Thursday, May 11, 2006

Experimental British Poetry: An Open Letter to Stephen Burt

Stephen Burt, who has become ubiquitous in all print venues as a poetry critic, does all sorts of good things by way of getting the word out about developments in poetry. And I owe him one for teaching a session of my nineteenth-century Brit lit survey when he was in town last fall. So I revel in his ever-increasing visibility, and was glad to see his review of new books of poetry by Robin Robertson and Nick Laird in last Sunday's New York Times Book Review. Steve said some sharp things about both poets, but one of his opening remarks has been a bit of a stone in my shoe for the last few days. So here, by way of shaking the stone out from my sneaker, an open letter to Stephen Burt.

Dear Steve,

I was glad to see your piece in the New York Times the other day, but I can't help wondering about one of your opening remarks. You began the piece by claiming:

Americans do not read many living British poets, nor — except for international standouts like Seamus Heaney — do we see much current Irish verse. Poets who take their bearings from London or Edinburgh, Belfast or Dublin tend to depict realistic characters or places, in poems that grow from a sliver of plot or a stub of event. If these poets seem limited, that may be because we don't read enough of them. Their requirements — brevity, clarity, story — permit approaches as different as Robin Robertson's and Nick Laird's: the first stoic, generalizing and compellingly terse; the second loquacious, voluble, able to revel in details.

Spot on about Robertson and Laird! And I'm with you all the way about Americans not paying enough attention to the Brits. But this business about British poets as down-to-earth, low-key realists, giving us slices of ordinary life in clear, straightforward language -- I just don't think it's true enough to stand as a generalization. In fact, I think the persistence of this idea about British poets as post-Movement Larkinizers may be a part of the problem you're working so hard to solve. I'm with you, Steve, in your desire to spread the word about British poetry. But I think the notion that the British are formally conservative isn't just false, but an actual impediment to generating interest in British poetry on this side of the Atlantic.

The idea of British poetry as fundamentally conservative in form (if not always in its thematic concerns) is a pervasive one, both over here and in many British circles. Andrew Duncan, in The Failure of Conservatism in Modern British Poetry, goes so far as to describe the idea as constituting a climate of received opinion, one so dominant that goes without saying in many of journals and syllabi that concern themselves with British poetry. Duncan tells us that the history of postwar British poetry, in this version of events, looks something like this:

  • 1950s: Larkin + Hill

  • 1960s: Hughes + Heaney

  • 1970s: Harrison

  • 1980s: Motion + Grace Nichols + Craig Raine + Muldoon

  • 1990s: Maxwell + Armitage

  • One might take issue with Duncan's assumption that Geoffrey Hill is formally conservative, but there's something to his view. I think most of my colleagues, when they think of British poetry since WWII, think of a history more or less like this.

    Low visibility, though, isn't the same as absence. Just because Britain has been presented as the Land that Modernism Forgot doesn't mean that modernist and postmodernist poetry haven't flourished there, beyond the charmed circle of public attention. There's a long history of British modernist poetry (David Jones, Basil Bunting, et al) and a whole range of postmodern British experimental poetry, too, from Roy Fisher, Jeremy Prynne and Tom Raworth, to Allen Fisher, Bill Griffiths and Geraldine Monk, to Caroline Bergvall, Rod Mengham and Peter Middleton, and on and on.

    There have, periodically, been attempts to dislodge the notion that British poetry is a conservative, Movement-oriented game. There was even a smaller version of America's anthology wars, in which John Matthias' 1971 book, 23 Modern British Poets was the central battleground. The anthology was edited, says Matthias in his introduction, as a wake-up call to all those whe felt that, in poetry, “‘British' means old or tired … Philip Larkin rather than Tom Raworth.” Matthias' anthology upset a few people, including Donald Davie, then one of the leading critics of British poetry, who chose to lash out at it as if it were but the most visible of a whole series of attacks on the cherished canon of Movement types:

    There are now on offer to the American reader anthologies of British poetry since 1945 [sic — there was only one such anthology, Matthias’], which claim to show that British writing over this period is as “exciting,” as little “genteel,” as what is being written in America. Of the poets I have considered, it should be plain which will be represented in such an anthology, which will be excluded from it. Let Larkin stand as an example of those who will be excluded. Yet, like it or not, Larkin is the centrally representative figure.

    It was remarks like that, I suppose (from Thomas Hardy and British Poetry), that helped to perpetuate the myth that British poets weren't experimental, (or, if they were experimental, weren't really British). That such myths die hard was shown clearly enough as late as 2001, when Keith Tuma's experimentally-inclined Oxford Anthology of Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry had a very divided, very heated reception. (In the interests of full disclosue, I'll own up to having been one of Oxford UP's readers for Tuma's book. I'll also own up to being published by Salt, which publishes many of the British experimentalists I've mentioned, as well as the poetry of John Matthias).

    There's much more to say about why the myth of British poetic conservatism persists, and just as much to say about a similarly pervasive myth about Irish poetry. But the question I'd like to turn to now is that of just how much damage the myth does to the presence of British poetry on the American scene. I don't know any way to quantify it, but I'm sure the idea of the Brits as conservative has put many American readers off. We live, after all, in the age of Langpo Triumphant, and in a scene where even the most stalwartly mainstream of publications has taken to pubishing poetry inflected by various forms of experimentation. The rise of Jorie Graham, a crossover/fusion figure if ever there was one, is a case in point, and the continued prominence of John Ashbery is another. American poetic tastes have turned, to some degree, toward the postmodern and experimental (albiet often in dilute or hybrid forms), and the perpetuation of the Movement idea of British poetry, with its Larkin-to-Armitage succession, won't help turn Americans on to the breadth and depth of British work in poetry.

    The American failure to appreciate British poetry in all its variousness is particularly disconcerting because some of the most vibrant British experimental poetry has something important to offer to American poetry. Romana Huk, one of the few American critics attuned to British poetry beyond the Larkin-Armitage variety, makes an acute point about this in "Between Revolutions, or Turns," her contribution to Word Play Place. She tells us that British experimental poets have been deeply interested in matters of geography and history, or what we might (if we're feeling just a bit academic) call the geo-historical location of poetic articulation. This, Huk tells us, is what separates the Brits from their peers in postwar American experimental poetry where, with a few notable exceptions, the emphasis lies more on linguistic disruption than on the locatedness of the poetic subject. “In Britain,” writes Huk, “interest in the collisions of historically influential discourses in contemporary frames occupies more time in experimental texts than does fully disjunctive assemblage of words made into material objects.” What is more, “the project of locating language rather than releasing it from particular places and speakers also might be said to differentiate British from American work.” I've ranted too much elsewhere about the need for American poets to get beyond the two dead ends of self-absorbtion and linguistic ideterminacy for me to bore you with my usual routine here. Suffice it to say that British experimental poetry's emphasis on matters beyond these may just be the cure for much of what ails us over here. But if the Movement myth persists, there's very little chance Americans will catch on.

    So, Steve, I thank you for reviewing Brit Poets in the most prominent book reviews section in the land. I can't help but think, though, that you've missed a chance to dispell a disabling myth. Then again, given your laudible ubiquity in so many jounrals and reviews, I'm sure you'll have plenty of chances to set the record straight. I'm looking forward to it!

    And I still remember that I owe you one for that class you covered last fall. Call in the favor any time.

    Warm regards,