The subject of this volume, twentieth-century poetry in English, is vast, heterogeneous and paradoxical. To say that it attempts to represent the poetry of a hundred years and more than twenty countries is to suggest only one dimension of the difficulty of the project. The phrase 'in English' is no mere neutral description, but signifies a complex, violent and still bitterly felt political and cultural history: some contributors question the division between poetry in English and other languages, and rightly transgress it; for others the historical role of the English language in shaping the culture and consciousness of poets is itself the main theme. This subject exists because of the successive historical phenomena of British imperialism and American cultural, economic and political dominance. The volume begins with the transatlantic connection in modernism and ends with contemporary postcolonial poetry. The trajectory of the century — of the English language and its poetry — is from a predominantly bipolar axis to an increasingly decentred heterogeneity. The country in which the English language originated had already ceded the leading role to America in the modernist era, and by the end of the century its current poetic production has little influence on the rest of the Anglophone world. If poetry from England still manages to hold up its head in this volume it is partly because of the still powerful influence of the country's cultural past, and partly no doubt due to the nationality of the editor.
'English' exerts an undeniable if not always welcome influence on all the poets discussed in this book. However, it must also be stressed that poetry, unlike the novel, is genuinely universal; it is not an Anglophone, nor a European cultural invention. It can draw on a potentially inexhaustible multiplicity of roots, and however marginal or irrelevant it may seem to have become in some parts of the English-speaking world, no one has ever spoken of the 'death of poetry' as some spoke (perhaps prematurely) not long ago about the death of the novel. Even Theodor Adorno did not quite go that far.
The terms 'modernism' and 'postcolonial' remind us that this is a century in which poetry has not only been written and discussed, but the writing and discussion have been exceptionally closely related. To a large extent the writers of poetry have defined the terms in which the criticism of poetry has been conducted. It is a century in which poetry has been overwhelmingly self-conscious and self-reflexive. Taking their lead from writers and visual artists on the European continent, above all France, the men and women in the English-speaking world who wrote the poetry that later came to be labelled 'modernist' gathered together in explicit movements, wrote manifestos and largely created the cultural environment in which their work was received. Writers such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound had an influence hugely disproportionate to their number, or to the sales of their books. As the century progressed this tendency persisted, though the groups became more disparate. Hence the importance of poetic movements in the organization of this book. Some groups of poets, such as the Black Mountain and Language poets, formed conscious alliances and articulated shared principles. Other movements, such as Confessionalism and the so-called 'Movement' itself, were named by others, but the poets profited from the labels, which gave their utterances a more than individual authority, even if they often distanced themselves from the labels.
Throughout the twentieth century poetry has had an immensely important and uncomfortable relationship with the academy. William Carlos Williams condemned Eliot for handing poetry to the academics, and there are many poets who have at different times abused university departments of English and accepted salaried posts from them. Especially in America, to be a professional poet almost necessarily means teaching writing in a university, and in the latter part of the century, especially in postcolonial studies and the influence of poststructuralism on writers such as the Language poets, the discourse of writers and the discourse of academics have merged.
However, if one image, and perhaps the most numerically accurate, of the poet is the unheroic one of a man or woman in a classroom, there are other images no less real, if less numerous, of poets dying on battlefields in Flanders, Spain or Biafra, poets enduring hardship and poverty for their art, poets in prison for their political convictions, poets in Ginsberg's phrase 'destroyed by madness'. And they may of course be the same people: Wole Soyinka is not the only one to have seen the inside of both a classroom and a prison cell.
One has to admit, though, that the heroic image of a Wilfred Owen, a Ken Saro-Wiwa or a Soyinka fails to conceal the fact that poetry's relation to the main tendencies of twentieth-century history and culture has largely been one of disapproving marginality. Inheriting an already slightly tarnished Arnoldian conception of culture as a value to be set against the dominant civilization, the 'modernists' (at least the Anglophone poets who set the agenda of literary modernism) were — despite the label later attached to them — notoriously, like Pound's Mauberley, 'out of key with [their] time'. As the reading public grew in size, the proportion of it that was interested in poetry shrank dramatically. As the century wore on, many poets must have harboured an alter ego like Tony Harrison's skinhead who mocks, 'It's not poetry we want in this class war'.
Looking back from the beginning of the twenty-first century, then, I find myself forming contradictory impressions. Poetry in the English language is practised on every continent: there is more of it, and it is more various, than at any time before. At the same time, at least in those countries most responsible for the spread of the language, its cultural importance seems questionable. This apparent paradox is perhaps explained by a first-world perspective. The universality of poetry, on which I have already remarked, assures that it will continue to be written and received in some form. However, the elitist modern conception of poetry (a description that I don't intend abusively — it produced the greatest poetry of the century) which still influences the practice, social role and reception of the art, will surely not survive. The global erosion of the centre—periphery structure, most dramatically witnessed by the fact that the most celebrated living Anglophone poet, Derek Walcott, comes from a tiny Caribbean island, may be reflected within societies and nations. There is evidence of this in some of the chapters on contemporary poetry, and on national poetries.
The critical discussion of poetry, like that of all art, entails dizzying shifts of perspective. It cannot be understood without awareness of an immense historical context, yet it can be dependent for its power on a single word resonating in the mind of a reader. This necessitates a corresponding range of discourses, from William W. Cook's statistical account of the movement of African Americans in the first half of the century, to John Osborne's close reading of the syntax, rhythm and line-endings of a single poem by Robert Creeley. The tasks addressed by the contributors vary enormously, from the history of the poetry of a whole continent to the elucidation of an individual volume. It is this latter aspect of the book, the 'Readings' section, which is likely to provoke most debate, since any gesture towards canon formation (or reinforcement) is intensely controversial. The texts chosen are best considered as a selection of the most influential, widely discussed and characteristic poetry of the period; the concentration on specific volumes a recognition that even the most canonical poetry is born of a particular historical moment.
These essays were being written as all of us were making the adjustment to thinking of the twentieth century as a period of the past, as the possibilities for what twentieth-century poetry in English might be were finally exhausted and determinate. At the same time, this past is of course not sealed off from us, and our understanding of the century is inseparable from our feeling for the present and the contemporary. Hence the volume ends with consideration of the poetry still being written, that may form the starting point, if such things are still produced, of a Companion to Twenty-first Century Poetry. In those essays above all the authors are committed to the first-hand response and judgement that characterizes all worthwhile criticism. Several of the contributors are themselves publishing poets, and in one case at least, that of Sean O'Brien, it is certain that his own work would have featured if the chapter had been written by someone else.
In the twentieth century more people spoke English than in the whole of previous history, and more people wrote poetry than in the whole of previous history. I think this book registers something of the crowded life of the extraordinary century, even as it struggles to bring it under some kind of control.
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