Literary canons are fickle beasts and in this exciting new column for Poetry London, Camille Ralphs asks whether some of these ejections have been just, and what the poets themselves might have done to warrant them.
Whereas Harriet Monroe prevaricated over the term “the new poetry”, preferring, as Ian Hamilton noted in The Little Magazines, to keep things “quite unprogrammatic”, Al Alvarez calls The New Poetry (1962; second edition, and my version, 1966) “a personal anthology”. “Since about 1930”, he personally observes in what became an influential introduction, “the machinery of modern English poetry seems to have been controlled by a series of negative feed-backs.” In this selection what is spurned is postwar English poetry’s “gentility” – the Movement’s ostensible neo-Georgianism, sitting tight in fustian or tweed while all the tessellated violences of life revolved around it – for in the 1950s “all…[were] influenced by forces…of two world wars, of the concentration camps, of genocide, and the threat of nuclear war”. And for this New Poetry’s poets, it was “hard to live in an age of psychoanalysis and feel oneself wholly detached from the dominant public savagery”.
So how raw are these poems? True, there is blood on their breath (I count seventy-two uses of “blood”: “Uttering nothing but blood – / Taste it, dark red!”, as Plath writes), and plenty of flesh, bone, brain, muscle, ash and foetuses. But there is more to this work’s baldfaced horror than a rain or reign of gore, and many here were firstly Movement poets:
Priests of the infinite! ah, not for long. [John Berryman] These victorious figures of bravado ossified young. [Robert Lowell] Just as the earth puckered its mouth [Anne Sexton] Gleaming with the mouths of corpses, an evening full [Sylvia Plath] Of other evenings began to die. [Norman MacCaig] There are cries in the dark at night. [R. S. Thomas] All, in a sense, goes on. All is in order [D. J. Enright] As ever, beloved, blind. [Donald Davie] The costly aversion of the eyes from death – [Philip Larkin] The hope of heathens, muddled thoughts on fate [Kingsley Amis] Sold by some damned magician out to spoil [David Holbrook] Mindless Adam whose world lies crushed by the fall ... [Michael Hamburger] Whether or not the god exists, the scored earth bleeds. [John Wain] This place, this time: all other [Arthur Boyars] birdsong cannonades [Christopher Middleton] say, merely, that the roof greets the cloud, [Charles Tomlinson] That men and women having suffered time, [Iain Crichton Smith] The mortal context, and the mesh [Thom Gunn] May leave their bodies in a hangman’s land. [Peter Porter] And this is neither a bad variant nor a tryout. [Ted Hughes] Red as a wound [Jon Silkin] Among the raftered galleries of bone, [Geoffrey Hill] vulnerable by the winter suns, [George MacBeth] I walk on the waste ground for no good reason. [Peter Redgrove] I know you for what you are: [Ted Walker] A hermit grip rising out of the mud. [David Wevill] After a night of unsettled dreams [John Fuller] My cold hand surprises you. [Ian Hamilton]
To justify his new anthology, Alvarez makes a genteel cento out of lines from the Movement anthology New Lines (edited by Robert Conquest): “though the poem may not be quite comprehensible, it is, I think, unified in tone” – it has a “unity of flatness”. My own cento, made the same way but with lines from The New Poetry, joins together many figures who, like Hughes’s “Famous Poet”, once were “autoclave[s] of heady ambition”. (Shortly after writing it, I found another such cento in William Wootten’s superb book The Alvarez Generation. In his try and mine, there’s an uncensored violence in a myrrh-censered ennui, what Wootten calls a “unity of highness”, and the “purity of diction” Donald Davie had plumped for in 1952 is AWOL. Though it must be said that some poets, Davie and Fuller, for example, were more tricky to assimilate.) The New Poetry was for a time a school textbook, but some contributors have had worse luck than others.
Let’s begin with D. J. Enright. “Saying No” (1960) reads like a tired modern take on Walter Raleigh’s “The Lie” (“If arts and schools reply, / Give arts and schools the lie”): “After the love-laced talk of art, philosophy and fate – / Just, no”. “Apocalypse” (late 1950s) is much bleaker. Here the “chastened common sense” he’d once professed is less chastened than chastised – and less modest than unmoderated. A bold masterwork of irony, a steelySolperstein on which a reckless reader or believer in the arts as moral education trips, it whispers with hideous sangfroid that “One Bach outweighs ten Belsens” and “200,000 people / were remaindered at Hiroshima”. Enright’s “etc” in this piece (“still reeked of smoke etc”; cf that abbreviation’s use in Hughes’s “Bayonet Charge”) is the poet’s lassitude and numbness made exact. This work may not be flawless, and it often gives the more precautious modern reader cause to cringe, but its refusal to flinch back from awfulness is something to admire. It is more likely to survive than his more playful other writing, which Davie would later claim came from Enright’s wish to be “always entertaining”. Paradise Illustrated (1976) contains many good examples of this impulse. It is unfair to write off comic poetry outright, but Enright tends to grasp the lowest-hanging fruit, in every sense:
“Why didn’t we think of clothes before?” Asked Adam, Removing Eve’s. “Why did we ever think of clothes?” Asked Eve, Laundering Adam’s.
If not for its warred, scarred metaphors (“sores / of orange rust”; “thin, thin as a Belsen arm”), Ted Walker’s writing might feel out of place. He is a Hughes with the Germanic crags sanded away. His “Easter Poem”, where a fox is crucified upon a door, exemplifies this neatened cruelty: “But he was still. I saw / no sign. He hung as before. / Only the wind had risen / to comb the thorns from his fur.” The poem should have ended there, but has two clarifying lines – a sign of carelessness to come. Ted Walker’s best book was that first, Fox on a Barn Door (1965), followed by his second, Solitaries (1967), in which, as Samuel French Morse noted in Poetry, “the powerful sense of place … is tempered”. But his intuitive music soon began to seem more like forced noise. His later work does warrant reading for its treasures, such as the title poem of The Night Bathers (1970) and “A Celebration of Autumn” in Gloves to the Hangman (1973); but he was, possibly, a casualty of early overpraise. This is a shame, if the chiasmus (“indigo water and sky / violet”), spondees and half-rhymes in this verse of “The Skate Fishers” are anything to go by:
offshore, no boards creaking, still amid stillnesses of sea, the long throb of engines stopped, they will wait a while until indigo water and sky violet have interlocked.
Eczema”, like “blood”, is part of this New Poetry’s communal word-hoard: it appears in Walker (“in an eczema / of pink and white barnacles”) as well as in David Wevill (“[the city’s] eczema spreads”). Wevill, though, is harder to define. He was a member of the Group, whose modus operandi was to write a “poetry of direct experience”, according to Edward Lucie-Smith and Philip Hobsbaum; but his deepest interest was in Jungian psychology. Even in his Hopi mythology-influenced sequence Where the Arrow Falls (1973), “all windows open like eyes / and the stars closed / knowing now / not archetype or dream / but the breaking lungs and heart”. A single lyric taken from that oeuvre-wide context looks aimless. Here’s the soporific start of “Separation”: “Jetties suck, suck. / The broken and muddy water grips / without purpose. The water has / Nowhere else to go, like ships”. In “The Birth of a Shark”, we can see Wevill at his best, as a “bladder of sunlight” floats above stanzas evocative of Lawrence’s baggier animal poems. Even here, though, there’s a searchingness which never quite sounds out its prey, a futile limning of sublimity. Perhaps this is what gave Wevill his “place among the weeds” instead of crowning him with laurels. There’s no need to blame the greater fame of Assia. (I only mention her because if I did not, somebody would.)
George MacBeth (another Group attendee), meanwhile, has the stomping music and the odd wit of a real distinctive voice, albeit one that stomps itself into a corner now and then: his work, as Alan Jenkins noted, is sometimes “contorted to fit unyielding rhyme- and stanza-schemes or syllabic patterns” (MacBeth’s “What Metre Is” is one of his oddest explorations). A Selected Poems was last published nearly two decades ago. “The God of Love”, in which a herd of oxen spin and mingle, ululating, locked over a calf they’re trying to protect from wolves, is his most famous poem, and it’s easy to see why – lines such as “I saw that the god / In their ark of horn was a god of love, who made them die” are unforgettable, despite their sometimes onerous symbology. MacBeth is most effective, it appears, when writing either family (see “Poem before Birth” and “To My Unborn Child” in his Collected Poems, 1989, or see Anatomy of a Divorce, 1988) or animal, vegetable and mineral: longish sequences such as “Noah’s Journey” and “Homage to Arcimboldo” fascinate with their variegated, Mooreish imagery. MacBeth’s “Owl” often turns up in poetic bestiaries, wafting smells of nest and ruffled predator offpage with short, sharp sentences, crunching and hooting, and with swivel-eye-catching mono-syllabic nouns: “Cold walnut hands / on the case of the brain”; “Fine / rain in the bones”. Its solidness and tangled movement give it life. It is worlds from the creepy camp of Wordsworth’s “Stuffed Owl”, who “can neither stir a plume, nor shout”, whose “staring eyes” fix on a young girl convalescing in her bed.
“The Stuffed Owl” gives its name to an anthology of heinous verse (and there are several, since misery loves company, anthologies like it). Having in this first column sorted through some once-new stand-outs, next time I will turn instead to what our not-so-distant ancestor anthologists called dross. It is unlikely, yes, that what was shit is now the shit. But it may prove instructive to ask why.
Camille Ralphs has two published pamphlets, Malkin: An ellegy in 14 spels (The Emma Press, 2015), which was shortlisted for the Michael Marks Poetry Award, and uplifts & chains (If A Leaf Falls Press, 2020). She is poetry editor at the Times Literary Supplement.