‘Where do you come from?’ asks one of the most important questions in contemporary poetry – where’s home? Answering the pulls and torsions of that question produces much of the verse of Heaney, Harrison and Dunn, but it also produces very different kinds of poetry. Martianism had nothing to do with Mars, everything to do with home, the place where Craig Raine (like Murray or Dunn) feels richest. Surely Martianism comes from the ‘Ithaca’ section of Ulysses, the quintessence of home seen from abroad. Home can be a bit smug, though; and sometimes constricting. The poetic celebrants of home at the moment tend not to be women. But if it was once fashionable to see home as a ‘provincial’ bore, there have been poets around for some time, such as Edwin Morgan and Roy Fisher, who give the lie to that. Home is no longer ‘so sad’.
At home few people speak Proper English all the time. Home-based poetry may be in dialect, which is present in nearly all the writers considered here: but it may also fuel itself with a hyper-articulate, decorous Queen’s English that deliberately celebrates the sort of cultures where dialect is spoken. Tony Harrison does this when he harnesses his Classical learning and tones to write about working-class life in Leeds (he also uses straight dialect); Douglas Dunn does it when he writes in Northlight with Marvellian decorum about Tayport; Les Murray when he writes about Bunyah. Use of proper names (where’s Tayport? where’s Bunyah? where’s Glanmore?), confidently deployed local allusions, the belief that, as Larkin put it prefacing Dunn’s New Poets from Hull anthology, ‘poetry, like prose, happens anywhere’ – all these factors function as a sort of ‘silent dialect’ which reminds us that the text’s origins matter and that they are part of what the poem is about. Dialect is crucial to much contemporary poetry of sometimes happy, sometimes disturbing home and homing. The verse of our time is Ithacan in its orientation.
Like Les Murray’s recent collection, Daylight Moon, Dunn’s Northlight is also an Ithacan book. Its opening lines, ‘Innermost dialect/Describes Fife’s lyric hills,’ set the tone for much of what follows. One of the strongest poems in the book, ‘Winkie’, is about a pigeon homing to the Firth of Tay where Dunn now lives. A good deal of the book celebrates his home-making there, but Dunn is also aware of the pressures on such a home. These pressures are not just physical (the local military airport): they are also intellectual, as the two voices of ‘Here and There’ make clear.
‘Provincial’, you describe
Devotion’s minutes as the seasons shift
On the planet: I suppose your diatribe
Last week was meant to undercut the uplift
Boundaries give me, witnessed from the brae
Recording weather-signs and what birds pass
Across the year. More like a world, I’d say,
Infinite, curious, sky, sea and grass
In natural minutiae that bind
Body to lifetimes that we all inhabit.
So spin your globe: Tayport is Trebizond ...
The Tayport speaker in this poem may be an understated version of the Dunn who asked recently in the Glasgow Herald: ‘What did London ever do for a Scottish writer apart from patronise or condescend with the vicious tactic of patting work on the back as “legitimate”?’ Dunn’s work is technically splendid; his stance commands admiration, and he is willing to take the risk of being a man of independent mind not only vis-à-vis London but also towards Scotland, both in and out of his poetry. In verse, the form of Dunn’s risk-taking is unusual. He dares to write of the domestic with immense decorum, and a scrupulous attention which makes him the finest Scottish poet of his generation. In so doing, what he risks is Becoming Great Literature. There were occasional moments in Elegies when something went wrong. The line ‘How well my lady used her knife and fork!’ was awkward because too Literary. And Dunn in Northlight celebrating his ‘Moonpuddled water, mystic Firth’ again treads dangerously close to Higher Things. I admire this book for its scope, which reaches to Australia and Europe as well as to the pain of foreign wars and the way that pain is brought home. The book’s daring (that long poem about a stuffed pigeon) shows a poet inscribing himself in his cultural home, and championing it with skill. Yet also in this splendid book are moments when the focus on the hinterlands of Dundee seems too archaically soft.
Air-psalters and pages of stone
Inscribed and Caledonian
Under these leaf-libraries where
Melodious lost literature
There’s a whiff here of the loftily musing Poet; there’s something a little stagey about that exclamation-mark, but such worries vanish with
I do not like the big brave boasts of war.
GIVE ME GOOD PIGEONS! –
A very large number of Great Commoners
Built like Nye Bevan or Gambetta.
Strong, rather than prettily melodious, clear and confident, this is the voice of Dunn at his best, homing in on subject-matter that is both universal and domestic.
Dunn’s book is far from alone in its attention to home. Charles Causley’s admirers will be pleased with the new collection, A Field of Vision, in which, as the blurb stresses, ‘he comes home again and again.’ Linguistically more adventurous is George Campbell Hay’s Seeker, Reaper, a single poem in English, Scots and Gaelic, which is republished in attractively collectable format as a celebration of Hay’s native place – Tarbert, Loch Fyne.
William McIlvanney, an accomplished novelist, is another Scottish writer who has a strong sense of where he comes from. He wants to reveal in his poems ‘the streets outside where Scotland really lives’. Unfortunately, though, McIlvanney can’t spot a delivery boy without urging us to ‘See him as Mercury’, or hear a jukebox without speaking of its ‘pre-packed threnodies’. Mcllvanney’s work has good moments (‘The club rules are as follows:/The club rules’), but is clogged with rhetoric and melodramatic wordiness. The poet feels obliged to valorise his home-life and ordinary West of Scotland experience by dressing them up in grand language: the result is that his subject-matter is patronised by Literature, which bestows such poemy titles as ‘Thyestes in Ayrshire’ and ‘No Ultima Thule’. The Wee Malkies are replaced by the Visigoths, while sexual touch makes ‘pores bloom to orchids’. McIlvanney has a good understanding of his subject-matter, but finds clear expression only fitfully when he manages to cough up the anthology he has swallowed. For most of the time we’re too aware of his determined efforts to make this book what the blurb calls ‘a significant milestone on the journey of a great writer’. Not the sort of language you should get away with at home.
People who write poetry of home are often aware of its dangers though they may not always avoid them. David Dabydeen’s ‘Coolie Odyssey’, dedicated ‘for Ma’, and included in Section One of the four-part ‘alternative’ anthology, The New British Poetry, opens:
Now that peasantry is in vogue,
Poetry bubbles from peat bogs,
People strain for the old folk’s fatal gobs
Coughed up in grates North or North East
‘Tween bouts o’ livin dialect,
It should be time to hymn your own wreck,
Your house the source of ancient song ...
Like Edwin Morgan, Dabydeen is a poet-academic whose careers are interlinked and who cares deeply about his particular community. His language doesn’t reach flashpoint often enough, and sometimes his tone is uncertain-how ironic is he being in that Ossianic line ‘Your house the source of ancient song’? But I respect and admire the way he perceives his black ancestors as lying ‘like texts/Waiting to be written by the children’, while also knowing that in writing these texts he may risk becoming an ethnic performer who will see himself reading
To congregations of the educated
Sipping wine, attentive between courses –
See the applause fluttering from their white hands
Like so many messy table napkins.
In some ways, Dabydeen stands in the position of McIlvanney or the Dunn of Barbarians: certainly some of the writers anthologised by Fred D’Aguiar as representatives of ‘Black British Poetry’ make interesting links with other analogous predicaments. D’Aguiar himself takes as the epigraph to his introduction Stephen Dedalus’s description of Irish art from Ulysses, ‘The cracked lookingglass of a servant’ – a turn of phrase which Stephen immediately realises may be both apt and marketable.
Dabydeen and all other poets who sometimes use dialect might relish John Agard’s ‘Listen Mr Oxford Don’ (‘mugging de Queen’s English/is the story of my life’). This poem is intelligent and funny, yet it risks boxing itself in by marketing a stereotypical speaker who is a sort of licensed clown:
Me not no Oxford don
me a simple immigrant
from Clapham Common
I didn’t graduate
The cadence and wit of those last two lines convince me and make me smile. Yet at the back of my mind I start to think of stage Scotsmen, impersonating themselves, and about why MacDiarmid hated Harry Lauder. Maybe Merle Collins’s poem about a popular soup, ‘Callaloo’, avoids such worries better, coming with balletic line-breaks out of an oral tradition, a home that nurtures but does not imprison:
Not no watery callaloo
a thick, hot, sweet
burnin’ you tongue
Wid dem chunk o’ dumplin’
goin’ down nice
an’ wid coconut
wid o’ widdout deaders
as de case may be
as de taste may be
as de pocket may be
Collins is not content to stay in an area some might condemn as ‘local colour’. She pushes ‘Callaloo’ towards a consideration of what home means, and writes about the need to throw off a feeling of shame ‘when de man ask/“whey you from?” ’ Investigation of history and the compiling of anthologies are always essential to the provision of confident answers to that question, though for some people, literature still cuts free of questions of home and origin, so that writing is like stepping into the fridge.
A strong reminder that where a writer lives can be powerfully significant is given by Martin Bell (1918-1978): ‘Why, Leeds is Hell, nor am I out of it.’ Unfortunately, this sort of browned-off tone does for a good deal of the verse in Bell’s Complete Poems. Peter Porter writes that Bell ‘knew more about poetry than any other writer I have known’, yet the number of Bell’s best poems is small. Clearly he was multi-talented. A stanza from a version of Corbiere shows fine use of form and acoustics. Bell can also have an arresting naturalness of diction:
He just couldn’t keep still at a public meeting,
He would keep turning round and standing up to
see what was happening and who was talking,
And this was probably how the bullet got him
in the trenches at Jarama.
Yet poems like this are exceptional in Bell’s output. A Selected Poems would have been a better tribute to his memory, and few would miss his diatribes against Leeds and its inhabitants’ ‘horrible accents’.
Home is a place with a dialect and tradition. Sometimes writers, whether James Macpherson or T. S. Eliot, attempt to make up a tradition which stands in lieu of home. A tradition isn’t just an academic’s card index, it can also be a writer’s life-support-system; writing is usually a solitary activity, but encouragement and stimulation often come from knowing oneself part of a historical or geographical community of voices. Gillian Allnutt is aware of this in her selection of ‘Quote Feminist Unquote Poetry’ in The New British Poetry. Her introduction steers clear of claiming that there is yet any discernible ‘tradition’ in this area, yet she feels at least that ‘it is now beginning to be possible to construct the “line” in retrospect.’ The use of various kinds of ‘silent dialect’ which make the reader aware that the speaker is a woman often helps achieve some sort of communal solidarity, melding a tradition. Certainly a sense of isolation and the corresponding need for some such common cultural home seems evident in many of the themes and titles of the poems selected, such as Gillian Allnutt’s ‘Alien’, Eavan Boland’s ‘The Oral Tradition’, Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Telephoning home’ and ‘Foreign’, Selima Hill’s ‘Crossing the Desert in a Pram’, Maria Jastrzebska’s ‘Bi-lingual’, and Evangeline Paterson’s ‘Dispossessed’. There is some very interesting work here, and the star poem has to be ‘Crossing the Desert in a Pram’. Selima Hill gives us simply the concise version of poetry. Brilliant at the short sentence and absolutely clear diction, she creates in microseconds a whole otherworld in what is, after all, just a ten-line poem about someone who is seen as an old bag.
If only all the poems in The New British Poetry were as good. The truth is that the book is from the beginning uneven and it gets worse as it goes along. Eric Mottram’s flak-jacketed selection in Section Three, ‘A Treacherous Assault on British Poetry’ is really (as his introduction makes clear) an attempt to fight again the battle he lost when he was dislodged from the editorship of Poetry Review. The result is at times a sort of Middle-Aged People of Albion assortment with too many poems of the ‘We are one with nature O!/don’t go away rizla never/leave me’ sort. But there are some good (if hardly new) voices. Roy Fisher and Tom Leonard are both important poets of home-ground and its difficulties. Exotics, the arty and the posh always sound so much better than the homely, with the result, too often, as Leonard’s six o’clock newsreader puts it
lik wanna yoo
it wuz troo.
But too much of the rest of the poetry in this anthology reads like replayed Pound, Zukofsky and Olson. Even among Ken Edwards’s ‘Younger Poets’, there’s a faded Sixties feeling to the rhythms, an angrily nostalgic glow, though sometimes a phrase or a line (‘Teacosies portraying “The Poet’s head in the throes of inspiration” ’) surfaces like a collectable sound from a special-effects record. But if you’re prepared to edit for yourself an interesting selection of work out of a big post-bag of sometimes tedious pieces, have a look at what’s on offer.
If, on the other hand, you prefer to combine conventional tastes with rectitude and virtue, you could shell out £5.95 for First and Always, confident in the knowledge that all your cash will go to the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital rather than to the publishers, booksellers, or even the poets. Ted Hughes says, ‘Here is an opportunity to buy a book of poems with a good conscience,’ so if buying poetry usually leaves you racked with guilt, now’s your chance. Contributors include many of the best-known contemporary British poets. Maybe the state should buy some copies of this book.
Mick Imlah’s poems ask the question ‘Whey you from?’ in a lively variety of ways. Birthmarks speak of origins you can’t rub off. Under the cosmetic voice-surgery of social climbing lies the Ur-accent of home. In ‘Cockney’ an aspiring cosmopolite, showing off to ‘the Previns’ at a party, finds himself reclaimed in mock-Eliotic tones by ‘the ghost of me mum’ identifying him as ‘the same little boy that I sent out in winter with Cockney inscribed on your satchel!’ After that, the socialite is struck by a vengeful personal vowel-shift (‘ALL ROYT MOY SAHN! HA’S YOR FARVAH?’) and, his cover blown, takes to destroying the party. Other betrayals of home and aborted escapes from it dominate the poems of Imlah’s first collection. In ‘Goldilocks’ an upwardly-mobile Oxford donlet who has just spoken on ‘Systems of Adult-to-Infant Regression’ expels from his guest-room a red-haired Scottish tramp, mentally denouncing him as an impostor. Imlah’s version of donspeak may be a little over the top. Hard to imagine even the most confirmed don coming out with the words ‘a little ginger chap,/Of the sort anthropologists group in the genus of tramp’, but throughout the book the verbal carictures are constantly funny. After the geneticist of ‘Goldilocks’ has elbowed out the wheedling tramp, he confides to the reader: ‘Och, if he’d known I was Scottish! Then I’d have got it.’ That ‘Och’, the verbal birthmark, is again the revenge of home, the insistent inner ‘Whey you from?’
Such poems satirise the ambition of those who wish to leave home so far behind that it will vanish; they satirise fake cosmopolitanism. Yet Imlah knows also how homes can be traps, and he is wary of them. His writing is often strongly attached to a certain donnish milieu from which it derives part of its brilliance. Literary parody abounds, much of it excellent, but a little of it weakly knowing: ‘(All’s changed, etc).’ The illusionism of ‘I have a dream’ with such puns as ‘Black Lincoln’ and ‘black Lincoln’ comes perilously close to a sort of Post-Modern commonroom wit. Some of the ‘Counties of England’ poems try too hard. The best things tend to come when Imlah allows himself to be airlifted from the SCR into a world of strange imaginative clarity, as he is undoubtedly in ‘Birthmark’. This is an arresting, and frequently a very funny book. At times almost surreally virtuoso – Richard Dawkins on ice – it works a highly intelligent set of variations on the domestic and evolutionary question ‘Whey you from?’ Imlah’s first collection, with its startling answers, reinforces in yet another idiom the urgency of that question.