Poetry pruned of the politicians

British Poetry from the 1950s to the 1990s - Larkin with Poetry - Tony Harrison
March 13, 1998

For years, the American academic Frank Lentricchia made his reputation as an historian and polemicist of literary theory who could speak with passion about literature as a political instrument. He was widely known as the "Dirty Harry of literary theory". So there was a jolt when, in a 1996 article, he recanted: "Over the last ten years, I've pretty much stopped reading literary criticism, because most of it isn't literary. But criticism it is of a sort - the sort that stems from the sense that one is morally superior to writers that one is supposedly describing. This posture of superiority is assumed when those writers represent the major islands of western literary tradition, the central cultural engine - so it goes - of racism, poverty, sexism, homophobia, and imperialism: a cesspool that literary critics would expose for mankind's benefit (....) It is impossible, this much is clear, to exaggerate the heroic self-inflation of academic literary criticism."

While such voices might still be few in America and Britain, they have been quietly organising themselves over recent years. Gary Day's edited collection, British Poetry from the 1950s to the 1990s, is evidence that a chorus is forming. Day sets out to liberate poetry from years of unjust incarceration by politics: "My basic argument is that an exclusive concern with politics is threatening to impoverish our understanding of poetry. Theory has been equally unjust: in the end, despite its complex systems, "theory has no means of registering the power of poetry".

Day's polemic has substance, conviction, and verve - and therein lie the strengths and weaknesses of any manifesto. As one would expect of dissent, it is set up against Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion's Contemporary British Poetry (1982) and The New Poetry (1993), edited by Michael Hulse, David Kennedy, and David Morley, because these two anthologies were formed on political rather than aesthetic considerations, resulting in a simplification of both poetry and literary history, and fuelling a blaze of pointless criticism that burned outside the poems themselves. Day's occasional elevations to philosophy as the bases for his arguments can disconcert, but such is the privilege of whoever writes a book's introduction. His text is full of the maxims and epigrams that could appear on the placards or in the chants of a poetry demonstration: Politics is the art of the possible, poetry is the art of the actual ... Politics is about the language of power, poetry is about the power of language ... Politics is on the side of what is general, poetry of what is individual.

In Britain, it has not been uncommon in the 1990s to use anthologies and essay collections as a means to recover and recuperate "lost" poets. While British deployment of the French systems of Louis Althusser, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan has driven a wedge between criticism and poetry. Day prescribes an indigenous repair, recommending the tools and methods of Dr Johnson, Matthew Arnold, I. A. Richards, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge as the way forward. The credo is that the primary duties of poetry criticism are to evaluate the art as an exploration of language and to maintain a sense of tradition. The point of revisiting tradition is not to apply it to our understanding of poetry of the past 50 years. Rather, it is a way of recovering a vocabulary and method of apprehension that allows us to discover why a particular poem, in Coleridge's words, "is so and not otherwise".

Is this reactionary? Are literary historians looking at their almanacs and reading that it is simply time for the critical season to change after a quarter century? No, because these what might be called New Purists do not exclude theory and politics. They require that they serve their rightful functions as secondary tools that can (not should) be used - judiciously, sparingly - to illuminate an analysis of what is primary. They should be moved from the centre to the periphery. In this sense, the voices in British Poetry from the 1950s to the 1990s have a choral quality. What the contributors have in common is a commitment to focus on the poems - the hard centre, the adamantine core of the art.

Among the 15 essays are those on poets known, but requiring new understanding - Seamus Heaney as postmodernist, Paul Muldoon as a voice of the margins. Day's passion for pre-PC modes of literary criticism takes a curious turn in his own essay, "'Never such innocence again': the poetry of Philip Larkin". His "psychoanalytical" approach to Larkin's poetry gives the piece an odd retro-decor, seating the reader in the Freud-lined lit crit of the 1950s, and making it one of the least plausible essays. Daringly, most of the book is taken up by those who are less well known but deserving of attention: Basil Bunting, Ken Smith, Peter Redgrove, Tom Paulin, Medbh McGuckian, and Iain Crichton Smith, among many others. Christopher Whyte's "The Gaelic renaissance: Sorley MacLean and Derek Thomson" fulfils the volume's mission because he begins with the poems in the original Gaelic, and works outward in concentric circles through translation, analysis, themes, and context in British poetry, possibly convincing us that "the finest British poetry to have emerged from the second world war was written in Gaelic". The dizzying variety in Edwin Morgan's poetry has disconcerted critics for years, causing them either to avoid his work or to pigeon-hole him. Rising to the challenge, Roderick Watson diligently orders Morgan's oeuvre into "unities" and presents cogent line-by-line analyses of representative poems. Two of the books most successful and interesting essays are by Jane Dowson and Lyn Pykett. Taking an inductive - rather than the typical deductive - approach to women's poetry, they find that much important work over the past 50 years avoids feminist issues and politics in favour of gender neutrality and "domestic" subject matter.

On its own, Larkin with Poetry seems an incongruous combination of four essays on Larkin and three on the subject of how poetry is read/valued in schools. But Day's introduction to British Poetry provides a perspective. The preface, by editor Michael Baron, suggests that Anthony Thwaite's 1992 publication of the Selected Letters of Philip Larkin 1940-1985 and Andrew Motion's 1993 Philip Larkin: A Writer's Life have encouraged a frenzy of criticism that re- or devalues Larkin's poetry according to his life as an individual. Larkin's poetic voice of ordinary England is now false; his voice in letters - occasionally expressing misogyny, racism, nationalism - is true. Therefore, his poetry, as poetry, has suffered under the debunking rhythms of politically correct criticism, which insists that we must not separate the man from the poet. This collection urges a return to the poems.

The four essays on Larkin address some of the issues enflamed since 1992. In "Philip Larkin: lyricism, Englishness, and postcoloniality", James Booth applies an aesthetic corrective to recent claims of Larkin's nationalism, sexism, and racism. He is especially hostile to Tom Paulin's complete misinterpretation of Livings II as an expression of national and political ideology. The objective behind Marion Lomax's "Larkin with women" was "to be positive about Larkin from a woman's perspective, and to speak about him from the point of view of a woman poet rather than a woman academic". Having gathered evidence from all of his writing - poetry and non-fiction - she concludes that "Larkin was with women rather than against them". "Larkin's reputation", by Stephen Regan, provides a very useful and balanced overview of how he has been handled by critics from the 1940s to the 1992 watershed. Although he seems to referee the conflict between the aestheticist and historicist critics, represented by Booth and Paulin, in the end he sides with the poems themselves: "Larkin's reputation will come to rest not so much on the ill fame of the letters and the biography as on the essential Englishness of his poetry" and the many ways he wrote it amid a changing postwar country.

The most original and compelling essay is by the school teacher Andrew Swarbrick entitled "Larkin in the sixth form". Given his new sullied and dangerous status, he asks, why teach Larkin? He draws on his own experience with 17- and 18-year-olds to show how he uses Larkin as a way to learn about Larkin the man, the poet, poetry itself, paradox, self-examination. But, in the classroom, the poems are the primum mobile. In itself, this is a good test of whether Larkin's post-1992 standing should be redressed: what does Larkin bring to the uninitiated - to those still ignorant of the high plains and complex equipment of university English departments? Swarbrick's piece links the collection with the three final essays - "Poetry in the classroom", "Risk and certainty in the poetry classroom", and "Poems on the Underground". Although they have nothing to do with Larkin, they do complement the thrust of British Poetry from the 1950s to the 1990s.

The very public nature of Tony Harrison's poetry and the way he has shunned the canons, critics, and academy has put him on the peripheries of acclaim. Tony Harrison: Loiner does not seek recognition for him in the context of these spheres, but in his own right. The collection of 15 essays was compiled as a tribute to him on his 60th birthday. Editor Sandie Byrne's introductory comment that the collection "neither canonises nor buries with valedictory praise" does not bear out in the reading: there is little but veneration for the man and poet. It is, after all, a tribute.

Beginning with a book jacket portrait by David Hockney and a foreword by Lord Gowrie, the range of contributors is as impressive as the names themselves. Writing on every important aspect of his life and art are friends, academics intimate with his work, and people who have worked with him on stage, film, or print, thus portraying him in three dimensions. It is a sort of literary This is Your Life.

What is unmistakable is Harrison's command of the media: his work has been on stage, film, television, and radio; it has been published in books and newspapers. How many contemporary artists have achieved this? And who could inspire such a menu of leading figures to write about them? Melvyn Bragg writes about the filming of the long poem, v., for LWT and Channel 4, and how that process brought out in moving images what was latent in the text. Alan Rusbridger chronicles the reasoning and events behind his commissioning Harrison to report - via poetry - on the Gulf war for The Guardian, and how he came, "in effect, to be the Guardian's poet laureate" on subjects ranging from the royal family to Bosnia. Richard Eyre, one-time director of the National Theatre, offers a professional opinion of Harrison's overlooked but integral position in postwar British drama, and a personal account of his work on two plays and the filming of v.

What also stands out is that Harrison can be so populist, yet require the best analytical machinery available to some of the more astute critics. In particular, the work of Christopher Butler, N. S. Thompson, and Sandie Byrne shows just how much Harrison can take. He is a man and a poet of deep divisions, the chafing between which creates enough friction to drive his artistic output. His work is full of Miltonic forms and Sophoclean themes and Greek choruses and skinhead libido and working-class values - in his own words, the blood of the bard mixed with that of the "butcher, publican, and baker".

As Peter Forbes concludes in his valuable overview on Harrison's "place", he is not part of any canon because "the set of factors that made (him) the kind of poet he is (are) singular and are unlikely to be repeated". He could, "like William Blake, be a complete one-off".

Gregory LeStage is president, Oxford University Poetry Society.

British Poetry from the 1950s to the 1990s: Politics and Art

Editor - Gary Day and Brian Docherty
ISBN - 0 333 53280 5
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £40.00
Pages - 284

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