Sunday, March 25, 2012

Poetry of the Decade(s)

Decades - like Centuries - are useful temporal borders. We can talk about the 19th century novel or the 1930s poet - and I think, within reason, we can use them with some validity. Just as terms such as "Victorian" or "Edwardian" are shorthands for a specific generation or more. In music we buy compilations entitled hits of the 70s or attend an 80s night. At some point there becomes a bit of a convergence of time and association so that - say, "the sixties" means something specific to do with the Beatles, the King's Road, Woodstock and the Vietnam War.

In reading "Poetry of the 1930s" one is struck by two things - the lack of women poets; and the specificity of the poetry chosen. Auden, a poet who wrote well for longer than most, is reduced by his appearance here, Spender and others are possibly improved. Yet as we not only live longer, but our public writers have longer public lives, I think we would be wrong to dismiss this "generational" sense. There are gaps in the record. The various Millennium anthologies (Bloodaxe, Penguin, The Firebox) close with poets younger than myself. Yet you would think my generation be poets of the "nineties" if at all? Possibly things take longer now. The Next Generation list published in 2004, included quite a few poets born in the 50s and early 60s as well as the late 60s and early 70s; Alice Oswald, I was surprised to see, being about the closest in age. (I'd probably thought her younger if anything.) It does seem to me difficult to imagine a poet who had been a teenager when the Beatles were still together, (as Jane Draycott and Pascale Petit were), being classed as the same "generation" - anymore than writers much younger than me who had debut pamphlets in 2010 as a generation that I belong to.

Mere age is no signifier of course: the homogeny of the 30s poets was more similar than their sex; it often followed that they had the same education; often the same sexuality; and certainly similar careers and backgrounds. Yet, at the same time I think that if we don't necessarily think of the poets of a particular decade being all born within a few months of each other, there is still something about the poetry of that decade being of and from that time. Though Seamus Heaney or Christopher Reid or John Ashbery still win prizes it would seem a little absurd to include any of them in any "post-2000" poetry anthology - has their best work happened since then? I somehow doubt it, yet they've clearly remained an impact. There's unlikely to be a "poetry of the 00s" now and one kind of thinks that if anything there is a certain uneasy modern poetry that was written before and after the millennium a little uncertain of where it actually stood. Oswald's an interesting example; easily one of the most successful poets of the last few years; yet "a nature poet" - one of the oldest and most popular strands of English writing.

There are plenty of poets who have been retrospectively placed in their age - whether Emily Dickinson, Gerald Manley Hopkins or Edwin Morgan; the latter being revered towards the end of a long productive life in a way that simply insists in his place in the canon going back forty or more years. Other poets, one realises, may become as historically forgotten as so many then renowned, now unremarked, Victorian poets.

There are some debates that seem to have been going from the first time I was aware of contemporary poetry. Where are the black and Asian poets, I wonder? whenever I see a grouping of young poets they seem absent - has marginalisation re-occurred? Or has the relative success of the "performance" poem created its own separate world? Possibly the same goes for explicitly gay and lesbian poets? Then again, the British and Irish poem of the millenial window seems primarily concerned with self, but not in a confessional way, more in the anecdotal or the observational. In a globalised world, one sees poetry that is often as narrow as Larkin's or Heaney's - the flipside being that the narrowness is a trick, that the poem's universality can be found in the localism of subject, as it can be in the poetry of a recluse from Amherst. In terms of form, a certain formal free verse has been de rigeur for so long now, that one is almost surprised when something tighter or looser strays into the pages of "Poetry Review." Then again, now is the first time - in the UK at least - we're seeing poets who have consistently been through the workshopping of the BA or MA programs - often run by that previous generation's poets; a process that started a decade or so earlier with MA fiction courses.

Social media, poetry festivals, readings and magazine launches provide platforms that bring poets of different groups and different ages together - the group of NW poets I'm part of stretches across the decades, location and willingness to share being the thing we have in common - and perhaps it needs something else: a world event or a poetic schism perhaps, to define a "generation." And for those of us who've been writing poems forever, one can see the connections between a poem written in the 80s, 90s, or more recently, but one also sees the differences - sometimes of world-view, but more often of capability. One doesn't necessarily get better; but one hopefully doesn't get any worse.

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