Sean O’Brien, The Deregulated Muse: Essays on Contemporary British and Irish Poetry. Bloodaxe Books. £10.95
Robin Riley Fast, The Heart as Drum: Continuance and Resistance in American Indian Poetry. U Michigan P. $42.50.
Fred Moramarco & William Sullivan. Containing Multitudes: Poetry in the United States Since 1950. Twayne. $33.00.
As Reviewed By: Justin Quinn
Sean O’Brien is that rarest of things: a critic-poet who doesn’t work in the academy. A regular contributor to the TLS and the Sunday Times, he is the best spokesman for what can be called the mainstream in British poetry. The tone he employs is by times acerbic, professorial, mollifying, and reasonable; his judgements will not please everyone, but you’d be hard pressed to find a more lively account of contemporary British poetry on the bookshelves at the moment. Disagree as I will with many of his assessments and omissions, he is quite simply a critic who cares enough about poetry to write books about it and yet not stake an academic career on such publications.
The deregulation of his title is the cultural inverse of the Thatcherite economic manoeuvres of the 1980s: it bespeaks the thematic loosening that has taken place in British and Irish poetry since the 1960s, traceable for the most part back to the Butler Act which allowed access to university education to people who were previously denied it on class grounds. Critics who want an explanation for the explosion of poetic talent in Northern Ireland at the end of the 1960s should look no further than this legislation. Without it we might never have had Seamus Heaney or Paul Muldoon. Before this, one looked to Oxbridge for aspiring poets, but now there were many new universities coming into existence to cater for the increased demand, and these places were just as likely to produce poetic talent. As Britain moved into the 1970s the poets were increasingly from a wider social and ethnic range (not to mention the importance of the rise of feminism), and these social changes left an indelible mark on the preoccupations and themes of poetry. When commenting on this phenomenon, O’Brien states that: “It seems for the moment that poetically anything is possible, though not necessarily desirable, and that form is undergoing a radical inspection”. And also: “The variousness is something that I try to bear out in the essays, though I am aware on the one hand that for some readers my idea of variety will be their idea of homogeneity. I look forward to reading their accounts of the matter”.[private]
The main problem is that in his book O’Brien fails to show the presence of any real formal variety or innovation in contemporary British and Irish poetry. Tony Harrison, Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Paul Durcan, Carol Ann Duffy, Christopher Reid, and Glyn Maxwell, to name a few, are all interesting poets, but with the exception of Durcan (whose poetics owes most to Ginsberg), they all are stylistically conservative. Certainly, they have brought new subject matter into poetry (for instance, Maxwell’s suburban magic realism, Duffy’s tough demotic), but there’s little in their work that Robert Frost or Philip Larkin would object to. It seems that O’Brien is so taken away with the influx of new themes in British poetry that he mistakes it for stylistic change. Here he is on Ken Smith:
As the poem cuts between a narrative voice that acts out Fox’s flight, and the comments of Fox himself, it claws in swathes of material. It stretches from the East End of “Pakkibashers’ Court” to the humiliations of the (then) DHSS (“standing at the cashier’s window / hearing oh we’ve written a book have we?”), from nuclear holocaust to the odds and ends of conversations, from Fox’s doppelganger to the underlife of the city with its black economy of drugs and whisky. What lends the poem its alarming coherence is the energy and unsparing accuracy Smiths brings to presenting the descent into the most harrowing of derelictions, the stage at which the original grievance is supplanted by the demeaning agonies of the present, a condition reproduced by the thousand in the ranks of the contemporary destitute.
OK, but O’Brien has nothing to say, here as elsewhere, about the formal aspects of this poetry that might hold his claim in the book’s beginning.
The left-leaning aspect of O’Brien’s criticism leads him to give short shrift to Geoffrey Hill, a poet who insists on honouring English tradition rather than trashing it, and who writes out of it in radical critique of present circumstances (and as David Wheatley surmises, perhaps having a go at O’Brien himself in The Triumph of Love in the reference to Sean O’Shem). O’Brien can’t admit the possibility of such a critique and passes over without comment Hill’s Canaan published two years before O’Brien’s book and which contains some of Hill’s most savage attacks on British political practice. Hill plainly won’t do as his ideas of England turn away from the Cool Britannia which O’Brien’s favoured poets revel in. In that theme-park it is de rigeur to mock, or at least be ironic towards, ideas of Old England as an admirable political entity. Zaniness and wacky imaginative feats of the imagination and voice are to be praised (Shapcott, Selima Hill, Sweeney), as is proximity to the demotic, and detailed pictures of the underside of British society (as Smith above and Peter Reading). O’Brien has more discrimination than most of the apologists for this poetry, and he provides the most accurate picture of its dimensions, but it is not a poetry which commands much interest outside the island.
Robin Riley Fast’s The Heart as Drum is a world away from O’Brien’s book. First, it is unremittingly academic in its execution and displays no critical capacity in the elucidation or discussion of poetry. This is no doubt why Fast chose Native American poetry, work which for the most part is like strident paraphrases of real poems. The critic who wants to say that such and such a poem contests the space of Western linear thinking is most likely to find it said for him or herself in the poem in exactly that form, with a few Coyotes thrown in for colouring. Labour-saving, certainly; poetry definitely not. Interested readers can find out what’s wrong with most Native American poetry by a quick perusal of the definitive anthology, Duane Niatum’s The Harper Anthology of 20th Century Native American Poetry (1988). It includes the work of poets from as different tribes as the Tlingits to the Acoma Pueblo Indians, but they all sound curiously the same–prompting the suspicion that this flourishing has more to do with the rise of counterculture in the 1960s than any real engagement with Native America. Most of the poets do not speak the language of the ethnicity they promote in their poems, let alone live amongst the tribal communities, but display a habit of what in Ireland is called the cúpla focal. This is when a speaker peppers his or her speech with a few Irish words as a vague means of nationalist affirmation. It’s bogus in Ireland, and it’s bogus in the poetry that Fast examines also.
Fast himself is uncritical in the extreme, and although he wishes to demonstrate the connections between the poets’ work and Native American culture he provides no specific information concerning these, but opts for the airiest of New Age assertions. The following comments are typical: “Even paved over with cement, as in ‘Washyuma Motor Hotel’ (97-98), the spirits of the ancient people survive in the land, their voices powerful and empowering”; “All across Native America, dream, vision, and myth are essential to spirituality; along with memory, which keeps them alive, they are thus essential to the ways of healing, these poets offer”. (The one “essential” too many is typical of the poor editing this book received–a few other instances: he uses the archaic spelling “embue”; he refers to a “stetl” when he means “shtetl”; he suggests solecistically that it is possible for one to appropriate something to one’s purpose.) One expects greater insight and knowledge of indigenous culture from an academic in the field, and in this respect Fast is typical of the widespread abandonment of scholarly habits when approaching multicultural literature in the U.S. Are all Native American spirits the same? Are all the myths pan-Indian? They are for Fast’s purposes, and, it must be said, for his poets also. We need critics who know the languages and are able to appraise these poets in the context of their particular cultural traditions, rather than ones who merely co-opt them in the same way that the Body Shop collects moisturiser recipes from the rain forests.
And finally to Fred Moramarco and William Sullivan’s Containing Multitudes, which is subtitled Poetry in the United States Since 1950. It is the third part of a series of Twayne books which covers American poetry from the Puritans to the present. The book is essentially made up of short essays on the careers of individual poets, which are organised loosely into thematic chapters. Thus, in “Exploring New Terrain: Self and Community”, William Sullivan discusses Muriel Rukeyser, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, Richard Wilbur, Denise Levertov, and Robert Duncan. The unexpected inclusion there is Wilbur, but it is a judicious choice: by situating him in such a spectrum we begin to see the ways in which Wilbur was not simply a scion of the New Criticism, blissfully oblivious of the political world around him, but responded fully to the times he lived through. Other chapters deal with revisions of Modernism, gender, place, and the poetry of what is loosely called borderlands (African American, Native American, Chicano/a, Asian American poetry). What the authors praise in this wide range of poetry is proximity to what they call “actual personal experience”. This is a questionable criterion for the appreciation of poetry (Rilke or Valéry wouldn’t have scored highly in this respect), and is too malleable to be of any analytic use.
The book brings no fresh interpretation of its materials–perhaps that wasn’t even the intention of the authors in covering so large a field. But ultimately it amounts to little more than a corralling of commonplaces about the period, useful for undergraduates cramming for exams, but little more. Thus the authors rehearse the “breakthrough” narrative of Robert Lowell and Life Studies, they offer a traditionally lurid autobiographical reading of Sylvia Plath’s work, and in general their treatment of multicultural literature and gender resembles publishers’ press releases rearranged into critical prose. “There’s nothing there to roll / On the expressive tongue, the finding fang”–as with Fast, the finding fang of the critic is absent, and those without fangs will always be happy with pap.[/private]