I stood there, on wintry Bexhill beach, and someone let off some fireworks: not sky-busters,
just the domestic kind, looking pale and strawy against that big, black sky. (It couldn’t be
any bigger, facing seawards, even if I were in the emptiest and grandest desert on earth, and
not just on the patio of a locked beach-hut in dowdy little Bexhill...)
Nothing happened. I mean in nature. Beside me, my friend was still quietly weeping. His
suffering, my flapping concern, the children’s excitement at staying up late, the agitated
gulls, the drizzle... it all went on happening. Our calendars had other dates, recent ones,
that mattered to us far more than this one. I felt my bonds, they were intact, I wasn’t
surprised or sorry.
There are not many newspapers in my life, and it took me a while to see what had changed,
but now I see. A great big block of culture, the Twentieth Century, had broken away, had
launched itself like a twinkling liner on the sea of the past
(and surely there must have been just such a liner called “The Twentieth Century”), it was
drifting away, slowly, in the wake of that distant vessel, the Nineteenth Century. Or had
it in fact become the Nineteenth Century?
On board was everything that had happened then, all the things anyone had felt or thought,
the inventions, the genocides, the dustbowls, the highways, the movies, and (to come to the
point) all the poetry anyone had written, or thought they’d written.
It was a sealed envelope and now no one could add to it. Well, you could lie, you could dash
off something quickly, then pretend it was written in, oh 1998 or 1999. You could smuggle
yourself aboard. But where’s the motivation? You’ll only be, at best, a “pre-cursor”, a “hint”
of developments to come, forever tainted with that journalistic expression, fin de siècle. But
maybe that expression has floated off in the hold of the liner too rather a seedy hole,
I keep thinking. Anyway, no one thought fin de siècle when Coleridge was day-dreaming in
Nether Stowey (1797) did they?
But let it pass on, a sealed thing, all those poets, all those poems. (I gulp does this
mean that Ekelöf’s poems, for instance, the one about the dove, for instance “belong to
the last century”? Or the “Winter Palace”? It seems unfair, as if a kind of mass extinction
has taken place. Or that poem by Peter Redgrove where he says “the sea goes quiet and will
not give back any images” see, I can’t even remember it now.)
And now, if you take a course in “Twentieth Century Poetry” it will be a course about a
corpus, dealing however inadequately with something no longer provisional, shifting and
indeterminate something none of the students has the faintest hope of altering or seeing
altered. It has happened; for good or ill it’s all over.
“And to sum up, Dr Peverett?”
“Well, when all qualifications have been made” (grumbling in enormous beard) “one can see
certain, er, broad tendencies, blah blah emerging blah blah ....”
But really, what nonsense all that is!
I don’t even know if there are such things as tendencies. I never go and see one.
Look in Stace’s “New Flora of the British Isles” (this is my idea of an inclusive book)
you would think there was no such word. Stipules, processes, axillary racemes, lenticels,
viscid buds sure. Not a tendency anywhere.
But suppose they’re around, how far away would you need to be to see one? A whole damn
century, a whole damn world... and what college student hasn’t at some point knocked
out a poem? True, it may bear as much relation to the Four Quartets as a six-year-old’s
drawing of a tiger does to a tiger... But still. Millions of poems. You’d be too far away
to read one, that’s for certain. So how can you put your arms around that?
Impossible. You could spend a year of your life just being eaten alive by the Four Quartets.
(This hasn’t yet, I confess, happened to me.) There are so many poets I never heard of,
never encountered. And most of what I have read, let’s be honest, didn’t for some reason
sink its teeth into me. It was just there on the page. I spun it into motion and it made
a kind of dry chattering noise in my head, and when I soon enough stopped... then it
stopped too. So that’s Ashbery, I say. Well, I’d recognize that kind of noise again,
I could even be rather sharply amusing about it, but really, to claim that I’d read it
would be grossly misleading. Rather worryingly, I could nevertheless “place” it in a
torrent of tendencies. Give me a grant, I’ll write you that history!
No, not me, but others will. There will be skimmings and slimmings, and there’ll be a canon
drawn out of this overcharged populace, they’ll be placed in the large suites on the
upper deck and we’ll make them call to each other lone, gigantic figures across great
empty wastes, like a painting by Delacroix. You need something strong and simple like
that, or journalists can’t write the arts pages. You need a curriculum, or how can you
mark Jodie’s work? You all need to be aware of the same things: Frost, cummings, Plath,
Ginsberg... mastodons, referred to by surname only, bellowing to each other across
But there are no mastodons not when you reflect that what they’re reading in Pennsylvania
doesn’t mean shit in Beirut (or vice versa). Only on quite a compact dunghill can there be a
cock like Milton, “bestriding his century like a colossus”. Query, has English in particular
become too vast and windy an arena to nourish a real culture, only enormous air-inflated
images of culture, blockbusters and pop stars? Whereas it doesn’t seem so absurd to speak of
“the principal Catalan poet of his time”, to find (for instance) that Pentti Holappa became
an Education Minister in Finland, or that the Angolan poet who wrote these careful lines
There on the horizon
and the dark silhouettes of the imbondeiro trees
with their arms raised
in the air the green smell of burnt palm trees
“.. assumed leadership of the armed struggle ... at Angolan independence he became president till his death...” (Augustinho Neto).
In the English-speaking west, the century’s poetry seems to walk alongside the century.
Something beside, something against. Now I’m generalizing (“certain broad tendencies, etc..”),
but not frivolously. I’m trying to understand what has motivated such a flood of more-or-less
ordinary people to engage in this more-or-less private art it mostly isn’t to repeat what
the newspapers or action movies say with such gusto.
Westwards on the other arm of Pevensey Bay, Eastbourne showed mistily as a smear of lights
that occasionally crackled with late celebration. Here, Eugenio Montale wrote one of the
twentieth century’s definitive poems.
My fancy wandered along the South Coast. Eastwards lay the setting of that most piercing
articulation of high Victorian consciousness, Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”. Romney Marsh,
the home of Conrad, James, Ford Madox Ford not insignificant names, those! It’s true that
my own St Leonard’s on Sea had inspired nothing but a fine effusion by Thomas Campbell two
hundred years ago. Inland, however, the whole of this corner of Sussex was dominated by
Kipling’s imagination: the Kipling of “They”, “Wireless”, “Friendly Brook”,
“The Wish House”... From there I got on to Angus Wilson, and who knows what else.
Arnold’s “Rugby Chapel”, a favorite poem was I not myself the son of an inspiring
headmaster? I almost strutted around, in a warm haze of national pride, as if all this
culture had in some sense dropped around me was I, perhaps, its inheritor?
The sight of unsung Bexhill would soon lay that fancy to rest. Here, among the garages and
sports fields, the bluff and manly empire of letters that I had conceived dissipated into
the night air without anyone noticing. (Perhaps it would be noticed in certain old
universities, or the Foreign Office. Who cares?) The town, the beach-hut, my friend,
the shingle and the tough remains of sea-lavender represented a challenge for me. They
were all too plainly not covered or engaged at all in the carnival of literature that
had just passed through my mind. This was why there needed to be poems in the new century
Something I have a lot of fun with is discovering and immersing myself in the book of some
now-forgotten (perhaps never famous) poet. Since there are thousands of such books, I
understand that this is a chance meeting and I don’t bother to “place” the experience
in some dizzy hierarchy of literature. I place it in my own life instead.
We live where ice
Gouged out an eye
Inching to its own oblivion
And after ice
Came stone and rock,
A premonition on the face
Of what was greening into new
And out of stone
And rock came hovels,
Cairns and walls and strips of land
Ordered and again reordered
Until the gouge
Grew tame and verdant
Into fruitful, into green
And what came next was argument.
This is from a collection of poems about Robin Hood’s Bay, a small town on the Yorkshire
coast. It was written by Pete Morgan and was published in 1983. I wouldn’t want to be
without its pacy rhythms, its fun and its everyday confidence. When I’m reading it, I’m
not thinking about the author but about the place. After all, we’re like friends having
a conversation about things that interest us, why should I care about what school he belongs
to, whether he’s better than A or not quite up with B?
Here’s another book on my shelves. It’s by Jane Cooper, an American who at least achieved
the small fame of a “selected poems”. The poem that means most to me is too long to include
in full, unfortunately; it’s called “The Builder of Houses”. But here’s an extract from
another one. All you need to know is that it evokes the voice of a woman, a political
prisoner in war-time:
Today a towering dray
dragged by a team of freshly broken beasts
beating and beating with the butt of his whip
Even our woman gatekeeper protesting
One ripped and bleeding
its stiff hide torn
the look on its black face like a weeping child’s
The rest of the team
half dead standing while the dray was emptied at last
how on the long flight south larger birds
often carry the small           Reading:
sighted in amazing numbers along the coast
with a twittering freight
of songbirds on their backs
The suffering of a dearly loved brother could hardly have affected me
of the bleeding           My own dark
handsomely photographed eyes
Tears / negative
Tears / negative
Tears / negative           of my own face dead
skull beaten in and
As if all the birds declared
Brother! I am one with your
a “truce of God!”
one with your pain, your helplessness, your longing
one with you in my helplessness
The music of the songbirds
in the flowery meadows of Rumania
The mythical herdsman’s call
Meanwhile the women prisoners were jostling one another as they busily
unloaded the dray and carried the heavy sacks into the administration building. The driver,
hands in his pockets, was striding up and down the courtyard smiling to himself as he
whistled a popular air. I had a vision of all the splendor of war!
(from Threads: Rosa Luxembourg from Prison).
For the next poem I can supply even less information. It is by Unsi al-Haj and is translated
The Days and the Giants
I love the memory of the days that walked walked and never knew they’d end up in a book. I
love working hours wrapped in mist and the giants who walked walked and never knew they’d end
up in a book.
I love the memory of the days that will come, these present days.
(trans. Abdullah al-Udhari)
This next is a simple poem (it has to be simple or I couldn’t translate it) by a pastor
from Northern Sweden.
One November morning
buried all trails
the wind had chiseled
the new day’s features
life waited for us
white and unwritten
The moon faded out
like the last chord
in a sonata
During this pause
when the keyboard
and the moment held its breath
it seemed everything could happen
like in creation’s morning
Now I’m completing my posy of poems with this, which has no title, from a book by Desmond
Egan published in Dublin in 1974.
so there it was
like a bright tear into the face
dumb         as the space of
a year’s light blow,
and even the long fingers
(this way -
..... the books all piled up, French
And Beautiful, unwound alarm clock, coverlet of greens....
and the hall door like a car’s
scraped open the cold night;
into streets amber with streetlights
i was thinking of the wood
quietened by its nonexistent stars
so were you
Of course I like all the poems I’ve quoted. But on the back of one of the books, the one by
Jane Cooper, there’s a blurb by Adrienne Rich: “It is reason for celebration that we can
trace... the development of a serious and deeply valuable artist.” That, I suppose, typifies
the way that I don’t think it’s useful to talk about poetry.
This voice isn’t the voice you hear in Adrienne Rich’s poems. This is a public voice, and it
talks about someone called “we”, and I don’t know who that is, but this same “we” is always
on the pages of the papers, on TV and in the pronouncements of politicians. The doings of
“we” are discussed constantly; it’s a business apparently of enormous interest; the
discussions are constant because inconclusive. Sometimes “we” means the people who
produce the newspapers, and whose stories are so generally about the newspapers.
(For example, “Monica Lewinsky appeared in public for the first time since etc.,
etc.” just means “Cassie and Sam finally got to photograph Monica Lewinsky”.)
Sometimes “we” is supposed to mean other people but what other people are really
doing is various and mysterious, so when this happens there’s an obligatory note:
this is what other people ought to be doing.
But mostly the “we” you read about is just a fiction, a character that has been talked into
existence. It has tastes and beliefs and opinions about other fictions, and one of them is
“poetry”, which doesn’t mean the full liner-load of all the poems there are, but something
else, something with endlessly debated characteristics. Quotes picked at random from my
shelves: “This lengthy, unsubtle quasi-satire isn’t, of course, ‘poetry’ by any sensible
definition...” “We do need a stronger emphasis on the poem as a beautiful object... I think
we may have reached a very interesting phase where modern poetry cuts all its segments and
opens its parts to each other...” “Poetry at its best should be a celebration of the quest
for our spiritual selves...” “It behooves us all at times to remember that the poetry
business is bigger than any of us, and to behave accordingly.”
I don’t believe a word of it. I’m so bored of “us” and “poetry”!
Doubtless the poems in my posy are more similar than they should be, because they’ve all
happened to appeal to me. I avoided anything that I thought would provoke a discussion
about whether it really is “poetry” at all and many good poems do that. I avoided the
great in favor of the good. Despite this narrowing of range the point I want to make is
how different these poems are from each other.
Five poems are five poems, they can never add up to a sample or a tendency. Each writer
had a private idea, probably unconscious, of what he or she was doing. One poem is read
by one person at one time. If something happens at all, it happens in one life, and not
in public life. It’s an intensely private transaction. It appears to me that if I were
going to speak about it most usefully, I would talk not about “poetry” but about the
realities that the poems reference; for instance, my account of Desmond Egan’s poem
would be about the atmosphere of student life, of bedsits and how it felt to be 21; I’d
want to be autobiographical because it’s only when you can relate a poem to things you’ve
experienced or already begun to be preoccupied with that it sparks, it leaves the page
and re-inhabits the phenomenal world.
That’s why I think it’s impossible to be a professional reader. If you attempt it, you
chase a hare called “poetry”, and you discount (or even forestall) the impact of the
reality in the poem on your own reality, your own life. You have to treat every poem as
a bad poem, that is, you scrutinize the lines sharply or perhaps wearily not for what
they say but for what they betray (literacy, education, influences, “tendencies”....)
You diagnose... you’re a doctor whose activities traverse the intimate space of people
you haven’t time to know; you have a special way of looking, to avoid being involved,
to avoid seeing.
This is what I like to think, and in fact do think: at the very top of the liner is a
crow’s-nest that is not illuminated at all, but is open to the night sky. (It’s my
image, so I can give it a crow’s-nest if I want.) In that crow’s-nest is the best
poem of the century, and no-one has read it, or perhaps at most one or two. Yes,
that is the most likely thing in our time, when there are as many writers as readers.
(If one believed in the Day of Judgment one could believe that the Lord, after astonishing
the gathered generations with a list of the most saintly people who all turn out to be
obscurities, sometimes awkward and sometimes unamiable the Lord might spare a moment to
mention the best poem, which didn’t matter at all in the long night of time, but perhaps
will be hymned by angels in eternity.)
While I’m writing this essay I’m neglecting a letter I want to write to someone, a
friend I want to visit, an old declining cat, a coarse vigorous lime-tree and the
wall-barley of July, whose silky spikes are all at different angles, making a shimmer
of late daylight along the concrete walls of garages and the kerbs of the estate.
It doesn’t matter what I think about a poem when I’m at my desk, or in the liners of
the past where the demi-gods bark to each other, or in the papers and TV stations
that talk about themselves, batting a ball to and fro in the air for the whole 24
hours; it only matters when I get out there on the estate, when the action of the
poem I’ve read (like a slow-release pill) changes what happens, makes patient
adjustments to the world.
The poems quoted are from:
Pete Morgan, A Winter Visitor. London: Secker & Warburg, 1983.
Jane Cooper, Scaffolding: New and Selected Poems. London: Anvil Press, 1984.
Abdullah al-Udhari, ed. and trans., Modern Poetry of the Arab World. Harmondsworth:
Penguin Books Ltd, 1986.
Bo Lundmark, Den Sjunde Dagen dikter från glesbygden. Östersund: Glesbygds
Desmond Egan, Leaves. Dublin: The Goldsmith Press, 1974.