Social Arrangements

John Bayley

  • The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry edited by Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion
    Penguin, 208 pp, £1.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 14 042283 8
  • The Rattle Bag edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes
    Faber, 498 pp, £10.00, October 1982, ISBN 0 571 11966 2

‘New’ poetry can mean two things. When Ezra Pound said ‘make it new’ he was willing the advent of Modernism, the birth of a consciousness transformed by the disintegrations and realities of the 20th century. But ‘new’ or ‘contemporary’ poetry refers more simply to changes in fashion, the growing up of new groups of designers and a new generation of consumers. Like film images or pop songs, the new in this sense is recognisably different from the poetry scene a generation ago, but how much has happened except that times have changed and required something else to be characteristic of them?

Fashion is never ugly, as the couturier said; and the idea of a new look in the traditional way the words make their shape and impact on the page gives a lift to the poetry reader in the same way that ‘New Improved Formula’, printed on the wrapping, has its conditioned effect on the consumer. Sensible and low-keyed, the introduction to the Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry recognises these simple facts but is in duty bound to put them in the proper idiom. ‘There are points in literary history when decisive shifts in sensibility occur ... This is an anthology of what, over the last years, a number of close observers have come to think of as the new British poetry.’ Was there such a thing as the old British poetry, and were there any close observers around to categorise it? Poetry used to be English, after its language, though to avoid ambiguity the observers had their categories of Scottish poetry, or American. Ambiguities are not so easily avoided, however, and in this area the attempt to do so lands you in further trouble. A poet can be at once Spanish and Colombian, say: but a poet from Northern Ireland might either be proud to be British or else resent the label, though in neither case would he mind being, as Keats hoped to be, ‘among the English poets’.

So if poetry from now on has to be British, which way is it going? ‘A body of work has been created which demands, for its appreciation, a reformation of poetic taste.’ There is a certain truth in this if it is assumed that the ‘poetic taste’ of the reader was formed only by the previous Penguin of 1962, The New Poetry, selected and introduced by A. Alvarez. Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion are well aware that there is something comically factitious about the stance that has to be adopted by each new spokesman on the poetry scene – ‘we are not,’ they say, ‘the first anthologists this century to have made such a claim.’ Indeed they are not. The claim to newness is also the claim to rebirth and rejuvenation, and there is a close similarity between Wordsworth’s manifesto in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, and Edward Marsh introducing the first Georgian anthology in 1912 with the statement that ‘English poetry is once again putting on a new strength and beauty.’ The difference is that Wordsworth really was heralding a new era of sensibility, as Ezra Pound was to do in his Imagist anthology of 1915, whereas Marsh was, as it turned out, only staking the claim of a domestic mode, a fashion that was to carry comfortably on for a while in the shadow of true modernity.

However close our observation, it is extremely difficult, at the time, to tell the one from the other, the change in fashion from the much more complex shift in sensibility. The poetry that will grow and last as itself is not easily distinguished, at the moment when it is first written and read, from the poetry that has jumped on the bandwagon of fashion and will be left behind, existing only as representing it. Both kinds flourish in the same hedgerow, the same contemporary collection. Anthologies of ‘modern poetry’ in the Thirties had Yeats and Auden as peers of both Modernists and Georgians; and no reader could then have been blamed for thinking Day-Lewis, say, as important as Auden and the same kind of poet. If in 1820 there had been an anthology of the Cockney school, the poetic romances of Keats in it would not have seemed so different from those of Leigh Hunt.

Already the pages of Alvarez’s The New Poetry have a dated look, arising not so much from the poems themselves as from their juxtaposition, marshalled, loaded and pointed the same way by their frenetic commander. As anthologist he imposed his will more effectively than as critic, seeing movements arising one after the other, ‘the log-rolling Thirties followed by the drum-rolling Forties’. The progress of movements is hampered by ‘negative feedback’: Auden brings back forms and metres ‘in chic contemporary guise’; Dylan Thomas causes ‘a blockage against intelligence’; even ‘the Movement’ itself – the incisively intelligent ‘academic-administrative’ verses of Larkin, Wain and Enright – could not help endorsing the most negative feedback of all – English gentility, the ‘decency and other social totems’ that ‘muddle through’. New poetry had to have ‘a new seriousness; the new poet must face the full range of his experience’, and demonstrate its ‘violent, impending presence’. His poetry must come to terms with ‘Dachau and Buchenwald’ by showing that such places were inside him all the time. As a result of these urgent stresses and facings, the properly climactic poetic act was suicide. As a takeaway sample of what he had in mind Alvarez contrasted the horses of Larkin’s poem ‘At Grass’ (‘social creatures of fashionable race meetings [who] ... belong to the world of the RSPCA’) with the ‘urgent’ horses of Ted Hughes’s ‘A Dream of Horses’, a poem ‘unquestionably about something’. Linked in this way, the poems make each other look slightly ridiculous – their titles alone adequately inform us what they are ‘about’ – though each on its own is a masterpiece.

Anthologists date even quicker than their collections, but the example shows how deplorable an effect they can have on the appearance of their poem-victims, until the latter can escape out of the anthology and back into their proper selves. Poems are not gregarious; the school uniform of an anthology denatures them. Still more so does the enthusiasm of the headmaster. But there is every difference here between the author of The Savage God and the author of the recent sober and scholarly study of the Movement poets. Blake Morrison, and his co-editor Andrew Motion, are well aware that ‘in the face of manifesto-making a degree of scepticism is only proper’; and they are careful neither to regiment their flock nor to make too many ‘new’ claims on their behalf.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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