Quite properly in advance of the political developments which have seen a loosening of formal ties between the peoples who constitute the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the identity and work of a number of poets have invited questions about what the term 'British' might mean. For a Scot such as Douglas Dunn, the term may seem an anachronistic imposition. And what of poets of Irish extraction, including Carol Ann Duffy and Ian Duhig, living and working in England; or Irish-born poets permanently resident here, including Bernard O'Donoghue, Maurice Riordan and Matthew Sweeney? There are also those long-time UK residents born in the United States such as Michael Donaghy, Anne Rouse and Eva Salzman, all of whom contribute to 'British' poetry and can coherently be read within its frame of reference. It would seem that if the term 'British' is to go on being used, it needs to be seen as a convenience — which is how the term is applied in the following essay — rather than a sign of allegiance.
From the vantage point of 1999, when a Labour prime minister declared the class war to be at an end, it is striking that two of the outstanding poets of the last thirty years, the Yorkshireman Tony Harrison (b. 1937) and the Scot Douglas Dunn (b. 1942) have devoted much of their best imaginative energy to demonstrating otherwise (see Dunn's Barbarians, 1979, and St Kilda's Parliament, 1981, and Harrison's poems from 'The School of Eloquence' in Selected Poems, 1987). Not for the first time, poets have declined to say what politicians would like to hear.
Dunn and Harrison are the leading exponents of what has been called 'the scholarship boy's . . . Revenge' (Dunn, 'Acute Accent', in Tony Harrison, 1991), where working-class writers, those 'of the wrong world' (Dunn, 'The Come-On'), take control of the means of artistic production — specifically the elaborate formalities offered by the English verse tradition. In their hands, expertise is a means both of memorious revenge and of triumphant assertion; as Luke Spencer puts it, they fashion 'oppositional meanings out of fundamentally bourgeois establishment poetic forms'
(Spencer, 1994, p. 16). Thus Harrison declares: 'So right, yer buggers, then! We'll occupy / your lousy leasehold Poetry' ('Them and Uz').
In this part of his work Dunn's choice of verse forms is wide and his subjects tend to be historical rather than autobiographical. Harrison's poetry is dominated by the sonnet — specifically the sixteen-line 'Meredithian' variation associated with George Meredith (see Modern Love, 1862), and while there is an obvious and important historical dimension to his work, he also dwells repeatedly on his direct experience and that of his family. For Harrison the talents and interests which create his life's opportunities are also the means by which he is separated from his own people. When his friends whistle up at his window to join them for an evening out in the street, he says 'Ah bloody can't ah've gorra Latin prose!' ('Me Tarzan'). Elsewhere, he remarks: 'I'd like to be the poet my father reads' ('The Rhubarbarians'). Dunn, on the other hand, imagines a revolutionary moment in the eighteenth-century English countryside ('Gardeners') or the elaborate fiction of 'An Artist Waiting in a Country House', where the artist who has come to visit his patron is kept waiting until he finds himself as much a commodity as the rest of the house's contents:
He waits, although that door will never open, Unless he opens it, and walks away And leaves the pictures hanging in the room Focussed on the sofa where he waited.
In Dunn's 'The Student' a member of a Mechanics' Literary Club is studying Tacitus while remembering the failure of a radical uprising in the streets of Paisley. Now, he records, 'Difficult Latin sticks in my throat / And the scarecrow wears my coat'. Class, power and the ownership of language are at the heart of both poets' endeavours.
Dunn is also concerned with an extra dimension, namely nationality, which bulks as large in his work as Classical Greek literature does in Harrison's. Poems such as 'The Apple Tree', 'An Address on the Destitution of Scotland' and 'The Harp of Renfrewshire' are elegies for an idea and, implicitly, dreams of its embodiment in a hitherto unspoken tense. Furthermore, by the time Dunn returned from Hull to live in Scotland in the early 1980s, his work had also fully developed what might be called its internationalist dimension. The underrated Europa's Lover (1982) is a blend of elegy and love song to the anima of Europe. Following the early death of his first wife, Lesley Balfour, Dunn wrote the acclaimed Elegies (1985), and since then his work has been extremely varied while dwelling intently on Scottish themes.
Harrison has written numerous verse plays (see Theatre Works, 1986), almost single-handedly asserting the vitality of a form widely felt to be unworkable nowadays, in his adaptations of classical Greek texts, as well as Molière. He has also developed — indeed, it could be said that with the producer/director Peter Symes he has invented — the television poem—film. His most controversial work in this field is v (1985). Set in a vandalized Leeds graveyard during the 1984—5 miners' strike, it revisits Harrison's basic themes in a debate between the poet and his skinhead alter-ego. The poem combines 'bad language' with a skilful recasting of an English classic, Thomas Gray's 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard'. Here and in numerous other works Harrison has carried poetry from the page into the public arena of television. Most recently he has written and directed the ambitious feature film Prometheus (1999), revisiting the legend of the rebellious fire-stealing Titan ('the first martyr in the Socialist calendar') in the setting of post-industrial Britain and post-communist Eastern Europe. No one else has worked as boldly as Harrison to place poetry in the public eye without compromising his utter seriousness.
The picture of poetry written 'from below' needs to be complicated by the addition of at least two other names, Jeffrey Wainwright (b. 1944) and Ken Smith (b. 1938). Wainwright's fastidiously musical work includes the major sequences '1815', a series of bold cross-sections through war and industrialism ('the English miracle') and 'Thomas Muntzer', a group of dramatic monologues spoken by the sixteenth-century German Protestant revolutionary. Like Dunn and Harrison, Wainwright is also a gifted lyric poet — as is Ken Smith, though Smith's relationship to tradition is very different from those of the other poets in this grouping. A central theme for Smith is exile, both external and internal: it is no accident that he withholds his assent from much English poetry after Wordsworth, finding examples instead in the USA, in poets such as John Haynes and W. S. Merwin. Among his major works are 'Fox Running', an account of destitution and breakdown, Terra (1986), a key text of the Thatcher—Reagan period, and Wormwood (1987), derived from work at the prison of Wormwood Scrubs. The Heart, the Border (1990) and Wild Root (1998) reveal his increasing fascination with the borders and migrations of Eastern Europe. 'The Shadow of God' evokes the renewed resonance of the name of the Muslim conqueror Suleyman the Magnificent: 'In his dream the far world / Is a basket of heads at his saddlebow'.
Different again is the work of the prolific Peter Reading (b. 1945). Described by Tom Paulin as 'the laureate of junk Britain', Reading is an unflinching and at times reactionary pessimist who reads in the violence and ignorance of contemporary Britain the signs of a species in decline. In numerous book-length works he juxtaposes classical metres with found materials, news items, scientific information and the stray opinions of the uneducated. There is scarcely a poetic form or mode he has not employed, but his versatility bears an unmistakable signature, and our sense of the work's unity is enforced by Reading's concern with the production of his books as objects. An admirer of poets as different as Gavin Ewart and Roy Fuller, he cannot be simply placed: rather, he generates his own context.
The situation of contemporary poetry has been described as a 'collision between postmodernism and realism' (Gregson, 1996, p. 238), but this risks an oversimplification of the interpenetration of native realist modes and postmodernist energies emerging from elsewhere. Postmodernism is not so philosophically unanswerable as to be able to insist on functioning as the defining container of contemporary poetry; but neither is it so inimical to native habits as not to interbreed with them. The activity of poetry is a process, not a time-limited event, and part of that process is the way in which native preoccupations ask us to look again at what postmodernism actually consists of. It is, for example, possible to see a postmodernist dimension in the way Dunn and Harrison make subversive use of their studies in tradition, turning skill against its supposed proprietors — though for some this might sound too politically partisan an approach to qualify as 'true' postmodernism, which might be held to place greater emphasis on the playful exploitation of instabilities of meaning and identity than on their further application. As we shall see, it is in women's poetry that the most original attempts to square the circle of verbal ingenuity and political seriousness take place. But the clearest early evidence of postmodernism entering the poetic mainstream in Britain is to be sought among Oxford-linked 'Martian' poets such as Craig Raine (b. 1944) and Christopher Reid (b. 1949). The term 'Martian' was first used by the poet James Fenton to describe their work. Neither in fact is quite original: earlier examples are to be found, in particular in Elizabeth Bishop and Norman MacCaig, but the ingenuity of Raine and Reid is startling none the less. The technique involves what might be called a rhetorical suspension of knowledge: the visible world in particular is read for the possibility of fruitful misinterpretation, as by the alien visitor in Raine's 'A Martian sends a Postcard Home', where the metaphorical ambitions of poetry are insistently laid bare:
Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings and some are treasured for their markings —
they cause the eyes to melt or the body to shriek without pain.
Initially it is the domestic sphere which interests both poets and this, allied to the air of slightly immodest confidence which both reveal, has raised questions about the moral seriousness of their work. In 'Arcadia', Reid, who is more of a dandy than Raine, and more drawn to artistic analogies, invests the domestic with the strangeness of a child's storybook world:
In this crayoned dream-town, the chimneys think smoke and every house is lovingly Battenburged with windows.
Such spectacular effects obey the law of diminishing returns and both poets have pursued other lines of enquiry in latter years. Raine has worked as a librettist (The Electrification of the Soviet Union, 1986) and verse-novelist (History: the Home Movie, 1994). Reid's most interesting book has been Katerina Brac (1985). Written in the persona of a woman poet from behind the Iron Curtain, it raises tantalizing questions about identity, authenticity and the language of translation.
Reid's contemporary James Fenton is at once the most ambitious and least prolific of significant recent poets to emerge from Oxford. Terminal Moraine (1972) introduced a poet of great versatility, at home with satire and light verse, as well as substantial historical narratives and the unsettling blend of exploded narrative and accumulated detail which has produced his most distinctive work. 'The Pitt-Rivers Museum', which cunningly ushers us into the heart of an anthropological museum and leaves us there, leads on to the later country house poems 'Nest of Vampires' and 'A Vacant Possession', with their sense of the poisonous inertia of outmoded but obdurate privilege and waste, as well as 'A Staffordshire Murderer', perhaps Fenton's finest work to date. These are all apparent narratives. They open far more questions than they answer; they interfere with their own narrative frames; they remove the ground from under the reader's feet; they demonstrate, in the words of Ian Gregson, 'the impossibility of a fully comprehending vision' (Gregson, 1996, p. 65). Perhaps the finest of this group (and its logical terminus) is 'A Staffordshire Murderer'. This bizarre narration, with its unsettling address to the second person, evokes the 1970s crimes of the Black Panther against a backdrop of familiar crime-novel impedimenta and seemingly random but resonant bits of local knowledge. Unease becomes horror; as in 'The PittRivers Museum', there is no exit:
This is where the murderer works. But it is Sunday.
Tomorrow's bank holiday will allow the bricks to set.
You see? he has thought of everything. He shows you
The snug little cavity he calls 'your future home'.
The overall effect of these poems has been well described by Ian Gregson. In them, he suggests, 'the linguistic representation of "otherness" encounters an experiential otherness so extreme that it subverts representation itself' (Gregson, 1996, p. 69). The political applications of Fenton's work can be most readily seen in 'A German Requiem', which is a litany of deliberate omission and false consciousness, charting the refusal or inability of postwar Germany to engage with Vergangenheitsbewaltigung, the coming to terms with its past.
Where Raine and Reid are political agnostics, Fenton begins in a commitment to the Left and persists in the treatment of large public themes. His work as a journalist took him to Vietnam and the Philippines. Out of Danger (1993) includes poems about conflict in Iran and Jerusalem. Running counter to Fenton's extreme complexity is a melancholy plainness:
And each man wears his suffering like a skin.
My history is proud.
Mine is not allowed.
This is the cistern where all wars begin,
Very different routes into postmodernism have been followed by three near-contemporaries, Peter Didsbury (b. 1946), John Ash (b. 1948) and John Hartley
Williams (b. 1944). Based in Hull, Didsbury resembles neither Larkin nor Dunn, producing an eccentrically learned religious poetry, at its most intense in the compelling narratives 'The Drainage' and 'Eikon Basilike'. Ash looks back to French Symbolist poetry in a form seemingly unmediated by Modernism, inventing a route not taken and then following it, to conspicuously decadent and lavishly detailed effect (The Goodbyes, 1982; The Burnt Pages, 1992). Hartley Williams, who has lived for many years in Berlin, has equally little in common with mainstream poetry in Britain. His anarchic humour, eroticism and torrential energy take in the Western (Bright River Yonder, 1987) and the 'automatic' poems of Canada (1997).
Fenton, along with the Northern Irish poet Paul Muldoon, has set out the geography of much contemporary poetry in Britain, whether postmodernist or not. One of the fullest explorations of the renewed possibilities of narrative has been made by the prolific Andrew Motion (b. 1952), though the very different approaches of the influential poet—teacher John Fuller (b. 1937; Collected Poems, 1996) Alan Jenkins (b. 1955; Greenheart, 1990), Mick Imlah (b. 1956; Birthmarks, 1988) and Don Paterson (see below) are also deserving of attention. Motion's debut, The Pleasure Steamers (1978), was notable for its haunted lyrical plangency, but 'The Letter', a 'secret' narrative of love and death during the Second World War, indicated how his work would develop. Years afterwards, a woman remembers finding the body of a German pilot, 'His legs / splayed in a candid unshamable V', an image which has multiple but unresolved resonances for her. Motion's friend Philip Larkin professed himself baffled by the poem. The poems of Larkin, the leading poet of the Movement, are full (as Motion's are) of the sense of the impossibility of squaring wishes with facts, but his poems also depend on a sense of meaningful shape which it is their task to disclose. In Motion's work the refusal of (we are led to suppose) life to 'add up' and offer the reader the assurance of closure becomes an important feature of what Motion calls his 'Secret Narratives', including poems with historical settings, such as 'Bathing at Gly-menopoulo' and the end-of-Raj poem 'Independence'. These read like cross-sections from larger works, but as the speaker in 'Firing Practice' comments: 'You realized nothing connected / with anything, ever'. Motion combines the sense that religious or social or aesthetic structures of meaning have vanished from the world with an intense Englishness in regard to landscape. If this seems paradoxical, it makes it the more interesting that Motion has accepted the most public and flak-catching role in English poetry, that of the Laureate, in succession to the late Ted Hughes.
The emergence of poets such as Raine, Fenton and Motion coincided with the temporary occlusion of some significant writers of the immediately prior generation, notably David Harsent and Hugo Williams (both born in 1942). Any account of narrative will have to include Harsent. His early work (A Violent Country, 1969, and After Dark, 1973) showed affinities with the minimalist dramatic lyricism of the loose grouping of poets associated with the influential 'little magazine', The Review (Hugo Williams, Colin Falck, Michael Fried, and more occasional affiliates including Douglas Dunn and John Fuller). The editor, Ian Hamilton (b. 1938), advocated and wrote a rigorous poetry whose emotional truth sought to grow in proportion to its brevity (Fifty Poems, 1998). Influences on this school (though that is not a term with much currency in England) included imagist features of modernism, the American Confessional poets including Robert Lowell and John Berryman, and American neosymbolist writers such as James Wright and Robert Bly. In Harsent's work the personal life is certainly present: a line from 'Haircut' — 'We have learned to pretend that we live like this' — is a classic of controlled Review despondency. However, he goes on to allow himself a fictive latitude, a use of character and persona, which Neil Corcoran has called 'a way of diverting the lyric impulse into the obliquity of dramatic presentation' (Corcoran, 1993, p. 148). Where Motion's poems tend to withhold resolution, Harsent's withhold the explanatory context for their concern with sex, violence and psychic extremity. Readers are faced with brilliant and haunting lines and images in a setting whose obscurity sometimes suggests that it might be a pretext for the poet's local gifts. But A Bird's Idea of Flight (1998), a set of twenty-five monologues whose speaker is trying to broach the mysteries of death, is a triumphant vindication of Harsent's approach.
If Harsent and Motion remain at heart lyric poets, Michael Hofmann (b. 1957) might appear to have abandoned virtually every item of poetic equipment except, perhaps, words. Nights in the Iron Hotel (1983) and Acrimony (1986) work with an acoustic which is both literally and figuratively dead. Alan Robinson has commented on 'From Kensal Rise to Heaven' that 'With studied impassivity [Hofmann's] omnivorous gaze unreflectingly assimilates objects and people into a common dehumaniza-tion' (Robinson, 1988, p. 49). Although Corona, Corona (1993) and Approximately Nowhere (1999) are not exactly unbuttoned, 'all that regular guy / homme du peuple stuff that so dismayed me' ('de passage') seems at least possible, and Hofmann's best work to date is a series of elegies for his father.
What Hofmann and Hugo Williams have in common is exclusion. Among Williams's exclusions are vast tracts of political and historical subject matter: nearly all his work comes, with withering honesty, from direct experience, insisting on the authority and value of the personal life — love and sex, rhythm and blues, schooldays and his father (the actor Hugh Williams). Much of the equipment of image-making and argument is also eventually ditched (though a strong early influence was Thom Gunn). He exploits sentence structures which seem to stand halfway between the spoken and the written in order to generate an air of melancholy, inevitability and the collision of pain and bathos. Billy's Rain (1999), which charts the course of a love affair, marks a high point in the evolution of Williams's style, for example in the mordant regret of 'Mirror History':
Re-reading what I have written up till now I am conscious only of what is not being said, the mirror history running underneath all this self-pitying nonsense. To hear me talk you'd think I was the aggrieved party, whereas we both know it was my own decision to do nothing that made nothing happen.
It might be argued that Williams's concerns — love, sex, betrayal, embarrassment — equip him very well for the role of Poet Laureate, given the recent situation of the royal family.
With the exception of Michael Hofmann, all the poets discussed so far either did fall, or could have fallen, within the remit of the influential 1982 anthology The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry. Its editors, Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion, saw in their chosen poets 'an extension of the imaginative franchise' in the works of the Martian poets, in Fenton, Dunn, Harrison and those influential poets from the North of Ireland who fall outside this discussion. The work which has come to attention in the intervening years bears out this sense of expanded possibility without following in direct line of descent.
If narrative has been significant in recent poetry in Britain (and Ireland), so too has form. This sounds tautological, but there has been a tendency among younger poets to re-examine the possibilities of given (as distinct from organic) form, as though to replace the example of Ted Hughes, a powerful improviser, with those of, among others, Derek Mahon and Paul Muldoon, both of whom affirm the importance of rhyme — and in some cases to go further. For some readers, concern with verse-form, and with formality, suggests anti-modernist attitudes; but an interest in form, in the how as well as the what of poetry, is characteristic of modernism, and it is possible to see in contemporary practice both an understanding of modernist principles and a sense that tradition has been 'repaired' following the necessary disruptions caused by pioneering modernists such as Pound and Eliot. But this is not an area which lends itself to clear-cut generalizations; there are many attitudes to form among contemporary poets — compare George Szirtes (b. 1948), Carol Ann Duffy and Glyn Maxwell, for example — and most of them lie outside the scope of this brief survey.
In recent years a similar concern has made itself heard in American poetry under the heading of New Formalism. Leading Formalist poets such as Dana Gioia and Brad Leithauser have worked against the prevailing free-verse orthodoxy and sought examples in the work of, among others, the influential poet—critic Yvor Winters. Michael Donaghy (b. 1954) is hardly a Wintersian, but his work is driven by love of shape and form. 'The Tuning' tells of an encounter between artist and Muse ('the angel of death') in which exposure to her voice — 'the sound of trees growing, / The noise of a pond thrown into a stone' (Shibboleth, 1988) — makes the ordinary world intolerable. A sense of vocation, and its cost, stands behind the elegance, the scholarly wit and the bawdiness of Donaghy's work, where a residually Catholic sensibility ponders questions of meaning raised by contemporary experience. The London—Irish Ian Duhig (b. 1954) is also a learned poet, at home on the backstairs of history and literature, whether in comic monologues such as 'Fundamentals', which imagines a Victorian missionary (David Livingstone, perhaps) addressing African converts across the vast cultural gulf, or the grimmer 'Baphomet', spoken by a Cathar heretic under torture. Exile or a simpler homelessness are perennial themes in Duhig's work, which is now inclining strongly towards ballad form. The wry, sombre inventiveness of both poets is shared by Jamie McKendrick (b. 1955).
English versions of the renewed interest in form are exemplified by Simon Armitage (b. 1963) and Glyn Maxwell (b. 1962), from Yorkshire and the Home Counties respectively. Frequently paired in discussion, they have collaborated on Moon Country (1996), in which they retrace the footsteps of W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice's 1936 Icelandic journey. Armitage in particular has attained the kind of prominence once granted to the young Auden. His poems blend formality and improvisation and incorporate a classless, youthful, Northern vernacular; their literary inspirations are wideranging — the New York poet Frank O'Hara, alongside Ted Hughes and Paul Muldoon. Underpinning them is an unquenchable Northern directness, for example on the subject of class:
. . . on the day they dig us out they'll know that you were really something fucking fine and I was nowt.
Keep that in mind, because the worm won't know your make of bone from mine.
Glyn Maxwell is more elaborately formal. His intricate stanzas and oblique, periphrastic manner are immediately recognizable. He is a narrative poet who resists telling the story straight. His air of gravity and mystery, the riddling movement of his verse and his use of strongly 'English' settings, mean that he is also the more Audenesque poet of the two:
We did not care muchly who, in the murder, we turned out to be, providing whoever used to inhabit the white chalk figure frozenly pawing the blood-stained sofa was not one of us but a different dier. ('The Uninvited', Out of the Rain, 1992)
Alongside male political poets and postmodernism in its various forms, poetry written by women has made an increasing impact in the last twenty years. In the complex and sometimes obscured genealogy of women's poetry, the significance of such different writers as Stevie Smith, Elizabeth Bishop, U. A. Fanthorpe and Fleur Adcock, and perhaps above all Sylvia Plath, is becoming apparent. It seems that now more than ever the woman poet can get on with her work without being hobbled or distracted by the sense (among male critics) that she is a special or even peculiar case.
The work of Carol Rumens (b. 1944) is perhaps the most direct example of the impact of feminism (in its socialist incarnation) on the poetic mainstream. Her poems enact in various ways the conviction that 'the personal is political', moving naturally between love and domestic life ('Rules for Beginners') and larger historical contexts — often of repression or atrocity ('Outside Oswiecim', 'The Hebrew Class'). It can seem that, like older poets such as Elizabeth Jennings and Ann Stevenson, Rumens's work is not marked by any great departures in form or manner, but her readings of postwar England have their own sombre originality. The novelistic 'Our Early Days in Graveldene' ambitiously traces national decline and accompanying amnesia through a highly detailed reading of working-class women's lives in language whose ground-level restraint achieves its own eloquence:
There was Stell the single mother, Rose the widow — Women who worked and were always dashing out For cod and chips. There was the Rasta, Cyril, Who slashed his throat that time the bailiffs came. When they came to us we hid behind the door.
Rumens's near contemporaries Vicki Feaver (b. 1943) and Ruth Padel (b. 1947) illustrate the range of practice within the mainstream: they are mythopoeic and intensely sensuous writers. Helen Dunmore (b. 1952) reveals, like Rumens, a powerful strand of humane protest in her often exultantly lyrical work. Carol Ann Duffy (b. 1955), the most popular woman poet of the time, is in some ways a more immediately accessible writer than any of her peers, combining emotional directness with powerful construction in poems with a strong narrative element and a frequent sense of the collapse of social and political consensus, backlit by memories of childhood in the 1950s and 1960s. Among her most popular work are dramatic monologues written from below or outside the centres of power, such as 'Warming Her Pearls', where a lady's maid confides to us her secret love for her mistress:
Next to my own skin, her pearls. My mistress bids me wear them, warm then, until evening, when I'll brush her hair. At six, I place them round her cool, white throat. All day I think of her . . .
In The World's Wife (1999) wives and partners from Mrs Midas to Mrs Darwin rewrite myth and history from a female perspective, to satirical and broadly comic effect. 'Circe', for example, is a revenger's recipe:
Look at that simmering lug, at that ear, did it listen, ever, to you, to your prayers and rhymes, to the chimes of your voice, singing and clear? Mash the potatoes, nymph, open the beer. Now to the brains . . .
For signs of an écriture féminine prepared to discard the conventions of realism we should turn first to Selima Hill (b. 1945). Carol Rumens has aptly described Hill's world as 'hermetic but inviting' (Hamilton, 1994, p. 228). It is Hill's childlike decisiveness which convinces the reader of the authenticity of her strange pronouncements, the stranger properties of her farmyard magic realism, and of the intimacy (alarming to some male readers) of a poem such as 'Coition':
You'll have to lie perfectly still like a nude with a rat;
and when I have finished, you'll have not a hair on your head . . .
This brief poem exemplifies Hill's effort to cut out the literary middleman, to think — and to carry the reader — back beyond familiar interpretative categories to the quick of perception, where desire and anxiety live in unmediated forms. Breakdown — of the individual in The Accumulation of Small Acts of Kindness (1989), and of marriage in Violet (1997) — gives a piercing seriousness to what has sometimes been mistaken for whimsy.
The effort to discard given social identity, and to explore a female self which is not 'officially' fixed according to the maps of male understanding, but instead capable of flexibility and transformation, is also the concern of Jo Shapcott (b. 1953). 'Thetis', her version of a story from Ovid's Metamorphoses, opens: 'No man can frighten me. Watch as I stretch / my limbs for the transformation'. Significantly, Shapcott shifts the narration into the first person and the tense into the present: Thetis makes her story her own, rather than Ovid's. Just as, according to Ovid, Thetis knew the fate that would befall her son, the warrior Achilles, so in Shapcott's version she knows that she will be raped in order to produce him. This sombre contrast between the freely creative female self and the habits of male oppression shows how high the stakes are in the comic fantasies which Shapcott more often writes, which include the deft social observations of the 'Robert and Elizabeth' series (Robert suggesting both Browning and Lowell, Elizabeth both Barrett Browning and Hardwick), as well as the numerous 'beast' poems like 'Goat' or the ongoing Mad Cow series. Shapcott writes as much about the body as the mind: her animals insist on the acknowledgement of their full physical reality; and there is a corresponding interest in the erotic: in 'The Roses', a version from Rilke, the bud of the rose speaks as the object of desire.
Identity is also a powerful theme for Jackie Kay (b. 1961). The Adoption Papers (1991) interweaves the voices of three women — birth mother, black child and adoptive mother — the last of whom remarks: 'I always believed in the telling anyhow', a statement of faith within the story and one which applies in Kay's work as a whole. She confronts racial and sexual prejudice in language which demonstrates the resonance of ordinary speech:
You tell your little girl to stop calling my little girl names and I'll tell my little girl to stop giving your little girl a doing.
The ideals of the political Left are honoured in Kay's work, for example in 'The Shoes of Dead Comrades'. At the same time, she arms herself against utopianism of a kind risked by subsequent identity politics in the matter-of-fact 'Somebody Else':
If I was not myself, I would be something else. But actually I am somebody else. I have been somebody else all my life.
It's no laughing matter going about the place all the time being somebody else: people mistake you; you mistake yourself.
Older black poets might wonder what has changed in the half-century since the arrival of the Empire Windrush. James Berry (b. 1924), who came to London in 1948, wrote in 1989 that 'The consciousness-expansion process that black people's presence has set up in Britain is just about beginning to help the learners to feel that when they have calmed down they are bigger, deeper and more expansive human beings', but in the light of the Lawrence Enquiry and other recent cases even this qualified affirmation may seem over-optimistic. The highly politicized Linton Kwesi Johnson (b. 1952) utilized reggae accompaniment to offer a harsher view:
Inglan is a bitch dere's no escapin' it Inglan is a bitch fi true is whey wi a goh dhu 'bout it? (Tings an Times, 1991)
The 1981 riots in cities such as Bristol and Liverpool were a partial answer to a question which has not gone away. While white poets at work in Britain can claim to eschew (or contrive to evade) political issues, for black poets they are inescapable. As Fred D'Aguiar puts it, Kwesi Johnson's 'dub' poetry became, like reggae itself, 'a form of protest as opposed to simply an expression of protest' (Hampson and Barry, 1993). Elsewhere there is the decision to write in Nation Language — a term proposed by Kamau Brathwaite (b. 1930) — or Jamaican or Standard English, or another variant. There is the contemplation of ethnic and sexual identity, as in Grace Nichols (b. 1950) or Jackie Kay, or the restless and witty Lambchop and Sally Goodman poems of E. A. Markham (b. 1939). There is the study of imperial and colonial history and of slavery, as in the work of David Dabydeen (b. 1956) and Fred D'Agiuar (b. 1960). Dabydeen's Turner (1994) speaks through the figure of a drowned negro slave in J. M. W. Turner's painting The Slave Ship, to create a complex meditation on history and subjection:
The sea has mocked and beggared me for centuries, Except for scrolls in different letterings Which, before they dissolve, I decipher As best I can.
The echo of T. S. Eliot's fragments of civilization 'shored' against 'ruin' is bitter indeed. D'Agiuar, meanwhile, takes on some of the precepts of modernism, as filtered through the work of a leading novelist, the Guyanan Wilson Harris (b. 1921), in complex, disrupted narratives such as 'The Kitchen Bitch' (Airy Hall, 1989).
The postwar Caribbean Diaspora, then, has been accompanied by a spectacular aesthetic flowering. The result is a range of poetry which can, for example, accommodate the 'European' romanticism and formalism of the St Lucian Derek Walcott (b. 1930) and the combination of modernist and African approaches developed by the Barbadian Kamau Brathwaite, as well as maintaining a sense of poetry's nearness to spoken language and to music. A number of black poets are much admired as performers; some, including John Agard (b. 1949), Jean 'Binta' Breeze (b. 1956) and Benjamin Zephaniah (b. 1958) are acclaimed 'Performance Poets', whose work is best appreciated at live readings. While poetry readings have had some popular currency in Britain since the 1950s, black writers have done much to disseminate the idea of poetry as a public event.
Jackie Kay's fellow Scot, Kathleen Jamie (b. 1962), is concerned less with racial prejudice than with the internal barriers which might lead Scots from her working-class background to 'mistake' themselves by colluding in historical amnesia. 'Forget It' tackles the need for 'the telling', faced with the shamed resistance of an older generation:
. . . this is a past not yet done, else how come our parents slam shut, deny like criminals: I can't remember, cannae mind, then turn at bay: Why?
Who wants to know?'
In her 'Condition of Scotland' book, The Queen of Sheba (1994), Jamie examined other versions of Scottishness, including mild provincialism in 'Mr and Mrs Scotland are Dead' and the pawky narrow-mindedness that forbids people (women in particular) to get 'above' themselves in the title poem. Jamie's work has steadily run more clear and pure, until the lyric and political impulses are inseparable. Among several younger poets of great talent, she seems the closest to becoming a major figure.
Believers in the Muse might argue that she has recently transferred her operations from Ireland to Scotland, so impressive (not to mention prolific) is the work of the leading handful of poets born between the mid 1950s and early 1960s. The oldest of these, the prolific John Burnside (b. 1955), dwells on the threshold between the everyday and the mystical. His is an obsessive poetry of near-revelation, domestic yet solitary, 'alone, at the edge of the world / with your face to the light' ('Faith', The Myth of the Twin, 1994). A comparable but more strenuously argumentative concern with what escapes the definitions of reason has emerged in the poems of Don Paterson (b. 1963). A witty, dandaical poet with a taste for the erotic and for elaborate Borgesian narratives ('Nil Nil', 'The Alexandrian Library', Nil Nil, 1993), Paterson has produced a book of versions from Antonio Machado, The Eyes (1999), charting the discovery of 'something we were yesterday / that we discover still alive, / like a river's pulse / just below the ancient streets'. Though less pronounced, something of the same concern can be felt in Paterson's fellow Dundonian W. N. Herbert (b. 1961), who along with Robert Crawford (b. 1959) has made the case for poetry in Scots. Herbert in particular composes his books bilingually (for example, Forked Tongue, 1994) and has been seen as the poetic descendant of Hugh McDiarmid. Herbert is a versatile poet, adept in love lyrics, ballads, comic fantasies and elaborate near-epics such as the title poem of The Laurelude (1998), which celebrates the comedian Stan Laurel, born in the Lake District. Robert Crawford, who is also a leading critic of modern Scottish literature, produces a series of richly allusive and imaginative maps of possible Scotland, in language marked by a bizarre serenity. While the task of prediction does not fall to this cramped essay, it is clear that 'British Poetry' possesses the energy and the imagination to enter the new century with confidence. We are not at the end but rather in medias res.
Astley, Neil (ed.) (1991). Tony Harrison: Bloodaxe Critical Anthologies, 1. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe.
Corcoran, Neil (1993). English Poetry since 1940. London: Longman.
Crawford, Robert (1993). Identifying Poets: Self and Territory in Twentieth Century Poetry. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Dunn, Douglas (ed.) (1992). The Faber Book of Twentieth Century Scottish Poetry. London: Faber and Faber.
Gregson, Ian (1996). Contemporary Poetry and Postmodernism: Dialogue and Estrangement. London: Macmillan.
Hamilton, Ian (ed.) (1994). The Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century Poetry. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hampson, Robert and Barry, Peter (1993). New British Poetries: The Scope of the Possible. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Hulse, Michael, Kennedy, David and Morley, David (eds) (1993). The New Poetry. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe.
Kennedy, David (1996). New Relations: The Refashioning of British Poetry 1980—1994. Bridgend: Seren.
Morrison, Blake and Motion, Andrew (1982). The
Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry. London: Penguin. O'Brien, Sean (1998). The Deregulated Muse: Essays on Contemporary British and Irish Poetry. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe. O'Brien, Sean (ed.) (1998). The Firebox: Poetry in Britain and Ireland after 1945. London: Picador. Roberts, Neil (1999). Narrative and Voice in Postwar
Poetry. London: Longman. Robinson, Alan (1988). Instabilities in Contemporary
British Poetry. London: Macmillan. Spencer, Luke (1994). The Poetry of Tony Harrison. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
Thwaite, Anthony (1996). Poetry Today: A Critical Guide to British Poetry 1960—1995. London: Longman.
Was this article helpful?