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Anthologies are literatures version
of the panopticon. A huge number of, in this case, poems is arranged around the reader,
each fitted into its slot easily or violently as the case may be, and forming one more
tiny patch of colour in the massive tesselated perimeter. Rotating your eye through 360°,
you gain an apprehension, an overview, of the range and modes of poetic production in a
particular period; and, also diachronously, see larger patterns of tradition which may
previously have remained occluded. This kind of construction of context offers
opportunities for the revision of reputationsboth upwards and downwardsand can
also serve as the basis for broad characterisations of particular periods.
Of course, the panopticon was
designed for penal purposes while poetry anthologies are meant to provide pleasure. Still,
the metaphor is of use for the way it draws attention to the institutional status of
anthologies, marking their essence as a kind of instrument, and thus to the institutional
power of their editors. In the case of the anthologies above, Michael Schmidt is editor of
both P.N. Review and Carcanet Press (and is, I should state, my own publisher), as
well as being a lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University; Simon Armitage teaches at
the University of Leeds, and at the most prestigious writing program in the U.S., the Iowa
Writers Workshop; Peter Forbes is editor of Poetry Review; and Robert
Crawford is Professor of Modern Scottish Literature at the University of St Andrews and
one-time editor of Verse. All are poets themselves.
As might be expected the three books
have different aesthetics, and between them provide an excellent picture of many of the
presumptions behind British poetic production at the present moment. The presumptions in a
moment, but first their Britishness. Despite the anthologists various claims to
covering non-British material (Armitage and Crawfords "and Ireland",
Schmidts purview of anglophone poetry in general, Forbess scanning of the
history of the world this century), non-British readers part will feel that these books
are not, in several respects, of great importance to them. For instance, Armitage and
Crawford have been roundly and correctly criticised for their shoddy handling of Irish
poetry; Michael Schmidt has not bitten the bullet and selected any new American poets (the
youngest is 48, whereas the youngest British poet is 29); Peter Forbes, when matching a
poem to an historical event outside Britain, will often include a poem relating what a
British poet made of the whole affair (thus, Adrian Mitchell on Vietnam, and Jon Silkin on
the Middle East, and lots of journalistic poems by James Fenton), or when talking about a
particular decade, will so obviously mean the British decade (the 1930s, for instance, is
covered by British poets with two exceptions). Which bias is perfectly understandable;
what is not understandable is that the anthologists seem unaware of it.
As for presumptions, Armitage and
Crawford in their introduction are the most forthright about their agenda, entitling it
"The Democratic Voice". Describing developments after World War II, they state:
Largely rejecting pontifical tones, poets in Britain and Ireland
wrote as part of a shift toward post-imperial, pluralist societies and communities. The
notion of a hieratic voice of authority (whether that of received pronunciation, the BBC,
the Irish Catholic priest, the Oxford don, or the patriarchal male) was rejected, though
poets voices were increasingly part of the public sphere.
They are careful to say that this new pluralism does not mean
"that all post-war poets sound alike or speak with one intonationquite the
opposite"; they "display an awareness of inhabiting one voice that is among
others, part of a vernacular community surrounded by further vernacular communities",
and their "authority is both challenging and challenged". Mirroring this
dispersal of power, the editors have chosen to fan out the anthology for the last 150
pages or so, opting for a greater number of poets represented by one or two poems, rather
than risking a sterner selection (and the opprobrium, one imagines, of many of their
American readers will be familiar with these kinds of manoeuvres
from anthologies of multicultural literature, especially something like the Heath.
The editors try hard to convince that the new poetry wont be too difficult (like
Eliots) or relish genocide in an Olympian tone (like Yeatss), but then have
the difficult task of making it interesting. They are caught between a rock and a hard
place on this one, which is witnessed by the bland, clerkly formulation of
"challenging and challenged". Certainly several of the poets they include are
"poetically challenged"; as for "challenging", the poets of the new
democratic age, while full of energy, must not be seen to challenge the very pluralist
terms which are laid out by the anthologiststhey can only offer a carefully staged
provocation, and are at no point to take seriously the competing ideology next door. By
all means, a loud cheer for poets who might be British, Muslim and proud, but not if they
suggest yashmaks for all women. The problem with Armitage and Crawfords position
which enthuses about a plurality of cultures in the archipelago of Britain and Ireland is
that the more intensely those allegiances are held, the more obnoxious they become to good
democratstheres no poetry by the I.R.A. terrorist and hunger striker Bobby
Sands here. Also, Michael Hartnett who described English as the perfect language for
selling pigs in is not included. Conversely, to stay with Northern Ireland, those poets
who have prospered most have been at great pains to disengage themselves from militant
elements in their communities.
The bottom line is that there isnt really a plurality of
poetic cultures in Britain and Ireland at the present time, and the homogeneity of the
weaker recent poetry in this anthology is evidence of that. What is different is the
demographics of the poets backgrounds: you dont have to go to Oxford (although
it has to be admitted that it still helps), and you dont have to be white and male
(positive disabilities these days) if you want to make it. But such diversity has not
resulted in any great diversity in poetic style. Carol Ann Duffy is often presented as a
shining example of the new dispensation but she learnt her trade from Philip Larkin and in
stylistic terms has stuck with that ever since. Its as though critics are so
delighted that there is a poet who will express the precepts of feminist ideology with
verve, wit and firm dramatic sense, that they want to overlook her debts to the old
reprobate of Hull, and proclaim her poetry "new". Its not new, but it is
still on occasion very good. Roughly speaking, John Burnside, Michael Donaghy, James
Fenton, Michael Hofmann, Mick Imlah, Jackie Kay, Gwyneth Lewis, Jamie McKendrick, Sarah
Maguire, Glyn Maxwell, Blake Morrison, Andrew Motion, Sean OBrien, Don Paterson,
Christopher Reid, are all formally conservative poets who come out of the central British
tradition which Larkin exemplified so well. Some are talented, others arent. Now,
the fact that none of these writers, to the best of my knowledge, shares Larkins
politics or opinions about gender is a matter that is completely irrelevant to the matter
of poetry. Wheres the diversity then? Yes, representing Black British poetry, there
is the strident dub of Linton Kwesi Johnson, and Benjamin Zephaniah in the same vein if
more mellow and humorous; and the quieter tones of Fred DAguiar. But there is only
token representation of Irish- and Welsh-language poetry from this period (as elsewhere,
it must be said). What does represent genuine difference is the use that Scottish poets
like W.N. Herbert and Kathleen Jamie put dialect to, and this is well represented. But
otherwise thats about it in terms of stylistic diversity.
The overwhelming impression one is left with after reading the
poets born after 1950 is that this is a time of poetic conservatism in Britain. Paul
Muldoon is the only poet of this period who is exploring the boundaries of poetic form.
Experiment seems to be acceptable to the editors only when it is carried out by one of
their seniors (viz., five unrivetting pages of Ian Hamilton Finlay, but even then Jeremy
Prynne is omitted). Its hard to imagine a similar selection being made in America,
unless it were under the aegis of a movement like the New Formalism: Helen Vendler, for
many the epitome of a mainstream critic, when putting together The Harvard Book of
Contemporary American Poetry (1985), was much more stylistically eclectic than
Armitage and Crawford. Which is not to fault the British editors for an oversight, but
just to emphasise the prevailing difference of atmosphere in Britain and America at the
present time: the stylistic experiments of poets like John Ashbery and A.R. Ammons have
received general acclaim in the U.S., whereas anyone in Britain who so much as fiddles
with the syntax or displaces a capital instantly designates their collection to the
out-tray of the established publisher; and without the latters imprimatur is
unlikely to get a look in at the review pages of the T.L.S. or elsewhere that would
matter. Confirming this conservatisim is that of all the reviews of the anthology that I
read, not one mentioned this stylistic uniformity.
What might have lulled the editors into a satisfactory
impression of pluralism is that they found many poems, not which differ greatly from one
another, but which thematise the editors own preoccupations with devolution and
criticise of the power of the state. Thus there is Johnsons "Inglan is a bitch
/ deres no escapin it / Inglan is a bitch / deres no runnin whey
fram it". Sean OBrien confronts us with the grim reality of a Britain of
"the North, the poor, and troopers sent / To shoot down those who showed their
discontent", and refuses to comfort us "when the strikers all go back / To see
which twenty thousand get the sack". The neurosis of Jo Shapcotts speaker is
that imperial power no longer able to control the world about it:
Where is the British Consulate? Please explain.
What does it mean? What must I do? Where
can I find? What have I done? I have done
nothing. Let me pass please. I am an Englishwoman.
There is the moral bankruptcy of Kit Wrights cricketer who
toured South Africa during the ban and who ends up defending himself by declaring:
"And I have no brain. I am an anomaly. / I am a professional cricketer. / My only
consideration is my family". Peter Reading tells the story of a mother and baby
mugged. In order to coerce the mother into handing over her valuables, the muggers
threaten the baby with broken glass:
He told me "This is how we earn our living,
this and the dole like."
Then he just wiggled the sharp, smashed slivers in her eye.
Promptly the mother gave over her golden wedding-ring, also
three pounds in cash and a watch (silver, engraved My True Love),
but the attackers slashed Sharen [sic] twice morein the mouth, and a deep
neatly round one chubby knee. Then they strolled leisurely off.
Sharon was screaming and bleeding a lot and I thought
they had killed her.
CID officers say This callous assault . . .
Framed by the voice of officialdom in the last line
here, the muggers become a symptom of the disintegration of England. The point Reading is
beating home is that if this can happen then Mike Scott is wrong, Old England isnt
dying, but is long dead. As they say, bold face Readings. But it is hard to see how
the linguistic clichés of C.I.D. differ all that much from Readings own narration
of the event.
More subtly, this disintegration of meta-narrative sanctions a
lot of marginal micro-narrativestense, idiomatic tales of seemingly insignificant
events and people freighted with quizzical irony. Thus Glyn Maxwells "Helene
and Heloise", Michael Hofmanns "Between Bed and Wastepaper Basket",
Michael Donaghys "Shibboleth", Matthew Sweeneys "Blue
Shoes", Oliver Reynoldss "Anna Colutha in Suffolk", Helen
Dunmores "The Dream-Life of Priests" and Sujata Bhatts "What Is
Worth Knowing?". To go by the poetry magazines and competition winners, this kind of
narrative appears to be endemic in Britain and to an extent in Ireland also. Here it is at
its impressive best, in Carol Ann Duffys "Adultery":
Then, selfish autobiographical sleep
in a marital bed, the tarnished spoon of your body
stirring betrayal, your heart overripe at the core.
Youre an expert darling; your flowers
dumb and explicit on nobodys birthday.
So write the scriptillness and debt,
a ring thrown away in a garden
no moon can heal, your own words
commuting to bile in your mouth, terror
and all for the same thing twice. And all
for the same thing twice. You did it.
What. Didnt you. Fuck. Fuck. That was
the wrong verb. This is only an abstract noun.
The hatred spat out between the couple in the exchange of the
penultimate line conveys a zero at the bone. And then out of this, the seemingly
inconsequential fidgeting about grammar which carries an even greater charge: did they
fuck or was it adultery?and where should the "only" go in that question?
However, when this kind of poem becomes a period style and set of critical assumptions, it
encourages closeness to demotic and idiomatic English, a coolness of execution and tone
despite disturbing material, and an unwillingness to generalise. That is, Go back to the
Movement, Do not pass Prynne, Do not pick up disjunctive habits that will perplex.
But an anthology review would not be complete without the
reviewer commenting on particular selections and omissions, so here goes. First the
negative: the omission of Michael Hartnett; the under-representation of Richard Murphy and
Thomas Kinsella (along with the errors in the latters biographical note); the
over-representation of John Betjeman, W.S. Graham, Douglas Dunn, Peter Porter, James
Fenton, and Don Paterson. But of course some of these are scandals only to me, and in
other cases the editors have made decisions which go against general critical consensus,
and this in itself is admirable. And despite the reservations above, this is perhaps the
most enjoyable read of the three under review as the editors have succeeded in gathering
together an unusually high percentage of good poems for anthology. For the most part they
choose well from poets oeuvres and winningly admit Paul Muldoons
"Incantata" in toto.
If Michael Schmidts Harvill anthology does not contain as high
a percentage of enjoyable poems then that is no bad reflection on it, but rather on the
parameters of anthologies in general. For he seems above all intent upon honouring poets,
no matter how unexcerptible they may be. This catholicity of taste when compared to
Armitage and Crawford means that he is more often in trouble when it comes to presenting
his poets, as he must know, despite his statement in the introduction that "it is a
book of poems, not of poets" (xxxvii), that the work he includes will convince no-one
(as in the case of Michael Palmer, for instance); rather he must hope that in naming the
name in the contents page the curious reader might explore further. But even so, he does
score notable successes, for instance in his selection from Thomas Kinsella, a poet
notoriously difficult to anthologise. On the other hand, occasionally his selections from
well-known poets who perform well under anthology conditions are a little aleatory. For
instance, in Seamus Heaneys case he plumps for old favourites like
"Anahorish", "The Guttural Muse", "The Harvest Bow" and the
more recent "Seeing Things"; but then, as though he wishes to put the stamp of
originality on his selection, plucks out of obscurity a poem like "The
Peninsula". Now it could be that Schmidt has for years thought this poem unjustly
ignored, and an anthology is an excellent opportunity to bring it to light. Unfortunately,
here, as in the cases of Philip Larkin, Geoffrey Hill, Thom Gunn and several others, one
wishes the poems had remained in obscurity, as the poets are ill-served by their
resurrection. For Schmidt (given the amount of space he allots them) as for many others,
these are crucial poets and it is a weakness of the anthology that they are trifled with
But the books overwhelming strength is that catholicity of
taste. Schmidt, toward the end of his introduction, asks:
What is the purpose of this book? To insist that there is a
continuity between the radical experimental poets and those who are usually presented as
]. I take my editorial bearings from Modernism, though a love of Hardy
and Frost, a taste for Les Murray and Wendy Cope, excuse me from being doctrinaire.
All too often the stylistic differences in poetry are followed
through into groups of magazines, writing programs and prizes. Will they ever ask you to
write a sonnet at S.U.N.Y., Buffalo? Will something a little disjunctive ever creep into The
Formalist? The vigilance with which these borders are patrolled makes for a tedious
purism, whose end result is the impoverishment of poetry and not its empowerment. This is
why a poet like Jorie Graham seems so singular in the American context as she is, it
seems, capable of learning from most camps. Even so, she is also capable of specious
arguments concerning traditional form, when she wonders in interview:
[S]o that with the "new formalists" (so called) its
that sense of having ones head in the sand(its all OK folks, these lines
have five beats to the line, the silence is beautiful, whatevers in it is not really
terrifying)that makes me uneasy. It is, of course, also
"beautiful". But the silence around most meters sounds very different to me now.
Is there nuclear winter in it? Auschwitz? [
] it sometimes feels like lunacy to me.
Historicallygiven our predicament.
The ease with which grand tragedies of the earth are deployed here
is unsettling, along with the glib concluding adverbial clause: but this could also be
read as a strong poets insistence that everyone must have the same concerns as her.
The works of Paul Muldoon or Philip Larkin do not fit Grahams bill, and this is a
relief. On the other hand, one often feels that "nuclear winters and Auschwitz"
are invoked too often to endorse yet further congeries of experimental dross.
Michael Schmidt, then, refuses to take such arguments seriously
and presents, in 728 pages, a panorama of poetry in English in this century that pays no
regard to differences in school, nation, gender or ethnic group. The one criterion is that
the work is written in English. This is an utterly refreshing standpoint, but it is of
course as much a parti pris as Armitage and Crawfords criteria; it has not escaped
Schmidt and he registers that this too "is regarded as a theory and ideology by
theorists and ideologues". It is above all an approach that implies the radical
difference of poetry from other discourses, one with its own particular set of resources
and traditions that make it very much more than social epiphenomenon, and takes its
critical bearings from the much maligned New Criticism. Of course, a good bit of the
maligning that New Criticism received was in order, since as a critical dispensation it
resulted in a lot of poems which in their effort to avoid the nitty gritty of history and
the personal all ended up sounding like one another (viz., the early poems of Berryman,
Merrill, Rich, Bishop, etc.). It was as much an impoverishment of poetry as Grahams
But to insist on New Critical principles in this historical
moment is a very different manoeuvre altogether. Firstly, it results in an anthology that
does not attempt to thematise its material ("[t]he century provides no coherent
pattern"), so we do not feel as we often do in The Penguin that the poems were
chosen because they exemplify the editors sociological thesis. And secondly, and
most importantly, it enables a great variety of stylesfrom Palmer to Allen Ginsberg
to C.H. Sissonwhich is exactly what the New Criticism didnt do in its first
incarnation. It is a critical intervention which far from attempting to ignore its
historical moment, is very much aware of it: "It insists not on plurality but
continuity, it suggests a republic of poetry rather than an irreconcilable anarchy of
factions or a severe state of canonical closures".
One of Schmidts most important elisions is that of the
Atlantic. To sweep away the differences between on the one hand British and Irish poetry,
and American on the other, for a short while, is worth ten critical studies. For too long
now have the two worlds been separate, with only a few brave adventures such as Verse
causing ripples on the transatlantic silence. The situation is gradually changing thanks
to Schmidt in his incarnation as editor of Carcanet, as well to most other British
publishers who are now publishing American poets in earnest. Another important elision is
across the hemispheres with Australia. The opportunity to read a poet like A.D. Hope
prompts the thought it is not he who is the Auden of Down Under, but Auden who is the Hope
of England. His work shines here, easily eclipsing the poets in his vicinity such as
MacNeice, Kavanagh, Roethke, and brings attention to the fact that Australian poetry has
been completely overlooked by Britain, Ireland and the U.S. Yes, we might know Les Murray
and even John Kinsella, but Hope would seem to be a poet who easily surpasses these and
his name is virtually never mentioned in reviews or essays. The great thing then about
Schmidts anthology is the panorama it provides of all of anglophone poetry in the
century, and it is particularly appropriate at the present moment when electronic
communication and publication is fostering connections between poets in different parts of
the English-speaking world that previously could have existed only with great difficulty
(the existence of the Contemporary Poetry Review is a good instance of this). It is
likely that this new development will have a more profound effect on our ideas of national
canons than devolution, in a way that has nothing to do with the poems about the Internet,
by enabling preoccupations to be freely shared across borders.
William Carlos wrote: "It is difficult / to get the news from
poems, / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there." The
second half of the sentence suggests something of poetrys function as consolation,
i.e., youll still die but perhaps not so miserably if you have read poetry that has
touched your mind and your heart. Defying the sentiment in the first half comes Peter
Forbes in his Scanning the Century: The Penguin Book of the Twentieth Century in Poetry.
It is not all that difficult, he holds, to find poems about many of the major historical
events and cultural changes of this century. At first, I was afraid that slant would be a
reduction of the resources of poetry, but then came the thought: why turn down the
opportunity to read the twentieth century, not from the chairs of history departments, but
from the point of view of people whose priority is not an objective and panoramic account,
and whose means of telling it are not critical prosehistory from the ground up
perhaps? It offers the possibility of revising our basic understanding of the
centurys drift, and calling into question those very ways of understanding history.
All these hopes quickly evaporated on starting the anthology,
where in the first page of the introduction, Forbes capitulates completely to journalistic
reductions of the world:
The phrase twentieth century has often been used as an
epithet (as have the decades) as if it implied some agreed set of attributes. (The
Australian poet Less Murray has satirized this practice: Nor did Cromwell thunder, After
all,/in the bowels of Christ this is the seventeenth century.) But however loose
and tautological, these crude labels do mean something. In a secular and highly mobile
age, when the timeless repetitions of seasons and religious rites have lost their force,
and as unprecedented welter of innovation, both technical and social, has been unleashed,
people need to place some sort of grid over the flux in order to orientate themselves.
Here, as throughout the whole introduction and whenever he picks up
his pen to introduce a section, it is impossible to read a few consecutive clauses without
being struck by the violent reductiveness of Forbess thinking. Of course, when a
writer deals with such a broad subject he is always in danger of encouraging the reader to
think of exceptions, but nevertheless he must still be capable of long passages that do
not encourage unrelenting demurral from the reader; Peter Forbes isnt. Take the
first sentence above. Who exactly uses the "twentieth century" in the way he
describes here? It is usually people who ridiculously over-estimate the powers of
technology (as in, "you mean, they cant cure cancer yet?") or who think
the establishment in Western countries of ideas of human rights binds the rest of the
world through some mystical logic to the same values (as in, "how can they be so
barbaric in Chechnya, when after all in the bowels of Christ
"). It is not a way
of thinking that helps one to understand much of what happens in the world, and Forbes
would seem to concur when he approvingly quotes Murrays satire. But no, he
doesnt, as he then continues by returning to this way of thinking, without giving
any reason other than the fact that people "need" such simplistic accounts of
events. All right, they might need them, but that doesnt mean that those accounts
provide accurate descriptions of history. So having ensconced historical reductions in
their throne at the very outset, all that remains is to find the poems to fit the
Forbess Virgils in this enterprise are W.H. Auden and Louis
MacNeiceno strangers to historical cliché themselveswho provide the most
entries in the book. The implication is a particular model of history which roughly
speaking goes like this: journalistic accounts of the world are the bottom line, though
the individual may make gestures of resistance (showing an affirming flame, etc., in the
face of mostly bleak prognostications). They are both poets whose great weakness is that
they think in terms of decades and Zeitgeist, "Autumn Journal", for
instance, being one of the best and most nuanced accounts we have of what it is like to
live inside historical cliché. Poetry then becomes a way of consoling the individual for
his or her complete powerless and lack of practical significance; and bravura displays of
poetic technique become an index of this general resignation, as if to say, if you cannot
fix the world, you can at least arrange this little strophe neatly. (This point is made
persuasively by Donald Davie in Thomas Hardy and Modern British Poetry .) The
problem with this approach is that it cannot comprehend a poetry that could locate the
smallest fraction of historical agency within the individual imagination. Geoffrey
Hills grim goading of the reader into historical responsibility in
"Christmas Trees" is a very different affair from Audens
suggestion in "September 1, 1939" that we should all love one anotheror
die? no, better strike that: and die. The hesitation over the conjunction displays
the essential vapidity of Audens thought: always more interested in the grand
cadence than intelligent analysis, he probably knew that in this case he had the former,
no matter what the conjunction, but scrupled that even his greatest devotees might not
swallow the idea of love as the key to indefinite longevity. It is also very different
from Jorie Grahams explorations of history which pay full attention both to the
powerlessness and the power of the individual against a large historical backdrop.
Both Hills and Grahams poetry reject the MacSpaunday
model, but are no less engaged in history. They are not admitted by Forbes however. Much
more amenable is a poem like the whistle-stop, platitudinous whirl of Joseph
Brodskys "History of the Twentieth Century (A Roadshow)":
1901: A swell, modest time.
A T-bone steak is about a dime.
Queen Victoria dies; but then Australia
repeats her silhouette and, inter alia,
joins the Commonwealth. In the humid woods
Of Tahiti, Gauguin paints his swarthy nudes.
In China, the Boxers take the rap.
Max Planck in his lab (not on his lap
yet) is studying radiation.
Brodsky joshes about the idea of such a simplistic history in the
parentheses of the poems title, but its not clear at whose expense. He
cant be seriously satirising the idea of summing up the century thus as he seems to
enjoy the game too much for that, so making it difficult to see that these lines are
anything more than amiable doggerel. This type of poem, which is consciously trying to
scan the century also, is perfectly accommodated in Forbess anthology. Another
instance of this, but a better poem, is W.B. Yeatss "The Second Coming".
One reviewer protested that because it was written in 1920 it was wrong to include it the
section "Prelude to a War: Fascism v. Communism 1933-1939". A more charitable
view might be that given Yeatss prescience, it was a practical necessity to place
the poem chronologically further on in the century. After all, if we allow poems about
particular periods that were written a few decades after, then it would seem churlish not
to allow the reverse.
But while in this case Yeats arguably prospers by this
contextualisation, other poets do not. Or rather, Forbes tries unsuccessfully to place his
"grid on the flux", but the poems wont have it. The most obvious examples
of this are the two poems by Paul Muldoon, "Truce" and "Cuba". To say
that the first is about World War I and the second about the Cuban missile crisis is to
miss a good deal of ingeniousness of Muldoons poetry. Here is "Cuba":
My eldest sister arrived home that morning
In her white muslin evening dress.
Who the hell do you think you are,
Running out to dances in next to nothing?
As though we hadnt enough bother
With the world at war, if not at an end.
My father was pounding the breakfast-table.
Those Yankees were touch and go as it was
If youd heard Patton in Armagh
But this Kennedys nearly an Irishman
So hes not much better than ourselves.
And him with only to say the word.
If youve got anything on your mind
Maybe you should make peace with God.
I could hear May from behind the curtain.
Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.
I told a lie once, I was disobedient once.
And, Father, a boy touched me once.
Tell me, child. Was his touch immodest?
Did he touch your breast, for example?
He brushed against me, Father. Very gently.
With the last intensified adverb, the sensuality and delicacy of
Mays amorous encounter break through the pasteboard matter of the Cold War and the
specious arguments of her father. The poem then can be read as something of a sly satire
on those people like Forbes, which frustrates their "grids on the flux", and
instead places a flux on their grids. It might seem unfair of me to reproach Forbes on the
one hand of only wanting to find poems to fit the clichés and then reproach him again
when he includes a poem which doesnt. But the fact that his anthology is blind to
other types of engagement with history, such as those of Hill and Graham, rather points in
the opposite direction, that is, that Forbes thinks this poem is about the Cuban
missile crisis. After the beautiful lightness of Mays "Very gently", one
comes with something of a shock upon Forbess note explaining that "[i]n October
1962 American reconnaissance showed that Russia was installing offensive missiles in Cuba
The pressure that Forbes applies to poems in order to squeeze the
desired themes out of them is the same as in Armitage and Crawford, and it is one of the
most deleterious aspects of contemporary British poetry, with Schmidts catholicity
very much a marginal affair. It is deleterious as it reduces poetry to other modes of
discourse such as critical or journalistic prose. Yes, poetry should talk about everything
important in our lives, but if it does so at the expense of abandoning its own most potent
rhetorical resources, then something is amiss. Even a poet like Carol Ann Duffy who is
capable of a poem such as "Adultery" is also capable elsewhere of this type of
slackness, as for instance in "Translating the English 1989", which is given
iconic status by Forbes. In essence, the same demand was made on poetry by Marxist critics
under Communism. If you dont think about your own life and the life of your country
under such headings as "Workout in the Reality Gym: The Eighties and Nineties"
and even "The Way We Live: Existence"; if you dont believe in the ideology
of devolution in the same way that many Central European countries believed in Communism
after World War II, then youre likely to feel dissatisfied with two of these three
books, and indeed with many of the collections that are made P.B.S. choices and win prizes
in Britain at the moment. It is to be hoped that these two anthologies mark the apogee of
this dispensation, and there are indeed signs that this is so.