Jihad

James Wood

  • The New Poetry edited by Michael Hulse, David Kennedy and David Morley
    Bloodaxe, 352 pp, £25.00, May 1993, ISBN 1 85224 244 2
  • Who Whispered Near Me by Killarney Clary
    Bloodaxe, 64 pp, £5.95, February 1993, ISBN 1 85224 149 7
  • Sunset Grill by Anne Rouse
    Bloodaxe, 64 pp, £5.95, March 1993, ISBN 1 85224 219 1
  • Half Moon Bay by Paul Mills
    Carcanet, 95 pp, £6.95, February 1993, ISBN 1 85754 000 X
  • Shoah by Harry Smart
    Faber, 74 pp, £5.99, April 1993, ISBN 0 571 16793 4
  • The Autonomous Region by Kathleen Jamie
    Bloodaxe, 79 pp, £7.95, March 1993, ISBN 1 85224 173 X
  • Collected Poems by F.T. Prince
    Carcanet, 319 pp, £25.00, March 1993, ISBN 1 85754 030 1
  • Stirring Stuff by Selwyn Pritchard
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 145 pp, £8.99, April 1993, ISBN 1 85619 308 X
  • News from the Brighton Front by Nicki Jackowska
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 86 pp, £7.99, April 1993, ISBN 1 85619 306 3
  • Translations from the Natural World by Les Murray
    Carcanet, 67 pp, £6.95, March 1993, ISBN 1 85754 005 0

Poetry anthologies are now expected to make holy war; but what to do with The New Poetry, which strives so earnestly to turn its trumpet-majors into angels? The 55 poets collected here are, it seems, seraphs of a benevolent novelty, somehow singing their good news at once uniquely and in shimmering unison. ‘A multicultural society,’ write the editors in their introduction, ‘challenges the very idea of a centre, and produces pluralism of poetic voice.’ This plurality has, in the last decade, produced a new poetry, one which ‘emphasises accessibility, democracy and responsiveness, humour and seriousness, and reaffirms the art’s significance as public utterance. The new poetry highlights the beginning of the end of British poetry’s tribal divisions and isolation, and a new cohesiveness – its constituent parts “talk” to one another readily, eloquently and freely, while preserving their unique identities.’

This seems a lot for any literature to do. Alas, it emerges that the editors have a withered conception of both the literary and the political. ‘The post-Romantic tradition in the British Isles,’ they write, ‘has perpetrated the belief that poetry and political concerns are incompatible. In fact, they are inseparable: it hardly needed Tom Paulin to remind us that the subtext in Larkin, even when his subject was horses at grass, rarely strayed far from the political decline of England.’ Later, in a sudden frenzy, they claim that ‘Carol Ann Duffy’s work is written out of a conviction that poetry must get its hands dirty if it is to take on the enemy and help preserve a liberal society and humanist culture.’

Of course, they don’t intend to sound grudging about politics – on the contrary, they are bearishly political, hugging every good cause in sight – but these two quotes can only mean this: that poetry is always political; that the worst kind of poetry is that which doesn’t own up to its politics (e.g. Larkin); and therefore that the best will proclaim its politics with pride. (The manoeuvre will be familiar to readers of contemporary literary theory.) This is clearly an inadequate conception of both literature and politics, because there can be no pristine state which poetry inhabits before it is sullied by its contact with the political. These things are not separated like different chefs in a restaurant kitchen. While the editors urge on us the ‘inseparability’ of the poetic and the political, their language insists on an immense, primal separation: it is what allows them to say, for instance, that Glyn Maxwell’s gifts go beyond ‘the merely literary’.

But then language itself, on the editors’ account, is a poor thing. Ian McMillan’s work is praised for treating language ‘with a healthy Post-Modern disrespect’; Glyn Maxwell’s verse ‘reminds us that language is always debased currency.’ Again, this is vulgar and hasty. Language is a currency, but – exactly like a currency – it is by no means always debased: Glyn Maxwell’s poetry reminds us of this. Besides, ‘the absence of the imagination had/ Itself to be imagined,’ as Wallace Stevens has it in ‘The Plain Sense of Things’. One must first be rich to be newly poor. Does any poet, really, have a healthy disrespect for language without also having a healthy respect?

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