One land, many voices

The extraordinary breadth and variety of British poetry.

New Statesman
A poetry reading. Photograph: Eflon on Flickr

The idea for my book Beyond the Lyric came to me while I was editing the magazine Poetry Review. I was dismayed to find that even arts journalists scarcely seemed aware that today’s British poetry is world-class. Perhaps because our culture is in vibrant transition or because it is finally shaking off postwar solemnity, poetry is flowering and expanding, rather as non-fiction did during the 1980s or theory did for the generation of 1968.

Yet it receives strangely little attention. Slowly, I came to realise that the tremendous variety of the current poetry boom could actually be putting readers off. Rather than being seductive, it might be overwhelming. I saw how confusing it must be when poets and their supporters issue rival claims to be “in- dispensable” or “leading”, rather than simply acknowledge that there are great differences of poetic intention and style between many of our finest contemporary practitioners.

I found all of this immensely frustrating. I’ve spent 20 years trying to get closer to contemporary poetry: as a poet, reader, critic, editor and festival director. I see the form as endlessly resourceful and challenging – moving yet fun, an intimate experience and also an important type of thought within society. I recognise that not everyone feels this way. A poet needs a Nobel Prize to pass the dinner-party test and even then the odds aren’t in his or her favour. The announcement in 2011 of a Nobel Prize for the world-famous Tomas Tranströmer was met with British claims that he was an unknown.

Despite this, as many people as ever write the stuff. More than 200 volumes are published annually in the UK and the internet is crowded. At the magazine, I received on average 10,000 unsolicited poems every year; I had space to publish roughly 200. Sheer volume creates painful problems of differentiation, not only for poetry editors but for casual readers. Just dive in – who knows what you’ll find?

Poems, after all, vary in quality. Many people write “private verse” at some point in their lives – for their teenage band, for birthday cards or in a diary – just as all of us have probably kicked a ball about a park or a beach, with no fantasy of being a professional footballer. This is touching, human and part of the point: writing poetry is something only totalitarian regimes try to ban. However, it offers readers no way in to the true resources of the form.

So what is it that comes between today’s British poetry and its readers? One reason our verse is such a well-kept secret is that we lack robust, engaged critical practice. In the past century, only two major studies have attempted to address the contemporary British mainstream: F R Leavis’s New Bearings in English Poetry (1932) and Sean O’Brien’s The Deregulated Muse, published with an accompanying anthology in 1998. This is partly the result of Leavis’s urge to sweep away fusty “page criticism” and replace it with an approach that was authentically full of feeling. It is also down to the anti-intellectualism of the “Britpo” baby boomers, who characteristically modelled themselves on gigging indie musicians.

Compounding this problem, in recent decades, anthologies have created a modern-day canon without articulating any critical case for their inclusions. Such team sports are one legacy of British periodical practice in the past half-century. In the absence of true cultural de- centralisation and thanks in part to the much later development of creative writing programmes in Britain than in North America, little magazines such as Alan Ross’s London Magazine (which he edited from 1961 till his death in 2001) and, in particular, Ian Hamilton’s Review (1962-72) and the New Review (1974-79) operated something of a monopoly on literary patronage. Critical and editorial practice became closely linked with the partisan development of particular ways of writing; and it remains so, in the minds of many protagonists.

Since poetry has been written in every culture and era and, therefore, in many styles and languages, a “that’s the way to do it” belief that only one school of verse is artistically valid is clearly foolish. It’s also old-fashioned. The belief that literary practice is a chronological series of unified movements, each occupying the entire poetic foreground and sweeping away whatever came before, belongs with the early-20th-century idea of an avant-garde. When journalists ask, “What’s going on in contemporary poetry?” it’s often this story they’re looking for. Yet the modern-day context is infinitely more nuanced, even fragmented, than this.

As a result of the rise of workshop culture, not least in universities, today’s young poets can be highly technically aware. Yet a strange lack of confidence tempts many to claim that achievement is all about power and influence, rather than something that springs from the writing. Sean O’Brien has described as “grimly hilarious” a modern lack of awareness that “poetry might require an investment of time and patience and that publication might come not as a result of wanting it but of deserving it. The preoccupation with ‘being a poet’ is part of the contemporary fetish of ‘creativity’, whereby an attitude and an identity as part of a scene are assumed to be the real thing, rather than the work itself.”

The development of open-mike evenings, increasingly competitive in format, runs alongside the way emergent poets use Facebook and the blogosphere to broadcast poetry “achievements”. When this kind of competitive model encounters the range of poetic practices, it leads to claims that poems written one way “fail” to do what those written in another can. Sylvia Plath “fails” to do what T S Eliot does; or Simon Armitage “fails” to write like Wendy Cope. Such glass-half-empty reading is absurd. Plath is incomparably Plath; Armitage is consummately Armitage.

Reading half-full, then, must mean recognising what a poem is actually doing; not simply mapping poems according to the “issues” they raise, the poets’ gender or their geographical or political contexts (although content does sometimes form part of a poetic project). In Beyond the Lyric, I set out to map the main poem-making strategies available to British poets today. I found 13 fundamental visions of what a poem is and how it works. These range from using strict metre as a poetic motor to building verse on myth; from dandified reworkings of realism to postmodernity’s exploded lyricism.

I found myself naming these poetic territories, too, characterising them with a mixture of respect and affection as: Plain Dealing, Dandification, Oxford Elegy, Touchstone Lyric, Free and Anecdotal Verse, Mythopoesis, Iambic Legislation, Modernism, Surrealism, New Formalism and the Expanded and the Exploded Lyric. Some of these tendencies are generational, some are groups of colleagues and mentors and some have simply emerged as parallel poetic projects. Rather than create a fantasy league of the nation’s best poets, this way of mapping suggests how wide-ranging British poetry is.

The figures I look at are fine exemplars but they don’t have a monopoly on verse. I did, though, want to concentrate on British poetry. Written largely in English, the “world language” we share with a superpower, our verse has long remained in the shadow of North American and Irish writing. Our national prizes are open to the whole English-speaking world, providing that the work is published here. This can make us feel we’re more successful than we are, as when we co-opt the Caribbean and the Irish Nobel laureates Derek Walcott and Seamus Heaney.

It can also overshadow, perhaps even stunt, the writing going on in Britain. This obviously has nothing to do with a poet’s country or culture of origin and everything to do with culture-making within the UK. For example, I include poets from Northern Ireland not for complex political reasons but because they work and publish under the same conditions as other British poets (no life-time pensions from the Aosdána for them).

Beyond the Lyric is, then, a joyful adventure story. It draws a map that is contemporary but that I suspect may be useful for some time to come. Poetry changes over the centuries; yet it does so at a slow pace. Many of the things we argue over today – is rhythm fundamentally metrical or related to speech? Can a serious poem can be anything other than lyric? – were also puzzles 300 years ago. Since they have to do with the nature of language, they’re unlikely to go away any time soon, even though we may have moved from pitting John Keats against Percy Bysshe Shelley to lining Don Paterson up against Alice Oswald. British poetry is, as it has been for a very long time, cantankerous, quarrelsome, fascinating and extraordinary.

Fiona Sampson’s most recent collection of poems is “Rough Music” (Carcanet, £9.95). “Beyond the Lyric: a Map of Contemporary British Poetry” is published by Chatto & Windus (£16.99) on 6 September

The photo is by Eflon on Flickr, licensed via Creative Commons.

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