BOOK REVIEW / Provinces plenty, London nil: The new poetry - ed Michael Hulse, David Kennedy & David Morley: Bloodaxe, pounds 25/ pounds 7.95

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POETRY anthologies are like election manifestos - they don't have much to do with what's happening in the world. The people who pore over them are poets, just as politicians are the ones who read and discuss the promises in party manifestos. But it is impossible to imagine contemporary poetry without such anthologies and they continue to be issued, usually accompanied by fanfares and calls to battle.

Leaving aside genre collections (cats, gardens, God, the sea and so on), any anthology with 'modern', 'contemporary' or 'new' in its title is bound to be to some degree polemical, not just in what it argues for but through its inclusions and exclusions. Of the anthologies of British poetry since the Second World War which have helped to form public taste, my apostolic descent would run: Kenneth Allott's Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse (1950), The New Poetry, compiled by A Alvarez (1962), The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry, edited by Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion (1982), and now this second New Poetry from Bloodaxe.

Some highly combative anthologies circle these planets like moons, including Robert Conquest's Movement anthology New Lines (1956), Michael Horovitz's Children of Albion (1969), and The New British Poetry, 1968-1988 (four editors, 1988), which in its concentration on multi-ethnic and avant-garde poetry epitomised that hostility to the Oxbridge/London axis which can again be felt behind this new Bloodaxe book. More distant bodies which continue to exert influence are the Oxford books by Philip Larkin and D J Enright, Edward Lucie-Smith's British Poetry since 1945 and the Trappist-like self-election of Andrew Crozier and Tim Longville's A Various Art.

The first three anthologies of my apostolate are the ones which reached beyond the world of poetry politics to become news to the general reader and went on to influence the teaching of poetry. All contain good poets and all link them arbitrarily, as does The New Poetry. The editors of the Bloodaxe compilation have Morrison and Motion in their sights as metropolitan smoothies intent on ignoring provincial and experimental poets in favour of a sort of cleansing of the doors of perception (Craig Raine's Martianism). But immediately the trouble with team-picking shows up: the admired influences on the Bloodaxe writers are named as Paul Muldoon, Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, James Fenton and Douglas Dunn, all stars of Morrison's and Motion's Penguin. It might have been wiser to point to Martianism as a dead end and applaud the new poets for returning to the mainstream, but that would have denied the editors the chance to lambast metropolitan exclusionism, a pleasure even the academic Donald Davie likes to indulge in.

Messrs Hulse, Kennedy and Morley have muddied the issue with their 'Introduction'. There is hardly a bad poet included in their anthology (though there are less than judicious choices of poems to represent some writers), but the crude North/South watershed of virtue (Southern-dwelling poets with Northern virtues have to be explained away), and the taking of intention for performance in political propaganda, detract from the book's impact.

My own version of the difference between the Bloodaxe anthology and its predecessors would concentrate on a very different prevalence. Poets such as Peter Didsbury, John Ash, Sean O'Brien, Ian Duhig, Frank Kuppner and W N Herbert can all be described as sophisticated, dandified and fond of the Surreal. They are as witty and well-informed as any Oxbridge or metropolitan figure but also more playful, inquiring and wide-ranging. At last the legacy of W H Auden has begun to bear fruit in his native land, though it is the later American Auden who has been influential.

Paradoxically, it is these free-range poets who are also the most committed to political programmes, anti-Thatcherite at heart but extending beyond orthodox politics to a questioning of what it means to be British or Irish. They have a sharp sense of history but are scornful of heritage. Beyond Auden, figures from American and European poetry gesture, notably Stevens, Ashbery, Rilke and Montale. Hull, Newcastle, Huddersfield and Dublin are made to seem less provincial than Oxford and London.

In the Sixties, poets in the provinces were often filled with messianic fervour; they came on like the wild men in America but lacked confidence in their own utterance. Things are different in the Bloodaxe camp: a feeling of sureness, of being at ease with their talents pervades the work of these writers whether they are worldly and panoptic like those named above, or vernacular and direct like Carol Ann Duffy, Ian McMillan and Liz Lochhead. There is also a welcome sense of fantasy, to be found chiefly in Selima Hill, Maggie Hannan and Glyn Maxwell. For me the purest sort of biopsy is a reading of Didsbury, O'Brien and Duhig. Here is verse worth getting excited about. Though they are still young their influence can be felt in others still younger, as in a poem by W N Herbert, 'The Testament of the Reverend Thomas Dick':

Then all the countless mothy souls

would mob softly at the doors

of great public observatories;

amphitheatres with a single lens

for their roofs, that could be turned to


any corner of the heavens - Earth itself

could be moved, on special request,

to observe rare events

in the cosmological calendar - and these

were all the temples God required,

and this was all the worship, because

the totality of physical matter, as

you guessed, is equal to the mass of the Deity.

Together with such playfulness, there is an underlying seriousness for which a couplet of Sean O'Brien's acts as call-sign: 'And keep me cold and honest, cousin coat, / So if I lie I'll know you're at my throat.' O'Brien is one of the minority of contributors who bothers with rhyme, regular metre or stanza. Despite considerable imagination and skill, an ensuing sense of shapelessness, of recitative being favoured over aria, is the anthology's chief weakness. A reviewer's traditional right to complain of omissions moves me to ask why Wendy Cope, Tony Flynn, Douglas Houston, Mick Imlah, Alan Jenkins and Peter Sansom are not included.

All anthologies suffer from built-in problems: they have to choose from specific catchment areas; they must deny influences and allegiances which contradict their bias; and they never have space enough to do credit to the major figures they recruit. The New Poetry is a good investment and a fair enough straw in the wind. It would be even better, however, to look along the shelves of a good library or bookshop at the hundreds of individual books of poems published in the last two decades and compile your own anthology. Good players can perform in many different jerseys.