Popular poetry aspires to a public life in the United Kingdom…
Photograph by Paul Townsend
From LA Review of Books:
I read across a range of British poetry anthologies and journals, from the more obvious midcentury Faber, Penguin, and Oxford surveys to the more recent: Andrew Motion and Blake Morrison’s The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry, Edna Longley’s Bloodaxe Book of 20th Century Poetry from Britain and Ireland, Ricard Caddel and Peter Quartermain’s Other: British and Irish Poetry since 1970. These collections lacked ethnic minorities from either “mainstream” or “avant-garde” traditions, or included them only with qualifications. (I hadn’t yet discovered the self-consciously, almost apprehensively inclusive Paladin New British Poetry.) The so-called avant-garde poetry of the United Kingdom relies on an unstable and purposeful decontextualizing of the lyric “I,” and its preoccupation with formal and linguistic experimentation is similar to that found in Language poetry in the United States. As I read postwar British poetry fully, I became less enamoured with the Movement tones of Phillip Larkin or Donald Davie and reviled their small, digestible, miserable artifacts of everyday British life, what Andrew Duncan likens to the 1950s domestic white goods of an individualist capitalist economy. If we believe the historical rewrite of pro-Movement critics, the Georgian poets had all but done away with early modernist experimentation. Gradually as I labored through postwar British poetry, the technical, lyrical sameness — a self-assured universal “voice” — began to rise from the pages, forming into homogenous, efficient, and consumable vehicles of meaning. The conservative, mainstream British poem behaved like modernism had never happened. Its low-risk game of truth and meaning left little room for nuanced poetic subjectivities that challenged the singular British voice.
In his 1962 introduction to The New Poetry, Al Alvarez famously railed against the Movement’s overriding “concept of gentility” — the “belief that life is always more or less orderly, people always more or less polite, their emotions and habits more or less decent and more or less controllable; that God, in short, is more or less good.” The linguistically innovative British poet and critic Robert Sheppard describes the “Movement Orthodoxy” in The Poetry of Saying as privileging:
a poetry of closure, narrative coherence and grammatical and syntactical cohesion, which colludes with the processes of naturalization, that is, with the “attempt to reduce the strangeness of poetic language and poetic organization by making it intelligible, by translating it into a statement about the non-verbal external world,” as Veronica Forrest-Thomson puts it. Its poetry favours an empirical lyricism of discrete moments of experience.
As if off an assembly line — the intimate sameness of the British lyric poem of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s especially, owes its debt of conformity to British audiences’ appetite for readymade meaning. In Serious Poetry, Peter McDonald characterizes the stereotypical British lyric poem. It will be:
in the first person (at least to begin with); it will demonstrate a wry knowledge of what is most current in speech or reference […] it will tell some kind of anecdote or story, and point out the irony of the situation it describes; finally it will find an image or images that transcend the situation, and that constitute an unspecific, apparently secular, epiphany. The poem will cultivate a knowing irony in relation to everything but its own control of language.
Popular (or populist, depending on your view) poetry aspires to a public life in the United Kingdom, something that American poetry lacks. For this reason, the accessible poem — one that eschews “the strangeness of poetic language” to reach a wide audience, gathering intimacy with grandiloquence from the shared experience — is paramount. While the epiphanies of largely white, middle-class male lyric subjects are clearly not universal and personal, lyrical work by black British poets often feels similarly bound up in the perils of anecdote and epiphany. For me, the political necessity — the urgency to respond to a largely white tradition — found in the poetry of Grace Nichols, Jean Binta Breeze, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Benjamin Zephaniah, and Patience Agbabi is compelling. But their poetry does not usually incorporate language that is complex, difficult, or engaged in deconstructing meaning while communicating it via formal structures that extend beyond the binaries of social and racial identity too easily crystalized by the conventional lyric “I.”
In those early months at UEA, I began to wonder if the British lyric mode — dominant and unquestioned in workshops — had any place for me.