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Friday, 14 March 2008

What do British contemporary poets believe?

As an aside to my last post, let me pose a simple, yet essential, question: what do leading British contemporary poets believe? How often in recent years, and days, have leading poetic figures stepped forward to pronounce on the value of craft, and the tradition. Well and good: but as T.S. Eliot (whose name these leading poets invoke when they accept his prize) argued, poetry is not enough, culture is not enough, finally, without the addition of some belief, some values, at its core.

These constant calls for "craft" assume that most British poets are somehow sloppy open form amateurs - nothing could be less so - indeed, the average published British poet currently displays more sense of form and craft per square inch than at any other time in English history - not even The Georgians, or The Victorians, were such masters of the sonnet. Nor is there much free verse these days - the majority of English poets refer to some form of syllabic line, at least. As for Tradition - every second poet now reads (and translates) Dante, or Rilke, or Homer. 21st century British poetry is nearly as lettered and erudite as Pope on a good day.

The reading public may be ignorant, but not the poets - and there are more educated, literate people now that at any other time in human history. So, let us set aside the prerequisites, that we have read the Greats, and we can manage a sestina, and have some sense of music and diction - let us agree we are, indeed, poets, and not mere poseurs. What do we say with our words, what do we believe?

Can the poem's demands be all we speak? That would be mere trite formalism, not even formalism, but a tautology. What does a poem demand we speak? What do we speak, when language speaks through us? There are so few determined critics of contemporary British poetry, developing sustained readings of the leading poets (mainstream and otherwise), it is hard to locate an analysis, for instance, of what poets think. Not their poetic position. Their beliefs. Not ideas - but informing principles, that guide the work forward, maybe a vision. Beyond the music, what meaning in the words - or does Muldoon simply be?

We knew what Eliot, or Auden, felt, and believed, at various stages of their development - as silly as it might have been. Their work's surface, to echo Eliot on Tennyson, glimpsed depths within, which reflected the age they lived through. Can a poem be merely a mnemonic for mnemonics's sake? Is it enough that a poem tell us that evolution proceeds, that sex happens, that a moment's experience glitters like frost? The small memorable lyric, to escape being a tautological cult in itself, must stand for something in a wider system, mustn't it? - it must signify beyond the well-wrought fact of its creation.

Has the secularisation of the British poem reached so far, though, that mastery is all? Before we accept where the masters of contemporary mainstream English poetry, in their mid to late 40s, their 50s, lead us, may we not pause to reflect on what it is they hope to achieve, with their competent abilities to deploy poetic language? We suspect they resist innovation, or foreign models in style and diction, and seek comfort in classical models; we see they worship "words", rooted in locality. What words, and why these words, now? Do they resist, or enforce, any powers at large? Whenever a school of poetry attains to a level of critical or poetic hegemony, it must pause to ask itself what its tenets are, its values, or it will evaporate under the weight of its own false promise. These masters who step forward with furrowed brows, as if freighted with purpose and immense truths - what do they know, what do we need to know of them? Maybe it is all simply about poetry being important. Ah, but whose poems, and when?
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