poetry in the 1990s

poetry in the 1990s
   In the middle of the decade, Neil Astley, one of British poetry’s most powerful publishers and poets, asked the question, ‘Is poetry the new rock ’n’ roll?’ Someone is always asking, ‘is X the new rock ’n’ roll?’; but it is instructive that poetry could make it, even putatively, into that litany. What is true is that more poetry books are being sold than ever before. Though the reason might be that the compilation of anthologies, using all kinds of thematic focuses—bereavement and political resistance anthologies give an indication of the range—has become an effective marketing device. They have become the recipe books of poetry publishing, but they remind us that the recognition of resonant topics and themes do attract readers. Poetry in the 1990s is a cultural activity that is promoted and marketed professionally and even ruthlessly: the London Underground publishes poems on poster sites on its network. There is an annual national Poetry Day. Poetry reading has spilled over from Radio 3 to Radio 4 to Radio 2 and even Radio 1. Large public companies have employed ‘poets in residence’ in their corporate headquarters’ offices. The Internet offers the possibility of a kind of vanity publishing of poetry at much lower cost.
   The most worthwhile part of this phenomenon is that poets who might otherwise not find a public outlet for their writing do have the opportunity to take their work out of their notebooks and off their floppy discs. The means of propagation are very often the real competitions run by regional arts bodies, poetry magazines, national newspapers, colleges and universities. This route has brought some poets to prominence and to publishing contracts. Those in the Observer and Stand are the outstanding national competitions. While it is worth acknowledging the success of such means of discovering new voices, it is important to recognize that many of the poets writing so variously and powerfully in the 1990s have been writing for many years: Alan Brownjohn, Edith Scovell, Anne Stevenson, Anthony Thwaite and Derek Walcott have all been publishing for at least the last thirty years. All their work is characterized by a determination to celebrate what it means to be an individual separate from but held within a world that changes; in the world in which they must live, the subjective experiences they record seek to impact upon that much larger mass of the world’s objectivity, and make it seem different and surprising.
   In the 1990s British poetry has caught up a little with its peers, articulating a quickness and vividness of response seen for much longer, more vigorously and more variously in American and European poetry (particularly Eastern European). The 1990s, ironically and tragically, provide themes for poetry that break out of the precious and academic and speak powerfully and directly. At the beginning of the decade the Gulf War provoked in Britain meditative pieces on the televised horror of that war. Tony Harrison’s ‘Cold Coming’ was printed beneath the burned black rictus grin of a dead Iraqi soldier’s head; the soldier had been caught in the firestorm bombing by US aircraft as he fled from Kuwait. The poem’s title and subject commented on US male fighting forces in the Gulf having ensured a store of their frozen semen would be available back home to fertilize their partners’ ovum, should they fail to return. As a topical extension of the anthologizing principle that has been so powerful a publicization of poetry, editors have given space to writing on the particular horrors of the war in Bosnia in the middle of the decade. Against this kind of occasional writing, the work of Alastair Elliott can stand as a reminder that the reworking of autobiography into meditative, narrative lyric produces from the personal and private a wider significance.
   Although poets in this new dispensation are still concerned to signal their particular position, the element of posturing and establishing falsely oppositional stances seems to have passed. Good publishers are concerned not to tokenize the lists of those published but to selection for variety and true quality, and to encourage experimentation in form: Craig Raine’s History: The Home Movie (1994) is a good example of such experimentalism, a singlehanded attempt to revive the long poem.
   At the same time, there is a clear sense that poetry’s most persistent, post-romantic form of meditative, very often autobiographically based lyric is, if not beset, then certainly being reworked with an emphasis upon the requirements of form, to the point where the term ‘New Formalism’ has acquired capital letters. A characteristic example would be the work of Glyn Maxwell; his poetry displays elaborately formal qualities, and he has produced versions of Ovid’s poetry acknowledging imitatively its formal regularity and complexity. Ted Hughes has produced an equally formally elaborate version of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, entitled Tales from Ovid, as well as Birthday Letters, about his relationship with Sylvia Plath.
   What is best in 1990s poetry is variety. New poetic forms, in each manifestation, appear certain of their rightness and of their difference. Helen Dunmore has noted that women made hardly any appearances in poetry texts in the earlier years of postwar Britain’s cultural life, and characterized this as being created by ‘…mainstream publishers [building] up their lists [by] “discovering” bright young men from Oxford and Cambridge who would keep British poetry ticking over’. Her sharply perceptive comment, that ‘this photocopying process led to a lack of excitement’, sums up the deadening quality of some poetry, out of which there has been a slow break-out into the newness that remains the talismanic badge of success and worth so proudly displayed whether it is won or merely claimed. The Barthesian claim that every reading is a new writing throws the challenge back upon the reader, asking all who read to reflect upon the strategies of reading they use, so that in all the uncertainties of reading there is a gently guiding awareness of how it is being carried out and of the very real pleasures to be taken from it.
   Further reading
    Day, G. and Docherty, B. (eds) (1997) British Poetry from the 1950s to the 1990s: Politics and Art, London: St Martin’s Press/ Macmillan.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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