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Tuesday, 17 June 2014

ON BRITISHNESS

There has been much debate in the last few weeks in Britain, regarding what constitutes Britishness and British Values.  Ironically, the sort of people who tend who ironically laugh at patriotic, family values-oriented Americans, are now espousing their own jingoistic, nationalistic version of same.  A recent poll, as reported by the BBC, even suggests that most British people think to be British means you have to be born in Britain - holding citizenship or even a passport is merely a technicality.  This blood-Britishness is a disquieting rejoinder to the notion that the UK is a sophisticated, international, and multicultural society, or series of overlapping societies.  Indeed, if a majority of people in Britain really think Britishness is born, not made, then no wonder UKIP is on the rise.  It's an idea profoundly unwelcoming to immigration, in many ways.  Eyewear is a British blog, because it has been based in London, UK, for around ten years, and its editor holds British citizenship.

What is British poetry then? Roddy Lumsden famously restricted it to people who had been "here" for quite some time, in his anthology, as opposed to blow-ins, and of course editors can draw borders as they wish.  For many critics, Pound is not British, nor even Eliot.  Britishness is not Englishness, of course, or Scottishness, or Welshness.  It is something more complex, and, I would argue, ideally it is very inclusive. My definition of British poetry is banal, to be helpful: it is poetry written by people living in Britain when they write it, who consider themselves British; or poetry written anywhere else, too - by people who are British citizens.  It can be in any (or no) language. It needn't be published in Britain.  Michael Donaghy, thus, is a British poet.  So too, Eliot. Wendy Cope is a British Poet.  But so too is Denise Riley.

As for the nature of Britishness in poetry - well, that's another blog post - but it seems safe to assume that in a kingdom of 60+ million souls, an art form practiced by tens of thousands will have many variations, be multiform, heterogeneous, and resist easy definition.  Britishness is rife with contradictions, as all identity is - no person is just one aspect of themselves - we are all myriad aspects of a contiguous but ever-complicating self. British poetry helps to celebrate and explore that variousness, and, at its best, evidences a subtlety, generosity, and inclusiveness not more widely in evidence among the majority of Britons.
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