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Thursday, 10 January 2008

Viva America!

America is having an early springtime, to paraphrase Reagan, brought on by the extraordinary flowering of its grassroots democracy, as captured by the worldwide media over the last week or so. Despite the bias of many snobs in Europe and beyond, who sniff at American ways of doing things, and fear or loathe the American tendency for optimism, sentiment, and faith in public expression, the Obama-Clinton wave has been a corrective. It's impossible not to be impressed by the genuine force and energy of the people, everyday and humane, concerned and informed, who are the green fuse of these primaries. British papers, often known to mock America, are filled with editorials gushing with Niagra-like praise (the Canadian side of Niagara at that).

One thing is clear: America has, despite all its flaws and foibles, the most active and open democratic system in the world today, and almost any American (short of a convicted criminal) is free to rise to the challenge of running for the Presidency, as in Lincoln's day, but more so. As is often said, a woman, an African-American, a Mormon, all have a good shot.

There is a huge irony in this new British enthusiasm for the American freedom to be, to say, and to express - since it is these energies, precisely, which are actively suppressed, and opposed, in the nativist English critical tradition in contemporary British poetry. That is to say, the English line defended and argued for, by the likes of critic Edna Longley, is precisely not about freedom.

Yet, the great theme of poetry is freedom. Modern poetry, which begins, properly, with two American geniuses, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman, resolves to extend the canonical tradition, working with then beyond, formal structures, opening out into the infamous "telling it slant" or a "barbaric yawp". This slant yawp is modern diction and syntax, and it means that the American side wins the dream poetry match of the last 158 years or so. Or comes close.

At issue, so often, in British poetry circles, is concern with propriety, gentility, decorum, and subtle nuances of "voice". Also emphasised is command of form, and craft. Poetry, exactly, not carried away by itself, or a sense of language or moment carried on a wave of emotion. Irony often holds sway. Or a very gentle lyric self gets expressed, with no apple carts overturned.

Democracy offers more raw, more chafed, delights - the jumble and bustle, zip and hip-hip-hooray of anything-may-happen. This is the poetry of a Plath, an O'Hara. I hesitate to suggest that every society gets the poetry it deserves, but in England, at least, poetry, and society, are united, and both falling. In America, the more open options, the sense that the best poem is still out there, waiting to be written, means that, united, poetry and freedom stand.

Where is the Obama of British poetry? Who currently astounds, moves, inspires, and galvanizes? The British Big Boys of Poetry keep a lid on anything that might actually stir the young, the masses. Too often, what we get is a safe pair of hands.
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