D.J. Enright is soon to bring out his ‘Oxford Book of Contemporary Verse 1945-1980’. Here is the substance of his introductory statement.
Proust remarked that, like microbes and corpuscles, theories and schools devour one another and by their warfare ensure the continunity of life. I doubt, though, that the present is a time for schools or manifestos, whether grandly or modestly styled. ‘Acmeists’, ‘lmagists’, ‘Parnassiens’, ‘Symbolists’, ‘Projectivists’ – these days the words ring out like great ancient bells, in a secularised city. The group most frequently referred to in Britain during recent decades, and more often than not with only moderate enthusiasm, was ‘the Movement’ (a title, not invented by its members, whose simplicity suggests either considerable potency or abject poverty), and the most notable thing about it, except as concerns sociologists and culture-historians in search of a footnote, was the nonchalance with which, after a brief cohesiveness, its members went their separate ways. The best movement is one that doesn’t move far in the same direction.
I notice, incidentally, that the present book contains poets who were associated severally with the New Apocalypse, with the Movement, which was explicitly anti-Apocalyptic, and with the Mavericks, an alliance formed in opposition to the Movement. True, these poets are decidedly unalike – if they were not, they wouldn’t all be here – but their differences are scarcely to be defined or appraised by reference to the platforms on which they once assembled.
To say this is not to cast aspersions on that age-old congeniality of feeling and purpose which brings writers, and particularly young ones, together. A cold wind blows through the world of the arts, where supply is eternally in excess of demand, and one finds shelter where one may. Nor am I recommending any variety of Noble Savagery or Doing-your-own-thing. The latter is a contemporary phenomenon worth noting as one of several factors in the weakening of poetry as a public affair. A lot of interest is shown in poetry today, compared with the recent and probably the remoter past, but not very much of it is disinterested. That is, there is little respect for poetry as distinct from admiration for oneself for writing it: indeed, poetry is seen as something that is written, not something that is read.
This phenomenon – does it arise in progressive or indolent classrooms, is it an aspect of our distaste for élitism and specialisation, or a sign that, when religion has materialised itself into thin air and creeds are shaken and traditions dissolved at a rate unimagined by Matthew Arnold, people turn to pen and paper for consolation and sustenance? – is as barely credible as (something to which any poetry editor will testify) it is widespread. Here are writers who have spared themselves the discomforts attendant on what W. Jackson Bate has termed ‘the remorseless deepening of self-consciousness before the rich and intimidating legacy of the past’ through the simple expedient of ignoring the past. What then deepens is another sort of self-consciousness, and it is sad to think of people as exclusively each his own poet, moving in a cloud of their own breath.
The writing of verse as a self-administered form of therapy is of course traditional and helpful, being both cheaper and often more effective than other methods. Its true sponsor is the National Health Service rather than the Arts Council, and it is only exceptionable when mistaken for poetry as a mode of communication with other people on matters of mutual consequence. One form of Noble Savagery – ‘O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!’ – has demonstrated its appeal, chiefly for the young and for busy people who look for quick returns: the type of writing which, abandoning the ancient poetic habit of making connections between one thing and another as either vulgar or old-hat or ‘academic’, gives itself up to unconnected whimsies, velleities or spasms. At its best D.H. Lawrence, who did it best, characterised the genre as ‘the poetry of that which is at hand’, ‘the insurgent naked throb of the instant moment’ where ‘there is no perfection, no consummation, nothing finished.’ The genre can have its successes – we should never forget that, as W.H. Auden put it, ‘Parnassus has many mansions’ – but in the main it is more accurately described by another phrase lifted from Lawrence: ‘the living plasm vibrates unspeakably.’ Such writing has been praised for being ‘groping and semi-articulate, like us’, as though poetry is merely to repeat and condone our weaknesses.
Proust also remarked that a work in which there are theories is like an article on which the price-tag has been left. The alignments so prominent in other spheres of activity, it seems to me, are best avoided or at least played down in the arts. A conscious ‘programme’ can be crippling: in as far and for as long as he can, the poet best remains unattached, he finds his own way or is led into it by a multiplicity of circumstances ranging from the happily ‘accidental’ through the unplumbably deep-seated to the most deliberate experimentation. We are in a region where one is tempted to say there are no laws. But there are: their presence is only to be inferred from what we can tell is an offence against them, or what we recognise as a triumphant observance. Writing is full of unwritten laws, and attempts at codification can only touch their surface.
Yet if people are to discuss poetry at all, they will want to fall back on theory and categorisation. Classical and romantic, urban and rural, paleface and redskin, Ego and Id ... In Britain it has been found convenient at varying levels – a telegraphese for journalism and academic use alike – to subsume the period under two poets, Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes. Their contemporaries can then be located at intervals on the line stretching between these two not wholly imaginary points, with Robert Lowell appearing now at one end, then at the other. An ill effect of this rough-and-ready schematism is that it has helped to impel writers into excogitated gimmickry, the one-finger étude, the all-thumbs concrete poem, the four-letter ejaculation, and other practices which at least denote a certain if not particularly enterprising acquaintance with the movements or the twitches of the past.