'LITERATURE is news that stays news,' said Ezra Pound, a remark which poets, an even less newsworthy breed than novelists and playwrights, sometimes quote to themselves for consolation. Ignored by journalists, tucked away in bookshops, and unable to find a public which will buy their slim volumes in large (or even small) numbers, poets can be forgiven for despairing of their own age and for looking to Dame Posterity to take them under her wing.
But just at present, poetry is in the news, or at least in newspapers. It's in the Guardian each Saturday and in the Independent during the week. It was in this newspaper during last year's general election (Kit Wright) and again at Christmas (William Scammell). Provincial papers have always had their Poetry Corner, but for national ones to feature poems suggests an expectation that poetry can give us something we won't otherwise find.
What is that something? Pleasure? Compression of thought and feeling? Do those readers who turn to a daily poem hope to find an insight into their society, or an eternal verity? Both, perhaps. There is no reason why a Thomas Hardy poem shouldn't help us understand John Major's Britain, or why a Geoffrey Hill poem shouldn't teach us about 19th-century France. Newspapers may even find themselves printing poems that tell them about newspapers. Here is Carol Ann Duffy (b 1955) in the voice of a man who writes tabloid headlines, whom she calls, with bitter irony or envy, a 'Poet for Our Times', and who sounds as hard-bitten as the brokers in Caryl Churchill's Serious Money: 'And, yes, I have a dream - make that a scotch, ta - / that kids will know my headlines off by heart. / 'Immigrants Flood In Claims Heathrow Watcher'. / 'Green Party Woman Is A Nightclub Tart. / The poems of the decade . . . Stuff 'em] Gotcha] / The instant tits and bottom line of art.'
This poem appears in an anthology called The New Poetry, which claims to offer not the spurious but the genuine 'poems of the decade', and which has itself been making a few (quality) headlines this week, because of its polemical introduction. Excluding all the poets in the last anthology of this kind, The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry, edited by Andrew Motion and myself in 1982, this book introduces a new generation of British and Irish writers, 'pluralistic' and multi-ethnic, who, it says, are 'at last providing the writing the age demands'.
What do the poets in this book tell us that we didn't already know about the society they - and we - are living in? Certainly they tell us plenty that we'd grasped, or guessed. As well as ordinary, eternal poems about falling in love, or smelling flowers, or smoking cigarettes, there are poems here about the miners' strike, industrial disease, urban violence, dossers under the Festival Hall, terrorism in Belfast, immigrant difficulties in adjusting to British life, police brutality and sexual abuse. These poems often scarcely improve on the newspapers, or the headline-makers: they are part of the same language, not a new one; they answer our need for 'relevance', without shaking our assumptions.
The real story of this anthology is to be found in its contributors' notes. Hardly any of these poets live in London; their homes are in Glasgow, Dublin, Sheffield, Hull, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Cardiff, and smaller towns remote from the Home Counties and received pronunication. The anthology itself is published by Bloodaxe, a resourceful new house which operates from Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The introduction speaks in all seriousness of groups like 'the Huddersfield Poets'.
The Huddersfield Poets] Poets have come from Huddersfield before, but until recently it was axiomatic that any would-be writer in a provincial town (especially a Northern, non-university town) would have to go to London, or Oxbridge, to pursue his (or her, but probably his) career. You had to move to find like-minded spirits, to persuade publishers to take you seriously, or to scrape a freelance career in journalism, teaching or publishing. This anthology implies that those of us who gravitated to London, losing old friends and disappointing our parents, were wrong. We should have stayed and kept our accents. We didn't need to go to poetry; poetry would come to us; perhaps poetry had been there all along.
The last great 'provincial' movement in British culture, in the late 1950s and 1960s, the era of John Wain, Alan Sillitoe, Stan Barstow, David Storey, John Braine, was actually deeply anti-provincial. It celebrated certain 'Northern virtues' - bluntness, toughness, ambition - but propelled its successful heroes Southwards. The great set-piece of these novels (as compulsory as having a French and/or married woman to initiate the hero sexually, unmarried English girls apparently being unwilling to perform the task) was when the hero climbed above the Lowryesque terraces where he grew up and, looking fondly down on the smoke-swept valley below, decided he'd outgrown it, that it was time to leave. The rock groups of the Sixties, mirroring this progress away from roots in Liverpool and Newcastle to celebrity in London, hummed to the same tune. 'We gotta get out of this place,' sang Eric Burdon with The Animals, 'If it's the last thing we ever do . . . / Girl there's a better life for me and you.'
That feeling seems to have gone. Now it's London that's the 'dirty old city' to escape from, and Newcastle that offers the better life. Living in the sticks no longer condemns a writer to stony solitude. Poets simply don't need London's publishing houses like they used to, now there's Bloodaxe, or Carcanet in Manchester, and a thriving scene in Hull (a place to which Philip Larkin thought he'd gone to be a literary hermit). And if you're living beyond the M25 and do need the freelance work London offers, phones and fax machines make it easier to pursue a long-distance career. The margins have become the centre, argue the editors of this anthology. And their message has to do with more than poetry: it is symptomatic of a wider rejection of London, its money, its corroded values, its politics, its newspapers, its dirt.
This is to simplify a thesis which is simplistic enough to begin with; which at worst merely inverts rather than rejects old North-South divisions; which forgets that London is more than the City and is ungenerous towards the culture it offers; which is too ready to see cottage industries and laptop publishing initiatives and Milton Keynesianism as alternatives to an unshakeable metropolitan power-base. There are still young people who find the provinces deadly; and in the metropolis, life is not all bad. Nevertheless, there is a real story, even a news story here: how in the Eighties, while the South spent, spent, spent on Thatcherism, other parts of the country quietly nourished a more diverse, less insular culture.
Last weekend, in a marquee in Hay-on-Wye, I heard Joseph Heller debating the state of the American novel with two fellow novelists. It was the sort of gathering you might get on the South Bank or at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. But three yards away, through an awning, was a large empty hayfield. Like the Bloodaxe anthology, it was a reminder that books exist outside cities. When two or three people are gathered together to talk about books, that's a literary culture. Something, like nothing, can happen anywhere.
Neal Ascherson is on holiday
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