Fiona Sampson has two beefs about current British poetry. The first is that, despite its rich proliferation, it isn't given space in national cultural debates; the second is that poetry reviews are vague, all "epithet and adjectival compound", or full of knowing bile. Exculpating only Sean O'Brien (her dedicatee) and his The Deregulated Muse (1998), she searches back in vain until she finds FR Leavis's New Bearings. She excludes manifestos that accompany anthologies. Unashamedly, she has a shot at identifying a new, albeit more pluralist "Great Tradition".
This is an engaging, well-structured take on the poetry world, one that invites readers to read more, and to read carefully. Her tactic is to produce a taxonomy of British poetry – 13 categories, "Plain Dealers" and "Dandies" to "Exploded Lyricists" – and to make sense of the variety of styles by clustering poets together. This clever separation does concentrate the mind. It allows Sampson space to dig deeply into specifics – to tackle the bugbear about poetry analysis being vague.
This doesn't always work: sometimes, the criticism becomes mired in technicalities. But she is particularly good with her "Mythopoeists" (David Harsent, Robin Robertson, Alice Oswald, Michael Symmons Roberts and Pauline Stainer), and "The Plain Dealers" (Dannie Abse, Fleur Adcock, Ruth Fainlight, Elaine Feinstein).
Sampson is alert to the paradox of dividing up poets, and admits it in an afterword, writing about kinship rather than differences. She is not attempting to create "schools". And the close reading is a genuine step forward.
Inevitably, Sampson is too well-read to avoid the urge to touch on many more poets than she needs (she spent almost a decade as Poetry Review's editor). Some glancing references jar (Lawrence Sail might be piqued to be pigeonholed as "ruralist"). There is a crowding effect: about a hundred poets are touched on, and about 500 collections.
And the wider her net, the more it encourages a perverse anxiety about absentees, such as Jane Draycott, David Constantine and Christopher Logue. The case of Wendy Cope is interesting. The introduction hints at her unfortunate exclusion, but she turns up as a "New Formalist". Immediately, it feels as if there's a fourteenth, neglected group: call them "Wags". Cope may be formalist, but she is also a humourist: and where therefore are Ian McMillan, Sophie Hannah, John Whitworth? The comedians needed a chapter.
Beyond The Lyric: a Map of Contemporary British Poetry By Fiona Sampson Chatto & Windus, £16.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop
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