Poetry anthologies are now expected to make holy war; but what to do with The New Poetry, which strives so earnestly to turn its trumpet-majors into angels? The 55 poets collected here are, it seems, seraphs of a benevolent novelty, somehow singing their good news at once uniquely and in shimmering unison. ‘A multicultural society,’ write the editors in their introduction, ‘challenges the very idea of a centre, and produces pluralism of poetic voice.’ This plurality has, in the last decade, produced a new poetry, one which ‘emphasises accessibility, democracy and responsiveness, humour and seriousness, and reaffirms the art’s significance as public utterance. The new poetry highlights the beginning of the end of British poetry’s tribal divisions and isolation, and a new cohesiveness – its constituent parts “talk” to one another readily, eloquently and freely, while preserving their unique identities.’
This seems a lot for any literature to do. Alas, it emerges that the editors have a withered conception of both the literary and the political. ‘The post-Romantic tradition in the British Isles,’ they write, ‘has perpetrated the belief that poetry and political concerns are incompatible. In fact, they are inseparable: it hardly needed Tom Paulin to remind us that the subtext in Larkin, even when his subject was horses at grass, rarely strayed far from the political decline of England.’ Later, in a sudden frenzy, they claim that ‘Carol Ann Duffy’s work is written out of a conviction that poetry must get its hands dirty if it is to take on the enemy and help preserve a liberal society and humanist culture.’
Of course, they don’t intend to sound grudging about politics – on the contrary, they are bearishly political, hugging every good cause in sight – but these two quotes can only mean this: that poetry is always political; that the worst kind of poetry is that which doesn’t own up to its politics (e.g. Larkin); and therefore that the best will proclaim its politics with pride. (The manoeuvre will be familiar to readers of contemporary literary theory.) This is clearly an inadequate conception of both literature and politics, because there can be no pristine state which poetry inhabits before it is sullied by its contact with the political. These things are not separated like different chefs in a restaurant kitchen. While the editors urge on us the ‘inseparability’ of the poetic and the political, their language insists on an immense, primal separation: it is what allows them to say, for instance, that Glyn Maxwell’s gifts go beyond ‘the merely literary’.
But then language itself, on the editors’ account, is a poor thing. Ian McMillan’s work is praised for treating language ‘with a healthy Post-Modern disrespect’; Glyn Maxwell’s verse ‘reminds us that language is always debased currency.’ Again, this is vulgar and hasty. Language is a currency, but – exactly like a currency – it is by no means always debased: Glyn Maxwell’s poetry reminds us of this. Besides, ‘the absence of the imagination had/ Itself to be imagined,’ as Wallace Stevens has it in ‘The Plain Sense of Things’. One must first be rich to be newly poor. Does any poet, really, have a healthy disrespect for language without also having a healthy respect?
The introduction, which reads like a post-structuralist’s suicide-note, ends with a flourish. The ‘defining presences’ for many of these poets are, apparently, Auden, Ashbery, Bishop and Mahon. From these writers, we are told, the selected poets have learned to write ‘a poetry that understands that before it is moral, representational or empirical, it is above all sceptical.’ But first of all, the editors can’t mean both ‘before’ and ‘above all’ (they mean the latter). Second, Auden said something very like the opposite of this in his essay ‘Making, Knowing and Judging’. Poetry, he wrote, is ‘a rite of worship or homage, and to be fit homage, this rite must be beautiful ... it is from the sacred encounters of his imagination that a poet’s impulse to write a poem arises.’ The Elizabeth Bishop who likened knowledge to water, ‘dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free’, would probably have agreed.
So the introduction is an obvious disaster; the 55 poets, you feel, blush for it. Mostly they contradict it. The style of interesting poets like Peter Didsbury, John Ash, Pauline Stainer and one of the editors, Michael Hulse, is not particularly ‘democratic’, but playfully enigmatic and donnish. There is a tendency to think aloud with a somewhat creaky jauntiness, as if the poets were sharing secrets with their desks;
It has been raining all day,
and I found myself trying to imagine
the life of the Visigothic Kingdom
is how John Ash begins his poem ‘Visigothic’.
Am I good or bad, clever or stupid?
Stendhal asks himself
in the summer of 1832
is the opening of a poem by Charles Boyle.
Wet from the shower
towelling your breasts
you ask me if I’ve read
Motley’s Rise of the Dutch Republic
goes Michael Hulse’s poem ‘Fornicating and Reading the Papers’. Meanwhile, Didsbury has ‘The sky is like an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary.’
The editors are right in one respect, though: something is happening in recent British and Irish poetry. Poets like Paul Durcan, Ian McMillan and Peter Didsbury (all well represented here) are pushing the form towards performance and gaudy narrative. Many of the poets are writing long, stringy lines reminiscent of the American poet C.K. Williams, or having cartoonish fun with speech, a habit learned from Frank O’Hara (‘I think on the whole I would rather read/ Frank O’Hara than Geoffrey Chaucer,’ writes Geoff Hattersley). And it is true that a fighting politics seethes in poets like Sean O’Brien and Simon Armitage.
One feels, however, that the best and most interesting poets in this large anthology are not the writers that fit inside the editorial fist. For instance, the introduction makes much of the ballad-writers like Paul Durcan and Geoff Hattersley, and praises Ian McMillan’s ‘unique combination of stand-up comedy and surrealism’. But these, relatively, are slight talents. McMillan’s poem ‘Ted Hughes is Elvis Presley’ is a fantasy in which Hughes, writing a poem, becomes a reincarnated Presley and starts singing to the foxes. It ends with a reference to Hughes’s poem ‘Pike’:
three inches long, perfect.
This kind of thing is open to most writers. How much rarer the smoky Lowellian ellipses of Michael Hofmann’s verse (poorly represented here), or the stiff decencies of Eavan Boland (her evocation of rain as ‘grief in arrears’ is the loveliest thing in the book), or the compact subtleties of Robert Crawford, whose short poem ‘Scotland’ is infinitely more subtle and political than the work of Didsbury and McMillan or even Peter Reading. And then the sweet, rapid brocade of Glyn Maxwell’s complex forms, or the grace of Pauline Stainer. These poets are not touted much in the introduction. Doubtless, they are the ‘merely literary’, but they are worth seeking out.
Killarney Clary’s first book shows us the dangers of Ashberyish relaxation. She writes prose poems, one of those conjunctions, like dry cleaning, which seem to cancel themselves out – not prose and not a poem. John Ashbery has called this young Californian ‘a stunning new voice in American poetry’. It is difficult to agree. Clary spills mild thoughts in hazy paragraphs. Terrified of the literal, she speaks with a confident evasiveness. The result is strange, puffy gossip.
There is no way to know what I miss, and yet there is nothing else I try to do. What happens takes very little; it’s easy play. Before, I wonder how you will be. Will you feel like talking about Kathleen or the babies?
It is like listening to one half of a telephone conversation. When not chatting, Clary tends to declaim: ‘I was born into my skin and its future, the planet and its promise or demise. Each day a similar sun, the almost predictable moods of the moon, seasonal weather holding its shape for planned vacations.’ No careful writer of poetry or prose would allow that ‘almost predictable moods of the moon’, in which the apparent informality of ‘almost’ seeks to modify and excuse the sentimental literariness of the rest.
Anne Rouse, another young American with a first book, is in every way a better writer than Clary. She is civil and efficient and the only problem with her writing is that it resembles the civil efficiencies of a thousand others. Killarney Clary forgets too deliberately that she is writing poetry: Rouse remembers it too dutifully. Several of her poems are stiff and self-conscious. ‘M3’, for instance, about the motorway (she lives in London) begins:
Mean as a length of flex, it snubs the B road,
Disliking breakdown and hiker, impedimenta
This sounds like everyone else; worse, it announces itself, with comical urgency, as a poem (that Ted Hughes-diction). Rouse writes her best poems about growing up in Virginia. Memory, and its rush of American detail, bring an unruliness to her polite forms – the toy of childhood recollection is allowed to muss the adult carpet a little. ‘Springfield, Virginia’ ends rather beautifully, with the poet remembering ‘lightning bugs’ sparking in the air ‘like drunks with matches’, and ‘a dawn as pink and blue as litmus paper’.
Like Anne Rouse, Paul Mills does not have his own voice: ‘All day the sun was an explosion/ Cooling to long slants in the grass.’ This could have been written any time in the last thirty years, by anyone. But Mills is always a good mimic, and he is sometimes more than that. He is one of those very competent minor writers who, on first reading, look average because they sound it. But his verse is careful, precise and unobtrusively wise. It seems very experienced: this is only his third book since 1976. These poems of sea and land, set in America and England, are often sternly driven:
Headlands, long granite alligators,
ready to snap at the nearest struggling yacht.
We skirt the coast in Exeley’s boat, ‘Sea-Spray’
in fish-smell of rotitng drizzle.
This, like much of his verse, is oddly petalled: that sudden blooming of the last line, and the phrase ‘rotting drizzle’, seem too good for the rest of the poem; certainly, it seems a long way from the second line, which clumsily stretches the metaphor. Yet later in the same poem Mills sees ‘the sea, its deceit, its maze of plans’. Again, a sudden flowering, Thus one proceeds jerkily through most of these poems, often arrested but never quite detained.
Mills bothers to see things – like a dead fish oozing ‘its fluid genital trash’ – which is why he is worth reading at all. Harry Smart, in his second book of poems, Shoah, wants to see very large things – like the Holocaust, or the fate of contemporary Germany – and so writes a verse of regal vacancy, elevated but unstocked. His verse moves in an expensive chamber of concerns – his notes acknowledge Claude Lanzmann’s film and the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt – but sees nothing uniquely or precisely. Because Smart translates German poetry, and because his own is set in Germany, he is continually breaking into German, sometimes for two or three lines at a go. This is appropriate enough, for his English has the dumb purity of verse translated:
The fire is quenched.
In the morning he will release the dove.
My God, how would a sunset look now?
Kathleen Jamie’s book, by contrast, is a model of how to write about another country. The Autonomous Region is a poetry diary of travels in Tibet, with marvellous, sullen black and white photographs by Sean Mayne Smith. Jamie, who is 31, is one of the most interesting younger British poets. She is certainly one of the most musical – rather traditional with her iambic pentameters and her joyous struggle not to sound like Eliot:
Rumour flits the city
like bats, flits the city like bats by night,
rumours on the lips of running tea-boys,
delivered on the hour, on trays like tea
And the rumours say yes, the rumours say no.
This fierce, blanched, singing verse is exquisitely gathered by a fine ear: here is a poet who knows when to break her lines, how to warm her syntax, how to repeat and exhort, how to tilt and dangle:
I’d lean on the verandah, breathe jasmine
air, lean on the verandah, lean and fancy.
F. T. Prince’s first book of poems was published in 1938 when he was only 26. His great feat, it strike the reader, was to avoid sounding like Auden, while all his colleagues were writing about valleys and secret agents. Unfortunately, Prince achieved this at the price of sounding like Yeats. But this early poetry, for all its ‘dusky’ air and a moon which ‘sallies and floats on’, had a soft glitter. Prince’s next book. Soldiers Bathing (1954), was a sad failure. Cleverly, Carcanet print only the first five lines of ‘Soldiers Bathing’ on the back of their handsome collected edition:
The sea at evening moves across the sand.
Under a reddening sky I watched the freedom of a band
Of soldiers who belong to me. Stripped bare
For bathing in the sea, they shout and run in the warm air;
Their flesh worn by the trade of war, revives ...
This is solid and unremarkable, but that last line, with its tired poetical ‘trade of war’ makes us pause. The line which completes the stanza, and which Carcanet omits, is ‘And my mind towards the meaning of it strives’ – a terrible line, simple-minded and grating.
About Prince’s later poetry there is a damp defeatism. Much the same can be said about the work of Selwyn Pritchard and Nicki Jackowska, who form part of Sinclair-Stevenson’s curious attempt at a contemporary poetry list. Pritchard’s verse is full of lines like ‘in green garden’s shade’, or ‘in snow-flake silence of the December dawn’, or ‘all moonsplashed night’, or ‘after night’s hot rage’. He believes that poetry is signified by omitting the definite article – a flowery splutter, as if it were being spoken by a Russian gardener or a man missing his front teeth. Nicki Jackowska is a much better poet than Pritchard, but she is too fond of borrowing, with modifications, other people’s lines. One poem begins ‘A long day’s journey into light’, and another plunders Wallace Stevens (‘In the corner an old sailor is dreaming of tigers in red weather’).
At the centre of Les Murray’s latest book is a series of astonishing poems about animals and insects. In many of them, the subjects speak about themselves. A snake languidly calls himself ‘passenger of my passage’, a cat congratulates herself for being ‘electric with self-possession’, an elephant speaks for elephants: ‘From dusting our new-born with puffs, we assume a boggling pool/ into our heads, to re-silver each other’s wrinkles and be cool.’ Here is Murray’s entire poem, ‘Goose to Donkey’:
My big friend, I bow help;
I bow Get-up, big friend:
let me land-swim again beside your clicky feet,
don’t sleep flat with dried wet in your holes.
Clicky feet! Murray’s verbal stock, his flowing stipend of language, is so rich; his lines are sudden smacks of wit and brilliance: a sunflower mentioning ‘the studded array of our worship’, a dog and ‘the stiff scents he makes’, or two insects mating in flight, ‘iridescent in accord’, a mollusc seen complete with ‘its inner sexes’ and ‘the crystalline pimplings of its skirts’, ‘the viscose optics now extruded/now wizened instantaneously’.
Murray is sometimes compared to Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott. But at his best he is much more inventive, much wittier and more agile than either poet. Like Lawrence’s poems in Birds, Beasts and Flowers, Murray’s have a childlike freedom and responsiveness: the lines go their own way, barefoot. It is not just that he sees nature so well. Most of the poets reviewed here see detail with occasional brilliance and clarity. Indeed, there is something of a cult of the visual in contemporary writing. Does ‘the crystalline pimplings of its skirts’ help us to see a mollusc? Murray’s language is not, in the end, verifiable: on the contrary, it flares into a kind of musical abstraction. It is sacramental excess.