Afterthoughts on Contemporary Poetry in English

Dennis O’Driscoll

Since the test of time is not available to contemporary literature, the test of distance is the most exacting one at our disposal. A Polish reader of poetry in English will miss some of its cultural and linguistic subtleties, but he will not be distracted from the text, as native critics so often are, by extra-literary considerations such as the affiliations and reputations of the poets uDder review. Jerzy Jarlllewicz's 'Under Eastern Eyes', a clear-eyed essay on British and Northern Irish poetry in a recent issue of The Cambridge Quarterly, is a reminder of the heightened perception to be gained when a familiar literary terrain is viewed from a distance. It is not exactly an awe-inspiring vista: there are valleys rather than peaks, backwaters more than sweeping rivers, islands cut ofT from the rest of Europe.
The 'characteristic features' of the work represented in the Polish-published anthology of British and Northern Ireland poetry which Jarniewicz was reviewing include, according to his own findings, 'empiricism and regionalism, technical accomplishment and modesty of intention, traditionalism, and imaginative moderation'. It is, therefore, a low-key, low-pressure and perhaps low-brow poetry. It is conscious, often inhibitingly, of tradition; it brings nostalgia to local and personal subjects; it will neither provoke thought nor stimulate action; it is concerned with technical skills to a degree which may iron out conflict and emotion. It is, in a word, bland.
There is a depressing accuracy about Jarniewicz's summary of the prevailing ethos: 'At the risk of too gross a simplification, one might say that a typical British poem of the last twenty years is either a work that takes for its subject nostalgic recollections of the poet's childhood (mostly rural), or a descriptive, impersonal genre-piece'. The poetry maps of Britain and Northern Ireland are not entirely littered with black spots, of course. One thinks not only of Ulster-born poets like Heaney and Mahon but also of Scottish poets like W. S. Graham, Norman MacCraig, Edwin Morgan and George Mackay Brown who have been among the most adventurous and original writers in English over the last thirty years.
If a sense of disappointment is registered by the reader of contemporary poetry, it is not, therefore, because there has been no worthwhile work from Ireland, Scotland or England (where Peter Reading's C and Michael Hofmann's Acrimony have recently set high standards). The problem is that so much of the poetry published in so inert and so unremittingly minor. There is a glut of what might be termed 'fairly good' poems - those complacent, competent, safe, hollow, unnecessary poems that fill vacuums in the weeklies and are gathered all too often into slim volumes. This ersatz poetry, encouraged by undiscriminating publishers and compliant reviewers, becomes the foundation for what passes in poetry as a career. The little rewards which poetry brings in the form of readings and fellowships will be enough to keep the 'fairly good' poet motivated. As his identity (or vanity) becomes entwined with his art, there is nothing for it but to strive to maintain a regular output of those same 'fairly good' poems.
British poetry, according to Jarniewicz, 'avoids statements, conclusions, and universal truths'. It is by no means likely that a poetry falling beyond such accepted and expected limits would be welcomed by most publishers and reviewers. The process by which poets become established in print, involving the necessity to tout as well as write one's work, is a brutal and corrupting one. Many young poets realise that the fastest route to publication is through conformity and the flattery of imitation. So, to paraphrase Jarniewicz, anger, despair, anxiety, enthusiasm and other forms of individual emotion are suppressed. The work takes on the drab uniformity and predictability of its surroundings. It seems reasonable to assume that many potentially fine poets have come to reject poetry because of the repeated rejection of their own attempts at innovation. In his postscript to The Truth of Poetry, Michael Hamburger writes that 'the odds against major poetry have become overwhelming ... because major work is not wanted, aspiration is treated as presumption, and the too closely knit body of academics and journalists who manipulate reputations will delight in disparaging it'.
American poetry which could not so long ago ofTer the simultaneous stimulation ofT.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens, seems to be faring poorly at present also. Here, as in Britain and Ireland, significant talents are at
work (James Schuyler, Robert Hass, Charles Simic and Adrienne Rich are among the names that spring to mind); but here, too, the overall standard is depressing. Its comparatively vast population notwithstanding, the impression one gets is that, as in Ireland, it is extremely difficult not to get published eventually by some little press or other. The most that a reader caught in a stream of university, commercial and small-press publications can do is to hold out a pan in the hope that a grain or two of gold will be trapped. One can hardly blame those who seek out alternative sources of enlightenment, especially ones involving a lower rate of disappointment and a higher return on the time invested. Seamus Heaney, who has had the opportunity to survey American poetry from a Harvard Chair, reached some dispiriting conclusions about it in The Observer:
Today it is peopled by a guild of makers ... among whom it is difficult for anybody to discern the uniquely gifted and the highly destined. In the resultant pluralism, grant-aided and indiscriminately tolerant, a blurb-induced sleep of the critical faculties has tended to produce not monsters but molehills.
In considering accusations of the kind which Heaney levels and they are echoed frequently by other witnesses. - the role played by creative-writing classes must be a suspect one. The pseudo-democratic premise that everyone can be a poet and that every 'poet' must rush, or be rushed, into print is responsible for much of the damage. However quaint the notion may seem, poetry remains an involuntary act in that it is a spontaneous impetus which sets the creative act in motion. It is not an involuntary act if by this we mean that the poem can be forced into being - conscripted poems tend to be the first to die. In a passionate essay in Poetry, lamenting the influence of the creative writing class, Greg Kuzma identified a less obvious 'casualty' of the creative writing class - the scholar:
The good and serious scholars, in order to keep teaching their specialties, will fill their classrooms with students who care ultimately nothing for Eliot or Yeats, who care only for their own work, their own writing, their new and exciting careers - and who cannot be expected to do any serious research or critical writing. Keeping classes filled will be achieved, but the honour of the tradition will wither away
The literary workshops scattered throughout the campuses of North America no doubt provide some discipline and encouragement for their genuinely-talented participants, while running a real risk of fostering uniformity of style. It would be more beneficial for such students, not to mention their earnest, naive, less-talented colleagues, if the emphasis were on the reading rather than the writing of verse. In that way, new audiences for modern poetry could be won - a more worthy and honest activity than the pretence that anyone with the inclination can, as it were, be groomed for office as a poet. The creative writing classes, for all the limp and narcissistic verse that they spawn, cannot however be expected to shoulder sole responsibility for the apparent decline of standards in American poetry. The pursuit of poetry as a home-based cottage or condominium industry is still presumably possible, though the growing sense of poetry as something one must now be 'qualified' to practice - like Medicine or Law - is bound to be bad for morale.
The decline of the Empire is sometimes invoked as an explanation for England's poetical ills. Again, this hardly amounts to an exhaustive diagnosis - the repudiation of Modernism, the early deaths in battle of immensely-talented poets like Wilfred Owen and Keith Douglas, the continuing tendency of poets to follow in the narrow-gauge tracks of the Movement have each played their part. In any event, it would seem more productive to allow a country's crisis of identity to enrich and inform its writings rather than to diminish its confidence. Derek Mahon, in a New Statesman commentary, said that he has 'lost patience' with the arguments about 'the loss of empire and failure to find a role' and went on to suggest that
The role is obvious - to start again - and only imaginative cowardice on a national scale has so far prevented its adoption. Hughes, Hill, Harrison: there are poets to tell us of that lost domain, the hidden England, from which the new England will one day grow; but they cry in a wilderness of academic preciosity and suburban deprecation.
Mahon, in the same article, states that the poetry published in the English periodicals is so dull that 'Even the poets' names are barely readable, most of them, so drearily familiar have they become' .
The prizes, awards and honours that are showered on established poets, like coins cast in a wishing well, cannot disguise the fact that serious readers of contemporary poetry in English are very few in number. Either the potential audience has no need of poetry or, more likely, the poetry commonly available does not satisfy whatever need they feel. One of the key reasons why the achievement of poets in England is so modest at present is that both poets and their readers have such modest expectations of the art. A poet prepared to 'take on himself the fullest historical and existential experience of modern man' (as is expected in Poland, according to Jarniewicz) would be greeted with embarrassment. Space in Pseuds' Corner would be set aside for the occasion. The author would win no prizes. The London Review of Books would find no space for such material between Clive James and Fiona Pitt-Kethley. The notion of a poet writing, as Zbigniew Herbert has said that he does, as if it were possible 'to save my nation or the occupants in my block of flats' would be inconceivable in English. It is remarkable, therefore, to find Seamus Heaney, who has exterted such an influence on contemporary poetry, admitting that 'subtly, with a kind of hangdog intimation of desertion, poets in English have felt compelled to turn their gaze East and have been encouraged to concede that the locus of greatness is shifting away from their language'. (The Government of the Tongue)
Poets to whom Heaney is particulary drawn include Mandelstam, Milosz, Holub and Herbert. Of those, Holub and Herbert are the most capable of a successful transition into English. Other East European writers - Seifert, for example make far less impact in English than they do in their original languages. It is salutary to remember also that, even leaving aside the work of the time-servers and self-censors, by no means all of the poetry written east of Bonn is of a high standard. Anyone who assumes that repression inevitably leads to excellence in art needs only to observe the uneven standard of verse to be found in Index on Censorship, an imcomparable outlet for ill-treated writers from around the world. Neal Ascherson, writing in the magazine, commented that 'At its most extreme, the argument that a writer needs official hostility, the persecution of the censor, to develop is as absurd as the old recommendation of garrets for poets'. However, he conceded that the experience of life under dictatorships has produced a special kind of literature:
These writers know more about extremes of good and evil than the mild, alienated Westerner, and they also know infinitely more about the nature of compromise and irony, of the importance and difficulty of simply behaving decently and attempting to preserve an ethic of truth.
Readers of the finest East European poets will immediately recognise the kind of writing to which Ascherson alludes. It has the capacity to operate on several levels, to make parables out of anecdotes, to isolate the simplicity at the heart of complexities, to bypass the trivial and the meretricious, to charge the commonplace with moral significance, to interrogate 'reality' with irony. Above all, it is admired for having survived ethically and meaningfully - the tests of war, holocaust, invasion, repression, exile, censorship and all those experiences which are utterly foreign to the cushion-soled domesticity of Western poets (who are put to no test, not even the test of honest criticism in some cases). The post-Brechtian poetry of East Germany, the stark style of Tadeusz R6zewicz, the howling out of which Zbigniew Herbert created a 'new kind of art' represent a revolution in poetry which is a long way from British cleverness, Irish freshness and American casualness.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of East El,Jropean poetry is the capacity for optimism displayed by some of its practitioners. One thinks of Miroslav Holub's 'Ode to Joy' ('defeated/we shall always win') or Czeslaw Milosz's view that 'The fate of poetry depends on whether such a work as Schiller's and Beethoven~s "Ode to Joy" is possible'. These poets are not dabbling in the quasi-optimism of the Politburo or the TV advertisement. They offer, instead, the hard-won optimism of the survivor who is aware of the danger of further catastrophe but immune from fear as a result of his earlier contact with disaster. This is the 'nightingale fever' identified by Mandelstam - the inability to stop singing no matter how grim the circumstances - and, like Tsvetayeva and Akhmatova, he was himself infected to a lifethreatening degree. For a more contemporary example, one can look to Irina Ratushinskaya and Joseph Brodsky who kept faith with their art even while in prison. Brodsky, having been finally released from prison, 'kept telling people that it wasn't that frightening: it was extremely unpleasant, but they shouldn't let it scare them into keeping their mouths shut'. And, at this point,
one ought to add that courage is not the .exclusiv: province of East European writers but has also been ~1splayed m abundance by their African Asian and South Amencan colleagues ..
The timidity ~f so much recent British, Irish and .Amencan
  the unchecked flow of overpra1sed and

 poe ry  .  k' d' ill 1
underdeveloped publications in those countne~ ma es 1t 1 1~U t
to predict change with much confidence. Yet 1t may b: P?ss1ble to hope that the poetry of 'imaginative moderatlon may gradually lose its hold. In the twenty years sin~e Herber~, Hol~b and various Russian poets have become w1dely' ava1lable m paperback, they have inspired a number of un~ashlOnabl: poets. Seamus Heaney's lengthy espousal of their w?rk m !he Government of the Tongue and their influence on h1s ~ollectlo~, The Haw Lantern, is likey to precipitate a new lev~l ,of mtere~t m the poetry of Eastern Europe. Christopher Re~d ~ col~e~tlon, Katerina Brae (an attempt to escape from a'Martlan straitjacket in the guise of an East European woman poet) prompts Heaney
to remark that
... contemporary English poetry has ~ecome a~are ?f
the insular and eccentric nature of English exper.1en~e m all the literal and extended meanings of those adJectlves. England's island status, its ofT-centre E~rop:an positioning, its history of non-defeat and non-m.vaslOn since 1066, these enviable and (as far as the English are concerned) normative conditions have ensured a protracted life within the English. psyche for the assumption that a possible and. des~rable co~gruence exists between domestic and 1magmed reality. But Christopher Reid's book represents a moment of doubt; and it represents also the delayed promise, though. not the complete fulf1lment, of a native British mode~ll1sm.
The authority and challenge of East Europea~ poetry 1S now felt at the heart of the British poetry establishme~t. Bl~ke Morrison, literary editor of The Observer and CO-~~1tor w1th Andrew Motion of Penguin's Contemporary BritIsh Poetry anthology, offered an illuminating inst.ance of a young and priviliged but probing British poet anxlOUS to learn from ~he experiences of a yot,lng and beleagured. but. buoyant Russ1an poet. Reviewing Irina Ratushinskaya m h1s newspaper, he
For most of us born in the West since 1940, courage is not a quality that we've had to put to the test. We may fancy that we have it, or suspect we've not, but a peacetime generation can never really know how it would have shaped up in war, nor a liberated one know how it would have coped in confinement. That's part of the (illicit) attraction of reading Solzhenitsyn or Primo Levi, or now Irina Ratushinskaya, and watching through them the behaviour of people under duress: as a surrogate form of character assessment.
Andrew Motion, writing in The Independent, admitted that 'It's hard not to agree with the uncomfortable truth' of Heaney's remark about the 'insular and eccentric nature of English experience'. But he added that it would be 'a pity if urging the case left no room to urge, too, that contemporary English poets might deal more fully and more frequently with less extreme but still pressing miseries: unemployment, racism, inner cities and so on'. This is quite a radical stance for a hitherto cautious poet to take up and one looks forward to seeing him apply it to his own work.
A poet writing in English need never envy the poets of other countries their subject-matter. 'There's always enough to write about; indeed, there's too much', as Gavin Ewart said in a review of Andrew Motion's last book, adding that poets should look to life - even to newspapers - for their subject-matter rathl'r than constructing 'mysterious fantasies at one remove from reality'. Apart from the subjects listed by Motion himself, and the perennial topics of life and death, there are other peculiarly modern issues (the destruction of the environment, the scourge of tourism and so on) which cry out for imaginative treatment. British poetry will gain nothing by adding an inferiority complex to its existing maladies. One must instead hope that young British poets (and those of Ireland and America, too) will produce work which, though written in a personal style, will evince something of the searing imagination and synoptic vision of the best East Europeans.
The impediments that must be removed, the habits that must be broken, the assumptions that must be revised are not lightly contemplated. Yet the Eastern ripples swirling round the feet of
Reid, Motion and Morrison and the waves made by Heaney may signal the turning of a tide and not just the last shudder of a dead sea: I yearn for hammerblows on clinkered planks, the uncompromised report of driven thole-pins,
to know there is one among us who never swerved from all his instincts told him was right action, who stood his ground in the indicative,
whose boat will lift when the cloudburst happens
('From the Canton of Expectation', Heaney)
(This is an amended version of an essay which appeared in The Cambridge Quarterly).

Page 40, Poetry Ireland Review Issue 26