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The Cambridge Companion to British Poetry 1945-2010 Edited by Edward Larrissy Cambridge University Press

The Cambridge Companion to British Poetry 1945-2010 Edited by Edward Larrissy  Cambridge University Press

In his introductory comments to this new Companion, a collection of sixteen essays purporting to ‘explore the full diversity of British poetry since the Second World War’, the editor, Edward Larrissy, points us to some comments made by Andrew Crozier in his seminal essay ‘Thrills and Frills: Poetry as Figures of Empirical Lyricism’. Larrissy refers to the ‘Metaphor Men’ Christopher Reid, Craig Raine and David Sweetman in the following way:

‘The identification, in the period of the so-called Metaphor Men, of poetry with the striking use of simile was seen by at least one critic in terms of the easy gratification sought by a consumer society.’

He goes on to focus on the Crozier essay:

‘Whether or not this is a valid connection, the claim does not establish that good poetry could not emerge from such a supposedly inauspicious context. The real target of the critique is a supposed superficiality and narrowness: superficiality of the presentation of experience; narrowness of linguistic register and of intellectual and cultural horizons.’

Now that the Selected Prose of Andrew Crozier, including that essay ‘Thrills and Frills’, is readily available in a Shearsman publication from 2013, readers can see for themselves how linked Crozier was with the Objectivist poets and how suspicious he was of a world of poetry in which ‘tropes proliferate and are uniformly highlighted, like consumer goods in a shop window’.
In Edward Larrissy’s earlier book Reading Twentieth-Century Poetry, The Language of Gender and Objects, published some twenty-five years ago, he highlights Crozier’s comments on a poem by Charles Tomlinson. Referring to ‘Geneva Restored’, a poem from the mid-1950s, Crozier wrote:

‘Not only is the poem’s point of intersection with the world realized in detail, and in terms of particular, local qualities, the place is also remembered to possess a history, to be charged with it indeed as associations, with Protestantism, with Ruskin, which feed into the present. Yet none of these, it can be argued, owes its presence to the poet’s intervention; they occur because the poet finds them interesting and they sustain the poem accordingly.’
I was heartened to read of Larrissy’s inclusion of Crozier in his introduction to this new Cambridge book and the reference was made, perhaps, even more pertinent in the closing comments to that introduction. After highlighting The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry as initiating a debate about who was in and who was out (and both Tomlinson and Crozier are firmly out) there is a reference to the Bloodaxe anthology, The New Poetry (in which both Tomlinson and Crozier are out), in which the editors announced that ‘plurality has flourished’. Larrissy suggests that ‘it might be claimed that the characteristics of the poetry represented therein were not markedly different from those of the poetry in Morrison and Motion—and the same might be said, allowing for a slightly different selection of poets, about New British Poetry (no Crozier here either!) edited by Don Paterson and Charles Simic in 2004. Nevertheless a sense that there have been too many exclusions in British poetry is gaining ground among many readers and in the academy’.

Having read that last statement I was a little intrigued to note that Larrissy refers to the Morrison-Motion anthology four times in his introduction and twice to the Paterson-Simic. However, I looked in vain for a reference to Conductors of Chaos, A Various Art, Other, or Vanishing Points.
A less serious point, but still a little alarming, is the incorrect date given on more than one occasion. Bunting’s Briggflatts did not appear in 1960! That said, this is a wide-ranging book which offers an impressive introduction to the period and that wide range can be seen in the titles of the chapters themselves: ‘Poets of the Forties and Early Fifties’, ‘The Movement: Poetry and the Reading Public’, High Late Modernists or postmodernists?’, ‘Poetry and Class’. Separate sections on Scottish Poetry, Welsh Poetry, Northern Irish Poetry, Black British Poetry, ‘Poetry, Feminism, Gender and Women’s Experience’. And a splendid last piece by Jon Glover on ‘Poetry’s Outward Forms: Groups, Workshops, Readings, Publishers’.

Ian Brinton 17th December 2015

Complete Poems by Jon Silkin eds. Jon Glover & Kathryn Jenner (Carcanet Press)

Complete Poems by Jon Silkin eds. Jon Glover & Kathryn Jenner (Carcanet Press)

In an Agenda interview from spring 1965 Jon Silkin referred to an idea of ‘density’ in poetry in such a manner as to shed some light upon his own powerful evocation of twelfth century York in his poem ‘Astringencies’ which had appeared in the 1961 volume The Re-ordering of the Stones:

There’s the density where you have, presumably, images that interlock and overlap to some extent and refer constantly to one another…you get this kind of density in a way in a long poem through the accumulation of narrative. Events impinge upon each other, or can be made to impinge upon each other. An event also becomes in a sense a metaphor in a long poem, and the various events by gradual association produce a density which will, I suppose, affect the language.

He also made the point that he liked the idea of poetry ‘making direct statements. It’s as simple as that really.’ Referring to his own preoccupations with language Silkin referred to the Hebrew classes he attended as a child:

‘I used to hear my grandparents speaking in Yiddish. I’d forgotten about this until a few years ago someone asked me if [Isaac] Rosenberg knew either language, and said he thought it important because it might account for the sort of bunched consonant effect in his poetry. I think that’s a pretty shrewd conjecture, and I think it might account for some of my intensifications of sounds in, say, ‘Crowfoot’. Sometimes when I’m writing I hear these explosive guttural consonants which I just can’t find equivalents for in English because there are none.’

It is this interest in the language of poetry that may well have prompted Jon Glover and Kathryn Jenner to comment on the ‘language of poetry, indeed any language’ not being applied to or stuck over ‘processes of life and death as a descriptor’ but being instead ‘integral to a whole substance.’
That poem ‘Astringencies’ is divided into two sections and the first, ‘The Coldness’ appeared as the opening poem in the Penguin Modern Poets 7 selection of Silkin’s work in which he appeared alongside Richard Murphy and Nathaniel Tarn. His inclusion in this influential series, which began in 1962 and ran to 27 volumes by 1975, will have brought attention to Silkin’s poetry from a far wider audience than would have been reached by the individual volumes published by Chatto & Windus. In this context Glover and Jenner point to an interesting and often overlooked fact about Penguin sales when they remind us that an agreement between Penguin and U.K. bookshops, including W.H. Smith, meant that to stock one Penguin meant that they had to stock them all, including Penguin Modern Poets.

In the late summer of 1965 Jon Silkin took up an offer from the North-East Association for the Arts to edit Stand from Newcastle-upon-Tyne. His collection Nature with Man was also published in that year and the acknowledgement network of journals which appears at the opening of that volume represented Silkin’s habitual ambitious and exploratory use of magazines and broadcast media as a method of extending contact, recognition and readership. The editors of this fine new Complete Poems draw attention to this pre-book publication process of individual poems as being part of Silkin’s way of life:

While it was time-consuming and arduous, it was, for Silkin, a vital aspect of being a poet, and forming the identity and existence of a poem. In some ways it exemplified Stephen Greenblatt’s “New Historicist” negotiation and exchange: the poem did not exist without the process in which it was formed and used. Silkin often handed or posted drafts to friends with invitations to comment. For him the hard work was natural and necessary.

This method of sharing drafts of poems with friends is something that was close to the heart of many other poets in the mid-sixties and the recently formed new Poetry Archive at Cambridge University Library contains correspondence from a wide range of poets including Andrew Crozier, J.H. Prynne, John James, John Riley, Tim Longville, Michael Grant, John Welch, Peter Riley, Anthony Barnett, Paul Selby and John Freeman. Much of this correspondence focuses upon the whole idea of drafting and re-drafting: poetry in the process of becoming the finished work of art which finds its way into collections such as this admirable volume from Carcanet.

In her contribution to Michael Schmidt and Grevel Lindop’s critical survey of British Poetry Since 1960 (CarcanetPress 1972) Anne Cluysenaar suggested that Silkin’s view of life involved a highly complex, articulated, multitudinous structure which allowed him to englobe, without smudging, the veins of contradiction to which he was agonisingly sensitive.

Ian Brinton 15th May 2015

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