Along with its wider mood of remembrance, 2014 offered the opportunity to reconsider the work of two poets, born days apart a hundred years earlier. My parents had grown up in Swansea, Dylan Thomas’s ‘ugly lovely town’, during the same depression years as the poet and Thomas’s sonorous voice, via an EP that included ‘Fern Hill’, was a familiar presence in my childhood. By the time I was taking a serious interest in poetry, it had become easy to dismiss the poet as a gifted performer and phrasemaker only – and there was surely something sinister about the further reaches of his rhetoric as when, writing of his early love of language, he comments,
‘(I) am still at the mercy of words, though sometimes now, knowing a little of their behaviour very well, I think I can influence them slightly and have even learned to beat them now and then, which they appear to enjoy’.
By the late 1960s, it was his coeval John Berryman whose way with words seemed more exciting. Though his poetry, like Thomas’s, grew from the mixture of freedom and compression that followed from Hopkins’s innovations, Berryman’s engagement with the language of the modern world seemed more complete. The collision of its registers, the frankness of its disclosures, its unapologetic mixture of longing and tomfoolery made The Dream Songs an event in language.
Berryman had been present at Thomas’s death in 1953 (or nearby in a corridor) and though he lived nearly twenty years longer, he too died prematurely a victim of alcohol and self-destructive urges. His reputation has also suffered in the years since, mainly as the result of his appropriation of African American speech patterns for the anonymous ‘blackface’ character who addresses Henry, the alter ego at the heart of The Dream Songs, as ‘Mr Bones’. That this use of the minstrel tradition of love and theft contained no spirit of mockery at its heart did not make it any less unacceptable in changed times.
The poetry world we inhabit in 2015 is much more broadly representative than the one in which Berryman and Thomas emerged sixty or seventy years ago. Each of them played out his version of the mythical larger-than-life poet: excessive, sacrificial, privileged (and almost always white and male). Rosemary Tonks (whose poems are reviewed in this issue) was a decade or so younger than them and took longer to find an audience for her own brand of risk and excess. Her bold directness has become totemic for a larger and more confident group of women poets in the new century. Other books reviewed here include the second anthology produced as part of the ‘Complete Works’ project, Ten: The New Wave (Bloodaxe), along with first collections from Mir Mahfuz Ali and Karen McCarthy Woolf, who were published in the original ground-breaking volume. Together, these books demonstrate that black and minority ethnic voices are increasingly key forces in our national art.
This is not to say that Thomas or Berryman should be consigned to the past. Thomas’s influence can be seen forcefully in poets like Sylvia Plath and WS Graham whose work is vitally part of the contemporary poetic consciousness; and John Goodby has argued in a recent study that Thomas’s discoveries lie behind much work in the British avant-garde tradition. Berryman could have at least as much to offer younger poets.
Representativeness, though welcome and overdue, will never be enough. Another poet born in 1914, Randall Jarrell, wrote of ‘people who sometimes have more intelligence, sensibility, and moral discrimination than most of the poets’ but ‘cannot write poems’, instead producing books and pamphlets that read ‘as if the writers had sent you their ripped-out arms and legs, with “This is a poem” scrawled on them in lipstick’. He would not be surprised to know that they are still arriving. Berryman and Thomas, despite their human and artistic weaknesses, had the talent at least intermittently to transform, not merely report, experience – and it is the presence of that transformative power in the best of our newest poets that will make their work worth reading a century on from their birth.
– Tim Dooley, Reviews Editor