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Thursday, 13 March 2008

Frances Leviston and the Magnificent Seven

North American poetry cannot imagine how conservative and traditional most mainstream English poets are - though perhaps this makes sense, given the fact that the English poetic tradition is both long and unusually impressive, solid grounding on which to stake commonsense claims. To try to get a sense of how stolid most poetic thinking in the UK is now, read the opinion piece in today's Guardian by UK poet Frances Leviston, a new Picador poet, whose work is affiliated with that of Don Paterson, Sean O'Brien, and others of that serious group. It is worth noting (and I think, for instance, a poet-critic like Ron Silliman wouldn't bother) that the above-mentioned are good, intelligent poets, who know a lot about verse, and craft.

Some of their work is very fine, and contributes to a genuine line of English poetry, that extends from Thomas Hardy, through Ted Hughes down to the present. Since there has never really been post-modern poetry in Britain (they had pop music instead to do that for them), the two camps that often bicker are either modernists or anti-modernists - and both are solidly based (ironically) in sober tenets that look nicked from Eliot's notebooks - impersonality, complexity, irony. What British poetry prefers is tone. It is very nuanced, this British ear, and it responds poorly to what it feels is a too-disordered shifting in levels of tone and diction in much contemporary North American poetry. Traditional English poetry knows its place. It is about place, and placing the voice in a location. This is what marks its strength, its focus - and Seamus Heaney is the king of this lyric realm, where much impressive work is done. Fine and dandy - but it makes for an often incurious time.

Perhaps North American poetry searches too much, and misses out on the beauty of knowing where to root one's language - usually in forms that come from a tradition. Still, I find that some of Leviston's claims in her piece (which seems to have been written in order to generate interest in the current 7-part pamphlet series to which she refers) are ones that I must disagree with, respectfully. Chiefly, I must question what it is she means when she writes that she believes in "putting the considerations of the poem before personal feelings, politics, religion or gender."

This is precisely the sort of empiricist thinking that avoids "Theory" like it was the Bubonic Plague. It is also very old school Eliot, if even that. What are "the considerations of the poem"? I imagine they would be ones that would be hermetically-sealed, in New Critical fashion, from history, ideology, language, sexuality, or other influences. Leviston supplies us with a list of things that come second, after the "poem" (as a Utopian, idealised object): personal feelings, politics, religion, gender.

This is frankly preposterous, and I am not sure even Frances Leviston could write a poem that resisted the influences she lists - and who would want to? Naturally, poets wish to avoid sentimentality, political rhetoric, fundamentalist dogma, and sexism - but let us not conflate those evils with sentiment, commitment, faith, or an awareness of one's self and body. I do not think it is possible to keep "personal feelings, politics, religion or gender" out of a poem - and few great poets do, or did. When one thinks of Donne, or Hopkins, or, indeed, T.S. Eliot, one thinks, also, of their faith. Whitman and Lawrence are aware of their body, both sexual and politic. Belief is part of poetry. Of course poets must place their poetry first - that is, after all, their duty and their job - but the debate is as to what, exactly, defines their sense of what "their poetry" can fit into its web, its space. One doesn't have to be Foucault or Lacan or Cicoux or Kristeva or Marx to suspect that the pleasures and problems of generating texts (poems) will involve feeling, and politics.

However, in Britain, today, there is deep suspicion of poetry that is too "political" - witness the critiques (often savage) of my anthology, 100 Poets Against The War. Though most of the poems in it were well-written, the very taint of an "agenda" marked them as suspect. Well, I happen to think that all poets, and poems, have agendas, and what's wrong with that? Only politicians and judges claim to be neutral and objective, and they tend not to be, either. I know poets - thousands of them over decades - and I have never met one who wasn't, in some way, interestingly skewed in some original or eccentric direction, and likely opinionated, especially about poetics; and, of course, to say poetry should not have politics in it is a political statement. But not in Britain, where a very naturalistic, organic myth still stands (drawn from Wordsworth) that suggests a poem is a pure thing, almost a Lockean contract, signed between an individual mind and Nature. It is a pure, perfect, and reasonable relationship, and the poem flows naturally from that.

The problem is, no one writes like that, least of all the brilliantly polluted sensibility of Sylvia Plath, whose work is so powerful precisely because it never had to choose between Tradition and Talent - or between form and content, or craft and what she needed to express. Feeling and thought fused seamlessly in her work, as it does in the work of all geniuses, not so that either is supplanted or obscured. A true poet can balance the demands of the poem with any and all other pressures on them - indeed, it is these other pressures (sex, God, love, etc.) that, as they impinge exert the force that drives the creative act of composition forward. Leviston writes as if it was as easy as pie to set aside all the things that might ruffle a poem's feathers - far from it - it is art's full struggle, and out of it is born great beauty. Now, I may have misread her, in which case I hope she will let me know.

As for the idea that the canon is formed of the best poets, regardless of gender - well, no. Canon formation is too big a topic for today, but it is well-known that many forces combine to determine who is (variously, in time) included and excluded, and nothing as simple as "the best" can be the deciding factor - if only because (as Plath's reception suggests) the idea of taste and thus the "best" changes. In Britain, perhaps, too slowly.
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