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Of Grids, Flux and the Patternless Expanse

Posted By JQuinn On July 19, 2010 @ 1:52 pm In Reviews | 2 Comments

Simon Armitage & Robert Crawford, eds. The Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland Since 1945. Viking. 443pp. £25

Michael Schmidt, ed. The Harvill Book of Twentieth-Century Poetry in English. Harvill Press. 728pp. £20

Peter Forbes, ed. Scanning the Century: The Penguin Book of Twentieth Century in Poetry. Viking. 596pp. £20

As Reviewed By: Justin Quinn


Anthologies are literature’s 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 reputations—both upwards and downwards—and 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.[private]

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 Crawford’s “and Ireland”, Schmidt’s purview of anglophone poetry in general, Forbes’s 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 intonation—quite 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 friends).

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 won’t be too difficult (like Eliot’s) or relish genocide in an Olympian tone (like Yeats’s), 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 anthologists—they 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 Crawford’s 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 democrats—there’s 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 isn’t 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 don’t have to go to Oxford (although it has to be admitted that it still helps), and you don’t 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. It’s 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”. It’s 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 O’Brien, 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 aren’t. Now, the fact that none of these writers, to the best of my knowledge, shares Larkin’s politics or opinions about gender is a matter that is completely irrelevant to the matter of poetry. Where’s 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 D’Aguiar. 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 that’s 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). It’s 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 latter’s 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 Johnson’s “Inglan is a bitch / dere’s no escapin’ it / Inglan is a bitch / dere’s no runnin’ whey fram it”. Sean O’Brien 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 Shapcott’s 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 Wright’s 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 more—in the mouth, and a deep cut
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 isn’t dying, but is long dead. As they say, bold face Reading’s. But it is hard to see how the linguistic clichés of C.I.D. differ all that much from Reading’s own narration of the event.

More subtly, this disintegration of meta-narrative sanctions a lot of marginal micro-narratives—tense, idiomatic tales of seemingly insignificant events and people freighted with quizzical irony. Thus Glyn Maxwell’s “Helene and Heloise”, Michael Hofmann’s “Between Bed and Wastepaper Basket”, Michael Donaghy’s “Shibboleth”, Matthew Sweeney’s “Blue Shoes”, Oliver Reynolds’s “Anna Colutha in Suffolk”, Helen Dunmore’s “The Dream-Life of Priests” and Sujata Bhatt’s “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 Duffy’s “Adultery”:

Then, selfish autobiographical sleep

in a marital bed, the tarnished spoon of your body
stirring betrayal, your heart overripe at the core.
You’re an expert darling; your flowers
dumb and explicit on nobody’s birthday.

So write the script—illness 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. Didn’t 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 latter’s 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 Muldoon’s “Incantata” in toto.


If Michael Schmidt’s 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 Heaney’s 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 thus.

But the book’s 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 mainstream […]. 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) it’s that sense of having one’s head in the sand—(it’s all OK folks, these lines have five beats to the line, the silence is beautiful, whatever’s 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. Historically—given 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 poet’s insistence that everyone must have the same concerns as her. The works of Paul Muldoon or Philip Larkin do not fit Graham’s 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 Crawford’s 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 Graham’s prejudice above.

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 styles—from Palmer to Allen Ginsberg to C.H. Sisson—which is exactly what the New Criticism didn’t 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 Schmidt’s 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 Schmidt’s 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 poetry’s function as consolation, i.e., you’ll 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 prose—history from the ground up perhaps? It offers the possibility of revising our basic understanding of the century’s 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 Forbes’s 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 isn’t. 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 can’t 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 Murray’s satire. But no, he doesn’t, 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 doesn’t 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 clichés.

Forbes’s Virgils in this enterprise are W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice—no strangers to historical cliché themselves—who 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 [1972].) 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 Hill’s grim goading of the reader into historical responsibility in “‘Christmas Trees’” is a very different affair from Auden’s suggestion in “September 1, 1939″ that we should all love one another—or die? no, better strike that: and die. The hesitation over the conjunction displays the essential vapidity of Auden’s 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 Graham’s explorations of history which pay full attention both to the powerlessness and the power of the individual against a large historical backdrop.

Both Hill’s and Graham’s 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 Brodsky’s “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 poem’s title, but it’s not clear at whose expense. He can’t 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 Forbes’s anthology. Another instance of this, but a better poem, is W.B. Yeats’s “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 Yeats’s 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 won’t 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 Muldoon’s 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 hadn’t 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 you’d heard Patton in Armagh—
But this Kennedy’s nearly an Irishman
So he’s not much better than ourselves.
And him with only to say the word.
If you’ve 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 May’s 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 doesn’t. 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 May’s “Very gently”, one comes with something of a shock upon Forbes’s note explaining that “[i]n October 1962 American reconnaissance showed that Russia was installing offensive missiles in Cuba […]“, etc.

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 Schmidt’s 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 don’t 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 don’t believe in the ideology of devolution in the same way that many Central European countries believed in Communism after World War II, then you’re 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.[/private]

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