combating or complicating its mainstream because it hasn’t had one.
Todd Swift, a UK poet who blogs about contemporary British poetry, often wrestles with the US/UK split. This is what he has to say about the British contemporary mainstream:
North American poetry cannot imagine how conservative and traditional most mainstream English poets are – though perhaps this makes sense, given the fact that the English poetic tradition is both long and unusually impressive, solid grounding on which to stake commonsense claims . . . What British poetry prefers is tone. It is very nuanced, this British ear, and it responds poorly to what it feels is a too-disordered shifting in levels of tone and diction in much contemporary North American poetry. Traditional English poetry knows its place. It is about place, and placing the voice in a location. This is what marks its strength, its focus—and Seamus Heaney is the king of this lyric realm, where much impressive work is done. Fine and dandy—but it makes for an often incurious time.
Swift is writing in response to an article published in the Guardian by a young English poet, Frances Leviston. Leviston’s first book, Public Dream, was published by Picador, and she is often associated with Sean O’Brien, who was her teacher at Sheffield-Hallam, and Don Paterson, who is the poetry editor at Picador. Public Dream, published when Leviston was just 25, was short-listed for the T.S. Eliot prize last year. The things Swift talks about—the British insistence on tone and place, a sort of lyric locationalism—are very present in Leviston’s work. She writes thoughtful, specific and self-contained poems that beg for close readings. Her poem, “Humbles” is about a car accident with a deer:
If you have hit a deer on the road at dusk;
climbed, shivering, out of your car
with curses to investigate the damage
done, and found it split apart and steaming
far-flung in the nettle bed, utterly beyond repair,
then you have seen what is not meant to be seen,
is packed in cannily, coiled, like parachute silks
but unputbackable, out for the world to witness
It is hard to imagine a young American poet telling us so squarely where “you” are and what “you” are doing; clarity of context is something you can usually count on with Leviston. “Humbles,” which is one sentence that stretches over 18 lines, holds up well under the kind of squint-eyed scrutiny most often given to older poems. Its meter, which is mainly iambic but includes an occasional anapestic skip, conveys its subject impressively and at a stately pace: it is not just a deer you have hit, after all, but the entire situation of corporality. The lines are knit together with alliteration, assonance, internal rhyme, all that stuff; the enjambment at “damage / done” is just surprising enough, the participle reminding us that violence must have an agent, and the internal rhyme with “flung” adding particular emphasis; the simile comparing guts to “parachute silks” is both apt and unnerving. The poem, when it continues, goes into even greater detail about those guts, spinning the comparisons in near-metaphysical ecstasy:
the looping, slicked-up clockspring
flesh’s pink, mauve, arterial red,
and there a still-pulsing web of royal veins
bearing the bad news back to the heart;
something broken, something hard, black,
the burst bowel fouling the meat
exposed for what it is, found out . . .
Reading this passage, I was reminded of Donald Hall’s description of the new American imagination. “When you read a poem of this sort,” he said, “you must not try to translate the images into abstractions. They won’t go.” Leviston’s description is not interested in going any other place than the literal—an unexpected literalness, perhaps, but her images do not lead you anywhere other than the guts she is describing and how being guts is, at bottom, the condition of being alive. She’s comparing, but in an effort to show us the “checkable reality” of her poem’s world. It seems to me that British poets, even the young ones, do aim for accuracy with the external world, while most American poets, perhaps especially the young ones, do not; rendering the external world accurately has, after all, been done so many times before. But if there is something that American poets could learn from British poets—young and old—it is that such a project can still produce great, surprising, and interesting poems. Take Jen Hadfield, this year’s winner of the T.S. Eliot prize. Hadfield is a young Scottish poet more interested in the weird sound of language than Leviston—which makes her, for me, a more exciting poet—but who goes after her images with the same comprehensible comprehensiveness. In her poem “No Snow Fell on Eden” she takes a familiar impetus—what was Eden like?—and makes it startling through negation:
No snow fell on Eden
as I remember it—there was no snow,
so no thaw or tao as you say
no snowmelt drooled down the brae;
no human footfall swelled into that of a yeti . . .
no yellow ice choked bogbean;
there were no sheepskulls
in the midden—
. . .
there was no cabbage-patch
of rich, roseate heads;
there was no innuendo
no sea, no snow.
There was nothing funny
about a steaming bing of new manure.
There was nothing funny at all.
Black was not so sooty. No fishboat revolved redly
on an eyepopping sea.
Hadfield does surprising description really, really well, and she shows that there is still life to be wrung from getting images to correspond: snowmelt drooling, cabbage’s “roseate” head, that fishboat revolving “redly” and that “eyepopping sea.” Other young British poets try to do the same work, though few, to my ear, do it as well as Hadfield. Adam O’Riordan is a very young UK poet who has had his first chapbook published by Lumsden’s Tall-Lighthouse series and is also poet-in-residence at The Wordsworth Trust; here is the beginning of his poem “Manchester”:
Queen of the cotton cities,
Nightly I piece you back into existence:
The frayed bridal train of your chimneys lay
And the warped applause-track of Victorian rain.
You’re the blackened lung whose depths I plumb,
The million windows and the smoke-occluded sun.
A girl steps from a door, her cotton flecked shawl
Is the first snow on a turf-plot back in Mayo.
You’re the globing of the world, a litany of cities;
Osaka, Orizaba, Gabrovo: cast in your image.
Your warehouses bloated by curious needs:
Butter, shellfish, clog blocks, bleach.
Like Leviston and Hadfield, O’Riordan’s poem depends upon the accuracy of his comparisons, though in this case memory’s distorting effect also plays a role. The speaker is, after all, “piecing” the city “back into existence”; he is remembering through simile and metaphor because, the poem suggests, that is how memory works. In the absence of the thing, we construct its likeness: a shawl becomes a turf-plot, chimneys resemble a “frayed bridal train” (that is where memory must come in), warehouses bloat. O’Riordan’s couplets rhyme, though you might have to be Manchurian to hear it. And in his mix of contemporary (applause-track) and old-fashioned (shawl, turf-plot) referents, he can sound like another younger UK poet, Jacob Polley. All of these poets are representative of new poetry in the UK, and all are, I think, quite good. But there are some signs that the mainstream in the UK might be getting wider, both in its willingness to publish and promote second-generation British poets like Daljit Nagra (Faber published his first book Look We Have Coming to Dover!) and in its acceptance of more experimental, less typically “British” poets. The last poet I want to discuss is British, but seems to have descended not from Hardy but Ashbery. Luke Kennard’s first book was nominated for a Forward Prize, and his second, The Harbour Beyond the Movie, well-received in the UK. But his style seems atypically American. Here is the beginning of “Plethoric Air”:
We all laughed at the decomposing clown,
But later shame sunk upon us
And we got smashed on the balcony.
I had lost my left shoe in the blood.
The doyenne and her ten attaches
Scattered blossoms on the divans.
We were charmed by a famous puppy,
A dozen gold pins in her forehead;
A tendency to speak ill of the dead.
Absurd characters (talking puppies, decomposing clowns), an emphasis on mood and suggestion at the expense of knowable narrative, a bewildered “I” who is also part of an undisclosed “we,” casual, talky speech: this poem has most of the elements of the neo-surrealist, elliptical moment that is the tradition of O’Hara, Ashbery and company, and one that has influenced scores of young American poets. Kennard’s poem is telling a strange story strangely, but this is no longer so very radical, at least to anyone versed in contemporary American poetry. Is the poem a social critique of the modern mania for celebrity? Of our vacuous embrace of hollow language and willingness to be blinkered and/or have our attention diverted from what really matters (there’s repeated mention of a “war”) by fads, gossip, and insinuation? Is it commentary or farce or both? Or neither? Or is that part of the puzzle, part of the “point”: that our ability to make meaning out of the “plethora” has been compromised. We laugh, but without knowing why; we are ashamed—and later “weary and suspicious”—but for no good reason we can see. A poet like Frances Leviston might want to take up topics like these in her poems, but think about what that poem would be like: I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t feature a Hellraiser puppy.
Americans often think of British poetry as traditional or conservative—as we’ve seen, some British poets think of it that way too—but those are not necessarily bad things for poetry to be. And, as we’ve also seen, that’s not what all British poetry is anyway. But both British and American poets would benefit from a closer engagement with each other’s tradition. While Americans cannot exactly be faulted for not “feeling” that the whole of English literary history is theirs, they can be faulted for not reading it, for not taking the time to investigate such a massive, important and beautiful body of work. And they can be faulted for transferring that lack of interest to the present. Many British poets write what Americans might dismiss as “accessible” poetry; for too many American poets, I think that “accessible” has come to mean “easy,” or even worse, “boring.” It is perhaps a peculiarly American phenomenon that being able to comprehend the basic—though not the entire—sense of a poem on the first reading means that it is not worth reading again. What Americans seem to want is what Auden described as the force of originality and what Lumsden rightly describes as “pizzazz.” I wonder, though, if Americans most recognize and feel originality in style—in surface—and have spent the past few decades emphasizing that above all else. Because when British readers encounter much contemporary American poetry, they do not even recognize it as poetry. Much contemporary American poetry isn’t interested in the aural effects British readers have been trained to associate with poetry; British readers may find American poems’ line breaks arbitrary, the arrangement of lines or stanzas bizarre or arbitrary, the narrative sense muddled and obscure. And this, too, comes from a limited understanding of American literary history, aesthetic development, taste, and the sheer size and variety of the country as a whole. Both sides of the Atlantic used to know much more about the other’s poetry and were better off for it—and not just because it would be better if Americans wrote more like the British, or the British more like the Americans, but because reading and thinking about what poems do and how they work is what any reader or writer of poetry enjoys. And limiting yourself to thinking about the poems of just one country is boring.
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