poetry

poetry
   It is a commonly acknowledged truism that reading and writing poetry are both valued and difficult exercises. Poetry has an important cultural position because it is often manifestly difficult, made so by the apparent obscurity of its allusiveness and the disruption of syntax and narrative direction. Its complications require that the reader must learn new rules and recognize patterns that are embedded and hidden in a text that is observably different in its lexis and form from that of prose; it possesses explicitly and implicitly the constituents of high art. Its nature has been characterized as being something that we have to be taught, as in dancing, as opposed to that which we learned, walking; and yet in its use of patterns of rhythm, rhyme (sometimes) and metrics it invokes the prevocal and corporeal which lie beneath and come before language. If it is possible to characterize a ‘British’ poem of the second half of the century, it would be the lyric narrative, borrowing from the poet’s life— often using a first person narrative voice—and not moving far from the kinds of metrics that the preceding years and poets had given them.
   The best illustration of this relative stasis in form, voice and aspect is to be found in the way that two collections of poems may be said to stand for the beginning and end of the century: Thomas Hardy’s Poems of 1912–13 and Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters are both collections written after the death of a wife, the first immediately after and the second apparently nearly thirty-five years after the deaths of the women in question. They are both awkwardly passionate, haunted by guilt and lost love, and oddly similar in their metrical elaboration. Unconsciously, they enclose the century in a circle of theme and form.
   W.B.Yeats (1865–1939) wrote a poem in which he listed in a wittily rhythmic pattern the names of his contemporaries, a form mimicked equally wittily by Anthony Thwaite in a 1975 poem. It would be tempting to list the poets published in the British Isles in the latter half of the twentieth century in alphabetical order, but such a list would extend far beyond he limits of this entry. It is perhaps more useful, then, to consider the issues which have relevance and significance to the writing, publishing and reading of poetry in the latter half of the twentieth century in Britain. The first consideration is that poetry, as it is generally conceived, perceived and published, is a product of high culture and art: not all publishing houses in the British Isles have had a poetry list. Faber & Faber, the Oxford University Press, Jonathan Cape and, more recently, Bloodaxe and Carcanet have been amongst the strongest publishers of poetry. The older publishers have used other parts of their lists to subsidize poetry, while regional and national arts’ funding bodies have supported the newer houses.
   Reading poetry, or listening to its reading, is considered a reflective, thoughtful, profound, even at times somewhat sombre activity. Performance poetry, which calls for rhythmic participation from its audience and sometimes even laughter, is seen, perhaps wrongly, as a surrender to levity. Despite all the attempts to demonstrate that poetry’s motto is ‘make it new’, it is an indication of a pervasive conservatism that the favourite poem of the British people, as recorded in a poll in 1995, was Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’. However, a 1996 BBC television telephone poll for the favourite poem written since 1945 gave the prize to Jenny Joseph’s ‘Warning’, a sharply witty poem that anticipates the pleasures of a woman’s wildness in her old age. It may merely reveal how unrepresentative telephone polls can be. If the reader now looks back to the beginning of the 1960s and the poetry appearing in original texts and anthologies, poetry seemed in large measure to be the creative second job of male university teachers of literature. There were eccentrics and primitives, but they were often given the same status as primitive painters: subjects for an almost anthropological study rather than critical evaluation and enjoyment. Women, if they appeared in those anthologies, were either safe because they were not going to embarrass any reader by being, as Jeni Couzyn has pointed out, ‘too female’, or because they were, as Alfred Alvarez claimed for Sylvia Plath, ‘[steering] clear of feminine charm, deliciousness, gentility, supersensitivity, the act of being a poet.’ There were even anthologizers who thought that there were no women poets who were worth including in their selections. The anthologizers and critics have regularly over these years celebrated newness, vividness, originality and a strongly empiricist stance on the part of the poet under scrutiny; anything much of a metaphysics or a veering towards transcendentalism are not things that are valued or celebrated. The most famous photograph of a British poet from the 1950s and 1960s might well be Philip Larkin in a belted gabardine fawn raincoat, wheeling a bicycle through an overgrown churchyard; the picture serendipitously gathers in two of his best-known poems, ‘Church Going’ and the later ‘Whitsun Weddings’ The rather shallow readings of his poems led to a sloppy christening of him as ‘the laureate of the suburbs’. Ironically, the two poems actually explore the possibility of forms of transcendental experience by way of denial and frustrated desire.
   Out of the anthologizers’ lists of ‘approved’ poets and the genteel publicists’ celebrations of the daringly safe and the safely daring, a kind of hierarchy emerged. The poets whose work first achieved eminence were Ted Hughes, Thorn Gunn and Philip Larkin. It is worth looking at how, in achieving this distinction, their work effaces that of those who are their near contemporaries or who predate them. As examples, Thomas Hardy, Edward Thomas and John Betjeman are seen as Larkin’s poetic antecedents; it is a kind of influence spotting that ignores the more important recognition of, for example, Larkin’s consciousness of his poetry’s relationship to Wordsworth’s in the use of meditative stances (Larkin’s ‘The Old Fools’ (1974) is a transumption of Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations of Immortality’). Further, such a creation of a hierarchy can mean that powerful and important poets become excluded or at best marginalized until rescued by partisan conviction and advocacy: Basil Bunting’s work serves as an example of this tendency. ‘Briggflatts’ is one of the best long poems of this century, but his poetry has struggled to take its place in the consciousness of the poetry reading public. There is now a Basil Bunting Archive at the University of Durham; although he was an internationalist, cosmopolitan thinker and writer, financial exigency forced him to become a sub-editor on the regional newspapers published in the city of Newcastle upon Tyne. In an essay first written in 1974 but published in his 1980 collection of essays, Preoccupations, Seamus Heaney names the poets he thinks constitute a joint linguistic and thematic hierarchy at the forefront of British poetry. He names first Ted Hughes for his choosing a language and, increasingly, themes which reached back into Norse and Germanic linguistic roots and mythology; second comes Geoffrey Hill, for his latinate language that explores a medieval world and its renaissance continuance; finally, in Larkin’s work he finds a summation and incorporation of all of these cullings from the past and his own wider historical sense into the most potent and redolent language and subject matter. Was it because Thorn Gunn had by then moved to California that he had been replaced in the triumvirate? By a further irony, Seamus Heaney has become the central poet of ‘British’ experience in the years since he wrote of those others, a process that culminated in his being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. This universal recogntion of the worth of Heaney’s poetry points to the way in which poetry has moved in the latter part of this century. The central themes which transcend and subsume the names of individual poets and which trace the course of poetry’s route to the present have been a questioning of those previously held canonical assumptions which created inclusions and exclusions in poetry publishers’ lists and anthologizers’ choices. There has been a concomitant setting up of powerful publishing houses outside the cultural metropolis, a place not too far culturally or topographically from Bloomsbury. It has meant a moving to what some have seen as the margins from that cosmopolitan centre. At its best, this has meant a confrontation with the real and terrible; at its worst, an unearned and unworthy posturing. The poetry of Heaney, Michael Longley, U.A. Fanthorpe, Geoffrey Hill and Adrian Mitchell provide examples from the whole of this spectrum of responses.
   In the best poetry there has been a necessary reengagement with the grinding pains of recent history. Adrian Mitchell is quoted as saying that nobody is interested in poetry because poetry isn’t interested in anything; a claim his own poetry attempted to challenge when he wrote about the West’s involvement in Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s. The most powerful poetry in the British Isles takes on personal, regional and national histories that reflect the consequences of class, racial, political and gendered experience. The emergence of poets who wrote about being out on the margins, in whatever way, meant that they drew those margins to the centre of their readers’ attention. It is no accident that the long torment of the north of Ireland has produced from Ireland the most powerful poetry of the last half-century, though hardly ever as a directly polemical or crudely partisan intervention.
   These poetries of engagement have revealed unexplored territories: poets have come to Britain out of the long shadow of an imperial and colonial past to remind us of what that experience meant and of how change has been quicker and more fundamental than Britain has sometimes realized or seemed to want. Poets as various as Peter Porter, Benjamin Zephaniah, Fred D’Aguiar, James Berry, Beverley Brown, Jackie Kay and Derek Walcott (an earlier Nobel laureate) remind Britain of their and its otherness, where the one was an indictment and the other could be an indifference that sometimes touched contempt.
   Themes from the margins have crowded in upon Britain, and there is one other that has enormous significance: the European experience of the Holocaust and of totalitarian oppression. This has produced a literature which some might argue we have been fortunate to avoid, but which puts into perspective the concerns of much British poetry: still introspective, lyrical in mode and selfconscious in its representation of disregard of that wider, darker world (although Ireland’s long agony has made that unfortunate difference for British poetry). It is worth remembering that the totalitarian regimes of Eastern Europe thought poets were important enough to imprison or to be sent into internal exile and deprived of the right to earn a living.
   The writing and reading of poetry has remained a mark of high cultural achievement: poetry texts are often regarded as difficult in a paradoxical way. Very rarely, unless the poet is Christopher Reid, is the vocabulary obscure or recondite, but the structural density of the text, the complexity of allusion and the definitive recourse to figuration mean that reading poetry calls for an armoury of critical and cultural weaponry, tactical sprightliness in line-by-line reading, and a consciously chosen strategy of interpretation. Critical and theoretical writing have been taken up with the exploration and combative critique of the strategies for reading poetry and of the place of poetry within the widest of critical contexts. At the same time, poetry has often been ignored in that its cultural exclusivity has meant that it does not impinge on the lives of many except in a formal, formulaic, even ritualistic way, as suggested by the choice of ‘If’ as an enduring favourite poem. It remains remarkable that the most often-used poetry appears in the ‘Deaths’ and ‘In Memoriam’ columns of British regional and local newspapers, where anonymously composed, sentimental elegiac couplets, supplied by the newspapers from catalogued lists, commemorate the deceased loved ones of those who have paid for the insertion of the entries.
   Further reading
    Childs, P. (1998) The Twentieth Century in Poetry, London: Routledge.
    O’Brien, S. (1998) The Deregulated Muse, Newcastle: Bloodaxe.
   JIM MALONEY

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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