Colloquially Speaking

Patrick McGuinness

  • The Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland since 1945 edited by Simon Armitage and Robert Crawford
    Viking, 480 pp, £10.99, September 1998, ISBN 0 670 86829 9
  • The Firebox: Poetry from Britain and Ireland after 1945 edited by Sean O’Brien
    Picador, 534 pp, £16.99, October 1998, ISBN 0 330 36918 0

Anthologies are powerful things: movements are launched, periods are parcelled up, writers are made and broken. They are, or want to be, the book world’s performative utterances: defining what they claim only to reflect, they make the things they speak of come to pass. But one last fin-de-siécle anthologising project remains: an anthology of anthology introductions. We would then be able to follow the growth not only of a market but of a genre, a genre with its own protocols and house rules, in which, much like poetry itself, the new product tussles with the predecessors it both rejects and feeds off. Such a book would show us the anthology in its many guises: the anthology as canon or as anti-canonical dry-run for a canon, as launching-pad or stock-take, as sampler or as revelation, as provocation or as consolidation. If, as Auden wrote, poetry makes nothing happen, then the poetry anthology has no such self-effacing qualms. Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion knew this, as did the predecessor they were tussling with, A. Alvarez’s The New Poetry (which was tussling with its predecessor, Robert Conquest’s New Lines). ‘This anthology,’ they wrote in their preface to the Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry, ‘is intended to be didactic as well as representative.’ Though the things anthologies make happen may be confined to poetry, the representative and the didactic are hard to tell apart.

These two anthologies, eclectic, open-minded books, covering the same period if not always the same ground, appeared from big publishers within a month of each other. Each contains more than a hundred and twenty poets, and both, while aware of picking from a changing landscape, expect (for a time at least) to be definitive. Their editors are themselves well-known poets who leave their own work out. Luckily, and as if to exemplify the way even commercial rivals need one another, they are well represented in each other’s selections. Both books are convinced of the variety and vitality of British and Irish poetry, and see pluralism – among readers as well as writers – as one of the period’s defining characteristics. Where Morrison and Motion had their ‘imaginative franchise’, Conquest his ‘negative determination to avoid bad principles’ and Alvarez his call to go ‘beyond the gentility principle’, these new books must negotiate between producing a consensual ‘modern poetry reader’ and creating something more than a stepping-stone between us and several dozen Collected Poems.

Armitage and Crawford entitle their introduction ‘The Democratic Voice’, binding the last fifty years of poetry into its wider social and cultural contexts – education acts, decolonisation, immigration – while Sean O’Brien, author of The Deregulated Muse, a fine critical panorama of contemporary poetry, commends ‘the emergence of new poetries from formerly unsuspected sources’. There is also a step towards devolution, with Armitage and Crawford including a more than symbolic amount of poetry in its original Welsh, Irish or Scottish Gaelic, accompanied by parallel English translations. O’Brien is more Anglocentric: Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill is in facing-page English, but Sorley MacLean and Iain Crichton Smith, for example, occur only in English, and there is no Welsh-language poetry at all. On the other hand, O’Brien’s selection of English-language poetry casts a wider and more ambitious net. ‘Even as we study it, the map changes and discloses a larger world,’ he writes, and his preface makes a virtue of its provisionality, suggesting that future editions might be extended to keep pace. While Armitage and Crawford include more poets, O’Brien is more supple and reflective of the diverse poetries of the last twenty or so years. His brief introductions to each poet are also bibliographically useful, critically independent and sometimes funny (he describes C.H. Sisson as ‘an acquired taste’ who seems ‘inclined to warn off many who might acquire it’).

Neither book rewrites the history of postwar poetry, and each seems to accept that for the first three decades a canon is already pretty much shaped. Partly this is because time has done the sifting for them: Sorley MacLean, who Armitage and Crawford make a point of including as if he were on the margin, is far from being a stranger to mainstream anthologies, while Basil Bunting, Dylan Thomas, Edwin Morgan, R.S. Thomas, Iain Crichton Smith, Thom Gunn, Hugh MacDiarmid and Norman MacCaig are unassailably part of our consciousness of the poetic landscape. Auden and MacNeice, too, though the omission in both books of Stephen Spender suggests that he has slipped out of contention – either because his true worth has yet to be assessed, or because it finally has been. There are also some welcome defining presences. W.S. Graham is well represented with different poems in both anthologies, restoring a seminal poet to rightful prominence.

There are omissions, especially of poets who challenge received opinions, particularly about the Forties and Fifties. We won’t find, for instance, Burns Singer, one of the most original poets of the Fifties, or David Wright and John Heath-Stubbs. All three were friends of Graham, and their inclusion might have helped the Forties and Fifties out of their New Apocalypse v. Movement stand-off. Hamish Henderson, whose 1948 Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica (reprinted by Polygon in 1990) falls on the right side of the 1945 divide, is surprisingly absent, the more so as he was one of the founders of Scottish studies in the early Fifties. If these are distinguished members, from the early part of the period, of the salon des refusés, there is another category, the salon of the half-admitted, who appear in one book but not the other. Kathleen Raine and Ruth Pitter cannot be found in O’Brien, but Elma Mitchell and Martin Bell cannot be found in Armitage and Crawford. Elma Mitchell’s ‘Thoughts after Ruskin’ is a revelation, and to put her in is to do exactly the sort of thing anthologies are meant to do: extend the terrain as they go over it.

These books are also largely free of easy polemicising, though there are the obligatory side-swipes at London and Oxbridge, most often made by people who publish their poetry with Faber, Cape and Oxford and their anthologies with Penguin and Picador. (This does not constitute biting the hand that feeds: the hand actually quite likes it, because it makes it look open.) Yet neither anthology reduces the last fifty years to the waxing and waning of this or that school, and the clichés found even in critical books that should know better are largely avoided. Armitage and Crawford argue that there is no ‘straightforward, quasimonarchical line of succession’ and though the point is obvious (if one looks hard enough most such artificial genealogies disappear), both they and O’Brien steer clear of the received ideas – about retrospective poetic movements and artificial poetic decades – that provide many critics with the straw men they need to make themselves sound controversial. Among the beneficiaries of this principle are the Movement, often trotted out as a byword for Little Englander caution, and the Forties, often shorthand for sub-Romantic pap. Pap there certainly was, but these anthologies go some way to showing that the period was hardly defined by the sound and flatulent fury of New Apocalypse. As for the Movement, two of its original New Lines members, Thom Gunn and Donald Davie, went off in directions undreamed of by Robert Conquest and still largely ignored by contemporary British poetry. Looking a little further, we find that Gunn and Davie between them do something that has still not been taken on board in Britain: they engage with a post-Poundian poetic tradition (Charles Olson, Edward Dorn, Robert Duncan, George Oppen) of a kind that gives modern American poetry its variety and experimentalism. Gunn and Davie are included in both anthologies, but to read their collected poems (the next step after reading Davie’s superb ‘Time Passing, Beloved’ and Gunn’s ‘On the Move’ in O’Brien) is to see how the Movement contains the germ of its own undoing in these restless and questing poets. In fact, the only thing that keeps the Movement sensibility afloat after the Fifties is Larkin, who goes beyond it (if he does) largely by articulating its principles to perfection. Unsurprisingly, Larkin is the centrepiece of the two anthologies. ‘He seems to form part of the permanent literary consciousness,’ says O’Brien almost ruefully, noting also that what is best in Larkin is ‘largely lost among his many imitators’. But what nobody (including the editors of these anthologies) asks is why we spend so much time complaining about Little Englandism, cynical restraint and suburban Toryism while persisting in raising its greatest exponent to the status of presiding genius.

Thom Gunn has characterised Larkin as ‘a poet of minute ambitions who carried them out exquisitely ... his distrust of rhetoric was also a distrust of feeling, a distrust of daring’. Perhaps this is the root of what O’Brien perceives as the mixture of the accessible and the inimitable in Larkin: we all have minute ambitions, but we can’t all fulfil even the minutest of them to perfection. This is the pertinence of Larkin, always well within sight but just out of reach. Like Dylan Thomas’s, Larkin’s influence was huge; unlike Dylan Thomas’s, it persists in what Nigel Jenkins has memorably called ‘the routine shibboleths of subject-matter, imagist verisimilitude, experience-fixated “creative writing”, secular common sense and “unique voice” fetishism’. One thing the date-of-birth ordering of these anthologies obscures is that Bunting, 22 years Larkin’s senior, published Briggflatts, one of the greatest long poems of the century, in 1966, more than a decade after The Less Deceived and two years after The Whitsun Weddings. Bunting’s lonely masterpiece, well selected in both books, kicks off O’Brien’s as if it were somehow the period’s opening gambit, rather than a direction offered but untaken, midway through the second half of the century, a rich and spacious alternative in a world of sights set lower and horizons diminished.

There were, and still are, alternatives to Larkin. Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, Seamus Heaney and Tony Harrison are powerfully present in these books, as are a number of the poets Motion and Morrison published in Contemporary British Poetry: Douglas Dunn, Anne Stevenson, Craig Raine, James Fenton, Andrew Motion, Derek Mahon, Fleur Adcock, Carol Rumens, Medbh McGuckian, Penelope Shuttle and others. Geoffrey Hill, Dannie Abse, Denise Levertov, Peter Red-grove, U.A. Fanthorpe, Gillian Clarke, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Elaine Feinstein are all variously represented, opening out the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties as a time of diversity and imaginative enterprise. One poet who appears in neither book, and who surely exemplifies not only the ‘democracy’ but the ‘pluralism’ they refer to, is Jon Silkin. Having commended the growth of poetry journals and publishers outside London, both O’Brien and Armitage/Crawford proceed to ignore the poet who founded Stand magazine, and whose poetry and personal presence – both of them sane and principled – exemplify what is best about the British poetry scene. The fact that his poems also turn up in GCSE and A-level exams suggests that he has a place in another story of postwar British poetry. ‘Death of a Son’ or ‘The Coldness’ deserve to be in anybody’s anthology. Without Silkin, but also without Barry MacSweeney or Douglas Oliver – whose Penniless Politics and The Infant and The Pearl are uniquely ambitious meditations on the character of democracy – we feel that somewhere along the line we have been short-changed. Anthony Conran’s marvellous poem ‘Elegy for the Welsh Dead, in the Falkland Islands, 1982’, which O’Brien includes, exemplifies the kind of politically engaged poem we should have more of. Although Ken Smith, Tony Harrison, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Fred D’Aguiar and David Constantine can be found in one or both anthologies, we get the sense, in Armitage and Crawford especially, that ‘democratic’ has dwindled into a synonym for talking colloquially about modern things.

What we will not find in these books is much in the way of counter-narratives of British poetry. We will not find, on the one hand, poets such as J.H. Prynne and Iain Sinclair, or (apart from Roy Fisher) any of the poets collected in Andrew Crozier and Tim Longville’s 1987 anthology, A Various Art. Nor, at the other end of the spectrum, will we find poets such as Peter Robinson, Robert Wells or Clive Wilmer, or the Carcanet poets from the days when PN Review was called Poetry Nation. Denise Riley, Roy Fisher and Christopher Middleton are about all we have by way of a British avant-garde, a term which is usually taken to indicate that the poets have given some thought to developments in European and American literature over the past forty years. O’Brien calls Roy Fisher a ‘bridge between the mainstream and the avant-garde’, but the bridge is pretty much all these books show us. Probably this is because the editors think the work too ‘difficult’ or ‘inaccessible’ or ‘academic’. But where else can we hope to hear minority or ‘marginal’ voices? Omissions like this, of entire ways of writing and thinking about writing, narrow the picture that these books should be broadening out.

With the poetry of the Eighties and Nineties, when the editors themselves arrived, the anthologies have more latitude. But this latitude entails greater difficulty, as the anthologies become part of the process of poetical history rather than its mirrors. The job is made both easier and harder by Hulse, Kennedy and Morley’s 1993 anthology, The New Poetry, which re-appropriates Alvarez’s title and presents a thriving selection of more than fifty poets. But where The New Poetry could afford the space, O’Brien and Armitage/Crawford must be more selective. Not only that, but the selection procedure itself is at issue. Both books address it: O’Brien says that he includes contemporary poets who have had more than one collection published – as good and arbitrary a rule as any – while Armitage and Crawford give ‘a generous amount of space to the poets of our own generation, since it seemed both right and inescapable that this book should carry something of the accent of its time and of its editors’ experience’ – equally arbitrary, although in a different way. To sift and select from what is still in movement is no easy task, but by and large both anthologies succeed. Armitage and Crawford are not only well selected by O’Brien, but are mentioned in his introduction as Zeitgeist-defining poets, while O’Brien’s reward comes in the form of five substantial pages in their book.

Armitage and Crawford make a serious attempt to reflect non-English British poetry, though the result is something of a halfway house. Inevitably perhaps, they tend to impose ‘established name’ restrictions on the Welsh, Irish and Scottish Gaelic which they do not impose on the English – or indeed on the Scots, towards whom we sense that their book has, if not a bias, certainly a leaning. Derick Thomson, Iain Crichton Smith and Sorley MacLean in Scottish Gaelic and Bobi Jones in Welsh are comfortably and necessarily in, but contemporary poets do not get the same pluralist chance as their Scots and English-language siblings. Menna Elfyn and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill are as far as it goes. There’s no excuse for having no Aonghas MacNeacail in Gaelic, and in Welsh no Twm Morys – a poet who makes the cynghanedd radically contemporary, and who has written some spectacular ones in English to show how it’s done. (It’s an ancient and flourishing strict-metred poetic form unique to Welsh, and part of a thriving oral tradition as well as a virtuoso ordering of words on the page.) Although Armitage and Crawford keep the Welsh and Irish and Gaelic in the original ‘to give it its independent head’, they spoil everything when they claim that because of the ‘friendlier relationship between English and Gaelic than exists in Wales between English and the Welsh language, we have had difficulty in finding English versions of some Welsh poets which convinced us that they demanded inclusion’. Quite apart from the fact that Anthony Conran and Joseph Clancy have translated a good deal of Welsh poetry very well, and that there are seminal poets – Saunders Lewis, Euros Bowen, Waldo Williams among them – in easily available translations, this idea of ‘friendly relations’ takes us back to a pre-devolutionary dark age. To reduce, even for a large and non-specialist audience, Anglo-Welsh, Anglo-Irish and Anglo-Scottish relations to this almost Quiller-Couchian idea of civility is out of place in an anthology that claims to speak with a democratic voice, and which is co-edited by someone who has allegedly thought seriously about literary devolution. English is notoriously unforgiving to indigenous literary cultures which appear not to need it. ‘England, what have you done to make the speech/My fathers used a stranger at my lips?’ R.S. Thomas asks in ‘The Old Language’. Now we know: it’s just that Welsh hasn’t been very ‘friendly’. There is a centralising pull in Armitage and Crawford, and moments like this reveal a normative facility beneath their fighting talk.

To castigate anthologies for not including this or that poet may seem quixotic, but since inclusion and exclusion are, at least tacitly, part of the exercise, all one is doing is following the book’s logic to its terminus. It’s like saying that one doesn’t like irony because one never knows how to take it. These are, by and large, useful anthologies, and worth having for reasons that go beyond just being the only ones of their kind around. Neither does anything particularly unexpected, but in the end O’Brien’s is the fuller book, managing to do more with fewer poets. The problem with books like this is that even as they open doors for the new reader, they close others for the more specialist client. Since the specialist client usually knows where to look for what’s missing, and since the new reader may quickly become a specialist client, it is perhaps time that people started editing anthologies which included things they weren’t sure about, didn’t believe in or simply didn’t like.