As Reviewed By: John Drexel
Barrier of a Common Language: An American Looks at Contemporary British Poetry by Dana Gioia. University of Michigan Press, 2003. Paper: $16.95
Although the notion is rarely articulated openly, there is a tacit assumption in most anthologies and criticism [in the United States] that in the past century American poetry-vigorous, innovative, and bold-decisively vanquished its safe, tired, and tame British counterpart…. Modernism was the glory of American verse, the story runs, and the future belongs to us…. There was simply too much domestic literary activity competing for the reader’s limited time and attention. There also seemed to be a general sense that nothing the Brits did now mattered much to American poetry. -Dana Gioia, preface to Barrier of a Common Language
The truism that “England and America are two countries separated by the barrier of a common language” (variously attributed to Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and Winston Churchill, and reiterated in different contexts by Bertrand Russell and by Dylan Thomas) has been repeated so often as to have to all but lost its force, to have sunk into a mere cliché. Suffice it to say that the divergent paths of these two countries since 1776 (and, less formally, since even earlier than that) have resulted in divergent cultures and customs, outlooks and sensibilities, whether in areas as contentious as politics and religion, as elemental as food and drink, as mundane as sports and entertainment. Although we share, up to a point, a common language and a common heritage, few Americans now would say that they consciously regard Britain as the “mother country.”
[private]And, Dana Gioia reminds us, picking up on Donald Davie’s observation that “the American reader can’t hear the British poet, neither his rhythm nor his tone,” these differences become evident too when an American reader (whether that reader be a poet or not) encounters a poem by a contemporary British poet:
The assumptions a British poet now makes about his or her self, language, work, and audience are subtly different from those of an American writer. He or she is not merely writing in a foreign accent. The poem that is being created is now in some ways a foreign text. An American remains a privileged translator, but a translator nonetheless.
Until twenty or thirty or so years ago, the term English Poetry meant just that: A long tradition of verse that stretched from Beowulf through Chaucer and Sidney and Shakespeare and the Restoration wits and the metaphysicians, and up through Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley and on to the Victorians, Tennyson and Browning and Arnold. After that, at least in my then undergraduate consciousness, Englishpoetry seemed to peter out; the Georgians and their successors were hardly even names. Yeats was a looming presence-but of course although he lived in England for some time, he most definitely was not English. Eliot came along and, in the syllabus if not in fact, swept the English aside, not coincidentally while remaking his own identity as a particular type of Englishman. There was Auden, of course, but the Auden of the post-1930s did not seem tied to any place; he seemed more American than English in the sense that he could change his tone and subject and manner as and when he pleased, moving effortlessly from London to Brooklyn to Italy to Austria, from Communism to Christianity, from lullaby to opera, from steam train to jet plane.
Now, no matter how much British poetry they read in school-and by all reports, it isn’t much, if any-younger American poets are most likely to have absorbed (whether consciously or unconsciously) their language, rhythms, and formal concerns from Dickinson, Whitman, Stevens, Frost, Bishop, Ginsburg, Plath-not to mention the grab-bag of what, oxymoronically, is called The Popular Culture. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Pond, for most British poets today the linguistic and formal inheritance still comes from Keats, Shelley, Tennyson, Hardy, Housman, Edward Thomas, and Larkin, among others. Whether for good or ill-both, I venture-the great transatlantic modernist Eliot can no longer be a useful model to any young poet, whether British or American. Auden was the last serious figure of whom English-speaking poets on both sides of the Atlantic can claim an equal share. But since Auden, however, few living British and American poets have made much headway in the others’ country, though many have tried. (Notoriously, Dylan Thomas died in the attempt.) In the last ten or fifteen years, a fair number of British-and Irish-poets have settled or spent extended periods in the United States, though none of them have entirely shed their native coloring or wholly adopted the poetic idiom of their new surroundings. (Geoffrey Hill, Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Paul Muldoon, Dick Davis, James Lasdun, and Glyn Maxwell immediately come to mind, and there are others.) At the same time, a handful of American poets have been making inroads in the UK-or at least their work seems to have found an audience if not a committed readership.
(Surprisingly, such “un-British” Americans as Sharon Olds, Lola Haskins, August Kleinzahler, and the ubiquitous Billy Collins have made forays into the United Kingdom, joining the more obviously Anglophile William Logan. And, based on anecdotal evidence, a goodly number of British poetry readers regard John Ashbery as the greatest living American poet, even though no one could reasonably claim Ashbery as an Anglophile. Dana Gioia’s work, too, has attracted a significant following in Britain. Of course, it should not be forgotten that that most American of poets, Robert Frost, forged his craft and his Yankee identity while living in England from 1912 to 1915, associating during that time with several Georgian poets and critics, notably Edward Thomas.)
Yet there’s still a large, self-contained literary element in each country that tends to view the poetry of its transatlantic cousins with condescension if not with outright disdain. Try arguing, at the Frost Place in New Hampshire, the significance of Edward Thomas, and see how far you get. Or, if you happen to attend a meeting of the Beaconsfield Poetry Circle in Hertfordshire, claim that Frost is the greatest twentieth-century poet in the English language, and you might be met with similar incomprehension.
Gioia has taken notice of this phenomenon for some years now, and makes it the central subject of a handy collection of essays and reviews. At just 100 pages or so, Barrier of a Common Language: An American Looks at Contemporary British Poetry does not purport to be a comprehensive survey. Rather, Gioia writes here as an advocate for a few selected British poets whom he admires, and argues that they deserve consideration by readers in the United States. He makes particular individual cases for Charles Causley, James Fenton, Wendy Cope, Ted Hughes, Kingsley Amis, Tony Connor, Dick Davis, Thom Gunn, and Charles Tomlinson, while glancing, in passing, at some of their contemporaries.
Before going further, I ought to point out that the word Contemporary in the title is rather misleading. A number of the short pieces in this collection originally were published as book reviews or brief essays as long ago as the late 1970s and early 1980s-the title essay dates from 1984-and they stand here largely as they were written, with only minor revision. (Several of the “Short Views” are excerpted from Gioia’s contributions to the “Poetry Chronicles” in the Hudson Review.) The subtitle of the book’s title essay is “British Poetry in the Eighties.” If read as if “contemporary” were synonymous with “2005,” Gioia’s appraisal invariably sounds dated. (His revision occasionally falls short in this regard, as when he refers to Hughes as “the current poet laureate” or writes “At the moment the biggest news in British poetry is the ‘Martian’ school, a group of young poets headed by Craig Raine and Christopher Reid….” Hughes of course died in 1998; Raine, Reid, and the Martians were the flavor of the month in a month that is now some twenty years in the past, and receding fast. A generation on, British poetry in the early years of the twenty-first century cannot be mistaken for that of the eighties, as I hope to show in a future review of a new anthology of British verse.)
Indeed, many of the poets who were living contemporaries when Gioia wrote about them-not only Hughes, but Causley, Davie, and Gunn as well-are now deceased. Although they are not all that long gone, for many readers these writers will already seem like names from the distant past, and their influence (if any) on British poets currently writing is difficult to assess. I share Gioia’s fear that the casual American reader of late-twentieth-century poetry might not recognize them, or might recall them only vaguely. (On the other hand, older readers who recall them in full flower might be surprised to learn that they have been gone for as long as they have been. Donald Davie, for one, still seems very much alive, at least in my mind, for certain lines of his still sound as vivid and right as when they were written.)
None of the poets whose work Gioia discusses circa 1984 can be considered, in 2004, Young Turks, although several (notably Davis, Tomlinson, and, as far as I know, James Fenton) are still active. (Incidentally, a British acquaintance has tried to persuade me that Andrew Motion is still alive, though I could swear he was embalmed some years ago, so mannered and motionless-never mind emotionless-have been the poems issued under his name. In any case, we may be thankful that Gioia here largely ignores Motion except as the biographer of Larkin.)
These few caveats aside, I am happy to say that, as always, Gioia writes with admirable clarity, and with charity. His prose is straightforward; he expresses his opinions without apparent envy or malice. As a critic, he is at his best writing in an expository mode. He assumes that his reader is unfamiliar with the very names of the British poets in question; and so, with a minimum of fuss or folderol, he gives the reader a sense of who these poets are, their careers as well as their work, their place in the literary culture of their time, the signal strengths and weaknesses of their verse. In several of his short pieces on particular poets, he suggests ways in which certain details of this or that poet’s private life might impinge on the poet’s work and provide material for a public myth. Far too many readers, of course, fall into the trap of reading a poem as veiled autobiography and yield to the temptation of seeking in the poem a code (if only they could decode it) that would unlock a personal confession or confirm common gossip about the poet. While he is far from the New Criticism in his treatment of the biographical element, Gioia remains aware that poetry is far more than personal journalism.
For example, in introducing the reader to Tony Connor-a poet likely unknown to all but a handful of American readers and, frankly, just as little regarded by most British ones today-he quickly establishes the poet’s North-of-England, working-class origins, noting Connor’s varied jobs outside the literary profession. (Not surprisingly, although many of them have impeccable academic pedigrees, Gioia’s subjects have steered well clear of the MFA factories. Indeed, throughout Barrier of a Common Language, Gioia implicitly reminds us that there was a time when poets did not require an MFA in order to write poems of high accomplishment.) “When most poets open up about their childhood sorrows,” he observes, “the reader is tempted to close the book, for he or she knows a torrent of trivial memories and petty injustices vaguely shaped to resemble poems is about to pour forth.” Connor’s work doesdeserve to be better known than it is at present. But with the demise of Oxford University Press’s contemporary poetry series some years ago now, much if not all of Connor’s poetry is out of print, and I fear few readers will seek it out.
Here is how Gioia introduces a poet much better known-Larkin-at the very start of the four-page essay “Home Is So Sad”:
Philip Larkin was the great poet no one expected. In an age of progressive politics, experimental art, and cosmopolitan culture, this flabby, bald, bespectacled bachelor librarian seemed to inhabit a world untouched by intellectual fashions. Socially reactionary, poetically conservative, and defiantly provincial, he wrote against the mainstream poetry of his age and gradually refashioned it in his own eccentric image.
The entire piece is little more than a thumbnail sketch, a few hundred words in which Gioia deftly traces Larkin’s personal foibles and some of the controversies surrounding him, alerts the reader to what made Larkin tick. Gioia scarcely touches on the poetry itself other than in generalities (“His greatest poems were heartbreaking glimpses of those parts of his life that deserved to endure”). The reader will look in vain for Vendleresque analysis; for a close reading of Larkin’s poems, one must go elsewhere-but Gioia knows that, and he trusts in the reader’s own resourcefulness to find them.
Gioia is unstintingly generous in his acknowledgement that even poets who are limited or otherwise flawed in their technical and imaginative resources-a condition that afflicts the overwhelming majority of those who put pen to paper-may have something to offer, as when he asserts that Kingsley Amis “demonstrates a lesson it is too easy to forget-that to write well about ordinary events takes extraordinary skill.” Championing the unfashionable, he concludes that “Amis’s Collected Poemsis a necessary book, especially for those American readers who do not share his anti-romantic assumption that intelligence, wit, form, and verbal ingenuity are the essentials of poetry.”
Gioia is likewise unapologetic in his close attention to the work of Charles Causley (“the most unfashionable poet alive,” he asserts-although, again, the reader should know that however unfashionable Causley remains, he alas is no longer alive.) Best known for his ballads and children’s poems, Causley was, and his poetry remains, something of an anti-modernist. A typical Causley poem (if there is such a thing) could easily be mistaken for the work of an Edwardian. Similarly, he often was pigeonholed as merely a regionalist. (Apart from his World War II service in the Royal Navy, he lived virtually all his life in Cornwall.) Gioia’s essay is a major contribution to the appreciation of Causley’s work and career. Although I am not persuaded as Gioia is that Causley was “one of Britain’s three or four” finest poets (as of 1998), I am happy to see Causley’s work so forcefully championed as it is here.
Gioia argues his central thesis most cogently and coherently in the title essay, which quite logically is placed first in the book. He stresses what I hinted at earlier-that, while American poetry readers may be well acquainted with British (primarily English) poetry from the Elizabethans through the Victorians, our knowledge of more recent British poetry is less sure.
“Anthologies provide the easiest access for American readers into contemporary British poetry, and the lack of reliable contemporary anthologies on both sides of the Atlantic may account for a large part of the apathy and misunderstanding between the two literatures,” he wrote in 1984. At the time, two major anthologies of British poetry had recently appeared, almost simultaneously. Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion edited The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry (1982), while Michael Schmidt, from his perch in Manchester as editorial director of the literary publishing house Carcanet and editor of its house organ, the bimonthly PN Review, published Some Contemporary Poets of Britain and Ireland-an anthology (1983). Although, again, these anthologies are no longer “contemporary,” both have stood the test of time. More than twenty years after they were first published, for all their flaws they both remain vital, necessary volumes. Moreover, they set the standard by which other, later anthologies of “new” poetry must be judged. Both volumes transcend merely national interest.
When Gioia notes that he finds his American ear unable to “hear” certain English poets-he cites the late C. H. Sisson as a prime example-I’d like to knowwhy this is, what he finds in Sisson’s writing or frame of reference that makes Sisson’s poems resistant to an American reader. An expanded essay on this topic-he might also have included some of the quintessentially English (read “old fashioned”) English poets published by Carcanet in the 1980s (say, Clive Wilmer, Neil Powell, Grevel Lindop, to say nothing of the late Elizabeth Jennings and the late Donald Davie), as well as Peter Scupham (arguably the most accomplished of contemporary British formalists). Wendy Cope (known for her light verse) is the sole woman poet discussed at any length in Barrier, and neither her work nor reputation have improved with the passage of time since Gioia reviewed her in the early 1990s; American readers would have been better served with appreciations of the work of Anne Stevenson and Elaine Feinstein and Ruth Fainlight and Gillian Clarke, to name but four poets working since the 1980s and earlier who should not be ignored. Gioia’s “Looks” overlook, too, some very major writers of the last quarter century, notably R. S. Thomas and W. S. Graham, without whom any appraisal of “contemporary” British poetry must be incomplete. And above all, I’d be fascinated to have Gioia’s take on the late flowering of Geoffrey Hill, from The Triumph of Loveonward. Nonetheless, for the moment, American readers should be thankful to haveBarrier of a Common Language, however fragmentary and occasional and occasionally dated its contents might be.[/private]