Terra Incognita, or British Poetry in America

As Reviewed By: John Drexel

New British Poetry. Edited by Don Paterson and Charles Simic. Graywolf Press, 2004. Paper: $16.00.

“Anthologies provide the easiest access for American readers into contemporary British poetry, and the lack of reliable contemporary anthologies on both sides of the Atlantic may account for a large part of the apathy and misunderstanding between the two literatures,” wrote Dana Gioia some twenty years ago (in the title piece of Barrier of a Common Language, his recent collection of essays and reviews). In the early 1980s, two major anthologies of British poetry had appeared almost simultaneously. Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion edited The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry (1982), while Michael Schmidt, from his perch in Manchester as editorial director of the literary publishing house Carcanet and editor of its bimonthly house organ, PN Review, publishedSome Contemporary Poets of Britain and Ireland-an anthology (1983). In spite of their (as it turns out, relatively minor) failings, both anthologies largely succeeded in giving readers a useful and accurate, if partial, view of the state of poetry in the British Isles, though they did not aim to do so for the specific benefit of American readers.

[private]Anthologies that set out to demarcate The Present State of Things are notorious for their fallibility, the speed with which their confident edicts become outdated. Such anthologists try to shape their work into a manifesto which, they invariably claim, is not at all a manifesto. Morrison and Motion were suitably doctrinaire in introducing their 1982 anthology:

Now, after a spell of lethargy, British poetry is once again undergoing a transition: a body of work has been created which demands, for its appreciation, a reform of poetic taste. It is in the belief that this shift is genuine and important, and needs to be brought to the attention of a wider public, that this anthology has been compiled.

We are not, of course, the first anthologists this century to have made such a claim . . . .

No indeed. They went on to mention several earlier anthologies that purported to draw a definitive map of the poetry of the time, singling out Michael Roberts’s New Signatures (1932), Robert Conquest’s New Lines (1956), and A. Alvarez’s The New Poetry (1962). And in the following judgment they were correct:

The word “new” is conspicuous in all these titles, and making it new is the oldest of all anthologists’ arts. In the face of such manifesto-making a degree of skepticism is only proper.

Yes indeed. Michael Schmidt was similarly candid and cagey in the preface to his anthology, announcing: “Anthologies of contemporary poetry often flatter their readers with promises of radical novelty, new beginnings, even ‘decisive shifts of sensibility.'” Rarely can the editors of such anthologies resist the urge to Make It New, or at least the urge to claim that It Is New.

The reader for whom contemporary (i.e., at this moment) British poetry is a terra incognita might do well to memorize these points before picking up New British Poetry. And let me add this caveat too: These two anthologies have stood the test of time. More than twenty years after they were first published, for all their flaws they both remain vital, necessary volumes. Moreover, they set the standard by which other, later anthologies of “new” poetry must be judged.

*                      *                      *

As if in response to Gioia’s plea for a renewed transatlantic poetry trade, the anthology New British Poetry arrives on North American shores to plant the Union Jack. (Literally as well as figuratively: the prospective reader can hardly fail to notice that the book’s cover illustration is a bold red, white, and blue detail of the crosses of St. George, St. David, and St. Andrew that make up the British national flag.)

The very title of this anthology asserts newness. But unlike the aforementioned British poetry anthologies of the early 1980s, this one, edited by Don Paterson and Charles Simic, purports to aim specifically at the North American reader. This strategy makes for potential interest, but it also turns out to be a weakness, for in their zeal to introduce “new British poetry” (whatever that might turn out to be) to a supposedly untutored American readership, the editors overplay their hand-more of which anon.

Simic, in his preface, makes a stab at describing how contemporary British poetry differs from its American counterpart. He admits that he is indulging in generalities-and indeed he is. For example, he declares that “the great British and Irish poets are voluptuaries of words, and North Americans rarely are.” American poets are too often “formulaic”; they write “in free verse often barely distinguished from prose” and use “realistic first-person narrative” to convey “momentous or perfectly trivial experience.” He continues in this vein:

[Britain’s] poets are less egocentric than ours, who love the first-person pronoun more than anything else in the world. American poems may probe psychological, philosophical, religious, and aesthetic issues, but they rarely show much awareness of history, economics, and politics. As a nation with a utopian bent, Americans prefer to dwell on the future rather than on the past. We are wary of traditions, closed intellectual systems, and ideas that do not come from experience…. All our great poets-and that goes for Whitman too-have been loners in search of an audience. In contrast, the poets in this anthology assume that they are part of a tradition, addressing a community that may neglect them now and then, but is there nonetheless.

On the whole, I can’t argue with Simic’s perceptions; rather, I second them. And yet, at the same time, there’s something both hectoring and condescending in the tone of these comments-sophisticated Old Europe lecturing the naïve New World, yet betraying some self-confidence in protesting too much.

Simic’s preface has a parallel in the longer and more subtle introduction by Paterson that follows. (This anthology, the reader will find, is replete with all sorts of editorial accessories.) In an essay that could stand alone, Paterson repudiates postmodernism and proposes that the anthology represents a firm stand in favor of what he calls “Mainstream poetry.” Like Simic, Paterson argues that “British poetry is different from North American poetry.” But he is more concerned to say what British poetry is than what North American poetry is not. As Paterson defines them, British Mainstream poets

are engaged in an open, complex and ongoing dialogue with the whole of English tradition . . . . The Mainstream poem attempts to hold the known and unknown in a fine internal balance; with the postmoderns, all we get is a litany of exceptions . . . . The poets in this book are concerned with originality, not novelty; by which I suppose I mean, ultimately, the startling reincarnation of the old truths in the culture of the age.

Some American readers might be baffled by his attempt to sort through various schools and currents of contemporary British poetry. Even if you know who J. H. Prynne is, for example-and even you are aware of the intricacies of class and regional distinctions in the British poetry world-and even if you share Paterson’s distrust of postmodernism, you may find his argument frustrating and at times apparently contradictory; but the exercise is invigorating.

*                      *                      *

Although the practice does not enhance our reading of particular poems, it is instructive to make some statistical comparisons (the numbers of poets and of poems-per-poet) across the three anthologies I have been discussing.

Morrison and Motion’s book-a 208-page mass-market paperback edition-gave us twenty poets, each represented by anywhere from five to more than a dozen poems. However one might have felt about the poets and poems that were included, the editors’ choices were sufficiently generous to allow the reader to gain an informed impression of each poet. The critic might quibble about the inclusion or exclusion of certain poems and poets, but the reader could not claim to have been cheated because of a paucity of poems.

Schmidt worked on a similar premise. His anthology presented eighteen poets, each of whom was even more generously represented, with eight to a dozen poems. (As Gioia points out, “[o]nly seven poets appear in both books-Peter Scupham, Tony Harrison, James Fenton, Derek Mahon, Tom Paulin, Jeffrey Wainright, and Andrew Motion-and each of these with a very different selection. Two-thirds of each book is comprised of entirely different poets.”)

Paterson and Simic double the number of poets Schmidt’s anthology gave us, but cut down substantially the number of poems per poet. None of the poets in this collection is represented by more than five poems; in fact, at least half are allowed only three or four. (Incidentally, Motion and Fenton are the only two poets to have work included in all three anthologies-though I would not take this as a sign of their preeminence.) The order of contents is determined by the democracy of the alphabet (Gillian Allnutt’s poems first, followed by those of Simon Armitage, John Ash, and so on, through Jo Shapcott) rather than the tyranny of chronology.

As editors must, Paterson and Simic have laid down several clearly stated rules governing inclusion and exclusion. The book features only poets born after 1945 and who have published at least two collections. Moreover, Northern Irish poets-so prominent in the two major anthologies of the 1980s-are deliberately excluded altogether, on the reasonable grounds that the poets of Ulster are essentially Irish. On the other hand, “English,” “Welsh,” and “Scottish” are loosely defined, so that the anthology stretches to include the late Irish-American Michael Donaghy (born in New York but long resident in London) and the German-born Michael Hofmann, sometime resident in Florida. Indeed, the American reader may be surprised to note how many of the anthologized poets were born or currently live outside the British Isles.

The arbitrary prohibition against poets born before 1945 means that the reader is deprived of any work by Elaine Feinstein, Peter Scupham, and (most grievously) Geoffrey Hill.

*                      *                      *

To understand some of the forces at work behind this anthology, and indeed in the poetry “establishment” in Britain, it is helpful to turn our attention to a phenomenon that sprang forth some dozen years ago. In 1994, in a stroke of public relations genius-another oxymoron, but let that pass-the Poetry Book Society (founded in 1953 by T. S. Eliot) launched a promotional campaign in which twenty young and hitherto little-known poets were singled out for greatness under the moniker “New Generation Poets”: Moniza Alvi, Simon Armitage, John Burnside, Robert Crawford, David Dabydeen, Michael Donaghy, Carol Ann Duffy, Ian Duhig, Elizabeth Garrett, Lavinia Greenlaw, W. N. Herbert, Michael Hofmann, Mick Imlah, Kathleen Jamie, Jamie McKendrick, Sarah Maguire, Glyn Maxwell, Don Paterson, Pauline Stainer, and Susan Wicks. An instant “school” was born as, overnight, these poets were transformed into well-groomed celebrities, the subjects of numerous newspaper articles and interviews, television and radio programs. For a full year (on and off, one hopes), they toured the UK, giving readings singly or in groups, appearing at the many annual literary festivals held throughout Britain. All had books ace[ted by the leading publishers. Armitage’s book Zoom! (issued by the most prestigious literary imprint of all, Faber & Faber) sold more than 10,000 copies, a phenomenal number by present standards.

One wonders how such famously reticent or otherwise “difficult” poets of the past-e.g. Edward Thomas or Laura Riding or Philip Larkin or Elizabeth Jennings or W. S. Graham (let alone David Jones or Basil Bunting)-would have reacted had they been marketed as the equivalent of pop stars. They, and others still living, built their reputations slowly, one reader at a time, not as products launched in slick and well-coordinated campaigns. Their work earned small and discerning readerships (in Thomas’s case, posthumously); they never “performed” in front of adoring audiences. Every poet craves recognition if not adulation, but several of the New Generation poets have written of their embarrassment at receiving such acclaim. They know, as their forebears knew, that poetry is about words and form and language and feeling, not about ambition or self-promotion. As a reader, what I want to do is read. If I applaud another poet’s work, all well and good; that poet will have earned my applause.

Be that as it may, and quite surprisingly, most of the members of the New Generation promotion have proven to be more than flashes in the pan, at least insofar as they have continued to write and to publish their work and to maintain a public profile. Indeed, a number of them-Paterson, for one-have gone on to achieve more than a little prominence and influence in the literary world, winning major prizes and holding high profile positions in academia or in publishing. Nearly all of those poets are included in this anthology.

*                      *                      *

In addition to their preface and introduction, the editors offer head notes before each poet’s selection. As well as the standard biographical guff (“Simon Armitage was born in Huddersfield in 1963. He works as a writer, broadcaster, and playwright, and lectures in creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Iowa”), each head note ventures a brief critical appraisal of the poet in question. Though “critical” is hardly the right word-in essence, these are little more than puff pieces, attempts to sell the poet to the reader in a few high-flown generalities. For example, about the work of the late Michael Donaghy (whose passing, after this anthology was published, elicited an outpouring of tributes that made those to Anthony Hecht and Thom Gunn seem unduly modest by comparison), we are told:

Donaghy’s poems have deservedly won praise for their elegance and compression, though some critics have missed their frequent deployment of very dark humor and Borgesian paradox. In their flawness technique, they seem, perhaps, built to last in a way few other poets in the language can currently rival.

Who ever would have thought elegance and compression might be hallmarks of some poems? Or that poems should be “built to last”? (My first thought on encountering that cautious qualifier “perhaps” was, perhaps understandably, “perhaps not.”) The qualities that Simic and Paterson claim to detect in Donaghy’s work are, to my mind, qualities that we should hope to detect in the work of any poet, of any age-along with “great imaginative range” (said specifically of John Ash) and “moments of considerable lyricism” (supposedly unique to Roddy Lumsden).

Who, if any, of the other poets in this anthology, do the editors think “can currently rival” Donaghy in flawless technique, in “building” poems that will last? Perhaps Carol Ann Duffy, one might guess; or perhaps not. In any case, we are assured that “Duffy is the most popular poet in the UK . . . .” By what measure? Who says, other than Paterson and Simic? Ought she to fear a challenge from Simon Armitage, who, “along with Carol Ann Duffy, is one of the UK’s most popular poets”? Or from Alice Oswald, whose “book-length poem Dart, a kind of mystical play for voices following the course of the River Dart in Devon, has proved to be exceptionally popular”? Will Duffy and Armitage and Donaghy and Oswald be eclipsed by Kathleen Jamie, “one of the most significant figures now at work in the language”? Given Duffy’s apparent lead in the popularity sweepstakes (along with Armitage, let us not forget), does she trump Sean O’Brien, whose headnote touts him as “the UK’s leading poet-critic and a coveted name on every poet’s dust jacket”?

(In case you are wondering, this claim did not so much spur me to read O’Brien’s poems as to hurry to find out if O’Brien’s coveted name graces any of Duffy’s dust jackets. You may imagine my disappointment on discovering that Duffy’s early books Standing Female Nude (Anvil, 1985) and Selling Manhattan (Anvil, 1987) lacked that coveted name; alas, she had to settle for praise from the likes of Peter Porter, Robert Nye, Venon Scannell, Lachlan MacKinnon, and Adam Thorpe. But maybe that’s because, being paperbacks, the copies in my possession lack dust jackets. I have not yet checked whether O’Brien’s name adorns the dust jackets of books by Donaghy, Oswald, or Jamie-though no doubt each of those poets covets his approbation.)

The self-congratulatory tone that accompanies these headnotes degenerates into an even more self-serving and embarrassing puffery when we are told that Andrew Motion, the sainted poet laureate, is “the most energetic and forceful advocate for the art the post has seen” and “has also proven himself unafraid to refuse to toe the party line and has written poems openly critical of government policy.”

I ought to apologize, perhaps, for this descent into silliness. But what can the silliness of such claims beget in the way of critical response? If not silliness in return, perhaps only a less charitable form of scorn? Special pleading of this or any sort rarely does much good for those on whose behalf it is applied. Have Paterson and Simic so little faith in the acuity of their readers that they feel compelled to issue breathless declarations in order to defend their choices? Are they merely following some directive from the publisher’s marketing department? Or have they actually fallen into a state of rapture over the poets and poems they’ve selected for the anthology?

(By way of an answer to that question, I would point out that Simic’s headnote for Paterson’s poems includes the breezy claim, “He can dust off a sonnet and make it sound brand new.” Maybe I’m just too literal-minded, but my reaction to the stunning verbal gaffe of this promise is a hearty guffaw.)

*                      *                      *

Central to all the folderol supplied by Paterson and Simic in their various introductions and head notes is an earnestly enthusiastic insistence that poetry ought to make something happen. Well, so much nonsense that’s written about “poetry” (as opposed to poems) stems from a misreading of Auden’s famous phrase “Poetry makes nothing happen,” from the assumption that Auden was lamenting this fact. Such a misreading entirely overlooks or ignores what Auden said next: “It is a way of happening, a mouth” (my italics).

The headnotes support, too, the even more fatuous notion that poets can and ought to aspire to celebrity, that celebrity is the ultimate and highest goal, for which the writing of “poetry” is merely a means. (Indeed, in such a view, to be seen to write poetry becomes a higher good than to write well and importantly in obscurity.) Here it is useful and salutary to return to Auden, who once made a remark to the effect that he only considered himself a poet when he was writing-i.e., making-a poem.

It should be clear by now that New British Poetry is hardly representative of allnew (i.e., 1990s–2004) British poetry. Given the politics of the poetry industry, it’s understandable that Paterson has included work by many of his pals from the New Generation promotion, along with a fair sampling of the new Next Generation (a group of ten more poets unveiled, to similar fanfare, by Simon Armitage on the tenth anniversary of the launch of the Next Generation). And who can blame him? With so many poets included, there are still unforgivable omissions. I, for one, particularly regret the neglect of the underrated Hilary Davies, whose first book, The Shanghai Owner of the Bonsai Shop (Enitharmon, 1991; distributed in the U.S. by Dufour Editions), contains some of the most luminous and quietly compelling poems you’ll come across on either side of the Atlantic. The omission of Maura Dooley and Stephen Romer, among others-not to mention virtually any of the poets one will encounter in the pages of such long-established little (but “non-establishment”) poetry magazines such as Acumen and who are virtually unknown to all but the most tenaciously anglophile of American readers-is also to be lamented.

If the 1980s was the decade of the Northern Irish vogue (Heaney, Longley, Mahon, Muldoon, McGuckian, Carson, et al.), the past decade has seen the emergence and, arguably, the predominance of an identifiably Scottish school. That Scottish presence is highly visible in New British Poetry, in the persons and poems of John Burnside, Robert Crawford, John Glenday, W. N. Herbert, Kathleen Jamie, Robin Robertson, and Paterson himself. (Carol Ann Duffy, Scottish by birth, isn’t part of this school in style or substance; nor, in that sense, is Jackie Kay. Jamie McKendrick, despite his name, isn’t Scottish at all.) They share more than just the accident of a common birthplace: They share a culture and, despite obvious stylistic differences among them, a common aesthetic outlook. Crawford and Herbert are the most insistently Scottish of the lot, partaking of a radical political vision that harkens back to Hugh MacDiarmuid and, farther, to Robbie Burns. (Herbert’s “Cabaret McGonnagall” is written in a Scots dialect partly, I suspect, of his own concoction; the language and attitude bear more than a surface resemblance to that in Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting.) For Americans as well as for most British readers, Crawford is the more readable of the two, the less gimmicky.

Burnside specializes in a kind of deep-image, quasi-mystical eco-poetry of a kind that American readers might associate with Bly or Kinnell or Merwin or Wendel Berry, with tinges of early Heaney and of Hughes. His poems clothe themselves in a closely observed natural world, as in this excerpt from the longish “Parousia”:

It was less a stream than a border:
a rill over wheat-colored stones, then a sudden
And that was the place to cross,
treading the cold, my bare feet snagging a depth
of fish-skin and weed,
that was the kingdom of pike, where the body was laid
a finger’s depth under the sand.

The far side was a stranger’s country, a half-mile away:
a back road far in the heat, a gust of wind,
cow parsley, mare’s tails, a glimmer of slate in the distance,
and out in the open field, a dog fox
pausing in its stride, to scent the air . . .

The Heaney-Hughes diction is clearly evident here and in such passages as “the sparrow-hawk sweeping the air, the questing owl, / the stoat in the wall, that knows where its hunger is going.” Yet, to my mind and eye and ear, Burnside’s “originality,” however immediately alluring, is (at least in this instance) merely derivative, suggestive of a fashionable New Age eco-babble rather than of a sound and steady appreciation of the things of this and other worlds. Perhaps it’s unfair to observe that a poem like Burnside’s “The Old Gods” (which begins “Now they are condemned / to live in cracks, / in bubbles of plaster and rust, / and spiders’ webs / behind the furniture”) comes up wanting beside Derek Mahon’s “The Banished Gods.” (Included in Morrison and Motion; it begins: “Near the headwaters of the longest river / There is a forest clearing, / A dank, misty place / Where light stands in columns / And birds sing with a noise like paper tearing.”)

*                      *                      *

The aforementioned Motion, would-be mover and shaper of the age, weighs in with the unfortunate “Mythology,” his contribution to what one can only hope is the short-lived phenomenon of Dianaology, his own version of “Candle in the Wind”:

Earth’s axel 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.

Yes, “snapping at your heels” is a clever phrase to characterize the actions of the paparazzi. (Snapping Diana’s photo-get it?) And, in formal terms, the poem has a certain immediate appeal and interest (in spite of “brittle leaves”). I suppose this is the sort of Public Poem a poet laureate must write, addressing a Public Occasion-Motion as the valedictorian Tennyson with a leavening of the understated Larkin, another poet he’s appropriated. But here as in virtually all of his pre-laureate work I’ve read, Motion is determined to remain as motionless and emotionless as possible. He exudes a sense of wan and weary resignation, a Woe-Is-Us, But-We-Must-Keep-a-Stiff-Upper- Lip attitude that, for him, is at the core of Englishness. By the side of the poems of Geoffrey Hill, it is a performance scarcely worth noting.

For all his clever reticence, Motion is a fabulist of sorts-a maker of fables, but (in his case) a pale copy of the mythmaker. Such fabulists needn’t bother with facts or even with deeper truths; whatever words and arrangement of words sound good will do to make poetry, if not poems. Jamie McKendrick’s “Ancient History,” wherein “Officials construing the Sibylline books / told of helmeted aliens occupying / the crossroads,” is a deeper and more satisfying example of this genre. Jo Shapcott too, though more topical-her topic being more or less the question, What does it mean to be English at the present time?-is a fabulist worth reading, as is Kathleen Jamie, whose “The Way We Live” indulges a passion for list-making in a way that is utterly musical and enchanting. And, of course, American readers (and American poets) ought to discover, if they haven’t already, Mark Ford and Carol Ann Duffy and Michael Hoffmann.

So, read this anthology. But trust your own judgment and skip the headnotes and all the editorial nonsense about The Spirit of the Age. And seek out the earlier anthologies I’ve mentioned, along with individual books by poets who, perhaps to their own advantage, do not come within Paterson and Simic’s purview.

*                      *                      *

(A modest note to would-be anthologists and publishers of anthologies: More than a collection of British poetry for the U.S. market or a collection of American poetry for the British market, what is needed most is an anthology that, like the Donald Hall / Robert Pack / Louis Simpson anthology New Poets of England and America (1957), would include work by poets from both countries, and that would be available on both sides of the pond-an anthology that would let the poems speak for themselves, without the blowing of editorial trumpets. Now that would be something.)[/private]

About John Drexel

John Drexel's poems have appeared widely in magazines in the U.S. and Britain, including the Hudson Review, Oxford Poetry, Paris Review, Salmagundi, Southern Review, and Verse, and his work is included in A Fine Excess: Contemporary Literature at Play (Sarabande Books, 2001). A former editor at Oxford University Press and past recipient of an Amy Lowell Poetry Travelling Scholarship and a Hawthornden Fellowship, he works as a freelance writer, editor, and critic. He also directs occasional poetry workshop-seminars in Hay-on-Wye, Wales, and in Cornwall, England.
Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *