Books: Needed: critical Svengalis and mad Ezras

Two huge new rival anthologies claim to define post-war British and Irish poetry. William Scammell finds out who's in and who's out
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
T he editor of Poetry Review remarked some years ago that whereas Scots, Irish and Welsh writers never stopped thinking about their cultural identity, modern English poetry was short on self-analysis and the necessary business of canon-making. Here come two anthologies to fill the gap, so large and eclectic that they might be thought inimical to very idea of a canon. They are remarkably similar in spirit and scope, taking what you might call the lucky-dip approach to poetry. The Penguin Book of Poetry From Britain and Ireland Since 1945, eds Simon Armitage and Robert Crawford (pounds 10.99), glad-hands no less than 141 poets, while The Firebox: Poetry in Britain and Ireland after 1945, ed Sean O'Brien (Picador pounds 9.99), fields 126. No one gets more than four or five poems in either book; dozens more get a poem each whether they're good, bad or indifferent. All, it seems, must have prizes.

A Alvarez's big idea, in his influential The New Poetry (1962). was that British poetry was afflicted with gentility, whereas the American confessionalists faced up to the lethal energies whirling around in any self-respecting ego. Madness and suicide weren't mandatory, quite, but desperate measures, psychic and metrical, were more likely to be authentic than Philip Larkin's impotent meliorism. (James Fenton's poem "Letter to John Fuller" gives a loud raspberry to all this.)

Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion's Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry (1982) had the Irish poetic renaissance to draw on, and the excitements of the Martians, who between them "developed a degree of lucid and literary self- consciousness reminiscent of the modernists", adopting "the attitude of the anthropologist or alien invader" and embracing "relativism". Neil Astley's Poetry With an Edge (1988) trumpeted accessibility and poetry which "must give something to the reader", meeting him or her more than halfway, probably in the pub. Michael Hulse, David Kennedy and David Morley's The New Poetry (1993), so lacking in ideas that it couldn't even dream up its own title, continued the Bloodaxe campaign for poetry that "emphasises accessibility, democracy and responsiveness, humour and seriousness, and reaffirms the art's significance as public utterance", not to mention "a new pluralism" that would be "above all sceptical".

That seemed to cover all the bases, and incidentally to take us back to the Movement, though the editors didn't see it like that. Meanwhile feminist anthologies poured from the presses. Carol Rumens's Making for the Open (1985) and New Women Poets (1990), Fleur Adcock's 20th Century Women's Poetry (1987), Linda France's Sixty Women Poets (1993), Virago New Poets (1993) and a host of others, together with anthologies promoting black writing and various alternative stand-up or sit-down poetries such as The New British Poetry (1988) and Iain Sinclair's Conductors of Chaos (1996).

What emerged from all this was a few labels - postmodern, pluralist, feminist and a wholesale deconstruction of Britishness - but nothing you could actually call a movement, and no mad Ezra or critical Svengali to lead the troops to victory over yesterday's men. Sean O'Brien's recent, wittily titled survey of the poetry scene, The Deregulated Muse, catches the fin-de-siecle mood of the moment, and this is echoed in the title of Armitage and Crawford's Introduction, "The Democratic Muse", which looks about for "a philosophy and argument" in its phalanx of versifiers and the current buzzwords, of which "pluralism" seems to be the favourite.

"Poetic vitality was our essential criterion", a vitality that "need not be at odds with popular culture", though it had better be at odds with patriarchy, New Labour, Old Tories and Bosnian war criminals. England has become "one of many provinces", and London demoted to "a capital of publishing, but not [of] cultural or poetic authority". Poetry shifted out to the provinces with the Romantics, as Larkin pointed out long ago; yet it remains true that pretty well every notable continues to collect fame and royalty cheques from the metropolis, and that it is still the critical popes of the London publishers and weeklies who decide which poets are thought fit to speak to the wider world.

"Poetry was possible after Auschwitz, but it was subtly different from before. Largely rejecting pontifical tones, poets in Britain and Ireland wrote as part of a shift towards post-imperialist, pluralist societies and communities." What Auschwitz is doing here, amid all these trendy mantras, is hard to say. It suggests a crassness of judgement, a fake gravitas, that is echoed in such hollow formulations as "the community of democratic voices" and "the articulation of identity", which may "take many forms". This leaden prose, together with the heavy representation of Scots, inclines me to think that Crawford was the senior partner in this enterprise, and I'm surprised that the usually nimble and inventive Armitage should have put his name to it.

Despite the generous format and the acres of space - it's more than twice as long as the Morrison-Motion - the editors have left out all the best Forties poets. There's not a line here by Alun Lewis, Keith Douglas, Sidney Keyes or Henry Reed; nothing either from Norman Cameron, David Gascoyne, William Empson, Alan Ross, F T Prince, Bernard Spencer, Roy Campbell, David Wright, C H Sisson or Edith Scovell. Roy Fuller and George Barker get one short poem each, Donald Davie two, and none is of their best.

Hugh MacDiarmid too is represented by mostly poor stuff, so are Robert Garioch, Seamus Heaney (except for "Punishment"), Derek Mahon and Anthony Thwaite. Most of Paul Durcan's space is taken up with an inferior piece of whimsy about Ulysses. Douglas Dunn is presented with a Harrisonian clenched fist. Hugo Williams's best poems, in Writing Home, are ignored, so are Michael Hofmann's in Acrimony. Hofmann, indeed, is scandalously under-represented (in both books). George Szirtes, Stephen Romer, James Lasdun, James Simmons, to name just a few, are not represented at all. Paul Muldoon's brilliant tour de force "Incantata" is printed in full (as opposed to just an extract from Basil Bunting's "Briggflatts"), but he surely would have been better introduced to new readers by a selection of his shorter poems. Charles Tomlinson and Thomas Kinsella are sold short. Adcock's jokey "Against Coupling" is preferred to her more substantial poems, Anne Stevenson's best verse is nowhere to be seen. And so on and on. There are poems to relish in these pages, if you know where to look, but they are swamped by the ephemeral and mediocre.

O'Brien's The Firebox is likewise sympathetic to all that is currently fashionable, which means names like Carol Ann Duffy ("Warming Her Pearls" seems to be the Shropshire Lad of the 1990s), Ciaran Carson, Peter Reading, Ken Smith, W N Herbert, Kathleen Jamie et al. But it has a much more intelligent selection of poems than its rival, and a much less shameful list of omissions, though it too fails to find room for Szirtes, Romer, and others more accomplished than those who have come to attention in the past few years.

The Introduction questions "ideas of nationality" as "no longer ... respectable or secure", and speaks darkly of "the death-struggles of Englishness in the counsels of Europe". It's hard to say whether this exhibits a touch of little-Englandism beneath the anti-patriotic stance, or whether O'Brien is cheering the death-struggles on. Either way he looks enviously at the "cultural assurance" of the Irish and the Scots, while we must go on beating our postcolonial breasts.

Nontheless, current poetry "displays a vigour verging on ferocity ... This has been a period as poetically rich as any since the Romantics".

That's a confident judgement, and I wish O'Brien had had the courage to back it by putting his shirt on the poets he thinks really matter and cutting down on the poem-apiece brigade. "I don't believe in accessible poems. I only believe in good poems," said the Irish poet and critic Dennis O'Driscoll recently. The commodification of poetry, whether it comes from the Left or the Right ("Democratisation" versus "More means worse"), is not much more than a battle of slogans. These skirmishes make perfectly good sense on the hustings but none at all in the context of art. Or indeed anywhere where excellence is at stake. Does any manager pick his squad for Saturday on the basis of fair shares for all? The best defence against all this nonsense is poetry itself.

So who should we be reading? "Darling, the cockroaches are having babies" is a transfixing opening line from Lavinia Greenlaw. Oliver Reynolds, Peter Didsbury, Harry Clifton deserve to be better known. Selima Hill, Vicki Feaver, Denise Riley, Kathleen Jamie, among others, demonstrate how alive and kicking women poets are. O'Brien himself can be delightfully funny ("Reading Stevens in the Bath") as well as dourly accusing. Kit Wright should be in everybody's Christmas stocking. Alasdair MacLean and D M Black have both been unfairly forgotten by these anthologies, so has Hugh McMillan, who sends up Scottish chauvinism and sentimentality with savage good humour. Chris Pilling, John Greening, Peter Finch are missing too. Still, there are powerful voices at work in all the current varieties of English, and it's good to have such compendious tasters as these on offer.

Meanwhile, bang up to the minute, there's The Forward Book of Poetry 1999, ed Geordie Greig (pounds 7.99) to enjoy, always readable and well presented, where you can argue about this year's best collection, best first collection and best individual poem. Sounds Good: 101 poems to be Heard, ed Christopher Reid (Faber pounds 7.99) is a companion volume to Ted Hughes's By Heart, full of golden oldies and a few surprises. Alongside it comes The Funny Side: 101 Humorous Poems ed Wendy Cope (Faber pounds 7.99). And if you're absolutely desperate, there's The Nation's Favourite Comic Poems, ed Griff Rhys Jones (BBC pounds 5.99). Its predecessor, The Nation's Favourite Poems, has sold 325,000 copies. Now there's something quantifiable. What that tells us about the nation I don't know - probably that the market for anthologies and McPoems is bottomless.