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.