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’).

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