The New, New, New Poetry: A Consumer’s Guide | Chris Jones

‘I don’t entirely understand why reviews of anthologies frequently focus so heavily on the editors’ introductions or forewords.  When I buy an anthology, first and foremost I’m looking to be introduced to new poets and new poems that I wouldn’t otherwise come across.  If I like them, I’ll go out and find more of their work.  If I don’t, well, no matter, there’ll be something I do like along in a minute.’

Matt Merritt reviewing Dear World & Everyone In It: New Poetry in the UK edited by Nathan Hamilton in Under the Radar, Issue Twelve, December 2013.

TheNewPoetryThere was a point in a recent radio programme when two of the guests were asked when they first came across Thom Gunn’s poetry.  I was surprised to hear that both of the speakers, Paul Farley and Fiona Sampson, picked out the Forward Prize winning 1994 collection The Man with Night Sweats as their first encounter with Gunn’s work.  I was surprised because I thought they must have come across A Alvarez’s groundbreaking anthology The New Poetry, first published in 1962, then revised and reprinted in 1966.  Gunn’s work is one of the highlights of Alvarez’s survey of British and American post-war poetry.  I first came across Alvarez’s compendium as a fourteen or fifteen year old in the early 1980s: I still have my battered thirty year old copy, with its funky but misleading Jackson Pollock cover (abstract expressionism is not the first thing that comes to mind when I think of post-war mainstream British poetry).  For me, reading the anthology was a revelation – partly because I hadn’t read much contemporary poetry before, partly because it included an American contingent of Confessional poets, and partly because there was a generous focus on the work of Thom Gunn (he features more than any other poet in the collection, apart from Ted Hughes).  His poems stood out: they were different, quirkier, more energetic and passionate than a lot of the rather dry, ironic Movement and post-Movement poetry that filled the book’s pages.

Because I digested a good selection of Gunn’s oeuvre in The New Poetry (including the iconic pieces ‘The Wound’ and ‘On the Move’), I went on to buy Gunn’s Selected Poems.  From there I bought individual collections, and started taking an interest in literary criticism of Gunn’s work.  I went on to spend four years writing a PhD thesis on Gunn’s poetry and reviews, and subsequently met and interviewed the great man himself in San Francisco in 1995.  This, I suppose, is the power of the anthology in action.  But thinking again about Farley and Sampson: why should they have read Alvarez’s book?  I mean, all anthologies have a shelf life, a contemporary relevance – why should something published over fifty years ago still be current or used as a way into understanding or contextualising a rather grey and restrained period of British poetry?

My feeling is that The New Poetry is a key text in terms of how we understand how mainstream representative anthologies have developed over the past fifty years.  The book is a template, a touchstone volume, in terms of its structures and preoccupations, of how we think about what an anthology should be doing to earn its keep.  But it’s not the content – the roll-call of poets – that has driven the debate on the necessity and efficacy of the anthology over the last half-century, but Alvarez’s introduction to the work itself.  His essay, ‘The New Poetry, or Beyond the Gentility Principle’, has focused people’s minds on what anthologies are for: what is each anthology’s brief and purpose?  Anthologists return again and again to its arguments, assimilating and reacting against its abiding concerns, and from it create new narratives of contemporary literature.

The interesting thing for me is what Alvarez’s introduction is setting out to do and not to do.  What really galvanises Alvarez’s attention is the state of post-war British poetry.  He talks about current preoccupations in terms of negative feedbacks, that the poetry of the 1950s and early 1960s is reacting against historic literary forces to create signatory poems that represent the age.  Briefly, these negative feedbacks are: 1: a reaction against modernist and experimental verse forms; 2: a reaction against Dylan Thomas and his acolytes (what Alvarez calls ‘a blockage against intelligence’); 3: (and I quote directly) ‘an attempt to show that the poet is not a strange creature inspired; on the contrary, he is just like the man next door, in fact, he probably is the man next door.’  All of this has led to what Alvarez terms ‘gentility’ – a kind of mundane, provincially intelligent everyman epitomised by the narrators in Philip Larkin’s poetry.  Alvarez’s contention is that this kind of poetic persona cannot last in the modern world.  The modern urban dweller is realising he is part of a wider world of global danger and evil forces beyond his control.  ‘What poetry needs’, Alvarez suggests, ‘is a new seriousness’ to reflect this precarious age.

But what Alvarez isn’t interested in is explaining his choice of poets.  There’s no sense to why some poets are in and some poets are out.  Oddly, he does include poets he is critical of in his introduction; Movement poets like Larkin and John Wain and Kingsley Amis.  But he doesn’t feel like explaining why there aren’t any British women poets in his selection.  There’s no Elizabeth Jennings, for instance, who did appear in one of the first main post-war anthologies, Robert Conquest’s New Lines in 1956.  Jennings was not some marginal figure – her Collected Poems, published by Carcanet Press in the 1980s, far outsold most of the works of poets represented in The New Poetry (this was helped no doubt by her work being put on the ‘A’ Level syllabus).  There’s no Rosemary Tonks either, whose work could have been included in the second edition (Notes on Cafes and Bedrooms comes out in 1963) – but Tonks does appear in the first edition of British Poetry Since 1945 edited by Edward Lucie-Smith (published in 1970).  The choices made by Alvarez are therefore – we presume – self-evident (they do not require justification).  Alvarez seems more interested in articulating the threat of the bomb in his introduction rather than defining his own curatorial role.

The enduring appeal of The New Poetry, the content that critics and anthologists keep returning to is not the poetry – the meat and drink of the book – but Alvarez’s introduction.  Everything that follows on from The New Poetry and reflects on it or uses it as a starting point concentrates on his essay. It’s odd to think an analysis of the volume should be mediated through the prose content rather than the poems themselves.  Probably the book that is indebted most to the Alvarez anthology is The Penguin Book of British Contemporary Poetry (1982), edited by Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion. This anthology explicitly converses with Alvarez, his argument, and his system of negative feedbacks.  You can see this interaction throughout the script.  Here are two prime examples:

[Writers] have exchanged the received idea of the poet as the-person-next-door, or knowing insider, for the attitude of the anthologist or alien invader or remembering exile (p. 12).

There is another reason why recent British poetry has taken forms quite other than those promoted by Alvarez: the emergence and example of Seamus Heaney.  The most important new poet of the last fifteen years, and the one we very deliberately put first in the anthology.  Heaney is someone Alvarez could not foresee at the time and someone he has attacked since (p. 13).

The Motion and Morrison book is deeply problematic because of this.  It’s a pity that they focus so openly on the Alvarez volume as a kind of starting point for all their pontificating.  They want to argue with Alvarez, and, by doing so, take their ‘eye off the ball’: they spend too much time on their predecessor’s assertions rather than on the poetry that is spread out in front of them.  Their own arguments for ‘newness’ are weakened by circumstance and historical context.  This idea, for instance, that poets are now ‘alien invaders’ is returned to later in their essay when they come to consider, at some length, ‘Martianism’.  The problem with this kind of snapshot judgement, that Craig Raine’s ‘A Martian Sends a Postcard Home’ contains within it the DNA of future British poetry generations, is suspect when we come to think of ‘Martianism’ not so much as a pivotal movement of the last thirty years, but an experiment dabbled in by a couple of young poets that had some limited impact at the time but was soon superseded by other interests and concerns.

My other quotation – the flagging up of Seamus Heaney as the key British poet to emerge over the past twenty years – has its own chastening narrative.  In a way, this is what The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry is remembered for more than anything else.  It had the effect of outing Seamus Heaney not as a British but as an Irish poet.  The poem that dominates or overshadows this anthology is one that is not included within its pages; Heaney’s ‘An Open Letter’ (published in 1983), offered as a rebuke to Motion’s and Morrison’s assertions:

Don’t be surprised if I demur, for, be advised
My passport’s green.
No glass of ours was ever raised
To toast The Queen.

Motion and Morrison make their vociferous claims only for the stitching of their assertions to come apart in their hands.  You could say they were unlucky in their dealings with Heaney (he could have asked to have his work removed from the anthology) but there is an overriding sense of a lack of forethought or keen sense of prognostication in their calls.  When they say in the concluding paragraph of the introduction: ‘the poets here do represent a departure, one which may be said to exhibit something of the spirit of postmodernism’ (p. 20), you have to wonder what ‘the spirit of postmodernism’ actually means.  They seem to be hedging their bets: it feels half-arsed and peculiarly shaped by the academic preoccupations of the time.  It tries to define a generation’s practice, but lacks intellectual rigor: it has to affect the way we look at the choice of poets as a whole.  If the anthologists’ notions of important trends like ‘Martianism’ and ideas of ‘Britishness’ are contestable, then surely we will question the wider narrative they wish to impose on the contemporary poetry scene.

I do wonder why Motion and Morrison didn’t include Peter Reading in their survey.  He had been writing for over ten years at the point of the anthology’s publication.  He emerges as one of the most interesting, imaginative, cussedly inventive poets of the 1980s in collections like Diplopic, Ukulele Music and C.  Perhaps our curators found his work difficult to anthologise (which is deserving of an essay in itself – poets whose work cannot be easily assimilated into anthologies).  Perhaps they didn’t rate him.  Perhaps his work doesn’t fit into the wider narratives they try to establish in their introduction.  We don’t know.

The New Poetry (2)Interestingly, The New Poetry, edited by Michael Hulse, David Kennedy and David Morley (Bloodaxe, 1993), does include a selection of Peter Reading’s poems.  The first represented poet they highlight in their lengthy ‘Introduction’ is Peter Reading.  Peter Reading, for them, is ‘Now and in England’.  Perhaps one of the reasons why they have put Reading at the forefront of their evaluation is because he is absent from the Penguin anthology.  Rather than pondering ‘the spirit of postmodernism’, they consider postmodern practice in contemporary poetry at some length, Reading being for them ‘a true postmodern’ (p. 22).  Obviously, their title – without the editors ever stating it – is both a salute to Alvarez’s anthology and also a way of taking over the territory that Alvarez wants to control.  The Bloodaxe anthology sets out to dismantle the view of British literature that is recorded in and perpetuated by the Alvarez book: that of a white, male, middle class group of writers.  How can poets ‘escape the negative inheritance of British poetry’, they ask: ‘its ironies, its understatements, its dissipated energies’ (p. 22)?  For the new The New Poetry the answer lies in polyphony: ‘plurality has flourished’ (p. 15).  The editors state in their concluding remarks: ‘It would be absurdly presumptuous of us to claim The New Poetry is in any way definitive, but it is, we hope, “defining”.  Where others perceive pluralism as hectic and serving special interests, we would argue that this signifies health as opposed to further decline and that such highlighting is long overdue in a culture which persistently ignores or marginalises the voices and achievements of a significant number of people’ (p. 27).  The essay returns again and again to this attack on political, geographical, educational and social centralisation.  Here are a few examples: ‘Jackie Kay’s personal circumstances as a black Briton adopted and raised by a white Scottish family may be taken as an extreme example of what Terry Eagleton, surveying the 1980s for Poetry Review, termed ‘the marginal becoming central’ (p. 18); ‘A need to find alternatives to the real or imagined English centre vigorously informs the current resilience of Scottish writing’ (p. 19); ‘A willingness to challenge the centre, to write poetry recognisably as social discourse, is a hallmark of many northern English poets’ (p.20).  They are very thorough in their approach, we are left in no doubt where the editors are coming from; because of this it is an introduction that is well worth reading.  It comprises a selection of poems that are well worth reading too, lest we forget what anthologies are really there for.

Voice RecognitionI suppose I have used these quotations as a set-up to briefly discuss one of the most recent anthologies to reflect on Alvarez’s example: Voice Recognition: 21 Poets for the 21st Century, edited by James Byrne and Clare Pollard (Bloodaxe, 2009).  It’s interesting to see how the editors evaluate the power structures around the centre and the margins in their introduction: ‘A particular hub of this [new poetic] activity appears to be London, where many of the poets in this anthology are based – after years of other regions being prominent, there seems to be a real shift back to the capital, which is becoming a magnet for poets all over the country’.  The editors, by demarcating the new boundaries of what they think is good and worthwhile, are saying all that new poetry is now the old poetry.  They must have the Hulse, Kennedy and Morley book in mind when they state the ‘devolution to the regions’ model has been superseded by this Metropolitan focus of up-and-coming poets.

In their introduction Byrne and Pollard also write: ‘Among previous anthologies that had sought to define newness, we were influenced by The New Poetry, edited by Alvarez and first published by Penguin in 1962.  It was a landmark anthology that scrutinised the island-bound fustiness of the Movement and championed key American poets, especially when Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath were added to the updated 1966 edition.  In Alvarez’s excellent introduction… he extends Pound’s dictum by declaring that “the great moderns experimented not just to make it new formally, but to open poetry up to new areas of experience”’ (p.13).  There are several layers here, but of most concern to me is this notion that The New Poetry ‘scrutinised the island-bound fustiness of the Movement’.  I would say yes, Alvarez’s introduction does do that, but the anthology itself is replete with Movement poets.  Although he criticises Movement principles in the Introduction, he goes on to include their work alongside a wider range of voices.  His anthology is at once critiquing/criticising and promoting the Movement canon.  He hopes for a revolutionary future but actually offers us, in the end, a conventional mainstream anthology.  What interests me here is that it is Alvarez’s text rather than the compendium of poems that grips the anthologists’ attention (apart from Sexton’s and Plath’s inclusion, of course); they make their assumptions about the collection from the introduction, rather than the poems themselves.

Perhaps what survives of the ‘landmark’ anthologies is not the poetry but the introduction.  What gives your book longevity, if it is to survive at all beyond the original print run, is not a raft of poets giving their all but the editor’s or editors’ opinions on the state of play in British Poetry.  What is mainly remembered of The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892-1935 is W. B. Yeats explaining why he didn’t include Wilfred Owen in the anthology (‘passive suffering is not a theme for poetry’, he said).  When Staying Alive came out, many critics discussed at length Neil Astley’s introduction and contextualising commentaries rather than the selection of poems themselves.  Alvarez’s The New Poetry is remembered, discussed and revisited not because of Arthur Boyars and Ted Walker or (sadly) Thom Gunn but because of Alvarez’s own commentary.

This is a revised and extended version of a paper presented at the Midsummer Poetry Festival Symposium on Anthologies and Anthologising in Contemporary Poetry, Bank Street Arts, Sheffield, Friday 20 June 2014.  Thanks to Ágnes Lehóczky and Angelina Ayers for organising the symposium.  Chris Jones‘s sequence ‘Death and the Gallant’ appears in The Footing, an anthology of new walking-themed poems published by Longbarrow Press.  His pamphlet Jigs and Reels recently appeared from Shoestring Press.  Click here to visit his website.

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