Wednesday, 23 February 2011

US/UK poetry again

I like reading about US/UK poetry comparisons, mostly because I find them useful introductions to US poetry. James Rother's review-essay of "New British Poetry" (Edited by Don Paterson and Charles Simic, Graywolf Press, 2005) deals with many points. Here are some extracts with belated comments

  • in a review-article for The New York Review of Books titled "Anglo-Celtic Attitudes." ... Vendler began by blaming the decline in deference among American authors to things English on the U.S.'s having acquired superpower status after World War II and on American writers no longer feeling that they need to remain current with regard to trends emerging in the British Isles and Ireland. -
    Maybe. And, as he says, the deaths of Eliot and Auden severed more links. As a consequence, people like Armitage can be unknown even to dedicated US poets. Besides, there are so many US poets and styles that it's hard for US readers to find time for UK ones.

  • what isn't the least in doubt is the degree of animus which Paterson feels toward the corrosive swindle known everywhere as "Postmodernism." It may have originated in the United States, but in his view it left virtually an entire generation of British poets moldering soullessly in its swath. -
    I'd guess that (for different reasons) neither Paterson nor Simic explored the all nooks and crannies of UK poetry.

  • Simic: American poetry is by its very nature eclectic and therefore "always already" contemporary, whether its practitioners wish it to be or not. Unlike British verse, its life force derives less from European crosswinds than from what Simic traces to the "limitless faith" expressed by Ralph Waldo Emerson "in the power of the individual to make a new beginning, reinventing everything from his identity to the art of poetry ..." -
    I don't see many continental influences in British verse.

  • A majority of its inclusions seem, despite the occasional lurch into the memorable, to lack assuredness and in some cases even basic skills. Under cover of "populism" (i.e. "grammar school" ties over "public school" ones) a plethora of skivvies and ragged knickers flaunt their working class threads -
    Maybe I'm too close to see how class-ridden UK poetry is, or maybe the selection is skewed. Nor do I see pervasive nostalgia for empire (or indeed, much political/global awareness at all) in UK poetry.

  • As far back as the early '60s, critics such as Charles Tomlinson had noted problems arising out of British poets' having too precipitously dismounted the twin high horses of '20s modernism and '30s Noël Cowardice-with-a-Marxist-slant. -
    I can see this why people might note this schism.

  • The "mainstream" had morphed over time into a difficult slipstream for any British poet to stay afloat in, so choppy had the cross-currents buffeting England from across the Channel become. -
    I don't think French poetry or literary theory has changed the course of UK poetry.

  • At a stroke, Carlos the Jackal married the deconstructionist muse and set up housekeeping in the flat in Paris where Louis Althusser's wife experienced terminal massage at the hands of the luftmensch responsible for, among other unstringings of the lyre, Pour Marx and Lire le Capital. -
    Oh. Uh?

  • In the UK, the mainstream has been shaped and narrowed by the closing banks of that cheery and generally none-too-clever verse of recognition humour [sic] or undisguised moral exhortation; and by Postmoderns on the other-and how strenuously Left-bank. -
    I can more or less go along with that

  • From this company I exempt-even where a modicum of promise is perceptible-English knock-offs of American items already mass-produced in this country (e.g., John Ash, Mark Ford, and other clones milling about the memory of Frank O'Hara); Glückische handmaids of feminist expressionism who hold the "truth" that all men are awful to be inalienable (Carol Ann Duffy and Selima Hill, to name but two); nationalist Scots whose pibroch tootlings on the pipe of Robert Burns and Hugh Mac Diarmid might engage some local imaginations but are otherwise non-exportable (W. N. Herbert and Kathleen Jamie, for example); and finally, poetic apples that didn't fall far enough from their trees (whether Dylan Thomas's, or whosever) to avoid over-close identification with their respective fruit. (In this group may be found, among others, Gwyneth Lewis, Alice Oswald, and, to further belabor the point, Andrew Motion.) That leaves some rather old and "dark familiars" (to cop a phrase from Malcolm Lowry), such as Simon Armitage, Christopher Reid, and Michael Hoffmann -
    it's good to see him name names. I've not read this anthology, but I can see where he's coming from.

  • Similarly adept at bringing lattés of existentialist resignation to froth are John Glenday, Roddy Lumsden, Alice Oswald, and Jo Shapcott. The remainder of those represented range poetically from the tolerably and intolerably competent to the merely unaccomplished -
    I'm unsure whether he's praising or condemning Glenday et al. Either way, it doesn't sound too fullsome, though I can't easily plonk Oswald and Shapcott into the same category.

Online there's also a review by John Drexel (it's also from Contemporary Poetry Review) which quotes the editors' views on the UK poets' engagement with the past:

  • Simic - "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"
  • Paterson - "[the poets] are engaged in an open, complex and ongoing dialogue with the whole of English tradition"

The review compares the anthology with Schmidt's and Morrison/Motion’s. It notes that this anthology includes nearly all the New Generation poets, and that the "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 Meagrely provided, Andrea Brady mentions Tuma's more inclusive "Oxford Anthology of Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry" (I'm surprised that the reviews didn't mention it), then questions Paterson's comments on post-modernism - "This is so fanatical a diagnosis that all readers might as well ignore it. We could ask why the editors of Graywolf cleared it for publication, and what Charles Simic was doing collaborating with such rabidity. But why tangle with such unsubstantiated and feckless rubbish when Paterson incriminates himself very capably? ... His essay is useful as a demonstration of how conservativism operates in the arts according to the same principles as it does in the capitals: its lynch pins are assimilation, veneration, and subordination; it is maintained by the controlled flow of resources, false proclamations of vulnerabilities, and a dark fixation with scapegoats".

Those interested in more recent UK poetry anthologies can look at my Recent UK poetry anthologies article.

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