from Poetry London, Autumn 2009
Much of my last year has been spent preparing an anthology, Identity Parade: New British and Irish Poets, which presents the work of a generation of poets who have first published since the early 1990s. Due to the appearance of fin de siècle anthologies, there has been a longer gap than usual between generational anthologies, with seventeen years separating my volume from Hulse, Kennedy and Morley's The New Poetry. Previously, there had usually been a gap of a decade or so, looking back to Penguin anthologies from Morrison and Motion in the early Eighties and Edward Lucie-Smith in 1970, then to Alvarez's 1962 The New Poetry and back further to various, generally factional anthologies—New Lines, New Signatures, The New Apocalypse. The 'shock of the new' then? The main purpose of these books, as I see it, is not to act as a canonical document of an era, but to spread the word, to educate, to recommend. I'd be surprised if there is a single person out there who is familiar with the work of all the poets I have selected. I want readers to discover them and buy their books. Many of them are indeed new, or are undersung, or work away from the areas of poetry that we are told about by the marketing teams and the media. Yet it is tempting, and intriguing, to look back at these tomes, each one of them sweated over, each of them applauded and attacked for omissions and decisions, each an entry point to a generation's poetry for tens of thousands of readers. Leafing through 1993's The New Poetry, here are poets of international renown, such as John Burnside and Glyn Maxwell, anthologized after a couple of books, alongside poets who have not remained in the poetry limelight.
Researching past generational anthologies, I discovered one I liked a lot, which chimed with my own approach—a breadth of styles, a larger number of poets (to me twenty-five poets is not a generation, more a posse!). Put together by the American poet Kenneth Rexroth, The New British Poets was published by New Directions in 1948. (There's that 'new' again.) The whole of this anthology is available to browse on the internet. Perhaps inspired by his love of Lawrence, or his disregard for the predominance of Auden and his circle, Rexroth visited the UK. He spent time travelling around, shaking hands, one imagines, taking tea and attending events. When I posted a link to the Rexroth anthology on a poetry forum, an interesting discussion ensued. I wanted to know how many of his chosen poets remained in the collective poetry memory, which poets had faded, which were neglected. Of the seventy poets, I myself had heard of forty (aided in part by the large Scottish contingent), but had read only around ten to the extent of knowing more than a handful of anthologized pieces. Furthermore, I reckoned less than a quarter were still known and rated in the poetry world and that 'the average intelligent but not specifically poetry-keen person' would only know seven or eight. Some thought this figure too high but, in addition to obvious names such as Laurie Lee, Lawrence Durrell, Dylan Thomas and Stephen Spender, I would make a case for Hugh MacDiarmid, George Barker and Norman MacCaig and perhaps WS Graham, Kathleen Raine, Denise Levertov and John-Heath Stubbs, names familiar to poets, but probably not to a general public who may know Alex Comfort from The Joy of Sex, but not for his involvement with New Romanticism.
Comfort's poetry was first published in 1942 in a volume called Three New Poets, which included Iain Serraillier and Roy McFadden. Serraillier's name is still familiar from his children's novel The Silver Sword, but I had no idea he had written poetry (a web search shows up a handful of his children's poems). As for McFadden, that was a new name to me. Looking him up, I found his poetic development conformed to a pattern I had seen repeated when researching the less remembered names in Rexroth's book—a prolific start then a falling away. A Belfast poet who died a decade ago, McFadden published three books with Routledge in the 1940s, when he was in his twenties. Thereafter, he concentrated on his law career and family, writing less poetry and involving himself less with journals and broadcasting. Unlike others, McFadden had a comeback, publishing a number of volumes in later life. McFadden's name has been largely kept alive by Sarah Ferris, an academic who has worked on his papers. His Collected Poems is available. But many poets' work ends up out of print, unobtainable. They need champions and, even then, those who fell outside of the status quo, those whose work would never have popular appeal, those whose output was scarce, risk neglect, being forgotten. Christopher Barker's 1980s Portraits of Poets book led to one poet having a minor revival. The essayist Ronald Caplan, fascinated by the photograph of an elderly, bible-bearded Paul Potts, who had been a minor and eccentric figure in the Fitzrovia literary scene, sought out his work and reprinted a selection (George Orwell's Friend, Breton Books 2006).
Another championed poet is Kenneth Allott, who died in 1973. The Irish poet and academic Michael Murphy, who sadly died young earlier this year, felt strongly that Allott needed to be remembered and edited a handsome Collected Poems which was issued by Salt in 2008. Allott started, much as McFadden, with two acclaimed books by the time he turned thirty. Thereafter, he concentrated mainly on editing, anthologizing and academic pursuits. His 1950 (revised 1962) Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse was a staple anthology which rounded up from recent decades. It's still worth reading for the commentaries by Allott, a witty if pessimistic man. Occasionally, Allott lets slip that his rights budget isn't what it might be and hence we often get two or three page essays followed by just one or two sample poems. He is generally sparing in his praise and even willing to rebuke his chosen poets: D J Enright is 'a self-confident, unsubtle, and rather sprawling poet' while, of Ted Hughes, he comments, 'as he becomes more self-critical he will feel less need to rape the attention of his readers. This is not too crude an image'.
Murphy was right to bring Allott's poetry to our attention. Despite the author photo of an avuncular poet, beloved cat in lap, these are a young man's poems—less than twenty were composed after he was thirty. Allott, according to Rexroth, had 'a lot of banked fire' in him and belonged largely in style to the previous generation. Certainly, his more formal poems such as 'City Nocturne' can be satisfyingly Audenesque. But with his unusual phrasings, listing and clause building, invocations and dramatic flourishes, he neither typifies his own decade nor its predecessor, which is partly why his poetry seems oddly fresh today. He can be winningly strange, as in the dark, narrative title poem of his second book The Ventriloquist's Doll or 'Feast of St Swithin' which sounds like it could have been penned last year by a 'post-division era' American poet like Brenda Shaughnessy or Matthea Harvey:
The rains unmother. How is it that today's
Too simple mechanism
Comes like a witch-doctor to smell out sin
With Lilliputian hoofs on the kettledrum,
Vertical, vertical to the night's horizon.
What made a prolific young poet slow to a near stop by the time he was thirty five? Perhaps he felt caught stylistically between generations and lost confidence in his style. Perhaps he felt his ideas had all been used. Perhaps he was just too busy with other things, things that paid bills.
The 1930s and 1940s were quickly portrayed as a heyday for British poetry. Modernism had opened seams and, just as in America, where poets like Moore, Stevens and Williams had added their own tang to the breeze on the new frontier, here in Britain, poets were forging ahead, mixing ideas from modernism and traditional modes. In the 1960s, Penguin issued a number of anthologies which looked back on this generation. I was curious to see how many of Rexroth's poets had made it through to Robin Skelton's hindsight anthology Poetry of the Forties. The answer, around thirty, less than half, though Rexroth's focus was on newer poets, while Skelton includes poets such as Auden and Lewis who were established before the 1940s. Of these thirty poets, only ten leaped the next hurdle of posterity, appearing in David Wright's The Mid-Century: British Poetry 1940-60, another mid-60s Penguin anthology. They are mostly 'big names': MacDiarmid, Thomas, Durrell, W S Graham. Three names stand out to me as being less remembered now than then: Sydney Keyes, F T Prince and Vernon Watkins. With Keyes, this is because he died so young and left little poetry. Watkins, the aesthete sidekick to Thomas, was highly enough regarded in the late Sixties to be considered a replacement for Masefield as Laureate yet, as his Wikipedia entry states, 'his ambitions were for his poetry; in critical terms they were not to be fulfilled. On the other hand, he became a major figure for the Anglo-Welsh poetry tradition'. And this is true for a number of Rexroth's poets—Robert Garioch and W R Rodgers may not be widely remembered, but they certainly are so in the literary worlds of their respective countries. As for Prince, his is the familiar pattern of brilliant start (a Faber debut in his mid twenties, a rare occurrence seven decades on!), followed by a slowdown forced by circumstances (career, family and, in Prince's case, the war), a scattering of books and a revival of interest in middle age, followed by some new poems in a late Collected issued when he was eighty (by Carcanet, whose vigour in keeping in print the work of many borderline 'neglected' poets should be gratefully acknowledged).
In his diary for the 20th of October 1936, Robert Graves reports attending a talk on 'The End of the World' by Laura Riding and afterwards falling into the company of Allott, who apparently did most of the talking. Graves added, 'We liked Audrey Beecham best'. Beecham, described as 'dashing' and 'eccentric' was one of the thirty poets I hadn't heard of in the Rexroth anthology. (She has one brief lyric and a briefer biographical note to represent her.) Looking up all these minor writers (some not so minor—Ruthven Todd was a prolific and popular writer in the mid-century) was fascinating. There were in fact only twenty-nine, since, probably unknown to Rexroth, the celtic-infected poems of Adam Drinan, once widely popular, were actually written by another of the poets included, Joseph Macleod. Many of the poets in this book were broadly Romantics, albeit modernist-influenced ones, some of them using the high-flown language of the New Apocalyptic movement. The dislocation and unease, the rich and lyrical strangeness of the poetry chimes with the present for me, or at least with much of my favourite contemporary poetry. Not all of it is quite as typically gamey as these lines from Louis Adeane:
My terrible kindness coiled within her will
Still saps her anger with a soothing tongue.
The startling cloud of love, unbearable,
Descends dispersed to silt the struggling wing.
Some poets drifted into other things: Alison Boodson became a doctor and the pseudonymous crime writer Edward Candy. Os Marron on the other hand, was a miner who died of TB before the book came out. And Rexroth's poets are now all gone, I believe.
Some died quite recently: the pacifist poet D S Savage two autumns back and Derek Stanford, now known most for his connections with Muriel Spark, last December. James Kirkup died aged ninety-one in May this year, only six months after the publication of his last collection Marsden Bay. Kirkup was a prolific writer who spent much of his life abroad. He is chiefly remembered for a scandal in the 1970s when he was prosecuted for blasphemy on the back of a controversial poem published in Gay News. Marsden Bay is a charming late book, mainly consisting of memoir, personal and occasional poems. Probably not among his best but worth reading. One poem is about reading his early poems for the first time in years and finding himself in tears, at time passed and at them being out of print. Will Kirkup become neglected, forgotten? Will a champion edit a fitting Collected Poems of this interesting figure, often an outsider? Will people buy the Allott book? Will it be enough to re-trigger interest in his work from seventy years ago? I'm in two minds about posterity. Having been involved with Andy Ching of Donut Press in organising events to keep alive interest in W S Graham, I feel passionately about 'the ones I like who are dead' (to quote Graham, whose work suggests he longed to have his poetry communicate for him, beyond death). For most living poets though, it can be frustrating to feel that acclaim might come at a later—too late—date, when we wish for it now, less out of ego than affirmation that we are making that necessary communication.
Kenneth Rexroth's The New British Poets is available online at http://www.archive.org/details/newbritishpoets030038mbp
Kenneth Allott's Collected Poems (ed. Michel Murphy) is published by Salt
James Kirkup's Marsden Bay is published by Red Squirrel Press
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