Sep 7 2011: The Deregulated Muse & Post-War Anthologies Review (Sheffield Thursday No.10, 1999)
Another piece from Sheffield Thursday magazine, this time a compound review of two anthologies and a book of essays on post-war and contemporary poetry published to mark the turn of the millennium. Interestingly, this piece caused various problems after one of the (highly influential) editors involved in the publications under review took exception to the contents, though I’m not sure very much of what it has to say is any longer especially controversial. This is probably the last piece of extended literary criticism I wrote, mainly because after this I was more interested in other things. Looking at it again a decade after writing it, the rhetoric deployed in the anthologies under review might be a little different to that used for similar purposes today, but if many of the points here can seem, in 2011, to be sparring on the battlegrounds of the 1990s rather than those of the present moment, this has more to do with a shift in terminology (now liable to be more academic or personalised than journalistic) and personnel (a few names have changed within the larger institutional structure) than anything more fundamental. If some superficial, cosmetic changes have taken place since 1999, in other words, the main points discussed here remain mostly live concerns.
Robert Crawford/Simon Armitage (eds): The Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland Since 1945 (Viking, £25.00/£10.99)
Sean O’Brien (ed): The Firebox: Poetry in Britain and Ireland After 1945 (Picador, £16.99/£10.99)
Sean O’Brien: The Deregulated Muse: Essays on Contemporary British and Irish Poetry (Bloodaxe, £10.95)
“The range of this anthology raises a difficult question for the editor,” writes Sean O’Brien in his brief introduction to The Firebox. “How can such a variety of work, extending across half a century and arising from several cultures, be introduced in such a way that the interested non-specialist reader has some sense of the shape of the period, its major features, schools, debates, lines of development and so on. In the end, of course, the poems should speak for themselves…”. The next line, inevitably, starts with a “but…”. It’s a poser to which Robert Crawford and Simon Armitage would no doubt give their assent, and in selecting ninety-odd poets each, the editors of these anthologies guarantee that their ‘interested non-specialist reader’ is sure to find a lot of worthwhile individual poems by a moderately broad range of excellent poets in either.
For a reviewer, however (a classic case of the ‘rather-too-interested specialist reader, possibly with an axe-to-grind’) the question must be how contentious a picture these anthologies present, whether sleights of hand are at work in the editorial process. Given that it’s necessary to begin somewhere, the fact that both these anthologies are premised on the notion that British poetry of the post-war period cannot be understood without reference to the poetry of Ireland, and that both introductions stress the ‘devolution’ and ‘decentering’ of British poetry away from an authoritative centre, it’s probably worth starting with a look at the treatment of Gaelic and Welsh language poetry, if only as a kind of thumbnail devolutionary ‘test case’.
The bald list of inclusions tends to favour the Penguin book, since while O’Brien dutifully trots out the excellent Nuala Ni Dhomniall (bilingually, in versions by Muldoon and Longley) then treats Sorley MacLean and Iain Crichton Smith as English-language poets, Armitage and Crawford supplement bilingual selections presentations from all three with others from Derrick Thomson, Bobi Jones, Menna Elfyn and Meg Bateman. Yet welcome as this presence is, it’s still only token, and is deeply suspect not because innumerable contenders are omitted, but precisely because the editors themselves make such heavy weather of inclusiveness.
The conflation of British with Irish works well enough when it applies to writers like Heaney, Mahon and Muldoon, whose significance cannot be underestimated and whose affiliations are sufficiently complex to require sensitive handling, but it is more problematic in the cavalier attitude taken to Irish poetry as a whole. It seems dubious, to say the least, that neither anthology finds room for the late Michael Hartnett, whose A Farewell To English (1975; enlarged edition, 1978) is one of the major achievements of English language poetry in Ireland during the period. Hartnett’s subsequent Gaelic books (a self-translated selection, A Necklace of Wrens, appeared in 1987) and return to the English language in Poems To Younger Women (1989) and The Killing of Dreams (1992) comprise a fascinating case study of linguistic cross-over, as well as a substantial poetic achievement too little acknowledged on this side of the Irish Sea.
Hartnett’s exclusion is more than nit-picking, since the position he occupies in the Irish Republic itself underlines the Anglo-centricity of both anthologies’ handling of Ireland. Despite O’Brien’s introductory disclaimer that the inclusion of Irish poetry “as if it were part of the same enterprise as English poetry” might be seen as little more than “arrogance or compensation for the mediocrity of the domestic product”, he addresses a real enough question. What happens to O’Brien’s “Age of Muldoon” in an anthology whose latter half revolves primarily around John Fuller and James Fenton, Tony Harrison and Ken Smith, Selima Hill and Carol Ann Duffy?
In this sense, both anthologies do no more than English literature has been doing for centuries, which is appropriating the best work from its linguistic hinterlands as its own, and some honesty about this in the introductions would have been welcome. The significance of Hartnett’s omission is that he is a writer of little obvious influence in England but a major figure in Ireland. His exclusion appears to signify a reading of Irish poetry from a perspective of English centrality: what is important in Irish poetry is important because it has influence in England.
The point at issue here is not the general question of whether Irish poetry (in either the North or the Republic) is linked by cultural exchange to English, Scottish or Welsh poetry, since each part of what Les Murray christened ‘the Anglo-Celtic archepelago’ is unquestionably linked to all the others. The point is that both anthologies claim a ‘decentralised’ perspective, and the devolution of English literature since 1945 is the explicit story agreed on by all three editors, which raises the question of whether their representations of Irish poetry correspond to an Irish representation, and if not, whose? The answer appears to be a personal one, and the note sounded by O’Brien’s introduction at least comes clean about this. (“Like a number of poets of my generation, born in the 1950s, I am of mixed Irish and English parentage, born, brought up and educated in England, but still at some level attached to Ireland. Irish poetry is part of the imaginitive community to which we feel we belong.”)
But the initial problem remains that The Firebox is now only O’Brien’s personal reading of post-1945 poetry, and a similar logic could just as easily have claimed Miroslav Holub, Vasko Popa and Zbigniew Herbert as part of a felt ‘imaginitive community’, and therefore central to current English poetry, with almost as much justification (indeed, I’d say there’s a strong case for arguing exactly that: why restrict our imaginitive communities to near neighbours only?). The point to bear in mind about both anthologies is not that either is ‘wrong’ or rendered meaningless by these inevitable biases, but that there is a missing emphasis in the story being told. Crawford and Armitage give their introduction the title ‘The Democratic Voice’, arguing that the period is defined by the move from a metropolitan Oxbridge-BBC ‘centre’ to a more ‘decentralised’, ‘democratic’ structure comprised of multiple and only loosely affiliated ‘centres’.
Yet if the old Oxbridge-BBC axis (what Crawford and Armitage define as “the traditional cultural centre” with its “mandarin tone”) lost ground, the question of who inherited its influence is glossed over. If Eliot pronounced ex cathedra on literary matters in his role as ‘the Pope of Russell Square’, some acknowledgement that Crawford and Armitage are now themselves in the same role, pronouncing ex cathedra on ‘the democratic voice’ from similar positions of institutional authority wouldn’t go amiss. The difference between ‘no centre’ and ‘new centre’ is not a negligible one, after all, and if “Greek epigraphs guarded the portals of Eliot”, then new prejudices are liable to be guarding the portals of Crawford and Armitage.
It’s not enough to add provisos that these pronouncements are “one voice among many others” (Crawford/Armitage) or a map that “even as we study it…changes and discloses a larger world” (O’Brien): these are the loudest voices, maps that (like the one in Eavan Boland’s ‘That The Science Of Cartography Is Limited’) all too often simply exclude awkward landmarks. The editorial commissions and resources are made available to some and not others, and the centre at any given time is in the hands of those chosen.
Some acknowledgement that these editors are in the same position of arbitrators and ‘guardians’ as their predecessors would be a useful first step towards unmasking the more subtle rewrites of recent history these anthologies represent. Both are didactic in intention and prescriptive in effect, and if the prescriptions wear populist clothing (Crawford/Armitage) or profess a ‘discriminating inclusiveness’ to limit the range of poetry represented to an editorial interest in British politics and social issues (O’Brien), the fact remains that many stories about the postwar period are not being told here. Symptomatic is the tendency to skip directly from Auden to Larkin, with the 1940s dismissed as “the short-lived, strained and clotted New Apocalyptic movement” (by Crawford and Armitage), as “the hysterical irrationalism of the New Apocalypse school which brought brief fame to such poets as Henry Treece and J.F. Hendry” (by O’Brien).
Not much acknowledgement or representation of the decade in which both anthologies begin is, in fact, made, and if Dylan Thomas, George Barker and W. S. Graham are included in the Penguin Book (only Graham gets into O’Brien) all three are represented by late work and their context is given as primarily a Movement-centred one. The clearest illustration of this tendency to erase certain kinds of poetry from the bigger picture lies in the omission from both anthologies, without comment, of David Gascoyne, a figure of some importance within the period whatever a particular editor might think of his work. This omission is despite his influence throughout the 1950s and 60s, not only in his crucial role as translator of the French Surrealists – notably Benjamin Peret and Andre Breton, and of Holderlin, Jouve and others – but equally in the impact his Collected Poems (1965) had on a generation of writers like Barry MacSweeney, Lee Harwood and Tom Raworth. In 1970, Edward Lucie-Smith’s Poetry Since 1945 identified the belated awareness of these European interwar currents as one of the defining characteristics of the 1960s in British poetry and the wholesale exclusion of this current decisively skews both accounts of the period from a stated openness into a more obviously prescriptive stance. The portals are staffed, and those in the wrong clothes are sent quietly home.
It’s a lot to read into two exclusions but perhaps this is the point: when openness is claimed and democracy pronounced operative, it’s probably a good time to start getting suspicious. The fact remains that for all the ‘lost ground’ of the Oxbridge-BBC axis since 1945, Crawford is himself an Oxford product, and Armitage a writer frequently employed by the BBC as the presenter of Radio 4’s Stanza and Radio l poetry slots, as well as in a more general capacity as the maker of programmes like Letters From Iceland. O’Brien, a Cambridge graduate formerly published by Oxford University Press and chief poetry reviewer on the Sunday Times, is equally implicated in the ‘traditional centres’ of literary influence (there’s nothing necessarily wrong with any of this, but it’s simply not acknowledged as these editors lay claim to a kind of ‘outsider’ status in their addresses to the reader in these introductions). O’Brien might be less triumphalist than Crawford and Armitage on this issue but his assumption that the period has seen “the melting of familiar categories” is a similar hostage to fortune, given the decided familiarity of the categories occupied by all three editors.
That the authority of all three editors is to a large extent traditionally academic and institutional is also reflected in the form taken by the selections. There’s a tendency to follow a pattern of brief biographical notes followed by a single short poem which begins to look more like a series of textbook examples and specimens than a collection of poems. Questions of space are obviously important but the continual use of extracts undermines the real achievements of several poets here. To use one section from Geoffrey Hill’s Funeral Music, two from Mercian Hymns, as O’Brien does, destroys the cumulative effect that gives both sequences their impact. Brief segments from Patrick Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger or Basil Bunting’s Briggflats impose essentially lyric shapes on the larger structures that constitute these poems’ real significance and create an impression that the choices are designed to present contemporary poetry as a series of seminar friendly chunks, each addressing an identifiable ‘issue’ that might provoke discussion.
Such arrangements can slant the books’ interests towards academic rather than poetic interests, towards students rather than readers, and the tendency for each poem to ‘illustrate’ a point about the period is pronounced. Likewise, it’s notable that there are few deviations from the canon established by Andrew Motion and Blake Morrison’s The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry (1982) and David Kennedy, Michael Hulse and David Morley’s The New Poetry (1993). That the two new anthologies broadly agree not only with these precursors but between themselves on the key figures is revealing, since the notion of fixed canons and ‘maps’ is explicitly denied by both, even as they busily set about confirming them and trampling paths so well-worn they must now classify as fully-fledged A-roads.
Despite a few refreshingly idiosyncratic choices (Rosemary Tonks in O’Brien, Ian Hamilton-Finlay in Crawford/Armitage) and a few differences in emphasis (The Penguin Book gives space to performance poetry while The Firebox explicitly excludes it; names like Charles Boyle and Alan Jenkins are included by O’Brien, but almost arbitrarily replaced by others like Kate Clanchy and Peter Sirr in Crawford/Armitage) these anthologies are otherwise so unified in agreement on the names included and excluded that the overall impression is of a distinct establishment roster rather than the pluralistic and energised ‘field’ both introductions propose. In this context the complete exclusion from both books of figures like Mimi Khalvati, Alice Oswald, Lee Harwood and Vernon Watkins (and perhaps Henry Treece, too) – as with Gascoyne and Hartnett – seems not insignificant, and again works to skew the story being told.
The real problem is that this story is primarily that of the nature of Englishness, the decline of Empire, with a few crudely sketched nods towards feminism: in other words, a story created by academics in which the poems themselves are largely subsumed under a framework of theoretical and sociological criteria that suits such readings but tends to marginalise the aesthetic and imaginitive dimensions of the work on show. Mimi Khalvati, for example, as an Iranian-born woman working within a British literary context, ought to fit neatly into the standard picture of postmodernity and post-colonialism framed by these anthologies.
That she doesn’t is largely the product of her assumption of the right to speak without reference to any centre of literary authority. From the early appropriation of Edward FitzGerald’s Victorian quatrains for her own ‘Rubaiyat’ (from In White Ink (1991)) to the extended, multiform meditations of Entries On Light (1997), Khalvati’s approach has been to consistently pose a poetic rather than a more obviously socio-political challenge to an assumed ‘marginality’. By demonstrating that the history of English poetry already contains tropes which can be directly reappropriated and manipulated, Khalvati’s work short circuits the simplistic notion of ‘Them and U[z]’ on which both O’Brien and Crawford/Armitage premise so much within their selections.
If this seems at first glance like a more accommodating, integrationist approach, it’s a deceptive impression. Khalvati’s poems do not so much assert female experience or a complex English identity against a perceived centre or canon (which would assume the initial validity of those received assumptions by default) as show how her own identity and experience is already appropriated (if distorted and unacknowledged) within the canon itself. This works to undermine the whole set of assumptions about class, gender, race and sexuality surrounding the ownership of literary authority. If poetry in English is not – and can be demonstrated to have never been – a unified cultural expression, the very monolithic entity that these anthologies and their introductions set out to challenge (and, in challenging, implicitly accept) is shown to be illusory, the product of a larger historical falsification. Challenges to received ideas about literary authority and ownership allow the default prejudices to maintain their central status: Khalvati’s work takes full possession of the canon and – in doing so – explodes the assumptions constructed around it.
Alice Oswald’s The Thing In The Gap-Stone Stile (1996) operates in a similar way, not as post-modern, but as a demonstration of the grounding of a female voice in the pre-modern, formative roots of modernity itself. Oswald’s ‘taking back’ (of Hopkins, of Dickinson, of the English nature tradition of Edward Thomas and Thomas Hardy) at this level seems a more radical manoeuvre than any amount of oppositional assertion, since in assuming the a prori right to speak, and exercising rather than requesting it, the resulting voice becomes a fait accompli rather than a raised hand in the classroom. By placing the burden of proof elsewhere, poets like Oswald and Khalvati effectively by-pass the cultural arbitration of the ‘centre’ by rewriting the canon itself in their own image.
The point at issue is that these prescriptive and embattled ‘democratic’ perspectives (in the sense that the ‘opening up’ of culture has tended in practice to comprise the enshrinement of the economically dominant and an institutionalisation of existing preconceptions) are at a stage where they begin to play into the hands of less positive (indeed, undemocratic) historical forces. Clement Greenberg’s essay Avant-Garde And Kitsch (1939) described the process whereby the removal of democratic influence in the political and economic spheres is generally paralleled by populist ‘democratization’ of the cultural sphere in order to retain the illusion of popular control in totalitarian states.
To raise that spectre is certainly to overstate the case but it’s a point worth bearing in mind when uncritical celebrations of The Democratic Voice are paraded like banners of victory in a context where public institutions are economically undermined and the ‘private enterprise’ of a near-feudal business class moves in to ‘raise standards’ and ‘extend choice’ by means of appropriating both public finance and natural monopolies. O’Brien seems aware of the dangers of Crawford and Armitage’s triumphalist populism but suffers a kind of blind-spot in his efforts to accommodate it. The Deregulated Muse, a companion volume to The Firebox, contains twenty-five short essays giving O’Brien’s account of postwar British and Irish poetry, and it inevitably reflects the thinking behind the selection procedures of his anthology.
He opens with a discussion of other anthologies, and analyses his predecessors’ shortcomings at length. Morrison and Motion’s 1982 Penguin Book of Contemporary Poetry for example, draws together “work by a number of those who continue to seem the most interesting poets of the period” under the rubric of an extension of “the imaginitive franchise”. O’Brien’s criticism focuses on the point that “to make sense of their chosen evidence [the editors] would really have needed to respect the variety within the franchise, and to have seen this as a set of related though differing responses to historical circumstances” (p.17). The overtly (if sometimes incoherently) political introduction to Bloodaxe’s 1993 The New Poetry, conversely, is undermined by the selection, where “what is really a list has to pretend to be an argument… the rainbow coalition which results testifies more to the poets’ simple contemporanaeity with each-other than it can… to common preoccupations” (p.18).
The apparent self-contradiction here is largely illusory. As O’Brien argues elsewhere, the definitive account will remain unavailable because “the variousness of contemporary poetry seems to prevent, or at any rate dispute, the emergence of a dominant line.” In the absence of recognised literary authority, and in the face of the impossibility of a comprehensive inclusiveness, O’Brien is arguing for his line as simply one position among many possible positions, but standing by it as the one in which he personally happens to believe. He confesses that “for some readers, my idea of variety will be their idea of homogeneity” and looks forward to “reading their accounts of the matter” (p.9).
This is fine, of course (and not just fine – it’s inevitable) except that it (once again) evades the real question of literary authority, which, while no longer regarded as absolute (and was it ever? did the formulations of Eliot and Leavis go wholly unquestioned by a prostrate literary world?) remains very much in place. O’Brien’s ‘personal opinion’ is published in book form, disseminated in newspapers, universities and magazines, and for all his prickly dissatisfaction with the scenery he often finds himself surveying, the most striking feature of all these books is the remarkable consensus they demonstrate about the canon and nature of contemporary poetry. It would be difficult to squeeze much more than a cigarette-paper’s worth of emphasis between these anthologies and their immediate predecessors, or between O’Brien’s The Deregulated Muse, David Kennedy’s New Relations and Ian Gregson’s Contemporary Poetry and Postmodernism, not to mention the avalanche of recent monographs, studies and magazine essays on poets like Heaney, Muldoon, Reading, Harrison, Dunn, Lochhead and Durcan.
For all the effort to present The Deregulated Muse as an argument still to be won, and for all its iconoclastic artillery and bluster, these essays repeat broadly the same argument that has constituted the nearest we’ve had to a literary consensus for the last twenty years. There’s nothing new about dismissing Geoffrey Hill’s poetry, for example, as ‘laborious’, or as insufficiently ‘social’ (“There are solitary individuals… but rarely a crowd or a community and never a sense of belonging to anything beyond [a] rarefied ‘platonic’ and largely exclusive sense of England” (p.46)). Neither is there any surprise in herding women into a couple of chapters under the (possibly ironic) heading ‘Redressing the Balance’ in which O’Brien appears to suspend criticism in favour of a dutiful PR exercise laced with occasional strays into areas that border (I assume unintentionally) on presenting gender as a fixed imaginitive category, determining how we read and think.
Discussing Selima Hill, for example, O’Brien scores an undoubted bullseye in his remark that her use of simile “is not a mannerly, negotiated Surrealism, but something like English expressionism”. Yet having hit the mark once, he turns his aim decisively and lethally on his own foot: “that may help to account for the feelings of disorientation and irritation initially experienced by some male readers who find themselves turning back at the border to face the possibility that their vocabulary is simply not up to the job of reading the resulting poems. The temptation is to fall back on catchall dismissals – to complain about whimsy and triviality.” (p.257) But what exactly does this mean? Why is “a mannerly negotiated Surrealism” any more congenial to male imagination than “English expressionism”? Do women really use a poetic language so far removed from men’s that we are forced to make allowances for it if we are not to ‘find [ourselves] turning back at the border’, and what border is this, exactly?
Of course, poets like Selima Hill, Medbh McGuckian and, indeed, Mimi Khalvati have quite consciously made use of ‘feminine’ (read ‘irrational/affective’) tropes in a kind of rhetorical opposition to ‘masculine’ (read ‘rational/empirical’) assumed linguistic norms, and to specific purposes. But this has little to do with whether readers (or writers) are ‘male’ or ‘female’, since the underlying aim is to demonstrate how linguistic assumptions are used to ‘produce’ gender, not vice versa. Biology has less to do with it than the way biological categorisation decides a wide range of cultural assumptions, including (it seems) at least a few of those underpinning O’Brien’s discussions of poetry written by women.
To take a very different example, Tony Harrison’s ‘v.’ might be considered a poem whose political credentials ought to seem as securely in O’Brien’s camp as any in the period. Yet ‘v.’ is attacked on the grounds that, “the humanist in Harrison is always likely to win out over the class warrior…even as we consider the multiple and often opposed meanings of the sign ‘v.’, the poem is in the process of subordinating them to its own binding singularity.” Citing Terry Eagleton’s suggestion “that what is at stake in v. is the choice ‘between being pained primarily by oppression and being pained primarily by division and disunity – the difference, roughly, between radical and liberal’,” O’Brien approves Eagleton’s awarding of “wisdom in the case to the skinhead, who knows that the talk of ‘peace’ and ‘unity’ which so haunts his creator is in political terms an insulting mystification” (p.63).
Yet this is only coherent if Eagleton’s absolute binary distinction between ‘radical’ and ‘liberal’, ‘oppression’ and ‘division’ is accepted at face value. It can be just as easily argued that Eagleton’s distinction is itself the ‘insulting mystification’, since it is expressly designed to impose a single binary opposition onto terms related by complex cause-and-effect. The multiple ‘vs’ of Harrison’s poem can be read clearly as the same divisions that prevent O’Brien’s calls for constructive responses to oppression from taking place. If O’Brien’s list of Harrison’s oppositions – “white v. Asian, police v. pickets, Protestant v. Catholic, Communist v. Fascist, Left v. Right, soul v. body, heart v. mind” (p.64) – ought to have served it a purpose, it might have been to draw O’Brien’s attention to the rich v. poor, articulate v. inarticulate divisions from which the others distract attention, and the very divisions to which the skinhead’s fury and powerlessness are most directly attributable. It is these last two, perhaps ‘invisible’ oppositions, that shape the texture and language of the whole poem.
By ‘universalising’, pressing the claim of love “where opposites seem sometimes unified” in its broadest personal and social senses, Harrison is doing something more than simply creating the “insulting mystification” of “secular humanist Wisdom” whether he fully intended to or not. He is, perhaps, recognising that the skinhead’s unfocused fury is working to create the very ‘divide and rule’ conditions necessary for the continuation of oppression. O’Brien and Eagleton appear to be pained more by Harrison’s ‘soft’, ‘liberal’ terminology than the conditions of oppression themselves, and if socialism means anything as a political principle it is surely expressed in the ‘universalising’ demand for human dignity, with redistributive economics recognised as the first stage. In sentimentalising the skinhead’s powerlessness from a perspective of guilt and comparative comfort both critics finally, on some level, collude in perpetuating it.
For all the woozy and knee-jerk thinking in evidence, however, The Deregulated Muse remains an instructively fraught attempt to get to grips with the postwar period. O’Brien is at his most convincing with those poets who, like himself, are male, northern, of a 1940s or ’50s vintage, in possession of Celtic ancestry and one way or another, explicitly politicised. Those like Ken Smith, Ciaran Carson and Douglas Dunn who fit the majority of these criteria are convincingly and engagingly assessed. If this makes O’Brien prone to read the straightforward matching of cultural templates and political views as the mark of worthwhile poetry, it’s a limitation of critical imagination, but so be it. Like Graves and Yeats before him, but lacking their distinctive eccentricities, O’Brien’s criticism tells us at least as much about O’Brien and his times as those nominally under discussion.
Like the essays, The Firebox has a programmatic intention, and no less than the highly partisan, partial views of the editors and critics he takes issue with, O’Brien is a product of, and is limited by, his own ‘historical circumstances’. As he realises himself, this is an inevitable and a universal condition, and nothing to apologise for. Yet just as Geoffrey Hill’s vision of England seems limiting to O’Brien for its elegiac invocations of ‘the dead’ as a replacement for an engagement with the living (as he writes of Mercian Hymns, “the note of history is heard in perpetual decay, done but not finished” (p.48)) , O’Brien’s own preoccupation with postwar England remains focused on a nostalgic and elegaic sounding of the decline of mass working-class radicalism, and his response to the apathetic morass of Murdoch-sponsored Thatcherism and the Blairite PR of ‘a third way’ is largely to take refuge in an uneasy but ultimately reassuring sense of abstracted ‘history’ (cf:’Cousin Coat’) not so far removed from the nostalgia he diagnoses in Hill than he might like to imagine.
Compared to the facile chirpiness of The Democratic Voice, this nostalgic-radical pessimism has a certain appeal, though neither position seems likely to move the debate forward. At the close of the twentieth century, it’s inevitable that stocktaking will occur, and both The Firebox and The Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland Since 1945 seem most useful as summaries of the present consensus. For all their small differences, they are broadly agreed on the key figures and issues and as such step out from behind the long-standing double-think of the same names being paraded over and over again while all agree that we live in a pluralist age where questions of value and judgement are both suspect and beyond us. These anthologies reveal a distinct canon and, whatever the rhetoric of the introductions tells us, they are no different in their occupancy of the ‘centre’ than any other collection of canonical works.
As such, they can be argued with and superseded, and if the 20-year consensus over what constitutes poetic relevance is to be challenged it will first need to be challenged by another canon. The salon des refuses from these anthologies goes beyond the aribitrary inclusions and exclusions of these particular editors, constitutes just this kind of redefinition, and not only brings into focus certain poets excluded or marginalised in these anthologies, but challenges the simplistic sociological biases of their conceptual grounding in favour of a more thoroughgoing poetic response to the catastrophic failure of imagination mourned by O’Brien and papered over by the Panglossian optimism of ‘The Democratic Voice’.
Khalvati, Gascoyne and Hartnett, in three distinct periods and contexts, represent a far larger body of work placing the emphasis on imaginitive transformation and reshaping: an advance demonstration of possibilities rather than a retrospective illustration of issues. The emerging poetry seems strongly linked to art forms outside itself and to a concept of social transformation that moves beyond ‘matter-of-England’ navel-gazing into broader European, global and even metaphysical perspectives.
Clues appear: in Paul Farley’s haunted late-capitalist attics and apartments; Pascale Petit’s visionary excursions through the interiors of Brazilian rainforests; Don Paterson’s cosmically-scaled nihilism wrongfooted by its own conceits; Mimi Khalvati’s Calvino-esque excursions into lightness as a simultaneously physical and abstract quality. Each is distinguished by a scale of imaginitive ambition, a range of reference and register, that bodes well for the poetry of the early 21st century. The next step will be to anthologise it, and as Ern Malley put it, having split the infinitive sometime around the beginning of the period these anthologies cover, “beyond is anything”.