Contemporary british poetry essays in theory and criticism

Tuma's frequent interjections of the personal, and his defense of the eclectic and the lapidary against the systemic and the theoretical, should prepare the reader for his reluctance to sum things up. Even without a summation, however, Fishing by Obstinate Isles is the best possible introduction for American readers to a range of British poetries and poetic histories long neglected here. O'Brien says at the outset that he is in no position any more than Tuma is to write a comprehensive account of contemporary poetry in Britain, that his approach will be non-theoretical, and that his notion of deregulation - a word in his title deliberately entangling his essays with the public world of Thatcherite and post-Thatcherite history - acknowledges the notion that "it is not clear where authority in poetic matters resides.

Both critics, in fact, appeal to a non-specialist reader by writing in lucid, lively, memorable and sometimes even aphoristic or epigrammatic prose. Tuma says he wants no part of "the power of systematic, theoretical language" and feels lucky and grateful to have the reader's attention at all. O'Brien says his essays are written "in the conviction that criticism had better be readable" and not something written in "the interior code of a class or professional cadre.

O'Brien, the British poet-journalist from Philip Larkin's Hull, argues that "the very variousness of contemporary poetry seems to prevent the emergence of a dominant line. O'Brien acknowledges that "for some readers [his] idea of variety will be their idea of homogeneity," and looks forward to reading their accounts of the matter. This opening section of the book, "The Ends of England," is more or less predicated on Heaney's notion, cited in O'Brien's later remarks on the Irish poet's prose, that "English poets are being forced to explore not just the matter of England, but what is the matter with England.

Finding the Englands of Larkin and Hughes in the process of vanishing, O'Brien in his second section, "Different Class," looks sympathetically at a large body of work by Tony Harrison, Douglas Dunn, and Ken Smith both in terms of its working class origins and its poetic achievement before going on to separate chapters dealing with two groups of Irish poets - Heaney-Mahon-Durcan and Carson-Paulin-Muldoon - which are divided by his discussion of feminist poets Fleur Adcock, Carol Rumens and Carol Ann Duffy and the first of what I think are the two most interesting chapters of the book, "A Daft Place," which examines work by Roy Fisher, Peter Reading, Peter Porter, and Peter Didsbury.

The work of these four poets, together with that taken up in the amusingly titled final section - "Postmodernist, Moi? The first thing one notices about the poets discussed in O'Brien's chapter on postmodernism is that not a single one in this group warrants a mention by Tuma, Sinclair, or Caddel-Quartermain among poets assumed to be sympathetic to postmodernism in Fishing , Conductors , and Other , except insofar as they are perceived to completely misunderstand it.

O'Brien's notion of postmodernism is both inclusive in a one-of-the-lads sort of way and, as the title suggests, simultaneously skeptical. Most interesting of all, perhaps, it traces the postmodern spirit in England not to Prynne at Cambridge or Mottram in London, but to the influence of John Fuller at Oxford; and it traces Fuller's own sources not to Charles Olson or John Ashbery, but to W. O'Brien argues that postmodernism is now so ubiquitous that definition has become increasingly difficult, especially as he finds that attempts to theorize it are both profligate and contradictory when both avowedly experimental and seemingly mainstream camps claim for themselves a piece of the action.

Among the mainstream postmodernists eux? O'Brien complains about antitheses reproducing themselves from generation to generation - modernity versus tradition, avant-garde versus mainstream, establishment versus rebels - even to the point where poets who probably write from a similar impulse but inherit these binary echoes would, if given the chance, "go back and run each other over twice to be certain.

Fenton's use, both here and elsewhere, of a range of technical languages to displace the lyric subject and its point of view, along with whatever consolations such a limited perspective might provide, recalls not only the use of scientific knowledge - anthropology and geology, for example - in Auden or David Jones, but also what Reeve and Kerridge call in Prynne's work "the presence of discourses [which challenge] the humanist paradigm and its place in late-capitalist culture by imposing shifts of scale which immediately disrupt any sense of personal, unmediated perspective," reminding us that we are in fact ourselves the products of infinitely large and infinitely small processes - cosmic, geological, molecular - to which the human subject may properly be subordinated in a poetry seeking an expression for these processes themselves.

In its sixteen sections and sub-sections, Fenton's Exempla draws on such sources as Smith and Miller's Developmental Psycholinguistics , Lyell's Principles of Geology , Raymond Bush's The Fruit-Growers , an Oxford billboard, an article on frogs' eyes, and the museum labels and other materials from the Pitt-Rivers Museum.

O'Brien calls the poem's fragmentary narrative elements "residually Audenesque," but so too, certainly, is the strange hodge-podge of bookishness recalling Auden's own use of W. This is an early example of Fenton's interest in interfering with, or removing, the interpretative frame through which readers may at first believe themselves to be viewing a poem The poem is a 'museum-piece', whose random inventory gradually ushers us towards the realisation that to excerpt and categorize items from the world and encase them in a building does not enable us to stand outside the world from which we have removed them.

The poem in fact makes an elaborate fetish of the museum, in order to view this place of learning or idle contemplation as the embodied unconscious of a culture Reeve and Kerridge argue that "in order to survive, poetry has to collide with the powerful discourses of our culture smashing them to pieces , rather than dodging into alley-ways while they pass, or lingering in safe places like gardens.

Poher" ought to find the author of Exempla sympathetic to his tirade:. No doubt the most obvious Audenesque aspects of Fenton's work exist in his early and explicitly political poems about Indochina in the early seventies, like "Cambodia," "In a Notebook," and "Dead Soldiers. Of the Fenton poems that appear in the Penguin selection, it is in particular "A Staffordshire Murderer" that O'Brien finds, together with "England," among the "most truly radical I belabor all of these attempts to identify Fenton as a postmodern poet who can find his own radical sources in such a mainstream figure as Auden simply to suggest that, if this characterization is even remotely correct, Fenton - Oxford Professor of Poetry and anathema to many of the Conductors and Others - could without contradiction himself appear in Conductors of Chaos represented by cycles like Exempla or poems like "A Staffordshire Murderer" while also making a choice from early Auden - choruses from Paid on Both Sides , parts of "The Airman's Journal" or "The Initiates" from The Orators , certain pieces from Poems - that would parallel in interesting ways the actual five contributors' sponsorship of work by Gascoyne, Moore, Hendry, Graham, and Jones.

Since O'Brien is rather stubbornly unwilling to discuss any of the poets in Conductors save Roy Fisher, he is not quite the critic Robert Pinsky called for some years ago in The Situation of Poetry who would be able to take up the work of particular poets without being distracted by the quasi-political divisions into groups or camps or parties with which they are superficially identified or superficially identify themselves. In part because he categorically groups and excludes "neo-modernists," "language poets," and "performance poets" from his discussion, it is necessary to consult a book such as Tuma's to complete the account of recent British poetry in somewhat the same way one needs, in the American context, to read Marjorie Perloff after reading Helen Vendler.

Nonetheless, O'Brien is generally more impressed by poets and poems than by movements and groups. Many of the poets he discusses are as much a challenge to avant-garde pieties as the really innovative work of British experimentalists - neo-modernists, language poets and performance writers among them - is a challenge to mainstream literary conventions.

It may be easier to claim Fenton's work for a kind of mainstream postmodern canon than that of Glyn Maxwell and Simon Armitage. Although as co-editor of the Penguin anthology Armitage does not include his own work in the book, American readers should know that he has been paired with Maxwell - who now teaches at Amherst and is published by Houghton Mifflin - in journalistic accounts of the New Generation at least since the publication of the Bloodaxe New Poetry anthology. O'Brien grants Armitage the distinction of being "perhaps the first serious poet since Larkin to achieve wide popularity" in Britain, but he finds the "everyday postmodernity" of his poetry, in which a younger readership has clearly come to recognize its own image, to consist mainly in "a kind of linguistic automatism, or echolalia - like language running around with its head cut off.

Although I am pretty certain he would dislike some of the jargon, it's possible that O'Brien might be willing to extend his provisional description of mainstream postmodernism to include certain terms and formulae that Hulse, Kennedy and Morley used to introduce Armitage, Maxwell, Didsbury, Reading, and even O'Brien himself as a poet in The editors of The New Poetry asked us to observe in their poets a "relish for cumbersome cultural props for their totemic presence alone," a realization that "ideas of meaning, truth and understanding are in themselves fictions determined by the rhetorical forms and linguistic terms used to express them," a "mixing of registers, idioms, and thematic provenances," and "doubts about authenticity of self and narrative authority" where "the pronominal act is itself a risk.

His range, like Auden's, is very wide - from light verse to narrative to elegy to satire. Derek Walcott has spoken of his ability "to orchestrate asides, parenthetical quips, side-of-the-mouth ruminations into verse with a bravura not dared before. At its best, the poetry sounds like this from "Drive to the Seashore," a poem that David Kennedy thinks of as a response to Geoffrey Hill's sequence "Of Commerce and Society" :. We passed, free citizens, between the gloves of dark and costly cities, and our eyes bewildered us with factories. We talked. Of what? Of the bright dead in the old days, often of them.

Of the great coal-towns, coked to death with scruffy accents. Of the leaves. Of the strikers sacked and picking out a turkey with their wives. Of boys crawling downstairs: we talked to those. It will have to be sunny, so these can marry, so these can gossip and this forgive and happily live, so if one should die. You will have to wait for the sunny, the happy, the wed, the white.


The Cambridge Companion to British Poetry, 1945–2010

At this point, some of the questions O'Brien raises about the Audenesque become important. He wonders, for example, exactly what it is that Maxwell is after in Auden - his "air of knowing [his] way about," his "cultural assurance and power of synthesis," his diagnostic abilities, his "tricks with articles and syntax," his "formal gifts," his "air of secrecy and conspiracy," the "various personal myths," his self-appointed role as the age's representative, or some combination of these.

What O'Brien doesn't consider as a perhaps unintended result of Maxwell's schooling himself on Auden is what Keith Tuma calls in Maxwell's work "a pervasive air of diminished ambition," the "desperate or campy futility" which vitiates some of Auden's later poetry. And one might well associate these characteristics with the dangers of a "rhetorical imagination" that David Kennedy in fact celebrated in the New Generation poets he anthologized with Hulse and Morley as "a change of emphasis from the latencies and nuances of language to its forms and surfaces.

Kennedy's enthusiasm for the paradoxes of a poetry "in which carefully husbanded resources of containment and circumspection go hand in hand with exuberant enjoyment, prolific output, and a wide range of occasion and inspiration" strikes O'Brien as itself curiously Thatcherite, and he makes an unexpected connection between Maxwell's poetry, Kennedy's editing and criticism, and Neil Astley's Bloodaxe Books - publisher of both The New Poetry and his own The Deregulated Muse. I'm sure Maxwell wasn't thinking of postmodernism, the Y2K virus itself, in his Audenesque parable "We Billion Cheered" included in the Penguin anthology.

Don't forget.

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Nothing will start that hasn't started yet. If this is surprising given the ferocity of Reading's specific mockeries of Mrs. Thatcher, one nonetheless understands what he means. Focusing on the journalistic side of Reading's work, its relationship to what he calls the "urgencies of its period," the dangers of "whoring after relevance," its determination to reveal the garbage of what Tom Paulin calls "Junk Britain" and make the poet "the unofficial laureate of a dying nation," O'Brien finds "a huge hole where causality ought to be" and a kind of political exhaustion.

He thinks the Swiftian contempt sometimes noted in Reading's poetry is often only a "sclerotic posture" such as one associates with the late work of Kingsley Amis, and that Reading projects a self-loathing onto the general public with his castigations of the generic Beckettian "H.

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He believes that the poems are finally complicit in "a cruelly Manichaen rationalization which lies behind Thatcherism" with its "use of effect brutalization to justify cause impoverishment. Armitage and Crawford make a good effort to represent Reading in the Penguin anthology, but ultimately the poetry is not amenable to any kind of selection at all because Reading's best work appears in through-composed books, many of which need to be read dialectically in relationship to other through-composed books.

But the eight pages taken from Ukulele Music - only Muldoon's "Incantata" occupies more space in the book - is a gesture in the right direction. This last is certainly the best introduction to his work. The editors of Bloodaxe New Poetry anthology claimed Reading - older than most New Generation Poets having been born in - as an important participant in their postmodernist agenda. Reading was seen as a poet who in his "mixing of registers, idioms, and thematic provenances" was happiest when he could "manipulate reader expectation by contrasting tonality and subject, lofty style and squalid nastiness" both in his "socio-political work [and his] writing on everyday human pain.

The effect of these scansions is often very unnerving - two dactyllic feet cancelled with an X at the end of Final Demands , a fully scanned stanza emerging from a drawn skull's mouth in Evagatory , the counting out of distichs in the "plinkplinka plinkplinka plonk" that accompanies and concludes the weird counterpointing of voices in Ukulele Music. Neil Corcoran has written that "one of the paradoxes of [Reading's] work, of which he is lucidly self-aware, is that its grim occasions provoke it into greater and greater feats of 'prestigitial' invention, particularly in his adoption of resolutely unEnglish classical verse forms.

For the same reason that it is difficult to anthologize Reading's work, it is difficult to quote it adequately in a review. In her introduction to volume one of the Collected Poems , Isabel Martin argues for the "absolute unity" of volumes like Evagatory , Stet , Ukulele Music , Perduta Gente , and Going On achieved by "antithetical or polyphonic plotting, highly sophisticated structures, continual cross-referencing of narrative, imagery, motifs, voices and verbal echoes In this tour de force of a performance there is no missing what Neil Corcoran has described as the "intermittent Bakhtinian polyphonies, the voices seeming to emerge from a buzzy radio static, the hiss of permanent interference, the cacophony of crossed signals.

The characteristic falling meter of the centered passage introduces, with appropriately Anglo-Saxon trappings, a bard who will sing, in a made-up language, the praises of Mrs. Thatcher herself. The "patois" of his encomium appears in the left column; the translation in "translationese" appears on the right. Snow-haired, an elder, dulled eyes gum-filled, tuning a sweet-toned curious instrument, gulps from a goblet of local merlot, sings on a theme whose fame was fabled, that of a sad realm farctate with feculence patois and translationese alternately :. Gobschighte dampetty, Wonderful little Madam gobby Fer-dama, self-mocking Iron Lady, getspeeke baggsy, who some said was a windbag getspeeke parly some said talked comma cul,comma like an arsehole, like spmalbicker-bicker, a termagant - why, porky getspeeke?

Pascoz vots clobberjoli, Because your pretty frocks, vots chevvy-dur dur, your permed-stiff hair, vots baggsymainchic, your smart handbag, your vots collier-prick, tight-sharp necklace, cuntyvach twitnit, satrapess so marvellous, iscst pukkerjoli - were so beautiful - illos jalouz dats porky! Ni iscst vots marrypappa Nor was your spouse grignaleto, ne. Mas vots pollytiq But your many wise policies saggio sauvay were saving your islet, vots salinsula, your filthy isle, and insulapetty, made all equal with nil et fair tutts egal mit-nochts.

The latter poem, dealing chiefly with a Dantesque hoard of urban "lost people," many of them lying among their rags and cardboard hutches under Royal Festival Hall during a performance of Sibelius, recalls the world of Tony Harrison's V and Ken Smith's Fox Running.

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Here, too, the Anglo-Saxon hammers the reader into the poem. The four voices speaking in the companion poem counterpoint a poet's elegiac distichs with the prose of Viv, his daily help whose comments on her own life and on the poet's manuscripts left around the house sound like Dickens via Monty Python; the archaic-heroic-imperial verse of an aging Captain who, also employing Viv and living in the same building with the poet, can no longer tell the difference between his own life on the sea and the "yarns" he has heard or read; and a series of goofy, high-spirited instructions quoted from a beginner's manual for the ukulele.

We are meant to understand that Reading regards the poet's fulminations at the urban violence and ecological destruction all around him to be about as significant as "the man in the music Hall song that goes he play his Uku uker Youkalaylee while the ship went down," as Viv has it in one of her notes. The four voices are kept separate in the first third of the poem, but in the last third, following the Captain's account of voyages that include a time aboard the Lucky Dragon when it sailed too close to an atomic testing ground, they begin to merge - Viv and the Captain first appear in, then begin to write, the poet's poems, while all three are accompanied by the banalities of the ukulele manual.

Thus the poet's versions of tabloid horrors are constantly played off against the Captain's seafaring swagger, Viv's Mrs. Gamp-like persistence, and the plinkaplinkaplinks of the Uke.

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  • It is at once a deeply upsetting and strangely exhilarating performance. It's the exhilaration that O'Brien seems unwilling to recognize. His desire that poetry must preserve "something of itself from the general wreck - not optimism or hope, necessarily, but the power of imaginative production" - is surely met by the logopoeia in Reading's "feats of prestigital invention" that Neil Corcoran finds in the Bakhtinian polyphony of voices.

    Ukulele Music is much closer in its verbal energies to a novel like Burgess's A Clockwork Orange than to the "sclerotic posturing" of the later Kingsley Amis, and it communicates a similar simultaneous pleasure in language and horror at the perpetration of gratuitous violence. If poetry, as Reeve and Kerridge believe, must, like Prynne's, "collide with the powerful instrumental discourses of the culture," and if, as Prynne writes in "L'Extase de M.

    Is some of the junk in Junk Britain "rubbish" in some positive sense? Prynne's poem, quoted in part earlier, continues:. This rubbish, Reeve and Kerridge argue, "is what results from the smash-up, when different discourses do not occupy the cultural places to which they have been directed, but cross the tracks and collide. Not only does O'Brien argue that "it is as a celebrant Didsbury's poetry is characteristically self-conscious and self-reflexive in the manner of these other poets and it frequently meditates on language and the versions of the self that speak it.

    Walking in "the empty heart" of his home city, a speaker finds it suddenly like "a level Baltic town," its canal emptying "into a turbulent German Ocean" with "dereliction on one side of the stream" and "an Arctic kind of Xanadu on the other. If this was what linguistic exercise meant then I didn't think much of it. The deep structures I could cope with, but the surface ones were coming at me in Esperanto, and fragments of horrible Volapuk.

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    The cattle squelch past beneath a sodden sky below my windows and before the eyes of Peter Didsbury, in his 35th year. I consider other inventions of mine, which rise before me on the darkening pane. The American reader may feel he has seen enough of this sort of thing in the native product, but Didsbury's British cultural context makes it all a little more distinctive than short quotes can illustrate. About the long passage he quotes from "The Hailstone," O'Brien says that memory functions, not as in Reading always to yield only images of something lost, but as something held in store, a "granary of the imagination.