The best books of poetry being published in the United States these days are not by Americans; they’re by Brits. For American readers of poetry—typically poets themselves, alas—this will come as a bitter pill, though I suspect few will quiet their amour-propre long enough to swallow it. The pat arguments against British poetry—too well-mannered, too mired in tradition—have become so pervasive and entrenched that one almost forgets that sceptered isle ever produced a Herbert or a Milton. (Never mind how much these two meant to Americans like Bishop and Lowell, respectively.)
Contemporary American poets like to sound American, as well they should. No one wants to read about blokes in Wichita tucking into steak and kidney pies at the Ferret and Trouserleg. For many American poets, however, capturing the way that English is spoken here and now is not the primary goal, or even a goal at all. A poem can only be truly American, they would argue, if pushed to some stylistic extreme, to a radical innovation of some kind; poetry must be willing to break though boundaries of precedence and even sense.
British poets have long engaged with twentieth-century American experimentalism—disjunction, obscurity, dadaist pratfalls, etc.—but the result has tended to be one more of assimilation than of a radical break with the past. In England, so-called mainstream poetry has retained a blessed clarity of expression and is no less engaging or revelatory for its keeping clear of avant-garde clichés.
In a recent essay for the online journal Contemporary Poetry Review, Hannah Brooks-Motl elaborates on the transatlantic divide:
Many British poets write what Americans might dismiss as “accessible” poetry; for too many American poets, I think that “accessible” has come to mean “easy,” or even worse, “boring.” It is perhaps a peculiarly American phenomenon that being able to comprehend the basic—though not the entire—sense of a poem on the first reading means that it is not worth reading again.
Haven’t Americans spent the last few decades prizing originality of style above all else?, Brooks-Motl is right to wonder. American poetry’s obsession with innovation now seems as self-conscious and awkward an anachronism as the kid at the college party in velvet frock coat and buckle shoes. Brooks-Motl suggests that “both British and American poets would benefit from a closer engagement with each other’s tradition.” True enough. The difficulty is that British poets have long profited from such an exchange, while American poets tend increasingly to resist it.
In his clear-eyed introduction to the anthology New British Poets (2004), co-edited with Charles Simic, the Scottish poet Don Paterson puts it this way:
For the most part, the new and the old came fairly quickly to happy accommodation [in Britain]. As a result, there has never been the need for such brutal correctives as the “New Formalist” movement in the UK… . New Formalism tends to be regarded by the majority of informed UK readers as every bit as bizarre a poetic strategy as those proposed by the Postmoderns and the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets… . In contrast, then, the course of “mainstream” poetry over the last century in the UK can be read as a relatively seamless evolution.
Paterson is a leading light in a group of poets—mostly born between the late 1940s and early 1960s—identified by the Poetry Society as the “New Generation.” (An anthology from Bloodaxe Books titled The New Poetry, from 1993, also helped to establish the designation.) Other poets regularly associated with the group are Carol Ann Duffy (the current Poet Laureate), Mick Imlah (formerly of the TLS, recently deceased), Sean O’Brien (a glaring omission from the original list), John Burnside, and Lavinia Greenlaw. A number of these poets have gained a readership in the United States, but foremost among them are Paterson, Simon Armitage, Glyn Maxwell, and the American-born Michael Donaghy (who died in 2004 at age fifty). Their signature styles notwithstanding, the four are more alike than different: all are energetically (if somewhat anxiously) engaged with the tradition, possessed of first-rate ears for contemporary speech, and congenitally allergic to the dullness besetting most mainstream lyric poetry.
What Sean O’Brien has written about Donaghy’s relationship to tradition could easily be said of Paterson’s as well: “As with any other poet, identity, time, and memory are fundamental terms of Donaghy’s imagination. While they are ‘traditional,’ they figure in Donaghy’s work not as tropes securely anchoring him to an unthreatening past but as provocative crises in which the imagination engages anew with its inheritance.” Occasionally, Paterson’s quarrel with the past sits right up on the surface, as in “Two Trees,” from Rain, published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The poem describes an orange tree and a lemon tree that are grafted together and over time intertwine and produce fruit—an age-old vehicle for describing lovers. Then, a new owner of the property, inexplicably, on a whim, splits the bole and replants the trees in separate plots. How do the trees respond? Not as you might expect:
And no, they did not die from solitude;
nor did their branches bear a sterile fruit;
nor did their unhealed flanks weep every spring
for those four yards that lost them everything,
as each strained on its shackled root to face
the other’s empty, intricate embrace.
They were trees, and trees don’t weep or ache or shout.
And trees are all this poem is about.
The poem operates though a kind of litotes—stating the true subject of the poem by stating its negation. (Maxwell similarly undercuts and underscores the political content of “The Old Lad” by introducing Dick Cheney in a cameo then whisking him offstage so as not to “spoil the poem.”)
More impressive, though, than these poets’ ability to play cat and mouse with tradition is the way they unapologetically go in for the kill. “Correctives” does not mince or blush; it has a point to make about a human experience, and it makes it with genuine feeling:
The shudder in my son’s left hand
he cures with one touch from his right,
two fingertips laid feather-light
to still his pen. He understands
the whole man must be his own brother
for no man is himself alone;
though some of us have never known
the other hand’s kindness to the other.
Those who dismiss British poetry as too soft-spoken may have a hearing problem; in this short poem Paterson reveals an arresting truth about our divided and dividing selves.
Armitage, of the four, is the biggest rock star: he has even written about starting a band! He shares the others’ intelligence and wit, frank populism and keen ear. He also has the sharpest satiric edge. At his best, Armitage can winningly ventriloquize a Northern dialect or infuse a scene with mystery and passion, as in “The Spelling”:
I left a spelling at my father’s house
written in small coins on his front step.
It said which star I was heading for next,
which channel to watch, which button to press.
I should have waited, given that spelling
a voice, but I was handsome and late.
Occasionally, however, he commits the kind of poem that seems meant (as Helen Vendler has pointed out) for the National Curriculum. “Learning by Rote,” for example, is perfectly memorable, but in the wrong way. Printed in reverse type, like mirror writing, the poem describes a teacher’s cruelty in making a backward-writing student write his name backwards (as a fitting punishment) until his father begs “enough.” The poem leaves a strong impression of brutality, but it’s not the language we take away so much as the gimmick.
Armitage’s latest volume includes selections from an impressive range of recent projects, including a dramatic version of The Odyssey and a translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Also, no one has written “songs” so well since Auden (though James Fenton’s “Jerusalem” should not be discounted). Armitage shares his polymathic ability to write well in any genre with the others. The list is dizzying. A hefty posthumous collection of Donaghy’s critical writing appeared last year. Paterson has penned plays and books of aphorisms, as well as versions of Rilke and Antonio Machado. Like Armitage, Maxwell writes plays, novels, and libretti. Armitage adds to these, memoir, and television and film scripts. Maxwell and Armitage together wrote Moon Country (1996), which retraced the visit made to Iceland by Auden and MacNeice and was subsequently adapted for BBC Radio 3. No doubt I’ve missed numerous highlights in this vast outpouring. (And all this in addition to their lyric poems!)
Glyn Maxwell is the dramatist, and his gift for musical speech is prodigious. He has a knack for fashioning talk into elegant nonce stanzas of energy and pathos, often seasoned like Armitage with a dash of surrealism. Here is the opening of “The Tinsel Man”:
What with the year we’d had it was in the air
to ditch the holiday but the thing is old,
it’s always held,
so it isn’t up to us and to be fair
the children like it.
So we prised the coffin-box and the cold breeze
was all our yesteryears, while on the road
by the wayside
the man himself was spotted, his big face
The Tinsel Man presides like a gaudy specter over the holiday, until, like the wrapping paper and hard-won cheer, he is cast aside another year. Hide Now (2008), Maxwell’s most recent book in the United States, follows The Sugar Mile (2005), which interleaved the voices of doomed English school children from the Second World War with Manhattan barroom voices a few days before September 11, 2001.Hide Now is similarly teeming with voices—Cassandra, Scheherazade’s captor-king, Ariadne, and, briefly, Kaspar Hauser.
All four of these poets write lucidly and affectingly about family, a subject that doesn’t get as much play with trendier poets here, for fear of seeming sentimental or less edgy. But, of course, it’s all in the treatment, and these poets can approach the fire without getting singed. Maxwell’s poems about his daughter, Paterson’s about his sons, Donaghy’s and Armitage’s about their fathers—these poems are rooted, elemental, full of blood and unabashed feeling. Here, for example, is Maxwell’s “Thinking: Earth”:
Earth. I have a daughter.
Heaven’s what I say it is for her.
Telling her is all it is so far
for me. My only use
for the word forever
is in those conversations.
Maxwell captures what Ted Hughes once identified as “a ritual intensity of music with clear direct feeling, [that] in the end is nothing but casual speech.”
If there is a primus inter pares here, it is Michael Donaghy, whose Collected Poems appeared in England last year and has yet to be published here. An accomplished folk musician (on flute and bodhran), a consummate performer of his own poems, and a gifted literary craftsman, Donaghy possessed a sensibility that issued as fully from the public house as from the Renaissance playhouse. His poems were colloquial and tautly Metaphysical at once. Take “Machines,” which spins out a conceit mingling a pavane by Purcell with a twelve-speed bicycle:
… The cyclist, not the cycle, steers.
And in playing, Purcell’s chords are played away.
So this talk, or touch if I were there,
Should work its effortless gadgetry of love,
Like Dante’s heaven, and melt into the air.
If it doesn’t, of course, I’ve fallen. So much is chance,
So much agility, desire, and feverish care,
As bicyclists and harpsichordists prove
Who only by moving can balance,
Only by balancing move.
Donaghy embeds in this love poem an ars poetica, balancing energy with control, high diction with low. His deftly managed form melts into air, leaving a pure voicing of thought and emotion.
The long dramatic monologue “Black Ice and Rain” describes a troika of friends who experience first a death then a drifting apart:
Of those next hours I remember most
the silences between her sobs, the rain
against the skylight slowly weakening
to silence, silence brimming into sleep and dawn.
Then, having lain at last all night beside her,
having searched at last that black-walled room,
the last unopened chamber of my heart,
and found there neither pity nor desire
but an assortment of religious kitsch,
I inched my arm from under her and left.
The tension between these lines as highly wrought verse and colloquial speech is particularly striking, neither sacrifices the least bit to the other. It is both contemporary and timeless. As O’Brien writes, “Donaghy disapproved of the notion of artistic ‘progress’, with its banal suggestion that ‘now’ is somehow better than ‘then’; he would have disputed the notion that now is even different than then.”
These poets constitute a close-knit group. Both Armitage and Paterson have memorial poems to Donaghy in their latest books, and all four appear in New British Poetry. They are, as Paterson writes, “concerned with originality, not novelty; by which I suppose I mean, ultimately, the startling reincarnation of the old truths in the culture of the age.” This is a refreshing take on the function of art in our, or any, age.
- Rain, by Don Paterson; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 61 pages, $24. Go back to the text.
- Tyrannosaurus Rex Versus the Corduroy Kid, by Simon Armitage; 64 pages, Knopf, $25. Go back to the text.
- Hide Now, by Glyn Maxwell; Houghton Mifflin, 72 pages, $22. Go back to the text.
- Collected Poems, by Michael Donaghy, with an introduction by Sean O’Brien; Picador, 253 pages, £12.99. Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 28 Number 8, on page 28
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