Anthology of Twentieth-Century British & Irish Poetry
Edited by Keith Tuma
Oxford University Press, $65 (cloth), $42.50 (paper)
Most poems vanish fast; most poets are forgotten. If that seems unjust, it is—but it's also inevitable: no one has time to read everything, and only the most diligent literary historian can even try to appreciate everything she reads. Poetry anthologies present themselves as solutions to such dilemmas. As such, they are a kind of historical record, like time capsules. Anthologies are also, however, like ice cream. Like ice cream, they vary enormously in taste and quality; like ice cream, they may be classified as "vanilla" or "other." Vanilla anthologies ratify a period's or an audience's already-existing tastes; other anthologies seek to change those tastes.
Keith Tuma's ambitious, capacious, sometimes capricious anthology looks vanilla; it includes the standard ingredients (Yeats, Auden, Larkin, Stevie Smith, Tony Harrison). In fact, it's more like pineapple gooseberry chip. Some of its British readers have already expressed their surprise and distaste. The prominent poet-critic Sean O'Brien labeled Anthology of Modern British & Irish Poetry"humorless" and "bizarre." Michael Schmidt, the editor-in-chief at Carcanet Press, retorted by accusing O'Brien of "willfull, self-serving" bigotry. Whence the food fight? Tuma's big book, with its bulky bio-critical prefaces, attempts to turn Americans (and some overseas readers too) into fans of neglected, experimental, and "alternative" British and Irish poets, who (like their U.S. counterparts) have long relied on small presses, tiny journals, and dedicated non-academic critics. Such poets make up the bulk of this anthology; it will be judged on how well it presents them, and how good readers think they are.
Tuma explored these scenes in Britain, along with their modernist precursors, in his cogent 1998 volume, Fishing by Obstinate Isles, which focused on a few choice examples (Kamau Braithwaite's "nation language," Tom Raworth's "syntax of disjunction"). This anthology takes on much more—126 poets, among them obscure imitators of Eliot and friends of Pound; the Cambridge poets (of whom more later); a London avant-garde tied to the Sixties art world; concrete poets and book-artists; reggae and dub poets with West Indian roots; and singletons from Belfast to Birmingham. Other anthologies have covered only these undergrounds, or parts thereof.1 Tuma, and Oxford, have instead produced a book fit for undergraduate classrooms, where Thomas Hardy and Jean 'Binta' Breeze, Seamus Heaney and Randolph Healy, can be assigned and posed against one another.
Oxford followed the same plan with Cary Nelson's 1999 Anthology of Modern American Poetry, which placed Bishop and Ashbery next to Popular Front versifiers and Japanese-American internment camp haiku; Tuma's foreword calls Nelson's book "a companion volume to this one." That same foreword promises to represent "exemplary poems within the history of an artform." Yet the project Tuma shares with Nelson—essentially documentary and historical—militates for expansion and inclusion; a really "exemplary" set of poems requires a more rigorous selection. More often than not, here, inclusion wins. What sort of achievement does Tuma see in his selections from David Gascoyne, whose typical early poems sound like this?
The sewing-machine on the pillar condenses the windmill's halo
Which poisoned the last infanta by placing a tooth in her ear
When the creeping groans of the cellar's anemone vanished
The nightmare spun on the roof a chain-armour of handcuffs
And the ashtray balanced a ribbon upon a syringe
Gascoyne's early work matters to literary historians (he was, if you haven't guessed, one of Britain's few full-blown Surrealists). Its presence here, though—and the presence of so much similarly undistinguished work—undermines Tuma's heroic arguments that these obscure poets might be as enjoyable, resonant, or as inventive, as poets we already cherish.
Sometimes Tuma wins his arguments anyway. Tuma does well by the war poet Ivor Gurney, a gifted composer who later went mad: Gurney must have been one of the first to internalize Hopkins—one war poem remembers, among the "odds and evens / Of trench food," "the everlasting clean craving / For bread, the pure thing, blessèd beyond saving." Norman MacCaig—unknown here but famous in Scotland—turns out to be a considerably gifted formalist, halfway between Louis MacNeice and Richard Wilbur. Gael Turnbull's measured, discursive poems recall both Thom Gunn and Charles Olson. The ambitious Guyana-born poet David Dabydeen is surely due for American attention. And Elaine Feinstein, well-known for her translations, sounds good here in her own right.
But these figures stand at the margins of Tuma's project, since none of them (except Turnbull) has devoted him- or herself to a difficult, small-press scene. At its center are his alternative modernists—some of them canonical in Britain, yet barely-read in America. Hugh MacDiarmid's A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926) is Scotland's most influential modern poem; it sounds like nothing else in the language, whatever language you call it (MacDiarmid called it "synthetic Scots"):
Eneuch? Then here you are. Here's the haill story.
Life's connached shapes too'er up in croons o'glory,
Perpetuatin', natheless, in their gory
Colour the endless sacrifice and pain
That to their makin's gane.
("Connached" means "spoiled.") Even better is Basil Bunting, a poet from England's Northeast who sailed around Europe and worked as a spy in Iran; until the late Sixties, his work appeared only from tiny presses. Bunting served an apprenticeship with Pound, but in many ways excelled his master. His dense autobiographical poem Briggflatts (1965) makes almost everything near it sound sloppy and negligible, like the sun that scares the stars away:
Night, float us.
Offshore wind, shout,
ask the sea
what's lost, what's left,
what horn sunk,
what crown adrift.
Where we are who knows
of kings who sup
when day fails? Who,
swinging his axe
to fell kings, guesses
where we go?
Tuma's obscure living poets represent a long menu of poetic styles, from dub to Derridean. More than a few of those I liked best emerged from the intellectually demanding small-press scene around Cambridge, England and Cambridge University. Denise Riley's linguistically tricky feminism reminds me, slightly, of Adrienne Rich; like Rich, she has absorbed, but come to distrust, "great classic cadences of English poetry," and looks everywhere for less mystified alternatives. In a 1978 poem, adults'
feet and their children's feet are tangled around like those of fen larks
in the fine steely wires which run to and fro between love and economics
affections must not support the rent
I. neglect. the house
Tony Lopez (another Cambridge alum) is one of a few talented poets here who fit familiar templates for "postmodern" writing—pastiche, vertiginous relativism, far-left subtexts:
Most molecular data points towards
A lack of interest among teenage voters
In Ms Windsor and her relatives. Hindsight
Is a wonderful thing, the diet industry
A capitalist dream.
A third Cambridge writer, Helen Macdonald, is at age thirty-one, the youngest poet here. Her poems resonate with Riley's as they stitch sense-data into difficult patterns:
To state the discovery of a country
& be in a time without rage, keeping wings
near yourself, as barred as buried in the day, crossly.
Some present results; a tree, a quail, a rock, a hawk
rousing one's mind from safety and tameable illness
to beautiful comprehension in the form of a hunch
as patience directs
That "present" is both a gift and a time, a now; the "country" is both an American desert, where Macdonald trains falcons, and Hamlet's "undiscovered country from which / No traveller returns."
Anthologies like this one invite us to generalize about differences between U.S. and U.K. (or Irish) poetics. (Such invitations are often better declined.) Compared to most "innovative" or difficult Americans, these poets seem less hostile to reference and description. Tuma compares Robert Sheppard to American language writers. Yet Sheppard's "The Materialization of Soap 1947" works so well because it offers not just floating phraseologies, but concrete examples for a particular historical moment: postwar Britain, with its austerities and its rationing. Randolph Healy's "Arbor Vitae" triumphs because it brings its late modernist modes to an urgent subject: Healey uses collage and fugue to articulate a brilliantly astringent argument about his deaf daughter, sign languages, and education.2
These British and Irish poets are also, by and large, quieter in their diction, more discursive. One explanation for that difference might invoke a British tradition of plain-spoken lyric, in which poems comment on experience rather than trying to replace it. That tradition's exemplars (Hardy, Edward Thomas, MacNeice, Larkin) helped create the easy-to-read British "mainstream" which Tuma's underground poets reject. And yet that tradition's peculiar virtues—understatement, plainness, a willingness to explain one's ideas—create the effects here which will surprise Americans most. Roy Fisher's tones and rhythms as he recalls the Blitz death of his barely-known cousins are tones and rhythms no American could manage, and I value them more for that:
This bloody episode of four whom I could understand better dead
Gave me something I needed to keep a long story moving;
I had no pain of it; can find no scar even now.
But had my belief in the fiction not been thus buoyed up
I might, in the sigh and strike of the next night's bombs
Have realized a little what they meant, and for the first time been afraid.
As he moves from High Moderns towards the present, Tuma expands his net to include work as visual as it is aural and textual, such as the rebuses and word-grids of Bob Cobbing, and the typography of Ian Hamilton Finlay. Brian Catling's long prose series "The Stumbling Block its Index" may not be a poem, but it's fascinating and fun: "The Stumbling Block is a bell that sounds a deeper voice than the throat of men. Their image and cry shrinks the world." Frank Kuppner's comically ruminative "Eclipsing Binaries" pretends to be, not a poem, but a series of drafts for one:
Perhaps this room is still in the water anyway.
arm this room
Why is it we are not drowning in this invisible
What is it we have sighted
I must try to master these utterly reasonable
prolong woefully immature
So far I have focused on my favorites among the dozens of lesser-known poets here; if you read, or skim, this book, you'll focus on yours. You may or may not appreciate for its own sake the sheer breadth of styles Tuma offers, and the historical scope they try to portray; you may or may not be dismayed, too, to find that Tuma has left some favorites out. And you may also be taken aback, as I was, by pages of verse like this, from Maggie O'Sullivan:
(EAR MY STUTTER
ÝÝÝÝÝÝÝÝÝÝÝÝÝÝÝ Lights-Er Bags-Er
Grinnel Crash the Fibres B&C Goose
Conjurations Owlyering Owlyering
There are techniques by which to interpret this, and reasons smart people enjoy it. (Tuma's headnote invokes "shamanistic traditions," "anarchistic critique," "the polyvalent, physical properties of language.") And yet a little of it goes a long way towards explaining why Tuma's anthology struck some U.K. readers as a slap in the face.
Sometimes a slap in the face is what's meant, too. Tom Leonard, who often writes in Glaswegian dialect, outdoes his compatriots in declaring that his poems are not for everyone:
helluva hard tay read theez init
if yi canny unnirston thim jiss clear aff then
get tay fuck ootma road
Poems like Leonard's and O'Sullivan's, and anthologies like Tuma's, try to make readers reexamine their tastes: they make us ask how we read, and why we enjoy what we do. Reading Tuma's huge volume from cover to cover, I remembered how my own tastes favor precision and closure. Tuma—on the evidence here—loves long, open-ended, genre-bending works: he won't take quiet or compact lyrics if he can find anything else. As a result, I took exception, not to his daring selection of poets, but to his selectionsfrom poets whose work I knew.3 John James (whose short, comic poems recall Frank O'Hara) gets two bits of political satire, one of them sprawlingly uncharacteristic. Louis MacNeice gets the wonderfully irate "Valediction," but nothing from after 1938. F. T. Prince gets one long historical narrative: where are his Thirties lyrics? Veronica Forrest-Thomson, who died at twenty-seven, wrote a small body of verse whose brilliant obliquities owe much to William Empson; she's represented here only by the uncharacteristic and overlong, if entertaining, "Cordelia, or 'A Poem Should Not Mean But Be.'" One poet whose absence does startle me is J. H. Prynne, a tutor and librarian at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and a pillar of the Cambridge small-press scene. Forrest-Thomson's "Cordelia" mentions him by name; Tuma's headnotes or footnotes note Prynne's influence on perhaps a dozen others. Though his Poems appeared from Bloodaxe in 1999, Prynne is famously hostile to large publishers; it's a shame he, or somebody, wouldn't let Tuma include his verse here.
Though anthologies can be likened to ice creams, they are really much more like time capsules: they demonstrate what poems mattered to certain readers at a certain place and time. What, then, will the future make of such a book, full of famous and obscure good poems, and even more full of failed experiments, historical curios, wrong turns? One "heartening fact about the cultures of man," William Empson's "Sonnet" reminds us, "Is their appalling stubbornness. The sea / Is always calm ten fathoms down." Amidst all Tuma's prefaces, footnotes, and literary-historical counterattacks, I found myself turning back to the first poet here, the modern (or was he Victorian?) Thomas Hardy, who considered the First World War while watching a rural field. He made what he saw into a short poem with a long title, "'In Time of 'the Breaking of Nations.'" His poem ends with these lines:
Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass.
Yonder a maid and her wight
Come whispering by:
War's annals will cloud into night
Ere their story die.
1 For example, Andrew Crozier and Tim Longville's Cambridge-centered A Various Art (Carcanet, 1987), Iain Sinclair's Conductors of Chaos (Picador, 1996) and, in America, R. I. Caddel and Peter Quatermain's Other (Wesleyan, 1998).
2 The poem's cumulative force makes it hard to excerpt; you can read it all at http://indigo.ie/~tjac/Poets/Randolph_Healy/randolph_healy.htm.
3 Nonetheless, I did miss Peter Scupham, Michael Longley, Mark Ford, Robert Crawford, Lavinia Greenlaw, Graham Nelson, Alice Oswald, Elaine Randell and the Welsh miniaturist Robert Minhinnick, among others; Elaine Randell's work in Other made me hope for more of it here, but no.