Mark Ford (Editor)
London: A History In Verse
Jackie Kay, James Procter and Gemma Robinson (Editors)
Out of Bounds: British Black & Asian Poets
In the excellent introduction to his ‘timely’ anthology, London: A History In Verse, Mark Ford makes a comparison between the poetry of London and the construction of Shakespeare’s famous Globe Theatre on the banks of its river. It’s a clever analogy. Both are arrangements within which history, myth – well, anything – can be conjured for an audience, and the slow accumulation of tropes and allusions in this weighty volume grows ever more apparent as we move towards the poets hoofing it on the London ‘stage’ today.
The visions of London we are presented with are, naturally, contradictory. One method of dividing the book, instead of the chronological ordering chosen, might have been to separate the many praise poems, panegyrics and urban rhapsodies from the equally populous set in which London is Babel, swindle or inferno. The anthology opens with the former, beginning around six hundred years ago with a section of John Gower’s ‘Confessio Amantis’ in which Gower encounters his King, Richard, on the Thames while the poet ‘by bote cam rowende’.
Gower’s poem is a commission, and there are plenty like it, notably an anonymous poem (possibly by William Dunbar) which figures London as ‘the flour of Cities all’. Pageantry and heraldry are here with all their pomp, colour and embroidered robes, with Mayors coming off particularly well when praise is being dished out, and monarchs not faring badly either, particularly in poems such as Edmund Waller’s soppy ‘On St James’s Park, As Lately Improved by His Majesty’ where ‘His shape so lovely and his limbs so strong / Confirm our hopes we shall obey him long’. If those lines left you muttering ‘no one likes a suck-up, Edmund’, you’re not alone. John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester’s take on St James’s Park during the same period contains an ‘all-sin-sheltering grove’ but doesn’t shelter the reader from many. In a similarly mischievous act of literary one-upmanship, Ford includes an anonymous poem, ‘In the Fields of Lincoln’s Inn’, immediately before Wilmot’s section, which somehow manages to out-filth him.
For all the grand names – Shakespeare, Milton, Keats and Pope are among the canonical figures represented – Ford has cast his net impressively wide, with the aid of his UCL colleagues, to bring to light a host of lesser known and anonymous works, from cockney street songs to a moving ballad by Anne Askew written at Newgate and Elizabeth Tollet’s sonnet ‘On the Prospect from Westminster Bridge, March 1750’, which may not trump Wordsworth’s effort but whose lofty vision surely prefigures his. In aiming for absolute representativeness Ford at times lowers the bar for entry – he would I’m sure make no claims for greatness on behalf of a poem such as Isabella Whitney’s ‘The Manner Of Her Will’ or the anonymous ‘Strike of the London Cabmen’ with its chorus of ‘Cut him, slash him, here’s a go / All over town, come up, gee wo’ to name just two. They’re here for their curiosity, as part of a wider programme of getting in as much of the populace and landscape of the city as possible, and on those grounds justify their inclusion.
As one might expect, visions of the Thames are central to the poetry of London, whether ‘a thousand vessels ride, / Which like a floating city crowd her tide’ in an anonymous poem from 1739, or ‘Whilst ice has made it one continued shore’ in ‘A Winter Wonder; or the Thames Frozen Over, with Remarks on the Resort There’ from 1684. For every occasion when the river is invoked to favour a fair lady or ‘run softly, till I end my song’ there are others when it is ‘chartered’ or, in Eliot’s famous description from ‘The Waste Land’:
bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends
Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed.
In context within this anthology, where in earlier poems nymphs and their ilk were in situ, Eliot’s lines gain a renewed note of desolation.
One of the many tropes which announce themselves is that bridges are a place for realizations. Westminster Bridge is a place for love, it seems, whether you’re Wordsworth realising London’s alright after all, as long as everyone’s asleep, or Wendy Cope in her turn coming to understand she’s fallen in love thanks to ‘the juke-box inside me’ – it’s hard to imagine her inner Wurlitzer playing so romantic a tune in the foot-tunnel at Woolwich, say. In a similar vein, in times of crisis it seems the city’s poets align their bodies’ health with that of London’s, whether in Roy Fuller’s account of the Blitz or Abraham Holland’s unfortunately prescient poem about the Plague.
Perhaps the most striking thread which runs through this fine anthology is the sense in which London’s inhabitants are, and have always been, preoccupied by those who went before. Sometimes this is dealt with tangentially, as in the perennially-haunted Hardy’s trip round St Paul’s in which he sees the Saint himself and other historical figures in the modern day visitors, or more explicitly in Amy Levy’s ‘London Poets’ where ‘The sorrow of their souls to them did seem / As real as mine to me, as permanent’.
For all the grandeur and eminence of some of the poems here, it is the democratising instinct which Ford has enshrined with his selection policy which sings out most strongly. The phoned-in hymns to nobility pale when faced with a poem such as James Thomson’s ‘Sunday At Hampstead’ and its moving assertion that:
On Sunday we’re Lord and Lady,
With ten times the love and glee
Of those pale and languid rich ones
Who are always and never free.
The London captured so expertly here is that of its common people, and the roles they play in the city’s rich, ongoing history. A modern Londoner may wish to be a creature standing aloof from the past, but to steal a line from Hugo Williams’ first poetic visit to ‘Bar Italia’, ‘Anywhere but here it might seem possible’.
The Bloodaxe anthology Out Of Bounds contains work by black and Asian poets which deals with, or at least features, the landscape and history of the British Isles. The nuanced introduction by the editors makes it clear this is not an attempt at creating a canon, and that the idea of grouping poets together solely by their ethnic background is inherently problematic. They’re not underselling the difficulty – to take the most extreme example, one is left with the feeling that Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott shares as little common ground with many of the writers gathered here as Milton does with the scribe responsible for ‘Strike of the London Cabmen’ in Ford’s anthology. The negotiation of such a grouping is perhaps the most interesting and long-lasting legacy of this undertaking.
If Out Of Bounds is ‘an invitation to travel’ through the British Isles, it also represents itself as something of an alternative guidebook. As you might expect from any collection of migrant experience and writing there are oft-repeated concerns surrounding identity and belonging. Imtiaz Dharker’s plain-speaking ‘Campsie Fells’ has one child ask a homesick uncle ‘If you mind so much, / why don’t you go back?’ while Jackie Kay is forced to assert her belonging to ‘These parts’ when viewed by a stranger ‘as if I were a superstition’. Perhaps the most common sort of poem here is one in which the British landscape being described becomes the gateway to a memory of a lost, exotic, remote home. This is done deftly in a poem such as E A Markham’s ‘To My Mother, The Art Critic’, where there is ‘a scent of elsewhere drifting / indoors, from the garden’ but hammered home with a little too much gusto in others, such as Maya Chowdhry’s ‘My Eyes’ where her right eye sees Hulme’s tower blocks as her left gazes on rickshaws and Janpath Market.
Another reoccurring concern is the speaking voice, with dialect featuring prominently and with wildly varying success. Daljit Nagra employs Yorkshire dialect in ‘Raju t’ Wonder Dog!’ as a craftily-handled means of character exposition, making the drift towards sentiment at the end an affecting success. There are other instances, however, where ‘dialect’ means nothing more than variant spelling; the different idiom doing little to make Irfan Merchant’s ‘Address Tae Chicken Tikka Masala’ anything other than a colloquial jingle, with lines like ‘haggis disnae mak us sing / in the teenies; / the mince and tatties ye’ll hae tae sling / wi yer jeeli-piece’ no better for their accent.
Despite the editors’ assertion that this isn’t phase one of canon construction, most of the poets included are represented by several poems. The most notable schism in the book is between those whose poems suggest they have been included solely because they have written on topics which the editors felt were important to, or exemplary of, the black and Asian experience and those who are simply good poets who happen to be black or Asian. E A Markham emerges as one of the stars, with a number of finely tuned poems which go straight into the top drawer alongside the likes of Fred D’Aguiar, who takes his realisation that ‘home is always elsewhere’ ‘like an English middleweight / with a questionable chin’ in ‘Home’, one of the volume’s best. Other highlights include John Siddique’s ‘Jali’ – where a kora player becomes a sort of Orpheus the redeemer, playing ‘for our souls’ in Piccadilly Gardens, backing up D’Aguiar’s notion that ‘We must all sing for our suppers or else’– and Cheryl Martin’s ‘Driving Back from Durham’ which has a touch of Edwin Morgan’s ‘Strawberries’ to it and where ‘kindness is so seductive / and you are so kind’.
Ultimately this is an anthology in which many of the strongest poems challenge its very right to exist, with Merle Collins’s devastating conclusion to ‘Soon Come’ of ‘Do you still teach the / writers / Milton and Wordsworth?’ in contrast to her experience in London of seeing ‘a Black film /…a Black play’ and in Walcott’s ‘Midsummer’ where ‘the fields, not their names, were the same’. One of the other obvious ‘real things’ of the collection, Kayo Chingonyi, perhaps sums up best the complication at the heart of an anthology such as this, in the excellent ‘Baltic Mill’:
The exact course that brought
us here is unimportant. It is that we met
like this river, drawn from two sources,
offered up our flaws, our sedimental selves.