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Free verse joins the free market

A CRITIC in search of a subject should always choose contemporary poetry. Volumes of poetry are a quicker read than Little Dorrit, and require a minimum of scholarly labour. Nobody has to sweat over Craig Raine's manuscripts as they do over Rilke's. When the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh got wind of a well-heeled American scholar on the prowl in Dublin for poets' original manuscripts, he wrote his own in the back of a pub.

Modern poetry can be difficult, but if you don't understand it you can always talk about the poet's haunting obliquity. For another thing, poetry is a peculiarly privileged genre in England, and writing or analysing it a sign of one's spiritual maturity. It allows the critic the chance both to be delicately perceptive and to combine sensitivity with social awareness. Poems hint at social conditions, so that a critic can feel fashionable engage. But since poems are usually political in indirect ways, they don't demand the kind of full-blooded approach that would be unpopular in a post-political age.

It is no surprise, then, that the area is as well-populated by critics as it is. One opens Sean O'Brien's new study of contemporary British and Irish poetry with a dreary sense of deja vu. Here, for the umpteenth time, are studies of Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, Tony Harrison and Peter Porter.

The artful O'Brien, however, manages to rise above the staleness of his genre. These compellingly readable essays are lively without being bumptious, and judicious without being dull.

O'Brien's title hints at his general case about English poetry today. Just as British society has been thoroughly Thatcherised, so poetry has been taken out of the hands of collective orthodoxies like Modernism or the Movement and privatised. Poetic monopolies have been dismantled into a medley of literary free-marketeers, so that one would be hard put to say what Fleur Adock and Tom Paulin, or John Fuller and Peter Reading, have in common. We no longer live in an age of avant-gardes and manifestos, house-styles and cultural movements.

This is a sound enough point, though the cynical might see it as a thin rationale for pulling such a disparate bunch of writers inside the same covers. It also ignores the extent to which contemporary English poets, though they may lack a common ideology, share a tacit consensus about what a poem is. The prototypical modern English poem is brief, ironic and disenchanted, a cunning mixture of colloquial and figurative language which culminates in a stray, clinching insight. If it avoids the high- toned rhetoric of Modernism, it also steers clear of the aggressive flatness of the Movement.

But O'Brien is right to see that English poetry today is post-orthodox - even, one might add, post-post-orthodox. The post-orthodox are those who still live in the shadow of some mighty literary figure or current; we live in the shadow of Philip Larkin, which hardly blots the landscape as dauntingly as an Eliot or an Auden.

The survey is crammed with insights which refuse to flaunt their own cleverness. Geoffrey Hill is a "sullenly superior malcontent" who plucks sensuous shapes out of half-abstractions, while Derek Mahon's verse is cluttered with hard-edged objects like hubcaps, oildrums, crabs and hatboxes. Ciaran Carson's writing is "a blend of nervy, feverish aestheticism and warm, minutely detailed ordinariness". The patriotism of Ted Hughes is really just another version of his celebrated primitivism. Craig Raine goes in for a kind of serious showing-off, and produces at his worst a "sophisticated vulgarity, loudly pointing at things without quite seeing them".

The book keeps a reasonable balance between eminences grises - Larkin, Hill, Hughes, Heaney - and enfants terribles such as Simon Armitage and Peter Reading. It has an excellent section on the Irish, though Maebh McGuckian is oddly absent, contains a clutch of Scots, and throws in one or two avant-gardists like Roy Fisher.

Loosely linking this assorted bunch is a meditation on Englishness, all the way from the end-of-empire nostalgia of Larkin and Hill to social class in Tony Harrison and the theme of nationhood in Scots such as Douglas Dunn and Robert Crawford. The period O'Brien writes about is the era in which, at least as far as writing goes, "English" ceased to denote a nation and became the name of a language. As a Cambridge undergraduate in 1970, O'Brien applied for permission to write an essay on Seamus Heaney, only to be informed by the English faculty that "Seamus O'Heaney" was not considered a suitable subject for study. They did, however, direct him to RS Thomas, no doubt in the time-honoured English belief that one Celt is as good as another.


The reviewer is Warton Professor of English Literature at Oxford University.