As Reviewed By:
Lost in Translation?
Barrier of a Common Language: An American Looks at Contemporary British Poetry by Dana Gioia. University of Michigan Press, 2003. Paper: $16.95
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
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.”
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, English
poetry 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
(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
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
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 does deserve 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”:
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
Poems is 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
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 know why 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 Love onward. Nonetheless, for the moment, American readers should be thankful to have Barrier of a Common Language, however fragmentary and occasional and occasionally dated its contents might be.