Wednesday, 24 September 2008


One of the differences between North American and British life, I think, is transparency. British society, older, and more traditional in many ways, still appears to often move forward through a series of nods and silent gestures - the patronage system that, in a monarchy, still means there are citizens knighted each year; much use of power, in the UK, is either rendered invisible, or less visible, than in, say, America - where, despite its many problems - one can currently see leading political figures openly debating the future of the US economy, and its failings - and problems with, for example, the Iraq war.

Yesterday's speech by Gordon Brown, for all its dullness with a human face approach, never broached the wars that Britain is fighting. Much gets dusted under the rug. Of course, Noam Chomsky is despised by mainstream America for seeking to delve deeper into the power structures of US finance and government - the entire West is based on smoke and mirrors (capitalism's trick of naturalising itself, as if competition was truly just what we are, what we do). Discussions of poetry, and poetics, in the UK, are often curiously distanced from the nitty-gritty: who publishes who, and why, and where - and who judges who, for what prize, and why - or even, how is a poem made, and why that way, and not another? I often strike some British poets as uncouth, as if it was wrong to actually question why, for instance, everyone (well, almost everyone) seems to think A is a brilliant poet, and master craftsman - or why B is still a minority taste in England. These questions are never personal - they are, in one sense, political - they seek to comprehend a system of judgements, that, with few engaged interlocutors, continues, mostly unchecked, and untested, by brunt of force - the force of those with the strongest will, and often, the best publishing jobs.

I was once told by a very good, serious, young avant-garde poet that no one can change the poetry system, all one can do is write good poems. However, that begs two questions: what is a good poem, and why can't one change the poetry system? Is it natural? Is it so entrenched, that it will last for a thousand years? In fact, the current poetry consensus is fragmenting, thanks to the rise of smaller innovative presses, like Salt, Eggbox, tall-lighthouse, and so on - and the emergence of dozens of young poets, often without vested interests (though many do seem linked to Roddy Lumsden, one of the most influential, engaged mentors that British poetry has ever had).

There do seem to be limits to who can rise, and how fast. I sometimes watch meteoric careers, with wonder. If anointed, will be protected, then boosted. This is fine, but it isn't about poetry - it's about the politics of the playground, and we all know it. Know it, but dare not speak out. It's not British to complain. However, the silence means that certain figures have amassed extraordinary influence, over the publishing, promotion, and reviewing, of poetry in the UK. This power has nothing, and everything, to do with poetry. TS Eliot blocked the publication of Wallace Stevens in the UK for some time - and that decision had a direct impact on the reception of the wonderful, sublime poetics that we now think of as Stevensian, within British poetry. That's just one example. There are many. Poetry editors, in the UK, exert immense power, and determine, more or less, what the mainstream thinks of as poetry.

I am not against influence - or even stewardship of an art form by leading practitioners. I would like to see more open discussion of the ways that poetry, publishing, and poetics, intermingle in Britain. Why does editor X think poet Y deserves to have a book, or prize, and not Z? Too often, the reason is, we are told, because the poet in question is "the real thing", or some other such fuzzy meaningless evaluation. British poetry seems to have moved away from clarity of judgement, such as was espoused by I.A. Richards. Poets rarely know on what grounds they are to be judged.

Why, for example, was Sean O'Brien's collection judged better than Edwin Morgan's? Not, as some think, sneeringly, for personal reasons. But, I think likely, due to poetics. Morgan's diverse, heterogeneity of style is more international than O'Brien's formal voice grounded in place. It's seen as "better" by many poets and critics here. This isn't just about language, or politics - it is, but not just - it's about laying cards out on the table: what's good poetry, and what isn't, and why.

I'd like to see a reasoned defense for the superiority of a fixed and constant voice, over a fluctuating verbal style (Heaney vs. Koch, for instance). What are the prejudices on which poetic preferences are based? Ironically, in the UK, the turn against elitism, and the rise of a literate working class (after 1945), saw poets like Amis, then Harrison, and now Paterson, avoid the pitfalls of so-called flamboyance, and rhetoric, in favour of a voiced but nuanced everyman-as-craftsman approach - the well-made lyric poem of experience and utterance; ironic, because this has become the new elite style. The old elite, academic, opaque, difficult, clever, educated - is now marginalised, and seen as "postmodern" and somehow unBritish (in some quarters). Whole styles have been shrugged off.

Morgan is a genius, who, in America, might be heralded as a major figure; here, he is lauded, but somewhat evaded. There is an anxiety in Britain about being too smart, too slick, too "American" - which is why Brown's presidential trick of bringing his wife out to introduce him yesterday was startling, and, though finally triumphant, momentarily embarrassing.

Eyewear is thinking of running a poll, to discover who its readers think are the most influential trend-setters, and style-makers, the true movers and shakers, in contemporary British poetry. If you can see something, then you can see for yourself. Feel free to suggest who should be included in the poll.
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