Would a trip to the city heal outcast who snubs street cred?

Contemporary British Poetry and the City
August 31, 2001

Peter Barry, senior lecturer in English at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, has developed this study from papers read at academic conferences in the late 1990s. Within a broad literary and cultural framework, which includes urban theory, he introduces poets outside the central canon, some well known, some new, who engage with the social and imaginative dimensions of the city, focusing on those who write about specific cities.

The urban tradition notable in the 18th century and revived by the modernists and poets of the 1930s has, he argues, been submerged by the predominance of mainstream poetry that occludes the city (and therefore modernity) in favour of an anachronistic symbiosis with nature and the countryside, a hangover from Romanticism. These tendencies, labelled "Georgian", are blamed for contemporary poetry's minority status on the English university syllabus compared with fiction, but particularly literary theory, and its cultural marginalisation in the commercial world compared with other art forms. Poetry lacks "street-cred". Barry aims to alter the general reader's perceptions of contemporary poetry by re-associating it with the city.

His reader will need a taste for academic discourse, literary and cultural theory and critical debates within poetry: the notion of a "deregulated muse" (Sean O'Brien) reflecting a postmodern Britain (against which Barry sets a divided muse); the political associations of Georgian with mainstream and dissent with margins; and the changes in poetry publishing, with the emergence of regional publishers such as Bloodaxe, Carcanet and others who have challenged establishment presses and widened taste.

Barry markets the notion of street-cred (contemporary, urban, politically aware) against Georgian (outmoded, pastoral, escapist and recreational). This polarisation conveys some cultural truth but ignores the protean presence of poetry that can mix and match or entirely elude such branding. His poetic map of four zones might make a good game - inner and outer canonical and inner and outer marginal, with some inter-zonal figures - but gives a restricted view of the contemporary scene. Behind his thesis and particular bias, the more complex, shifting reality haunts like a hidden text.

He succeeds, however, in turning the reader's gaze left of centre to the British "other": avant-garde figures such as Bill Griffiths, Ken Edwards, Barry MacSweeney, John Barnie and Peter Reading - who register inner-city unease.

His bond with his birthplace, Liverpool, makes him an authentic advocate for an interesting range of city-specific poets: Birmingham's Roy Fisher; London's Iain Sinclair, Ken Smith, Allen Fisher and Aidan Dun; Hull's Peter Didsbury, Sean O'Brien and Douglas Houston; Liverpool's many poets from the 1960s onwards; Belfast's Ciaran Carson, Glasgow's Edwin Morgan and more besides.

Acknowledging Gillian Tindall's work on culture and cities, he is a persuasive purveyor of urban mythology with its lost rivers, haunting palimpsest of the built environment and cycle of decay and regeneration. His three urban tropes - double visioning (multi-layered chronological perspectives), contrasts between setting (non-specific) and geography (loco-specific) and Mikhail Bakhtin's notion of the chronotope (time embodied in space) - provide perspective though they also display the free-floating quality of metaphor that makes literary theory a rival muse.

Many issues are at stake, not least how you teach and judge contemporary poetry. Should the Georgians be made a cliche scapegoat? Street-cred, in the wider social sense Barry intends, is desirable but there are other marketable credentials for poets. Is poetry in trouble? Some people think so for reasons quite different from Barry's.

Whether or not the city can be prescribed for the health of poetry, poetry, like other arts, can heal. Poems can decorate cities. Let them vie with the ads on the underground to flow like a subliminal Fleet in the mind of the common citizen.

Anita Money was formerly assistant editor, Agenda .

Contemporary British Poetry and the City

Author - Peter Barry
ISBN - 0 7190 5593 8 and 5594 6
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Price - £45.00 and £15.99
Pages - 260

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