New British Poetry. Edited by Don Paterson and Charles Simic. Graywolf Press, 2005. $16
As Reviewed By: James Rother
It’s been a while since the relative healthiness of relations between poets on this side of the pond and those still lodged in the mother country have been top priorities with editors of American literary journals. Not since the eclipse of extra-national popularity once basked in by critical organs like The London Review of Books has the matter raised either much interest or an appreciable number of hackles. However, since both literary communities are now burdened with the onus of accommodating themselves to the unholy alliance that events in Iraq have forced upon England and America, it’s not surprising that what poets over here think of their British counterparts and vice versa should fire more curiosity than usual. What has caused literary relations, once universally taken for granted, to lapse? Was it indeed attributable, as many think, to the disappearance during the ‘60s of T. S. Eliot, the single unifying figure with enough gravitational pull to keep the literary politics separating the various regions where English was spoken from going centrifugal?
The richly endowed Athena and overseer of America’s poetic odyssey, Helen Vendler, tackled some of these questions six years ago in a review-article for The New York Review of Books titled “Anglo-Celtic Attitudes.” Under her purview were three new volumes of verse by poets then drawing fresh attention to a formerly debilitated literary scene in Great Britain: Paul Muldoon, Glyn Maxwell, and James Lasdun. Vendler began by blaming the decline in deference among American authors to things English on the U.S.’s having acquired superpower status after World War II and on American writers no longer feeling that they need to remain current with regard to trends emerging in the British Isles and Ireland. “Auden maintained a hold on the American audience,” she opined,
because he lived here, and Dylan Thomas flashed briefly through the country, but apart from those two imports, modern British poets made almost no impression on the United States. We were content to let them (and the poets of the Commonwealth countries and Ireland) work in their separate sphere. This depressing situation was compounded by the gradual but widening divergence between British and American culture, and by the utter failure, in the service of a mistaken nativism, of American public (and even private) schools to keep British poetry, in a systematic way, in the elementary and secondary curriculum. The American presses that still publish poetry have tended predictably to favor American poets over others writing in English. . . . [private]
Charles Simic, the American co-editor of the bi-nationally edited Graywolf Press anthology New British Poetry (his transatlantic counterpart on the project is the Scottish poet Don Paterson), more or less concurs with this reading of the relationship and has personally intervened to try to turn it around. Nevertheless, much as one hates to rain on a well-intentioned parade, and inasmuch as differences between old world and new have seldom enjoyed so informative or so blithely spirited an airing, the results of this effort to further mutual understanding on the poetry front are, to put the best possible face on it, decidedly mixed. The long and the short of the anthology’s editorial scheme, like the length of views respectively taken by the co-editors, may be assessed from the unmatched pair of introductory statements by Paterson (the long) and Simic (the short). They attest not just to a joint effort on the part of these collaborators but to a double-jointed one in which the thumbs-up sign was accorded a particular selection only when both editors agreed to not disagree too violently about those poems only half-liked by the one, provided it was offset by other selections toward which the other was inordinately drawn. “This book,” Paterson writes,
has two editors, and these are the poets we agreed on. Twelve more we disagreed on sometimes deeply. We initially limited ourselves to twenty-five poets, found ourselves arguing for the inclusion of twenty more, and found space for eleven. We had to invoke a cut-off—otherwise this book would have been unpublishably long—and decided all poets we included had to be born after 1945, and have published at least two books by the end of 2002. . . .
Beyond establishing an amiable ecumenism governing the anthology’s included and excluded, Paterson and Simic apparently agonized a great deal over what should fitly emerge from all that mutual labor aimed at defying the odds against producing an anthology that would not only give an accurate picture of the current situation on the ground vis à vis English poetry, but also avoid remaindered tables and the season in hell books of this kind generally face. How much genuine ecumenism lies behind its rictus of congeniality must of course be left to the proverbial anyone’s best guess; but what isn’t the least in doubt is the degree of animus which Paterson feels toward the corrosive swindle known everywhere as “Postmodernism.” It may have originated in the United States, but in his view it left virtually an entire generation of British poets moldering soullessly in its swath. Simic, in no small part an offspring of that climate, one of whose byproducts during the ‘60s and ‘70s was a decided tropism toward surrealist technique, is not surprisingly silent on this and related matters. His preface wholly moots the question of who did what, and with which, and to whom, pursuing instead the more diplomatic route of rescouring turf already torn up by W. H. Auden’s “Introduction” to his own Criterion Book of Modern American Verse in the mid-‘50’s. American poetry is by its very nature eclectic and therefore “always already” contemporary, whether its practitioners wish it to be or not. Unlike British verse, its life force derives less from European crosswinds than from what Simic traces to the “limitless faith” expressed by Ralph Waldo Emerson “in the power of the individual to make a new beginning, reinventing everything from his identity to the art of poetry . . . .”
Again, whether this is Simician for “Leave the American postmodern poets alone; I am, after all, one of them” is something else for the reader to decide on his or her own. The incessant harping by his British co-editor on the “Mainstream” positioning of the majority of U.K. poets appearing in the anthology speaks less for itself, I think, than for the myth of pan-Albionism that has lodged itself with rather great obduracy in Don Paterson’s mind. Tant pis or tant mieux, it conduces to very little in the long run: the contents of New British Poetry will either stand on their own or they won’t. All the ideologizing rant in the world is incapable of altering anyone’s opinion as to their poetic value or of nudging the book’s sales into either the red or the black.
But much of this is quite incidental to the point raised. The only important questions are: “How truly representative has been the editors’ selection of poets and poems?” and “How many items making up that selection reflect a preponderance of the golden over mere dross?” At first blush, it must be said, a skimming of New British Poetry’s innards proves not all that enticing. A majority of its inclusions seem, despite the occasional lurch into the memorable, to lack assuredness and in some cases even basic skills. Under cover of “populism” (i.e. “grammar school” ties over “public school” ones) a plethora of skivvies and ragged knickers flaunt their working class threads, as in “Poem” by Simon Armitage:
And if it snowed and snow covered the drive
he took a spade and tossed it to one side.
And always tucked his daughter up at night.
And slippered her the one time that she lied.
—or Michael Donaghy’s “A Repertoire”:
“Play us one we’ve never heard before”
we’d ask this old guy in our neighborhood.
He’d rosin up a good three or four
seconds, stalling, but he always could.
This was the Bronx in 1971,
when every night the sky was pink with arson.
He ran a bar beneath the el, the Blarney Stone,
and there one Easter day he sat us down
and made us tape as much as he could play;
‘I gave you these. Make sure you put that down’,
meaning all he didn’t have to say.
Perhaps the late Donaghy is an unfair choice by means of which to make this point. A New Yorker of Irish descent, he did not emigrate to London until 1985, at about the age of thirty. Perhaps an example from the verse of Alan Jenkins would better reveal the omnipresent specter of Terry Eagleton, Raymond Williams’s “dwarf alter ego” (a phrase of Norman Mailer’s) and noted scourge of BBC-3’s pretensions, who morphs in and out of many guises and disguises, the disaffected (though still repentant) bourgeois among them:
He visited, the man who takes your life
and turns it upside-down, from floor
to ceiling; and he saw I had no wife,
and saw the things that I had worked hard for
and smiled, as if he knew what went on here.
The italicized adverb in Alan Jenkins’s “Visiting” speaks volumes, nearly all of which would likely appear on Eagleton’s course list for “Marx & Spencer 101” at some institution of higher loitering or other. However, the braid of disaffection can be raveled in many different ways, and there is no discernible shortage in New British Poetry of things to make and things to do with either crotchety dispositions or the perennially drab English soulscape a-drip with alienation. A few of Paterson’s and Simic’s poets do themselves and the British tradition proud—sometimes with no more than offhanded grace miraculously transformed into an ormolu or papier maché Norn from some rock culture Götterdämmerung. Such matte metamorphosis occurs in this same poet’s “Portrait of a Lady”:
She’s been in too deep and out too far, oh man,
her dark eyes spill nearly twenty years of bruises,
roll-ups and cider, and a battered Morris van
holds everything she ever wants or uses—
her Dylan tapes, her Steeleye Span and Fleetwood Mac
(he told her once she looked like Stevie Nicks,
and ‘Go Your Own Way’ still takes her back),
her daughter’s scribbles, her I-Ching spill-sticks,
the bag of grass hand-picked from her veggie patch,
some tattered old Viragos, Mervyn Peakes
and a book of newish poetry. There’s a catch
in her voice as she half-sings, half-speaks
of the slow blues she wrote about him when he left,
that neither of you will remember by the morning
when you have to leave as well and she offers you a lift
through dripping lanes—but it draws you yawning,
shivering, to huddle in the blankets, quilts
while she clings close, and seems on the edge
of tears; your breath, the frost-blurred ghosts and guilts . . .
We’re gonna meet, she tells you, meet on the ledge.
This may not be up there with T. S. Eliot’s early effort with the same title or Ezra Pound’s “Portrait d’une Femme,” but it does comes across engagingly as a, if not the, Browning version of detritus enliveningly retrieved from decades past, with particular emphasis on its distaff side. The latter, one recalls, drifted from hippy-flotsam to schizo-jetsam with a determination not often seen on either R. D. Laing’s or Thomas Szazz’s corner of the Atlantic. No Leonard Cohen-ish parsing of roughage in this mess of pottage, no gloopy homage to Suzanne as “beautiful loser” or other such pseudonym for demirep out of a poet’s bag of clichés. It’s all about the doom the distracted can often read in those anfractuous prolixities that draw unlikely Kundrys to even unlikelier Parsifals. If Jenkins’s “portrait” can be said to have a subject at all, it is glimpsable only through what its sinuous images yield—a farrago best epitomized by a phrase from the title essay of Joan Didion’s The White Album (1979): “a demented and seductive vortical tension.” What begins as something marinated in Beatling brine—the candle-lit Schubertiana of “Eleanor Rigby” or “Norwegian Wood” hastens to mind—ends, after a spell in the draught cupboard, thoroughly pickled in Schönbergian angst.
Such angst is largely unknown to these shores, having been long restricted to that uniquely British twilight zone of class consciousness undergirded by Socialismus from the top down rather than, as in the old Soviet Union, from the bottom-feeders up. With the dissolution of the Auden-Spender-Day Lewis axis and the sputtering of T. S. Eliot into senescence after Four Quartets, British verse slouched into an interregnum from which even the underings of endless Milkwood’s by Dylan Thomas clones provided welcome relief. The further self-promoting of ex-Angries into red- and white-brick sinecures (the less scholarly among them opting for vantages from which the fox-hunting upper classes could be stalked as a blood sport) took on the ruddy-cheeked venosity of literature of, by, and for ageing Ban-the-Bombers and other dupes of Leonid Brezhnev’s NKVD. From this feeding frenzy of the bewitched, bothered, and bewildered there soon emerged a strange new mésalliance of fresh converts to Toryism—Kingsley Amis, John Osborne, and John Braine, to name but three—and the SoHo smart set eager to capitalize on the freewheeling tableau vivant of déjeuner sur l’herbe, ‘60s-style. Thus were those recruited under the banner of Philip Larkin pitted against those rallying to Ted Hughes’s standard in an agon further exacerbated by a class war which, having smoldered resentfully through much of Dame Margaret Thatcher’s “New Britain,” was stoked to white heat by acolytes of Raymond Williams such as Terry Eagleton. The resulting Po-Mo-driven turn to the Left begat, among other prodigies, a spate of poet-populists of the stamp of Tony Harrison, which, despite some branching off a few recidivist Edith Sitwells and George Barkers, remained within striking distance of the high animal spirits realm staked out by followers of D. H. Lawrence and Robert Graves. In those years British verse remained more or less on track in keeping relations between Toffs and Yobs suitably intransigent, which is to say, modeled not all that loosely on Orc-human antagonism in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. As far back as the early ‘60s, critics such as Charles Tomlinson had noted problems arising out of British poets’ having too precipitously dismounted the twin high horses of ‘20s modernism and ‘30s Noël Cowardice-with-a-Marxist-slant.
From the self-indulgent clamor of the ‘70s had arisen a multicultural road show only an Edward Lucie-Smith could have conceived, let alone impresario-ed. Amid acrid waftings from bazaars as far away as Tangiers and Beirut, British poetry went native in ways unimaginable to earlier generations whose letters to Lord Byron had borne Icelandic postmarks and whose adjustment to the brave new world of Yankee corporatism required no more arduous an adjustment than a crash course in American slang. Gone (it seemed, for ever) were the simple-minded longings for Arabia Deserta that had led to Sir Richard Burton’s, and later T. E. Lawrence’s, outings-in-mufti, or the pleasures which life in the Punjab during the late Raj afforded the imperial class. All too noisomely in were the premonitory quiverings of what would soon surface as “subaltern studies,” a cyst on the face of academe whose suppurations of uppity ressentiment finally reached gusher levels when the pontificating faux-Palestinian (by way of Cairo and Oxford) Edward Said, his anti-Israel tirades emanating from a safe house accorded him by New York’s Columbia University, assumed fountainhead duties as chief issuer of anti-Zionist Arrafatwas from the United States. Academic I.E.D.’s, like his Orientalism of 1979 (which apologized profusely for mayhem loosed by such Middle-Eastern terrorist groups as Fatah and Hezbollah), proved as disruptive to literary common sense in other parts of the left-leaning world as they did in the United States. The “mainstream” had morphed over time into a difficult slipstream for any British poet to stay afloat in, so choppy had the cross-currents buffeting England from across the Channel become. Determined to align its national cultures with whichever frissons of foreignness were most likely to undercut the twin nightmares of a resurgent Islam and the price of gasoline shooting past three dollars a gallon, Europe was again acting like a continent sorely racked by incontinence. Some of these frissons, as it turned out, proved not inharmonious with certain asymmetric idiolects of the New Left whose dictats took on particular stridency after the upheaval in French politics nominalized as “May 1968.” At a stroke, Carlos the Jackal married the deconstructionist muse and set up housekeeping in the flat in Paris where Louis Althusser’s wife experienced terminal massage at the hands of the luftmensch responsible for, among other unstringings of the lyre, Pour Marx and Lire le Capital. If the cachet of postmodernist Paris and neo-Marxist Berlin did not originate with these events, the wildly inflated Student popularity they enjoyed almost everywhere was at the very least an indirect result of them.
Over forty years ago two Americans and an Irishman attempted to put English poetry back into the mainstream of European culture. The effect of those generations who have succeeded to the heritage of Eliot, Pound, and Yeats has been to largely squander the awareness those three gave us of our place in world literature, and to retreat into a self-congratulatory parochialism. In the years following the Second World War, this tendency has been ever more confirmed, both in the work of the neo-romantics of the 1940s and in the poets who have since reacted against these. As among the social poets of the thirties, we see no one writer who, while acknowledging the point to which the art of poetry has been taken by the three great poet-symbolists, has succeeded in working forward supported by a consciousness of their achievement and of its technical potentialities. Instead, in the English poetry of the fifties one has, to use the words of a recent reviewer, an arbitrary attempt to “criticize the values of subtopia by those of suburbia.” . . .
To drive the point further home, Tomlinson cites the famous remark of Kingsley Amis (dropped in Poets of the 1950s) that “Nobody wants any more poems about philosophers or paintings or novelists or art galleries or mythology or foreign cities or other poems. At least I hope nobody wants them,” alongside the uni-sententious credo of the eternally grimacing Philip Larkin: “[I] have no belief in ‘tradition’ or a common myth-kitty or casual allusions in poems to other poems or poets.” If postwar British poetry really did align itself for a time along fracture lines with Philip Larkin on one side of a great divide and Ted Hughes on the other, then Jenkins’s “Portrait of a Lady,” with its penchant for understatement reminiscent of “Church Going” and “Love Songs in Age,” moves its needle into Larkin territory, eclipsing what is Hughes-like about his poem as lightlessly as a half-moon lost in a cloudbank.
The impact of forces emanating from these two radically dissimilar citadels of English poetic style was felt far and wide and continues to register on Geiger counters even today, if in much attenuated form. Appendaged to its fallout was a postmodernism that savagely undercut “mainstream’ poetry”—a phenomenon whose course “in the last century in the U.K. can be read,” in Don Paterson’s view at least, “as a relatively seamless evolution.”
Mainstream: a river with tributaries. [Modern British Poetry], for better or worse, is a mainstream anthology. I’d like to see the word reclaimed from its detractors, though to do so, we should first make some attempt at a definition. In the US, one might caricature the mainstream as that broad swathe of poets who have strung their elegant steps together between the clumping clog-dance of the New Formalists from the school of Yvor Winters onwards, and the neurotic ballet of the Postmoderns, from the later Cantos and the school of Charles Olson onwards; i.e., from that pool of writers who would include Roethke, Lowell, and Bishop to Anthony Hecht, James Merrill, Adrienne Rich, Louise Glück, Gertrude Schnackenberg, C. K. Williams, Jorie Graham, Marilyn Hacker, Charles Simic, Mark Doty, and the apparently unforgivably popular Billy Collins. In the UK, the mainstream has been shaped and narrowed by the closing banks of that cheery and generally none-too-clever verse of recognition humour [sic] or undisguised moral exhortation; and by Postmoderns on the other—and how strenuously Left—bank. However, as I hope this book will show, it has been narrowed to a fairly furious and articulate torrent.
Had any anthology editor, even a few years ago, included that many women poets in a “mainstream,” the timing alone would have caused many feminists to experience the DT’s. Now, poets like Adrienne Rich, Louise Glück, and Jorie Graham can take solace from the fact that cracks in the glass ceiling are continuing to undermine its support system, and that Don Paterson’s gesture of solidarity with the no-longer-weaker sex is today more far-reaching than outreaching. Or so it would appear, were his “relatively seamless evolution” of modern and contemporary in the U.K. (and the U.S.) not as myth-driven as, say, F. R. Leavis’s “great tradition.” His spellbinder’s Orpheum of critique also raised English literature’s distaff side to queanly—if not “queenly”—heights by allowing such constellar masculinities as James’s, Forster’s, and Conrad’s to be outshone by dowager princesses like Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, and George Eliot. Of course, the trouble with great traditions is that they only remain Eliotic gestalts when viewed from exalted heights and only retain their Yeatsian grandeur when swaddled in free-associational grave clothes whose tenebrous “decorum” Richard Howard once pretextualized into a brief brought against Donald Justice’s tendency to cede to enchantment what would be better employed in a day job with no visionary requirements. Localizing Justice’s praise of Weldon Kees for his originality “‘in one of the few ways that matter’ as a question of a ‘particular tone of voice, one we have never heard before,’” Howard pleads for a return to a poetry of disenchantment:
. . . Bearing in mind the fierce adequacy of this poet’s performance to his purposes, the inextricability of formal pattern and wild theme, I should like a little more emphasis on that tone of voice in which we may hear his poems. . . . There would seem to be a tradition, or at least a convention, in lyric poetry for dealing with a world thus enchanted, thus held in thrall, and it is this conventional tone which releases Donald Justice’s “particular” gentle and ruinous tone of voice, “humbly aspiring” as James Dickey says, but aspiring to apocalypse out of frenzy with mortality, aspiring to extirpate everything that might stand between the naked self and the absolute—which is not humble. We may trace the articulation of such a convention for dealing with enchantment, in this century in poems by De La Mare, by Graves, by Yeats before 1916, by Frost and Ransom in America; the decorum admits of sharp observation, but not much experiment or originality with the tools of that observation, either words or senses. The language of this poetry is one already received by poets, not invented to satisfy new needs (which is why we must except the later Yeats from this group) . . . .
“Great traditions” always seem most credible when the failure to hold firm to values in a faithless present causes the unstable and easily disillusioned to try to recapture a “golden age” that never was. (With Pound and Eliot, that sublime period was the age of Dante and his predecessors. Its “subject rhymes” (Pound’s term) in a chain of Spenglerian parallels included, along with the modernist London Vortex launched in 1915 by Wyndham Lewis’s magazine BLAST, Confucian China, Propertius’s Rome, Sigismundo de Malatesta’s Tempio, John Adams’s and Thomas Jefferson’s America, and Mussolini’s Italy.) Such tendencies may be as widely observed today in the hero-cults of contemporary art as ever they were in the hurly-burly of the Soviet revolutionary period or that of Berlin in the early ‘30s. Within the American context, orthodox modernism—the idiolect of Pound, Eliot, Williams, though not, oddly enough, of Zukofsky—is seeming more and more, as retrospect closes in on 20-20, to have been a mistake, an unwarranted swerving into territory rife with fractalized flora and fauna from the world of “strange attractors” unique to chaos theory, exacerbated by the trauma of World War I and the successes, poorly digested, of avant-garde movements such as Dada, expressionism, constructivism, and cubism.
That said, it is both over-hasty and erroneous to shovel all postmodern poetry—the later Cantos and the school of Charles Olson, as Paterson dismissively puts it—into the single dumpster of well-earned obsolescence. Nor is all postmodernist criticism of poetry eminently junkable, a simplism that books like Heather McHugh’s Broken English: Poetry and Partiality (1993) easily refutes. For one thing, many of the healthier elements in postmodernist verse—and yes, there are some, raised eyebrows in the neo-formalist peanut gallery to the contrary notwithstanding—have attempted to redress the fallout occasioned by the slapdash action-painting left behind by departing modernists as testimony corroborating their movement’s artistic veracity. And though it is true that much of the best work by postmodernists, in America at least, could just as properly be viewed as “neo-modernist,” whatever name we choose to call it has little bearing on either its appeal or its originality as poetry. The British situation has the cards just described falling in rather a variant pattern of devolution. Given the different lifespan—and indifferent singularity—of the modernist influence, later literary developments were fueled by market antagonisms that were on the whole less Pooh-bearish than John Bull-ish. (Georgianism of the sort epitomized by Thomas Hardy, Walter de la Mare, and the galère of mostly doomed First World War poets like Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon, never wholly waned in England; nor did the Scottish, Irish, or Welsh traditions cease continuing along their own tracks, ruts, or what have you, even with the age of Eliot and Auden raging stormy and stentorian about them.) For that and other reasons uniquely English, class warfare trumped all minor roilings over desirabilities of form and style, with politics refusing to be upstaged by anything so frivolous and toilsome as “aesthetics.” Thus, the most fetching poems in New British Poetry are, not surprisingly, the ones that avoid staging too glitzy end-runs around the variously posted guards and tackles of postmodern rugby, or that when pilot-fishing in shark-infested political waters try too violently to skirt the paired hazards of Hughes-ite rocky wanderlust or the whirlpool-like suction of the Larkin vortex.
This accounts, one supposes, for the tone and tenor of the editorial harrumphing by this anthology’s marriage of modes’ better half, Don Paterson. As suggested earlier on, it is a throat clearing that in its nearly thirteen pages runs the gamut from triumphalism to grudging apologetics. It also explains why, after having waded through its nearly 200 pages of verse, the reader of New British Poetry feels less like he’s had a first-rate literary experience than having been assaulted by a choral version of the self-gratulatory anthem belted by the irrefragable Gypsy Rose Lee in the Sondheim musical bearing her name, “I’m Still Here.” Of course, there are, among the collection’s 36 contributing poets, some names we should watch (or continue watching) on the strength of their showing here. From this company I exempt—even where a modicum of promise is perceptible—English knock-offs of American items already mass-produced in this country (e.g., John Ash, Mark Ford, and other clones milling about the memory of Frank O’Hara); Glückische handmaids of feminist expressionism who hold the “truth” that all men are awful to be inalienable (Carol Ann Duffy and Selima Hill, to name but two); nationalist Scots whose pibroch tootlings on the pipe of Robert Burns and Hugh Mac Diarmid might engage some local imaginations but are otherwise non-exportable (W. N. Herbert and Kathleen Jamie, for example); and finally, poetic apples that didn’t fall far enough from their trees (whether Dylan Thomas’s, or whosever) to avoid over-close identification with their respective fruit. (In this group may be found, among others, Gwyneth Lewis, Alice Oswald, and, to further belabor the point, Andrew Motion.)
That leaves some rather old and “dark familiars” (to cop a phrase from Malcolm Lowry), such as Simon Armitage, Christopher Reid, and Michael Hoffmann, all of whose unassuming and accomplished work stands head and shoulders above much of the whatever filling out the anthology’s body of text. Of their poems, the most outstanding are, respectively, “The Dead Sea Poems,” “Mermaids Explained,” and “Lament for Crassus.” Several others by these three run them a close second. A few poems that seem openly derivative—Robin Robertson’s “Fall (After Rilke),” for instance—almost make up for the often painful absence of anything approaching a singular voice in so many others in New British Poetry:
The leaves are falling, falling from trees
in dying gardens far above us; as if their slow
free-fall was the sky declining.
And tonight, this heavy earth is falling away
from all other stars, drawing into silence.
We are all falling now. My hand, my heart,
stall and drift in darkness, see-sawing down.
And we still believe there is one who sifts and holds
the leaves, the lives, of all those softly falling.
That’s Rilkean all right; I’m just not sure how Robertsonian it is in compensation for the sizeable draft drawn on its indebtedness.
An example of just how strong as pull stars recently ascended into the British firmament can exert may be seen in the work of Andrew Motion, better known, in America at least, for his association with Larkin than as a poet in his own right. Try as this poet might, he is powerless to stop the biographer from tumbling into the biographee’s ravening maw. Any Motion poem, chosen at random, will reveal the same uncontrolled swallowings of the master’s tongue until the massing of choked-up effects convinces that in such poetry everything sucks. One would like to give poor be-Larkined Motion the benefit of the doubt and cede him a place in the Empyrean as a satellite planet, but minor astronomical finds don’t convert easily into Galilean prodigies. The problem isn’t with unreasonable emulation; for while Motion can toll the Larkin angelus with the best of parting-daysters and assume with poise the very image of the tabloid medallion he helped strike, his halting facsimiles show Larkin’s tight-lipped constipations are not in mere cross-section par for the English course of things:
November, and the Sunday twilight fallen
dark at four—its hard unbroken rain
battering the garden. Vacantly I fill
this first week-end alone with anything—
the radio, a paperback you never read:
In 1845 200,00 navvies, 3,000 miles of line.
Lost faces lift—a mania, a human alligator,
shovels clinking under a high midsummer sun. . . .
Nor does he seem capable, when following his master chef into the kitchen, of not conflating a fricassee with a soufflé. Watch what happens when in “Mythology” an inversion of a god-slight is unpacked. Larkin knew better than to quicken into metamorphosis:
Earth’s axle creaks; the year jolts on; the trees
begin to slip their brittle leaves, their flakes of rust;
and darkness takes the edge off daylight, not
because it wants to—never that. Because it must.
And you? Your life was not your own to keep
or lose. Beside the river, swerving underground,
the future tracked you, snapping at your heels:
Diana, breathless, hunted by your own quick hounds.
Could the subject here be Larkin himself? As a haunted, harried, and hunted laureate of rust and the flakes of flakes, he certainly knew what Ovid was memorializing when versing the turns taken by hounding in running afoul of the determinedly chaste. But a piece like “Mythology” is so slickened with burnished complacency, so smug in the tutelary inclemency of its bookish fatality that conjuring even a credible referent for its “you” seems beyond all summonable magic. Very nearly in poem titled “A Wall,” does Motion’s dark motility come into its own and court more than just the possibility of parity with the come-ons of demons that are merely old, new, borrowed, or blue:
I have forgotten whatever
it was I wanted to say,
also the way I wanted
to say it. Form and music.
I should just look at the things
that are, and fix myself
to the earth. This wall,
facing me over the street,
smooth as a shaven chin
but pocked with holes
that scaffolders left,
and flicked with an over-
flow flag. Which still
Or maybe it’s really
a board where tiny
singing meteors strike?
I rest my case. I rest
my case and cannot imagine
hunger greater than this.
For messages sent by hand.
For signs of life.
Similarly adept at bringing lattes of existentialist resignation to froth are John Glenday, Roddy Lumsden, Alice Oswald, and Jo Shapcott. The remainder of those represented range poetically from the tolerably and intolerably competent to the merely unaccomplished and therefore intolerable. As with anthology production on our side of the Great Mouth, Paterson and Simic seem in the grip of cultural forces determined to have flat-lining memorabilia and time-serving in short lines trump substance and the true memorability. Often, such time-serving serves up time pre-packaged and with all the predictable additives (e.g., halting rhyme) in evidence, as in Jamie McKendrick’s “Sky Nails,” where, other than watching phantom meaning being “nailed” to nothing’s beaten airiness, there is little to divert the reader from marveling at the ease with which that prodigy of formlessness, the contemporary poem, rolls off the assembly line.
The first day, to break me in,
my hardened comrades
sent me scampering like a marmoset
from the topmost parapet
to the foreman’s hut
for a bag of sky nails.
The foreman wondered which precise
shade of blue I had in mind.
It’s still sky nails I need to today
with their faint threads
and unbreakable heads
that will nail anything
and make it stay.
Described in an editorial head-note as “an unmistakably English poet—self-perplexed, somehow melancholic in tone even when being humourous, [who] writes with a beautifully understated poise and a lightly worn but highly acute and scholarly intelligence,” McKendrick, even when preoccupied with the sordidness of hotels (as in “The One Star”), can leave one moaning to the unhouseled shade responsible for having dropped in our laps such miracles as “Church Going”: O Larkin, how thine hour never quite come round/ Expireth in driblets, crumbled scones, life left/ Droozling on the hob . . .”
Yet once in a while—once in a great while—in New British Poetry, served time is allowed sublimely to run in place, just as it appears to do in a divertimento for winds by Mozart, or a poem about what is “Piquant” by Roddy Lumsden:
Just as, surely, sweat is consommé
or scallions scowled in a jelly-pan
or golden acid, wrathful in a stoppered jar
and other bodily fluids I shan’t mention
are sulphur, globster, stinkhorn, horse or Brie,
then there are these late-on summer days
when, just where nostril meets the upper lip,
a film appears, part sweat, part oil
with a perfect, clean white chocolate smell,
two parts ginger to ninety-eight parts milk
and which, when I lean in to take this kiss,
says fools for sugar, says mammals one and all,
says never again a love like this.
Sometimes, to award the cigar to the chief metonymist of the phallus, enough said is just . . . enough said.[/private]