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Friday, 4 April 2014

BRITPOP AND THE NEW GEN POETS

20 years ago, two things happened culturally in Britain - one of which is about to be massively celebrated, the other less so.  They are both somewhat connected.

The first was the official establishment of Britpop as an event in the media, much like The Movement or The Swinging Sixties.  This meant that Blur, Pulp, Suede, Oasis,Elastica and to a lesser degree, a few other bands, spent the second half of the 90s as pop music superstars, soaked in competition, recreational drug use and endless sexual romping - in short, it was 1964 all over again (or Duran Duran's 1984) - and, as other critics have noted, it was not at all like the 80s, where the best indie bands were never about genuine popular acclaim or pop excesses.

I am sure Pixies did have sex with groupies and use drugs, but that isn't the first thing one thinks of when listening to their music.  The British media have been waiting for another such moment ever since, but 2004 didn't bring it, and, in 2014, we have Arctic Monkeys, as some sort of pale successor, not as good as The Beatles, Joy Division, The Smiths, Oasis or even The Libertines - arguably the great bands of their successive decades.

Meanwhile, 20 years ago, there was a Britpoetry moment, when the New Generation was announced, and this was the list:

  • Moniza Alvi
  • Simon Armitage
  • John Burnside
  • Robert Crawford
  • David Dabydeen
  • Michael Donaghy
  • Carol Ann Duffy
  • Ian Duhig
  • Elizabeth Garrett
  • Lavinia Greenlaw
  • W. N. Herbert
  • Michael Hofmann
  • Mick Imlah
  • Kathleen Jamie
  • Jamie McKendrick
  • Sarah Maguire
  • Glyn Maxwell
  • Don Paterson
  • Pauline Stainer
  • Susan Wicks

  • The media briefly tried to make a connection, as if Cool Britannia really had much to do with the new poetry - which often seemed to come from the Midlands or the North (like some of the music) and often also, like Britpop, seemed to be a bit about the state of the nation, and seemed to speak to a wider audience, with a greater sense of communal purpose, than before.

    The list, seen from 20 years later, is like a Who's Who of the elder statespersons of British poetry publishing, and editing, more or less, give or take a few missing names.  But is hardly a pop or cool list per se.  Very few of the poets are forgotten now (Garrett is unfamiliar to me). Sadly a few are dead, including Imlah and Donaghy, arguably the best poets of their generation.

    Another is now Poet Laureate, and another, Paterson, is the Laureate in waiting, if he wants it. Armitage is the superstar among them, along with Duffy - a poet known to all students, and to all who watch or listen to the BBC.  He is a national figure, and is perhaps the most thwarted of them all, because with his sense of music, style, humour, and verve, was (and is) the closest to a Britpop phenomenon - but of course, he had and has the integrity of a genuine poet, and could never really break into a wider mainstream of arenas and screaming fans.  It is poetry, after all, thank goodness. There probably wasn't a bad poet on that list - and their work will, for the most part, last as long or longer than the Britpop music.

    But it wasn't really a new poetry style, like it might at first have seemed.  Anecdotal, usually.  Witty, and imagistic, often.  Accessible, probably.  Edgy, perhaps.  Attuned to new concerns regarding society, diversity, regionalism, the environment, sometimes. But to say where the bearings came from, you'd be hard-pressed to go beyond Larkin, Muldoon, Heaney, Hughes, and Auden, and a bit of Edward Thomas, Andrew Motion, Peter Porter, and Thomas Hardy.

    These were not poets who wrote as if they read or enjoyed Dylan Thomas, William Empson, Charles Olson, or, for that matter, Hart Crane.  They seemed barely touched by Eliot, or Edith Sitwell. Not much Pound, Lorca, or - except for Paterson and Hoffman perhaps - Rilke or BennYeats? Hill? Not much, either.  These were not poets of lyric modernism - these were poets of post-modern lyricism - lyricism as somewhere between a pop song, a game, and a spoken voice.  They weren't poets of rampant innovation, or deconstructed form and language, but neither were they in thrall to the traditions of Milton, or even The Martians.  If they used conceits, it was a mild version of John Donne, and their complexity was never unappealing or too far from the idea of a basic human need to comprehend and be comprehended by, other persons.

    Crawford seems the most political, perhaps, in retrospect, Burnside the greatest nature poet among them; Paterson the master formalist; Duffy the great communicator, the great feminist poet of her age; Alvi a fine post-colonial writer; Herbert, the linguistic genius. I could go on - they each have strengths. These poets have marked out a traditional way of writing poetry that has influenced Canadian poetry a great deal - our leading younger poets are almost entirely shaped by Jamie, Duffy, and Paterson, with Muldoon thrown in. They continue to shape the new poets just writing now - one thinks of major young poet Jack Underwood, whose doctoral work was on Donaghy. Yet, the newest poets seem also freshly unmoored from these poets, and even their successors, who came ten years later - and notably, one the major poet-editor of these times, Roddy Lumsden, is missing, as are key avant-gardists like Keston Sutherland, but still, it is a weighty list:

  • Patience Agbabi
  • Amanda Dalton
  • Nick Drake
  • Jane Draycott
  • Paul Farley
  • Leontia Flynn
  • Matthew Francis
  • Sophie Hannah
  • Tobias Hill
  • Gwyneth Lewis
  • Alice Oswald
  • Pascale Petit
  • Jacob Polley
  • Deryn Rees-Jones
  • Maurice Riordan
  • Robin Robertson
  • Owen Sheers
  • Henry Shukman
  • Catherine Smith
  • Jean Sprackland

  • Which one is Blur?  Which one is Northern Uproar, or These Animal Men, or Shed Seven?  I leave that up to you, dear reader.

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