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Contemporary British Poetry by David Wheatley

Contemporary British Poetry by David Wheatley

This is a recent addition to Nicholas Tredell’s fine series of Readers’ Guides to Essential Criticism which are published by Palgrave and it is as ambitious and wide-ranging as we have come to expect from the series.

Opening with the required quotation from Adorno, ‘The recent past always likes to present itself as if destroyed by catastrophes’ David Wheatley guides us through a short labyrinthine history of ‘contestation and counter-contestation, each generation theatrically forswearing its precursor’. I am minded of the opening to William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell published in the revolutionary times of 1793: ‘Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence’. In Blake’s world-turned-upside-down ‘Good is the passive that obeys Reason’ and ‘Evil is the active springing from Energy’.

In chapter 5, ‘Experiment and Language’, there is a subsection titled ‘The dust of our wasted fields’ which opens up with a statement that is worth placing next to these ‘Contraries’:

‘Narratives of rupture and discontinuity will always be to the fore in discussions of modernism, but it is also worth insisting on deeper continuities. To Jeremy Noel-Tod, surveying the links between the experimental and Romantic traditions, Prynne’s project is “essentially Wordsworthian”, confirming affinities across centuries which only the vagaries of contemporary anti-modernism serve to obscure. Reading an early Prynne essay, ‘Resistance and Difficulty’ (1961), Noel-Tod uses the first of those terms to suggest an alternative to the more usual accusation levelled at Prynne’s poetics, unintelligibility. The Romantic landscape offers resistance to our too-easy progress, and requires careful thought and engagement before it can be negotiated. Landscape is encountered rather than mastered, in the sense that familiarity does not exhaust a Wordsworth landscape, whereas a field in the path of a motorway is recognised and assessed as an obstacle and swept aside.’

Given this emphasis it is no surprise, but a real delight, to read Wheatley on Harriet Tarlo’s wonderful Shearsman anthology of ‘Radical Landscape Poetry’, The Ground Aslant (published in 2011 and worth getting hold of NOW). This anthology which reports from what Wheatley refers to as ‘more marginal zones’ corrects, as he puts it, an assumption that British experimental writing operates in a realm either of rarefied abstraction or of metropolitan indifference to anything beyond the city limits. And it is within this context that he also then writes about the fine poem by R.F. Langley, ‘Matthew Glover’. When Langley was interviewed by Robert Walker (Angel Exhaust 13) he talked about the background to this poem:

‘I didn’t start writing until I found out about American poetry. There was Donald Davie at Cambridge who talked about Pound. But Davie never talked about Olson. It was really Olson who convinced me that I might write something myself. So that something like ‘Matthew Glover’ is a fairly naïve attempt to do a miniscule Olson in an English setting.’

I recall writing a review of the Harriet Tarlo anthology, soon after it appeared, for Todd Swift’s EYEWEAR publishing and since that review is still up there online I had a quick peek to remind myself what it was that I had found so refreshing and valuable about that book: ‘Language is a form in which landscape can come alive’.

David Wheatley’s overview of the contemporary scene is a balanced and intelligent one. Of course there are points at which we want him to say more but this is a ‘Readers’ Guide’ and its purpose is to point out features of the landscape which we can go and explore for ourselves. The test of a good book of this type is whether or not it can engage the reader with an infectious sense of enthusiasm that prompts him then to use the bibliography, the reading list, the list of further suggestions. This is a good book!

Ian Brinton 17th January 2015

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