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The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary British & Irish Poetry

The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary British & Irish Poetry

Edited by Peter Robinson

As the editor makes clear in his introduction this Oxford Handbook is a ‘collaborative effort at sketching a map of the always partially unknown’. Its range is enormous and will serve for many years to come as a perspective upon the various aspects of the poetic scene and not the least of its values lies in its ability ‘to sketch a space for curiosity and mutually enhancing accuracy of distinction that may help to mitigate the widespread self-confusion by means of other-denigration witnessed on all sides.’

The substantial 750 pages are divided into five sections: Part 1 ‘Movements Over Time’; Part 2 ‘Senses of Form and Technique’; Part 3 ‘Poetry and Places’; Part 4 ‘Border Crossings’; Part 5 ‘Responsibilities and Values’. The contributors range from Martin Dodsworth and Jeremy Noel-Tod to Peter Carpenter and Adam Piette; from Rod Mengham and Peter Middleton to Andrea Brady and David Herd. The separate subject areas range from ‘The Unburied Past: Walking with Ghosts of the 1940s’ to ‘A Dog’s Chance: The Evolution of Contemporary Women’s Poetry?’ and from ‘Auden in Ireland’ to ‘Multi-ethnic British Poetries’. There are 38 separate articles of substantial length and all I can do here is offer a pointer towards one or two of the immensely informative and exciting contents.

Rod Mengham writes about ‘The Altered Sublime: Raworth, Crozier, Prynne’ in which he quotes from Fredric Jameson on ‘Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’. Highlighting Jameson’s observations concerning former sources of the sublime, such as the unconscious, becoming incorporated progressively into the processes of commodity production he notes how the unconscious becomes saturated by the languages of media and advertising agencies. Although Mengham concentrates specifically upon Prynne’s sequence The Oval Window we cannot ignore of course that earlier poem from Brass, the title of which refers to Alain Poher, the president of the French senate who became president of France in April 1969: ‘No / poetic gabble will survive which fails / to collide head-on with the unwitty circus’. Mengham also brings to our notice the essay by Heidegger on ‘Poetry, Language, Thought’ as the authentic gauging of the dimension of dwelling as the primal form of building:

‘Nor is poetry building in the sense of raising and fitting buildings. But poetry, as the authentic gauging of the dimension of dwelling, is the primal form of building. Poetry first of all admits man’s dwelling into its very nature, its presencing being. Poetry is the original admission of dwelling.’

One is tempted at this point to look up Prynne’s essay on ‘Huts’ which appeared in the journal Textual Practice in 2008. The article proceeds to look carefully at Andrew Crozier’s ‘The Veil Poem’ in which the focus is upon an embracing of material existence, human relationships and natural cycles despite their mutability.

Adam Piette’s contribution is on ‘Contemporary Poetry and Close Reading’ in which he takes us back to William Empson’s elaborate reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 with its ‘unpacking of connotations’ in the reference to ‘Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang’. As Piette reminds us Shakespeare’s metaphor works because churches themselves are metaphors, being built to resemble stone forests. This timely reminder of the importance of close textual analysis is followed by an expert reading of Denise Riley’s ‘Song’ and the article closes with another timely reminder which must never be forgotten:

‘Close reading helps readers to construct a poem out of the distracted elements of their own lives and the lives of others; and it is through such loving attention, or heartbeat sensitivity to the elemental story in poetry’s forms of language, that poems begin to act upon the world.’

Ian Brinton 20th October 2014

2 responses »

  1. Sounds excellent – but at £95 I think it’s unlikely I’ll get to read it. Perhaps this is yet another instance of the split in contemporary poetry between the academics (who can consult such works in the libraries of their institutions) and the rest of the world. It was not always thus…


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