I am glad to be back blogging at Best American Poetry, today, this auspicious ten-ten-ten. London has been experiencing – at last – an Indian summer this weekend – today was 20 Celsius and sunny, which has briefly elevated spirits – otherwise, the UK is in the midst of a slow-moving train wreck, as the Coalition government plans to announce its major (40%) cuts to the State later this month, which has most leading Arts organisers predicting disaster. Some pundits claim this is a sharper knife than ever Thatcher wielded, so it is a fraught moment, to be sure. But, as if dancing on the Titanic or Nero-fiddling in Rome, the poets are playing on, business as usual. This Thursday was “National Poetry Day”, and there were hundred, likely thousands, of readings across Britain, in schools, libraries, festival halls and so on. Announcements play a big part at this time.
The Forward Prize for Best Collection went to Seamus Heaney, for Human Chain. Notably, Walcott’s brilliant White Egrets was nowhere to be seen on the shortlist. Which is a pity, because, in terms of late style, it is arguably the better book by an older Nobel laureate. Human Chain has touched the British poetry world for two reasons: a) they cannot resist Heaney’s charms (he is truly afforded Wotan-like status here); and b) the sentimental human interest behind the work (illness, ambulance rides) has, in anti-Eliot fashion personalised the poetry and made it come alive for the mainstream.
Heaney’s towering status over in Britain (and of course Ireland) is all the more notable for the fact it finds no balance from an equivalent “foreign” presiding spirit, from, say, the Americas. There is no current British consensus as to who the great American poets are, as when Lowell, Berryman and Plath, in the Sixties, achieved eminence in these isles with the support of Alvarez; or, for that matter, Olson, or Ginsberg, did, from different sources. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that the main American poets admired or read by the British are Billy Collins, WS Merwin, CK Williams and Louise Gluck. Jorie Graham, John Ashbery, Stephen Burt, CD Wright, and Charles Bernstein would be lesser-known but admired experimental figures. I am speaking of reception from a mainstream perspective, here. Obviously, some poets and poetry readers would be more savvy, but there is no Heaney-sized figure to counterbalance his claim on greatness. Even Yeats had Eliot and Pound to pull against. Heaney, in this British orbit, only has the influence of Muldoon. Muldoon’s new book is out here recently too, but has yet to really make an impact. I expect it to be short-listed for the TS Eliot Prize in due course.
The other big news on National Poetry Day was from BBC broadcasting stalwart Melvyn Bragg, who had conveniently discovered a “new poem” by Ted Hughes from his archives at the British Library, which was promptly published. This has led to dubious Facebooking grumblings from the poetariat, one younger poet, Jack Underwood noting that it was more a draft than a poem, and the big X across it was more a warning than a welcome. Hughes is very loved in Britain, and when the last lines of this maudlin poem about the death of Plath were read out on BBC radio, the nation sobbed, one felt. However, Al Alvarez, writing in yesterday’s Saturday Guardian Review (a less-influential but equivalent English version of the New York Times book section) pointed out the relative unimportance of the poem, and how Hughes had been bedding another woman the weekend of her suicide (she died Monday) in the Hughes-Plath honeymoon suite – rather tacky.
I hope to follow-up from the posts I wrote when last I blogged here, and continue to share the names and works of some of the most innovative and intriguing poets writing from Britain at the moment. Over the summer, some controversy erupted over some of the aspects of Bloodaxe’s seminal new anthology, Identity Parade, which seeks to represent, broad-church style, the latest trends in all schools of newer British poetry. I found it less inclusive than it might have been, but still recommend the book, nonetheless, as a good way in to the rather bewildering world of British poetry as it is now unfolding.
As I have written before, the development of British poetry is not as it is in other places. Unlike Canada, or America, which are sprawling geographically, Britain is a famously “small island” – and though there are regional variations and splits (between North and South, for instance; or Wales, England and Scotland) – almost all poets over here know, or know of, one another, and, from time to time, at various festivals and events, meet. In this sense, it is a tight-knit world, and, as such, there is less room for double-barrelled critique, or free-wheeling poetics – poetry styles inch forward in the mainstream, not too far from the objectives of the Movement poets of the 1950s. The current poet laureate, a Scottish woman, Carol Ann Duffy, for instance, writes witty, well-made, popular lyrics, not very far away from Larkin.
Even so, there is turbulence and exciting variety, if only because this pent-up breeding ground leads to a sense of opportunity – the prizes seem within reach, and there is much encouragement for young poets through awards. Also, the creative writing boom of the last six or so years has meant hundreds of more poets are emerging, super-powered by social networking and the ease with which micro-presses and print-on-demand houses can operate.
Over the next days I will explore more of the talents I’d like to share with the wider audience this blog reaches, several who are not perhaps those one would most immediately think of when the words “British poet” gets mentioned. As I have done with co-editor Evan Jones in the forthcoming anthology Modern Canadian Poets (Carcanet, November 2010), I want to here open up issues of identity, in perhaps fresh ways.
But before I do that, I’d like to welcome a poet who is the most charmingly and originally “English” voice of her generation, a sort of latter-day Stevie Smith, Lorraine Mariner. Mariner’s sense of humour, and eccentric, if observant, manner, strikes a resonant chord with her readership, which is large and growing. Along with Luke Kennard, she is considered one of the most unique new talents of her generation, especially in her deployment of wit.
Mariner (pictured) was born in 1974, grew up in Upminster and attended Huddersfield University where she read English, and University College London where she read Library and Information Studies. She works at the Poetry Library, Southbank Centre and lives in Blackheath, London. Her pamphlet Bye For Now was published by The Rialto in 2005 and in 2007 her poem ‘Thursday’ was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem. Her collection Furniture was published by Picador in 2009 and shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection and the Seamus Heaney Centre Poetry Prize. She appears on the Oxfam DVD, Asking A Shadow To Dance. For the last couple of years she has been working on a series of prose poems about the Deadly Sins or their opposites the Holy Virtues relating them to memories from her childhood. Here are two, previously unpublished, below.
The Holy Virtues – No. 1 Chastity
The highlight of the morning I’d spent playing at Jenny’s had been a perfume she’d recently been given in a bottle shaped like a mermaid. I’d been bowled over by this moulded glass beauty; her lush contoured hair, her nippleless breasts.
I’d gone home to find my mother had been shopping and bought me a notebook. Though it was lined there was nothing I wanted to write down. Instead, I drew a naked woman – with nipples – in profile (a little bit Picasso, though I was still to meet Picasso in The Great Artists weekly partwork my parents would collect in the future).
When I showed my nude to my mother she was taken by surprise, unaware that earlier in the day I’d been marvelling at a topless mermaid. My bohemianism was quickly curtailed. By teatime my drawing had clothes.
The Holy Virtues – No. 4 Diligence
I had practiced religiously. No reeds had been bitten in frustration. Even Claire, the best clarinetist in the school orchestra, who had stayed behind to go over my part, was treating me warmly. For the first time in my entire life my father was taking time off work to come to a morning assembly and listen to me play my clarinet in the class band.
Somehow, between the final practice and the performance, something on my clarinet stopped working; all I could do was squeak. When the assembly was over I cried so bitterly in the girls’ toilets I started to scare the friend who’d been sent by our teacher to see where I’d got to. I’d always known I was never going to be a virtuoso but couldn’t I at least be allowed to play I Am Sailing in public for my parents? It was a clarinet that taught me the meaning of betrayal.