Brothers, whether we like it or not

Click to follow
WHEN I first started reading modern poetry, a large part of the romance came from a contemplation of the Faber list, which was printed on the back of each volume. The list seemed to tell you what you ought to read and what you ought to buy. And when a new poet was added to it, that seemed a signal honour.

So, when Seamus Heaney's first volume came out in 1966, I thought of Heaney as the new Faber poet; and when I had read the poems, I thought of him as the new Faber poet writing in the tradition of Ted Hughes. I am sure I knew that Heaney was from Northern Ireland, but Irishness was not what I first associated with him.

In 1969, Douglas Dunn was added to the list; his first volume was largely about Hull, and so I suppose I would have thought of him as the latest Faber poet of the urban rather than rural persuasion. Meeting him shortly after, I learnt he was a Scot, but I would not have thought of his Scottishness as being one of the first things you would mention about him. Dunn's Scottishness was a bit like Heaney's Irishness, a detail, not a definition.

You may call this attitude to background or nationality a bit cavalier. That I was not alone in this cavalierness can be illustrated by Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion's 1982 anthology, Contemporary British Poetry. Six of the poets came from Northern Ireland, and it seems to have been assumed by the anthologists that this made them British. Heaney, whose work was one of the showpieces of the collection, objected strongly to his inclusion in a book with such a title, and he published a poem vigorously asserting that he was Irish, not British. 'My passport's green,' said a line that stuck in my mind.

So since then we have had no excuse for making that mistake. And yet there was a meaning of sorts behind the title Contemporary British Poetry. It described what the anthologists believed to be a community of cultural activity, a various community, but roughly speaking contained within the boundaries controlled by the British government.

What is changing is not the conventional terms by which we describe ourselves, but our sense of nationhood. And it is changing not only in the British Isles but throughout the poetry of the English-speaking world. And it affects the dead as well as living poets. During the period in which Heaney became more and more Irish, the same thing was happening to Louis MacNeice.

MacNeice had been a Thirties poet, one of the Auden school, a London figure, a BBC man, a Faber poet. Now he is an Irish poet and no longer Auden's sidekick. He has acquired a posthumous reputation as an Irish writer who happened, like many Irish writers, to live in exile.

Meanwhile, the latest anthology to try to capture the spirit of contemporary poetry has reverted to Al Alvarez's old title: The New Poetry. And this, I guess, allows the compilers to skip the question of nationality, although it opens up another question: what is the community, or commonality, we are talking about? What are the cultural boundaries of poetry? If an Irish poet gets into the new anthology, why not an American? Is not this also the New Poetry?

The old Faber list expressed a commonality in this sense: the Americans, English, Irish and Scots on it were all mutually comprehensible poets, writing within the same broad tradition. What mattered was what they shared. Nationality did not matter.

In fact, the list contained two cultural cross-dressers: Eliot and Auden. Auden was really a citizen of the world. It would be absurd, he thought, to refer to himself as the Birmingham poet, W H Auden.

On the question of nationality, he was to discover that if his nationality meant nothing to him, it had a meaning for other people. A great and abiding resentment against him followed his move to America. And in America you can sometimes trace a similar, less pronounced, resentment of Eliot.

It is as if, long after the end of empire, the old colonial or anti-colonial battles were still being fought, by shadow warriors, through the medium of poetry, as if the Boston Tea Party were still going on. Each nation has to assert itself. Canadian poetry has to say: this is what it is to be Canadian, this is what sets us apart from other North Americans.

A hard task, perhaps. In New Zealand there seems to be a tendency to say: if there is such a thing as New Zealand poetry, it must be imbued with Maori traditions. And so people have to bone up on their Maori culture in order to acquire a stake in their own country. Or the country that they are not quite certain belongs to them.

So, as Australians become more assertively Australian, Scots more Scots, Irish more Irish, the effect of these post- imperial battles is to leave the English poet (that is, the poet from and living in England) feeling faintly dismembered. When I go to read my poems in Northern Ireland, I hear myself referred to as a British poet. And that is fun for a while, because in Britain I would think twice before saying I was a British poet. That might imply that I 'spoke for' Scotland and Wales. Nor would I refer to Douglas Dunn as a British poet, since that might seem to involve him in an imperial enterprise not to his taste.

If I say, however, that I am an English poet, I do not mean to imply that I think England as present constituted is a nation on its own. Nor do I wish to imply that I belong, as a poet, to a different community from Dunn. But then my sense of poetic community would certainly include America, would include any poetry written in the English language in any of its forms.

Not everyone would agree with this definition of community. Helen Vendler, in her Faber Book of Contemporary American Poetry, says that the American language is 'a language separate, in accent, intonation, discourse, and lexicon, from English'. But I think that is twaddle.

The English language remains the true basis for our poetic community. It is an international language, the language of popular song and of scientific papers. An American poet is my brother, whether he likes it or not.

Last week the British government declared it had no selfish economic or strategic interest in Northern Ireland. OK. But I would just like to say on behalf of poets that we retain our selfish poetic interest in the province, whatever its 'little destiny' may be.