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Exclusion and inclusion of Irish poets
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Celebrating poetry at Penguin Random House. The series is a revival of the s series that ran to 27 titles under the same name until the mid s in a bid to usher in "a new golden age".
The mission statement of the original guides, assembling groups of writers including the Mersey poets, was to introduce contemporary poetry to the "general reader" by selecting the work of three poets that would best "illustrate the poets' characteristics in style and form". By the end of the original series, it had conducted a survey of 81 poets, spanning the anti-modernist movement poetry of Kingsley Amis to British Poetry Revival member Tom Raworth who aimed to counter modernism's "pernicious influence".
Every volume in the new series promises again to bring together "the most exciting voices of our moment". The series is aimed at both "seasoned poetry fans" and "curious readers" alike.
They forgo not only the will to charisma but to any sort of persona or mask. To the poetry of every age its dream and image of itself, but there seems no special one today just as there is no memorable rhetoric. Doris hardly smokes in the ward — And hardly eats more than a dreamy spoonful — but the corridors and bathrooms reek of her Players Number 10, and the drugtrolley pauses for long minutes by her bed. The flat poem does the difficult thing of seeming to be preoccupied not with itself but with what it sees and speaks of.
Fleur Adcock manages it with an unassuming subtlety of timing and rhyme-scheme. In one sense the great discovery of the Romantic poets continues to be made.
Penguin Modern Poets 7
Most poems in this collection are genteel in the best sense: they are patient and verbally manipulative; they understand that the meticulous examination of words and impressions is the hallmark of civilised consciousness. But this kind of gentility can become an exercise in itself and a form of complacency. It may owe something also to the rational, non-frenetic American school of poets like A. The editors of Contemporary British Poetry have not included a single feeble poem of this sort, and that is in itself quite an achievement.
Instead, we have the admirable poems of Michael Longley, Tony Harrison, and particularly Douglas Dunn, whose Terry Street poems are models of their kind. This subtle poem implies with kindness and craft what so many writers from working-class backgrounds labour on about: the continuing need for a communal background from which the writer has been isolated by individual intelligence, the need for.
In both cases the wonder of original eloquence displaces all notion of sentimentality. It does not take the class war quite seriously, and that makes it the more effectively disconcerting. But look what a shit he is.
Poetry and culture are. All these poets, who consciously use their background as poetic theme, also swarm with loving learned references to Seferis or Smetana or Jacottet. Is it now too accessible to the clever student to become a natural part of him and his gift? Squire literary atmosphere, which Dunn summons up by a pretence of. The words are individual, and usually very effectively so, but not the poetry or the poet.
However original, these poems are not personal.
The poet as loner, as solitary portent whose solitude speaks for us and to us, is one Romantic legacy that does not survive here. Nothing new again: the neo-Georgian or neo-Elizabethan is always with us, alongside the solitary star. But there is a difference. It seems likely that the vogue of Ulster poets, good poets as they individually are, owes something to the fact that they at least are wholly a part of a community, whose troubles are a horrid exaggeration of those felt to be present in our own.
This nostalgia for communal authenticity is a very marked feature of contemporary British poetry, so much so indeed that it seems more than a fashion: it can seem like a growing shift in sensibility away from the ego and its singular peception of things to a communal play with codes and words. At least they were their own men and women, making poetry out of their own thing. True, trouble and strife and suicide became to some extent a common genre, but it was one in which each separate poet could stretch his own ego.
Dunn is said by the editors to be much influenced by Larkin, but though he admires him and lives in Hull and is also a librarian, he is a fundamentally different sort of poet.
It seeps out deceptively, so that bien pensants used to think him one of them: in fact, Larkin could only be a pain to the communal spirit of contemporary British art. This goes with two modern paradoxes: that social mobility is not what it was, and that culture of all kinds has itself become the great depersonalising factor. Poets from Keats and Hardy to Dylan Thomas and Roy Fuller have become themselves by grabbing culture and with it a position outside the bonds of class — becoming, in fact, self-made men.