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date: 01 July 2022

Introduction: The Limits and Openness of the Contemporary

Abstract and Keywords

‘Introduction: The Limits and Openness of the Contemporary’ begins by outlining what the temporal parameters of the contemporary may be, and who the earliest poets whose work might come into it are. It addresses what the contemporary’s having a perpetually advancing second date does for its definition, how its newness impacts upon issues of value in contemporary poetry. This uncertainty about present evaluation, inevitable in the case of new work in the process of being received, constitutes an openness that sets limits on the kinds of things that can be said for and against poetry being read and written now. Conflicts taking place in the recent past and present, the so-called poetry wars, are referred to and the means for staking out ground and staging opposition in them are criticized. The history of poetry publishing as it has contributed to these wars is briefly outlined, as are the rise of creative writing and various relevant technological developments. Ways of unprejudicially approaching the contested variety of contemporary poetry as a whole are then offered in the light of a further danger, that of a tolerating incuriosity about others and their writings. This introductory chapter concludes with an outline of the structure offered to sequence the thirty-eight subsequent chapters.

Keywords: contemporary, poetry, parameters, value, conflict, denigration, publishing, reading, creative writing, Internet, self-knowledge, outline structure


There is one thing to be said for contemporary poetry that can’t be said of any other’, T. S. Eliot averred in a piece of film footage, ‘and that is that it is written by our contemporaries.’1 He prefaces this with a reminiscence of the argument in his 1919 essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, saying that it is ‘no more use trying to be traditional than it is trying to be original’. And this must be true too of trying to be contemporary. ‘Il faut être absolument moderne’, Arthur Rimbaud wrote in 1873,2 but, doubtless, it would be a mistake to try and be that too. Yet while it may be foolish to attempt to be traditional or original or modern or contemporary, finding that your work is, or can’t help being, a combination of these things may produce puzzling states of affairs, not least because you can’t, strictly speaking, have either willed it, or fully intended the exact combination of qualities that it manifests. The limits and openness of the contemporary mean that it is always also a terra incognita into which we can’t but stray, and in which we are forever attempting to take our bearings or draw a map—metaphors for the activity of reading, interpreting, and understanding poetry that have been used before. The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary British and Irish Poetry is a collaborative effort at sketching a map of the always partially unknown.

(p. 2) Eliot’s observation about contemporary poetry should not be mistaken for his damning of it with faint praise. After all, when he spoke, he was alive and a poet himself. Rather it is suggesting that if you are interested in past poetry, if you read Rimbaud or Eliot, for example, then really to understand them now you might also have to take a look at contemporary poetry, for, according to Eliot’s own theory, the significance of past works is forever being altered by the addition of works in the present which retain value for those who read in the future. Poetry, and literature as a whole, is, in this sense, either a living process—or on the way to becoming an inert exhibit in a lost-world museum. So his one thing to be said in favour of contemporary poetry, that our contemporaries write it, may, implicitly, not be the only thing to be said for it. Contemporary poetry is essential to the continuing life of poetry and literature. Even the poetry of dead languages requires the existence of living languages to have its value and significance. But how does the poetic-looking writing being produced by people living now reach the category, by no means a neutral one, of ‘contemporary poetry’ and what, precisely, do the geographical and political adjectives in the title of this Handbook add to the aesthetic and cultural distinctions that it appears explicitly to make? When did what is currently considered the ‘contemporary’ begin? When does recent poetry stop being contemporary?

Though a majority of the poets whose work is referred to and discussed in the following chapters are alive as I write, they are joined by poets from the generations of the living who died, as we say, before their time, and, in living memory, by the parental and grandparental generations of those still living. For a person of my age (b. 1953), this will take us back to poets born in the 1880s, that’s to say the generation of Marianne Moore and T. S. Eliot—though even this notion ought to be flexible enough to include those who had children later in life, allowing for the presence of poets born in the 1860s, such as Charlotte Mew and W. B. Yeats, and the 1870s, such as Wallace Stevens. And, at a stretch, a case might still be made for the contemporaneity of the long-living Thomas Hardy, born in 1840, a great-grandparental figure whose poetry was being published alongside that of the generation of my grandparents, and whose poetic significance emerged as something of a polemical issue during the 1960s and 1970s, decades in which the youngest poets whose work is discussed here were being born. These presences, and ones from further back in history too, may also be considered part of the contemporary, because the present is also shaped by poetry from the recent or more remote past freshly brought to bear as significant within it, and especially by present acts of revival that invite contemporaries to look again at the poetry of—among poets recently brought back into print—Kenneth Allott, Hope Mirrlees, Lynette Roberts, Bernard Spencer, A. S. J. Tessimond, and Sylvia Townsend Warner.

So to put some parenthetical dates into the chronology of this Handbook, it might be proposed that since the oldest living contemporary poets, those such as Mairi MacInnes (b. 1925), were born midway through the decade of the 1920s, and were thus beginning to publish visibly some thirty years later, the word ‘contemporary’ here refers to poetry published over the last approximately sixty years. However, those (p. 3) poets, some of them born when Hardy was still to publish his final collection, Winter Words (1928), lived and worked through years in which the generation of my grandparents were very much alive and present as formative influences. This is why the first part of the Handbook, one called ‘Movements over Time’, begins by exploring the continuing significance of poets publishing their major works in the 1920s and in subsequent decades until we enter the ‘contemporary’ proper, namely, the last some sixty years. This Handbook has, though, taken a number of years to bring from initial conception to publication, and the work it contains has been in the press for about twelve months. This suggests, as does the fugitive nature of the present moment, that the contemporary and its notional parentheses are in perpetual forward movement, and from this fact also arises further forms of limit and openness implied in the title to this introductory chapter. Everything published is instantly dated, on its copyright page if nowhere else, most of it shifting helplessly back into the forgotten or all but forgotten, and the challenge for those interested in contemporary poetry will not only involve keeping a weather eye on the new poetry being published, but also finding a continuing readership for work believed to be valuable but suddenly and unexpectedly considered passé, for the now out-of-fashion that still constitutes the immediately contemporary’s most recent past.

The continuing addition of poetic works in the present which may retain value in the future does, of course, beg the great question for contemporary poetry and literature, and adds a further air of the terra incognita to the subject of this Handbook—namely that we cannot know for certain which works, however admired at present, will retain value in the future by continuing to be read and to influence what future poets may write. The vitality of contemporary poetry also depends upon the limit and openness of this uncertainty, for if we knew for sure which works will survive and which won’t, then the work we knew it about would not, in exactly this sense, be contemporary any more. It is also sobering to bear in mind that poetry by our contemporaries the future will take to heart may be work which, though written now, remains as yet unpublished, or has appeared in print but is neglected or unnoticed. Unlike Handbook gatherings of chapters on earlier periods, the contemporary has only a sketchy and forming canon to revise or expand, it can’t by its nature have a firmly established one. The individual poems and poets focused on by this volume’s contributors were chosen by them to illustrate their concerns. Though being included in discussions here does mean something, it doesn’t mean elevation to a canon of the contemporary—for, as I say, if it’s contemporary it can’t be canonical. Those undecided questions of value hovering over works by the living and recently dead are only still floating in the air above, for instance, Shakespeare’s oeuvre in its apocryphal manifestations and as regards the debatable qualities it variously displays. This doesn’t of course mean his works cannot be revalued, and they are thus not altogether removed from the whirligig of time. Rather, the conditions for revaluing, say, Hamlet, as T. S. Eliot attempted and significantly failed to do, are of a different order to those of contemporary poets in their lifetimes with at least one foot in oblivion and aspiring to obscurity.

(p. 4) II

Broadcast during 2009, the BBC Arena programme devoted to T. S. Eliot which included his remark about contemporary poetry, began with opening credits not accompanied by ‘Macavity’ from Cats, or the poet’s solemn voice reading ‘Let us go then, you and I, | When the evening is spread out against the sky’.3 Rather, the titles rolled to the sound of a different voice, acoustic guitar, bass, and Spanish arpeggio accompaniment to the words: ‘Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower’. Bob Dylan (for it was he) doesn’t merely name-drop these two high modernist poets into the penultimate verse of his long song ‘Desolation Row’ from Highway 61 Revisited (1965). Eliot settled in England in 1914, joined Faber & Gwyer in 1925, set up the company’s poetry list, and eventually helped establish the Poetry Book Society, contributing thus to what is now optimistically and mistakenly called the ‘mainstream’, while Pound, who gave up on London literary life and went to Paris in 1920, became modernist father-figure for the Beats and Black Mountaineers, re-emerging in British poetry via their influence about the time Dylan’s song was released and Eliot died with a wave of so-called ‘alternative’ or ‘underground’ neo-experimental poetry whose exponents are now among the scene’s senior citizens. ‘Which side are you on?’ Dylan’s song asks; but it puts that question into bleak perspective with the chorus, for what may be Eliot’s own ‘mermaids flow’ where ‘nobody has to think too much | about Desolation Row’. This not only made me think, just a few years after its release, about what ‘nobody’ might be overlooking, but also wonder how many possible things Eliot and Pound could have been fighting about, and how not to get caught between the pass and fell of mighty opposites.

The contemporary period, its parameters covering the last approximately sixty years, is one of enormous change in the varieties of spoken and written English, in the accents of authority and power, the vocabularies of technical and technological innovation, the terms for evaluation and appreciation—and poetry in these years has registered and responded, both critically and creatively, to these developments. The changing values associated with individualism and choice have been exploited and explored in the near-compulsory distinctiveness of poetic ‘signature styles’, the plurality and variety of what counts as a poem being never so unpredictable as now. The contemporary has witnessed various species of free and syllabic verse, alongside numerous revivals of poetry’s formal and formalist resources. It has been a time too when transformations in sexual relations, the rebalancing of gender authority, the renegotiation of the public and private spheres, have created unprecedented opportunities for the subject matter, style, and vocabulary of poetry. It is a period in which the democratization of politics and international relations, and the decline of deference, has increased the ubiquity of protest and authorized commentary, one in which the physical environment, whether natural (p. 5) or urban, has experienced dramatic changes of appearance and usage. I might thus further interpret Eliot’s claim on our attention of contemporary poetry that not only is it written by those alive when we are, but also by those inevitably engaged with the concerns that press upon us, its immediate target readers. Whether we are fighting over similar things to Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot in the captain’s tower of a symbolic Titanic, or looking elsewhere to see other subjects considered more appropriate to the issues and conflicts of our day, the poetry wars have been fought out so urgently because they have involved in emblematically contested terms the intractable problems that our cultures and societies have had to face and endure. Similar claims might be made for other forms of literature and the arts more widely. The claim of poetry is that its intimacy with the language of individual utterance and singular subjectivity allows it to register, render, and respond to contemporary conditions with a distinctively nuanced, articulate immediacy of emotion and insight. Writing on modern British art, T. J. Clark has noted that ‘Poetry, with its bizarre contest between Americans-in-London and cultivated lower-middle “provincial” bathos, took its own unpredictable path’.4 Yet the unpredictability of its contested roads taken or not includes fighting between the influence of those Americans-in-London, and between exponents of what Clark calls ‘provincial’ bathos, while, as his adjectives imply, the poetry wars were felt to be fought over a territory of acutely conflicted cultural crisis. And they still are.

I was myself made more intimately aware of that fought-over divide between the ‘mainstream’ and the ‘underground’ a decade after Dylan’s album was released when instructed in it, and its further balkanized intricacies, by a co-editor on the little magazine Perfect Bound (1976–9). Based in Cambridge and aligned with a fraction of the poetry scene that, however reluctantly, takes its name from the university town, it was identified as such in spite of attempts to loosen the confines of the identity definition by including work by various non- or less-received poets, including the then latest generation. One problem for me with the divisions of that moment in the poetry wars was I found myself unable to regulate appetites, instincts, and reading needs sufficiently to establish poems I could, but more often couldn’t, write, clearly within identity criteria which appeared as complexly shifting and yet prone to fixing as are ethnic discriminations, class and gender markers, or national and political allegiances within the British Isles. Nor would attempts to belong have struck me as prudent or dignified, being yet another instance, like traditional, original, modern, or contemporary, of the things that it’s no use trying to be.

Yet drifting and shifting within the debatable terrain of that division between a great many then current modes also served to help perceive what contributed to a poetic work’s being unacceptable to one or other of those crudely defined factions. Attempts to articulate differences between these fractious groupings have seen the so-called ‘mainstream’ poetry focused on the achievement of end product, which it exhibits in the form of discrete poems, while the ‘alternative’ poetry is thought to privilege writing process (p. 6) and to exhibit the precipitates of such explorations.5 Similarly interdependent contrasts are then made between ‘closed’ and ‘open’ form, ‘regular’ metres and ‘free’ verse, and the employment or eschewal of rhyme. Such characteristics can extend even to the use of initial capital letters in verse lines, or capital letters at all, of ampersands or the spelled-out ‘and’, and of completed or pointedly incomplete syntactic units. Some of these features, in the weakest cases worn as identity markers, have turned out to be ambiguous indicators, for the thus distinguished kinds frequently share characteristics, converging or diverging, in their particular colloquial or dialect speech-forms, their use of specialist vocabularies or technical jargons. Such selected characteristics are then associated (by the practitioners themselves and their first circles of reception) with political allegiance, such as the idea that paratactic syntax is believed to be egalitarian, while hypotaxis is by contrast thought to be hierarchical in its subordination of clauses. This series of binary contrasts organizing the identity criteria for the two supposed factions seemed then, and does now, inhibiting—especially for those starting out—of a verbal imagination. Such discriminations and attempted identifications are, as I have suggested, simultaneously the terms for deadly serious attempts at articulations of poetics and politicized aesthetics, particularly valuable if formulated in response to perceived changes in practice; but those group-formations and tribal warring also contribute to a discrediting and marginalizing of such efforts at self-definition and clarification.6 Closer acquaintance with the poems attributed to any faction quickly reveal sub-factionalizing, and infighting, making for yet further inhibition and dismay—felt as a feedback effect from the expectations of imagined modernist or mainstream audiences, the availability and control of publication outlets, and other constraints upon the achievement of even minimal visibility.

Conflict in the area of poetry may derive, then, from a series of associations of ideas. Aesthetic judgements, such as the handling of enjambments or the fitting of phrases to rhythmic patterns, are associated with ethical values—respect for others, belief in forms of community, political loyalties and allegiances; then these associated compounds of aesthetics and ethics are appropriated or attributed to particular interest groups in society. Simultaneously, the associations may run the other way round: values espoused by particular interest groups in society are associated with a kind of poetry, and this kind is identified by particular aesthetic features of poems, preferably ones easy to recognize, even by inexperienced readers. Such processes of association can be promoted and maintained so long as the agents of the institutions function under near-monopoly (p. 7) conditions, a small number of poetry magazines and literary journals, a limited number of poetry lists, just a few well-endowed prizes, and a tiny number of celebrity poets.

But what is the cultural consequence of definition by contrasts being taken for a fixing of differences in kind? The critical assertion of a distinction between two poems, or types of poem, the assertion that one is different from the other in such-and-such ways, can be construed as a claim that they have nothing in common, that there is a fracture or break between these distinct ways of proceeding in writing, or it can be perceived as a mutual definition that binds the two works together in their difference. Just as contrast may be a higher form of comparison, so poems and poets may be linked by the distinctions between them. If you describe yourself as ‘a mainstream poet’, and some have, the adjective suggests, whatever it is taken to mean, that there are other kinds of poet it is possible to be, and that if you do not have any sense of this stated or unstated contrastingly adjectival condition, then you have little chance of identifying what ‘mainstream-ness’ could be. The same can be said about ‘alternative’ poetries, which have to be alternatives to something, or of ‘underground’ poetry, where there has to be a contrastive overground, and this is likely to be the case for any and every ‘ourselves alone’ definitional gambit.

Furthermore, by substituting superficial indicators (however cunningly theorized) of inclusion or exclusion from supposedly autonomous bodies for the far more difficult and patience-requiring task of pondering over time which verbal artefacts continue to sustain and reward attention with value attributed to them, and which ones perhaps don’t, means failing at the same time to ask what it is about these artworks which fascinates or fails to do so. The substitution of superficial indicators of allegiance or belonging for reading of this order indicates that it is not only the creative imagination that is being hampered, but the critical imagination too. The combined undermining of these human capacities from within is an unhappier aspect of the contemporary poetry field as experienced over the last four decades and more. One purpose of this Oxford Handbook of Contemporary British and Irish Poetry is to sketch a space for curiosity and mutually enhancing accuracy of distinction that may help to mitigate the widespread self-confusion by means of other-denigration witnessed on all sides.


The resulting factionalized state of affairs has tended to be interpreted from too close up, and, as it were, on a darkling plain by night. Mimicking embedded structures at work in the culture at large, it has played itself out as the seeming endgame of a centre and periphery model founded upon the growth of the nation state whose greatest triumph was the centralization of power in a capital city and the reduction of the rest of the country, or, in the case of the United Kingdom, countries, to the status of provinces. It is noticeable, for instance, in Great Britain and Northern Ireland, that while the intellectual support for experimental, vanguard writing has tended to focus itself in or nearer the capital, and advocacy for traditional poetic models has outposts in a number (p. 8) of provincial centres, nevertheless, the commercial publishers and the reviewing organs of the book trade, drawing a form of authenticity from those provinces, tend to ignore, if not openly to denigrate, the self-consciously innovative and unorthodox in their midst. The centralization of preferring power in the capital extended to the control of the print culture too, and it is for this reason that at the beginning of the twentieth century it was felt to be incumbent upon Ezra Pound and then T. S. Eliot to establish themselves at the global centre of anglophone publishing might; and it remains the case today that, to an unusually large extent, and despite various countervailing tendencies, the creation of reputation is achieved by the publishers, editors, journalists, prize judges, grant awarders, and such like figures in London, and, to a much lesser extent, Oxbridge, where many of those figures will have been educated.

Yet the period covered by this Handbook has also seen dramatic reductions in this achieved centralization of publishing, the power to use economic capital to constitute and distribute what is now called, in acknowledgement of its monetary infiltration, cultural capital. The primary reason for this has been the inability, broadly speaking, of commercial metropolitan publishers to sustain a viable book-trade market for their poetry products. There have been fluctuations in this state of affairs, and exceptions to the rule, such as the success of John Betjeman’s Collected Poems, or the sales figures achieved by Faber & Faber for Seamus Heaney’s collections of poetry; but, by and large, the numbers achieved for the sales of most poetry books do not make them, in the commercial terms required by trade publishers, viable as marketable units. In the pre-1970s world of autonomous publishing houses, such as Jonathan Cape, Secker & Warburg, or André Deutsch, it was possible for relatively benign and culturally sensitive gentlemen publishers, as they had been called, to subsidize their poetry lists from more directly and successfully commercial publishing, on the grounds, as it might have been, that the cultural kudos of having a poetry list could be offset against weaknesses on the balance sheet. Cultural capital could then, to a certain extent, trump actual money. The rise in production costs that occurred during the 1970s, encouraging a number of publishers to abandon poetry, the multiple takeover and combining of these old independent houses, and the dominance of accountancy concerns in an ever more global trading environment, led to the decimation of trade publishers’ poetry lists. When, for example, Random House, itself absorbed by Bertelsmann in 1998, bought both Secker and Cape it made commercial sense to combine their lists under the Cape imprint, keeping on a few poets from both lists and dropping others. In the United States such a process, which might be called the aggravated de-commercialization of poetry, has been mitigated by support to poetic culture provided by well-founded university presses—California, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Princeton, and Wesleyan, for instance, which all have poetry lists. The solitary UK instance, Oxford University Press, was itself discontinued for what were said to be commercial reasons in the late 1990s.

The presses that evidently benefited from London’s relative and Oxford’s near complete abandonment of the field were the specialist small imprints set up in the 1970s, two of which, Bloodaxe Books and Carcanet Press, now have the largest poetry lists of any UK publisher. While a few of the let-go poets with an edge of cultural capital to sell (p. 9) were taken on by surviving trade publishers in London, the specialist firms, their books being subsidized by Arts Council grants and, sometimes, benefactor owners, came to the rescue of many others; and though a couple of these surviving smaller presses, Anvil and Enitharmon, are located in the capital, the vast majority of the new specialist presses were not, saving on costs by being housed in much cheaper office space or private dwellings in the provinces. They were able to rival and indeed quickly surpass the metropolitan trade publishers in the range and artistic commitment of their lists; but they were not able wholly to solve the initial problem of how to make units of poetry sell in large enough numbers to be commercially viable. It was also an uphill struggle for them to achieve for their lists the kinds of cultural capital that the metropolitan publishers, Faber & Faber supreme among them, had achieved, and retained at the level of book trade market penetration and media attention, if not ubiquitously in the minds of poetry readers. The specialist presses have remained dependent on Arts Council grants for their continuance, and their vulnerability to changing economic climates is illustrated in the wake of the 2008 credit crunch and its consequences for government funding of the arts as I write.

That free market capitalism post-1980s style has not thoroughly de-commercialized poetry and driven it into complete invisibility may be a result of two technological and three cultural developments, both of them running in parallel to the way in which developments in global capitalist business models have tended to suck power away from independent companies in metropolitan centres. The two technological developments are the Internet and print-on-demand, while the cultural developments are the growth of public poetry readings, of poetry competitions, and the rise of creative writing as a subject taught in school and university. Poetry readings developed alongside the popular cultural events of the 1960s, and, though experiencing vicissitudes, are surviving resolutely a half-century later. Poetry competitions emerged in the 1980s alongside the free-market commercial models, and Roy Fisher’s satire ‘A Modern Story’, subtitled ‘A prophesy (1981)’, saw what was happening almost before it did.7 Superficially like an updated form of the discredited vanity publishing of poetry, they thrive on the willingness of aspirant poets to pay entry fees—helping to fund, in lottery fashion, the arts organ or organization that hosts them, paying a judging fee to poets with some kudos to advertise, and contributing prize money to the few. Yet, despite all that might be said against this feeding on gullibility and attention-seeking, the multiplying popularity of such competitions and the ways in which emerging poets have used them to advertise their own growing capital has underlined the capacity of this near-costless, not to say priceless, art form to seed itself across the ground and burst into flower.

Alongside such widespread activity and its visibility, echoed in the annual poetry book prizes that began to proliferate in the 1990s, are the creative writing courses that have multiplied first outside and now almost ubiquitously within UK universities. Curiously enough, the two genres of creative writing best suited to this workshop and (p. 10) teacher-led format are lyric poetry and the short story, two of the forms most difficult to convert into commercially viable units for a mass market. Once again, whatever may be said against the idea that writing poetry or short fiction is teachable, it appears to be a fact of the large capitalist democracies (in anglophone countries at least) that a distinct proportion of their populations are inspired to seek identity and expression in such imaginative composition. While creative writing courses, both inside and outside institutions of education, are expensively fee-paying, indicating the commitment of participants to this form of life, there are also innumerable workshops, poetry cafes, slams, reading groups, and other social points of contact which involve much smaller or no outlay and have their constituencies in cities, towns, and villages throughout the United Kingdom’s three-and-a-third countries, and Eire’s one. The contemporary situation resembles some of the diagnostic and prognostic utterances in Guy Debord’s ‘Situationist Manifesto’ (1960) where he sees artists ‘separated from society’ and ‘separated from each other by competition’, while foreseeing that ‘everyone will become an artist’ and that this development will ‘help the rapid dissolution of the linear criteria of novelty’.8 Contemporary poetry has shown itself to be so simultaneously vulnerable and resilient within the consumerist spectacle, caught, as it is, in a prize and competition scene that, in principle, presupposes the ability of all to write and create, that it may thus model in acute form the contradictions through which we are now obliged to live.

The two technological developments I mentioned earlier have also contributed to movements away from the dictation of taste, the compounding of cultural capital, in metropolitan centres. The Internet has proved itself so ideally compatible with bookselling that it’s difficult to recall the rarity-value of, for instance, the cloth-bound and at that time only edition of Frank O’Hara’s Collected Poems (New York: Knopf, 1971) in mid-1970s Britain. Nowadays, practically any poetry book you can imagine yourself wanting to buy is one click away. This fact, with the development of print-on-demand technologies, by which a single copy of a collection can be produced and dispatched to its purchaser from the same point in space at a remarkably small unit cost, has meant that niche publishing by dedicated people with some page-making design software on their portable computers is more than viable. If they are also well linked into the Internet’s innumerable bookselling outlets, including their own websites, they can achieve global reach for the sale of a particular poet’s books to his or her following with a very low risk margin. Though retaining a large share of cultural capital and access to actual money, trade presses with metropolitan ground rents and company overheads have not been able to monopolize and cartel these small-scale publishing activities out of existence.

The institutions for the publication, reception, and promotion of poetry were, historically, formed by editors of little magazines, quarterlies, well-founded literary journals, anthologies, publishers’ editors, book reviewers, academics, senior poets, and other arbiters of taste. The story of Seamus Heaney’s emergence from provincial academic, a (p. 11) member of Philip Hobsbaum’s Belfast outpost of The Group, in 1963, to Faber & Faber author with the publication of Death of a Naturalist in 1966 is an almost textbook illustration of the workings of the metropolitan institutions of poetic art in their heyday.9 But is he any good? Though this may seem an impertinent question, it is worth asking whether the various players who belong to or operate the institutions have good reasons—good art reasons, that is—for their decisions. The relevance of this question, and the consequences of its answer, run as follows: if the answer is ‘no’, then the only explanation for why Heaney received his Nobel Prize is because powerful people, including economically powerful people, of course, made decisions in favour of his work throughout his career, and the one reason why we need, cravenly, to believe them and read him is because their power is able to make such decisions have consequences within the institutions of publishing, literary journalism, and other forms of media promotion in the societies to which we can’t help but belong.

If, on the other hand, the answer is ‘yes’, they do have reasons, which means reasons that others such as ourselves can understand and appreciate (even if we don’t agree that they are decisive for us), then the institutions drop out of the picture. They don’t drop out in so far as they are the means by which the reasons are made manifest in social life, but they do drop out in that they are not, in themselves, the significant and decisive factor in the accumulation of cultural capital. The circumstances of premature or belated canonization are also part of a poem’s history in the world, and they stick to the work, inflecting its meaning, but its longer-term survival will require argued-for evaluations that carry conviction. The necessary condition is that informed readers of poetry can appreciate, even if they don’t happen to find finally convincing, the reasons given for the evaluation of a particular poem. This latter being the case, it would be as unreal to assert that Heaney’s poetry isn’t any good as to say that his work is unquestionably the best—because sufficient critical evidence supports the former being untrue, while that same evidence has meaning because located in evaluative contexts that are necessarily relational, plural, open to revision, and, his work being contemporary, not yet so decisively settled.

Poetry, like music, is an art form and a way of life that manifests itself in a great many ways—and to exclude the most marginal and amateur of performers from the art form is neither possible nor healthy. Just as the poorest street singer and Jessye Norman are both performing music, so the simplest and least appreciated piece of lyrical writing that has individually decided returns for its right margins may, just like, for instance, Tomas Tranströmer, the 2011 Nobel Laureate’s works, be allowed the name of poetry. Given the technological and cultural developments, and, in addition, the new social networks, the recently still active near-monopoly conditions for the establishment and promotion of cultural capital among poets have not disappeared, but can appear marginal to the daily activities of those who keep the art alive. Those attempted monopolies of power have, nevertheless, been weakened both because of that de-commercialization (p. 12) of poetry and because the people who like it, want to read, write it, and write about it, are, for better or worse, now able to do it at nearly no cost. And they can, occasionally, achieve the reception that characterized Philip Larkin’s unpredicted breakthrough with the Marvell Press’s edition of The Less Deceived (1955) when, though beginning to receive attention through the coincident publicity activities associated with the rise of the Movement, his early fiction publisher had not initially been interested in publishing the same writer’s verse.

This sketched description of the recent past and the current situation in poetry could be considered an account of why the contemporary remains a cloudy and unknowing temporal space. In that realm it is not then possible to say definitively what is the best poetry of this period, the current contemporary situation being one in which there isn’t a single cultural taste shaping what the poetry of this moment is like. There are, rather, a number of different sets of associated values and ideas about what poetry is and may be, and there are many individuals, small groups, and sections of the reading public who have invested time and money and attributed value to the different kinds of poetry currently being produced, much of it almost entirely under the radar of literary journalism and the media. A poet’s asking in the late 1990s who’s in charge here suggests that the de-commercialization of the art could create disorientation in those who hoped to pass definitively through the portals of institutions which may have appeared more intact then than now. Yet if the answer is that no one person or group of people is in charge, then the deregulation associated with such a situation has to distinguish within itself between what might be the processes of community self-management, and the law of an economic jungle in action.10 However, though the current situation may seem an improvement in the natural democracy of art by which the good comes to the fore because it is argued for by those interested, who, through the curiosity and appetite driven by such interest, are best placed to know, I turn now to how such a plural community of writing may be viewed and interpreted.


The then Poet Laureate Andrew Motion offered an indicative summary of such a new pluralism in his Foreword to Peter Barry’s Poetry Wars: British Poetry of the 1970s and the Battle of Earls Court (2006) when noting ‘the comparatively well-tempered acceptance that we live in a culture of poetries, not in one dominated by an Establishment’.11 Motion’s use of ‘poetries’ here, the plural form of an uncountable abstraction, whose use is by no means restricted to concession-granting established figures, looks like a (p. 13) bet-hedging device flinching before the possibility that all these various phenomena are still and nevertheless parts of a singular ‘poetry’. John Lucas’s polemic in a recent article12 argues that faced with such balkanizing of the art and the multiplication of the constituencies whose interests are expressed in making value claims, we have instead a form of non-benign tolerance in which all are free to ignore the existence of those parts of the field that don’t happen to interest them. In this version of contemporary poetry, rather than vociferously opposing the work of what has been characterized as radical obscurity, or, for that matter, the poetry of what some describe as reader-cultivating anecdote, we have opted for a form of Internet-era market-multiculturalism in which anyone can buy into anything they want, while free to be indifferently uncurious about the values and activities and ways of life around us which do not happen to tickle our consumerist fancies. Such a state of affairs is less dissimilar to the ‘poetry wars’ of previous decades than might first appear, for the attitudes of prejudice and incuriosity remain entrenched. As the two ‘sides’ have multiplied into a multi-directional civil strife, the exhausted combatants of earlier and later skirmishes have withdrawn to lick their wounds—some of us, doubtless, continuing to publish through the new outlets, while unexpectedly finding it possible to occupy positions as teachers in an academy which lately discovered it could benefit from encouraging verbal creativity.

The planning and design of this Handbook have been undertaken with the desire to dispel both the divide-and-rule poverty of the two-poetries moment as equally the ignorantly non-benign tolerance of highly fragmented and indifferent fractions. In place of the embattled ultra-ism to be encountered in some quarters, and the fragmentation of interest groups and other clans to be noted everywhere, this volume proposes an anthropological approach to contemporary poetry motivated by an unprejudiced—or as unprejudiced as possible—curiosity. In any area of human activity definition is relational, and one thing that was evidently wrong with the two-poetries divide was that it required mutually reductive definitions of the opposing party. Yet, as I have suggested, one problem with such denigrating definition of others is that it inflicts a reciprocally falsified back-formed definition on those doing the denigrating. Running down those you see as opposing you is not a route to self-knowledge. The anthropologically unprejudiced curiosity advocated in this Handbook is offered as a means for improving self-knowledge in readers and writers of poetry by better understanding the other poetry and poetic activity that is going on all around. By this means it may be possible to discern the outlines of a poetic culture through the ruins of a market.

W. H. Auden made a telling point about how ‘Time that is intolerant | Of the brave and innocent’ nevertheless ‘Worships language and forgives | Everyone by whom it lives’.13 It may then seem that while living contemporary poets are, however bravely and innocently, engaged in career formation, composing oeuvres by issuing pamphlets and collections, praising and criticizing, accepting and rejecting, neglecting and awarding, and all the other (p. 14) activities that go along with writing poems in the current state of human culture, they are also, haplessly even, contributing to the continuing life of literature and poetry, and maintaining the life of the language. Poetry contributes to keeping alive and extending for current circumstances the capacity of readers and people at large to articulate and express what they may understandably call their own ideas and feelings. The question to ask of poets and their works may then be and should perhaps continue to be, as W. S. Graham put it in one of his poems: ‘What is the language using us for?’14 Active contributions to the social processes of language use in poetry are thus, as I have been arguing and Graham’s question underlines, simultaneously within and beyond the control of individual wills.


As already noted, this Handbook’s first part, ‘Movements over Time’, presents an overview and articulates changes in the current processes and developments of poetry during the approximately sixty-year period I have outlined. The model here is the one readers coming to this series of chapters will likely be most familiar with, a linear history of one thing after another. The contributors to this part touch on the processes by which these senses of movement and periodic change are instigated, the extent to which they may or may not be factitious, and the possibility that the decades covered by the Handbook have seen the emergence of a multi-linear, or even a non-linear, or a perhaps cross-sectional model for a poetic culture. This part of the book also sets out to see reputations emerging from social groupings and from such affinities and antipathies as have been already considered. Thus the part serves as an introduction to this field, and as a setting for the variety of approaches and issues that follow.

In Part Two, ‘Senses of Form and Technique’, some crucial features of poetry as formed language are explored. It thus considers the relationship between individual decisions in the marked forming of poems and the contribution that those creative acts make to the reading of significance in their thematic materials. The part serves thus to underline the interactive formation of writing and reading techniques. Further chapters explore relations between this art form and others such as song, painting, and film. The time frame of the Handbook is one in which experiments that were instituted during the modernist period in the first part of the twentieth century were resisted, revived, evolved, and have exfoliated into an unprecedented range of verbal objects that can lay claim to the name of ‘poem’. The part casts light on developments in some of these phenomena, and helps to account for a multiplicity ranging from CDs of sound recordings for text-less performances through to print-only verbal objects and artists’ books featuring texts produced by poets.

(p. 15) Part Three, ‘Poetry in Places’, addresses the Handbook’s subject from its currently evolving geographical and geopolitical perspectives, ones that naturally imply and include the ecological and environmental. It considers changes that have occurred in the poetry connected to this archipelago’s various national movements and the simultaneous commitments and resistances to such movements in poets aligned with or marginal to those political ambitions. It addresses, overtly and implicitly, the conflict between the provinces and the capital, the emergence of poems and poetry associated with particular cities, and the continuing commitment to the natural environment, both as source for metaphor and as political pressure point. Contributors address these various means for locating poets in territories, and thus of associating them with social and political issues, in ways that include acknowledgement of different languages and dialects, there being more languages spoken in Britain and Ireland than English—though by its nature this anglophone volume can do little more than acknowledge them by, for instance, the study of indigenous poetic translation. Contributors also question the extent to which such forms of geographical and political location can support essentialist credentials, and thus take into account the kinds of transits and transitions that mark a group of cultures which has been ever more subject to the practical possibilities of travel, resettlement, and hybrid evolution.

The purpose of Part Four, ‘Border Crossings’, is to sketch locations and transits for contemporary British and Irish poetry in the larger context of world poetry. There have been conferences and publications on the fraught question of a special relationship with poetry from the United States, and this topic may also be understood in terms of the Cold War stand-off between the poetry of the West and an interest in that of Russia’s Silver Age. The existence of less prominent relationships between poets during this period and other poetries in European languages are explored, as is the under-considered issue of relations between poetry from these islands and the anglophone poetries from the independent countries that formed the Commonwealth during the early years of the Handbook’s time frame. This is one of the places where questions of ethnic identity and post-colonialism make their significance most directly felt. Beside these relations are those that poetry in English has with writings from other continents and, beyond the anglophone, the challenges presented by poetry in translation.

A fifth and final part, ‘Responsibilities and Values’, explores the complex connections that have been articulated between poetry and some of the pressing concerns during these decades. This part includes relations between poetry and philosophical ethics, poetry and political commitments, as well as the quasi-religious roles that poetry has been called upon to perform. These forms of social and cultural commitment are considered in the context of counter-arguments offered to that most memorable formulation (‘poetry makes nothing happen’15) made by Auden not many years before the beginning of the decades covered by this Handbook. Supporting his view of the matter, (p. 16) with different inflections, there have also been returns to the claim that poetry will best serve culture and society if wedded to an uncommitted aesthetic autonomy—this being, of course, another idea of poetry’s responsibility. The volume concludes with an attempt to explore further how the openness and limits of the contemporary and its poetry may be shaped and facilitated by the unpredictable processes of evaluation involved in the composition, reading, and reception of a poem.

The writing and reading of poetry now involves a complex of activities undertaken, usually for very small or no monetary reward, by people devoted to it. That you have read as far as the final paragraph in this introductory chapter may mean that you already are, or are in the process of becoming, one of them. I have here offered a guide to what you can expect from the following chapters in the volume, and have sketched a way of holding their various contents in relations with each other, even on those occasions when the book’s contributors tacitly or explicitly offer these contents as distinctly different kinds of poetry. I have thus invited you not only to take an interest in the poetry and poets that you are drawn to from across this field, but also to appreciate how that work and its writers are involved in larger networks of activity by patterns of tacitly comparative definition through drawn distinctions and staged contrasts.

But I would like to conclude by offering an idea of what all these poets and their poetry might have in common, and what young poets coming to this art might attempt to achieve, in association with their older contemporaries, and before them, with the entire tradition to which the present is attached. The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary British and Irish Poetry explores throughout its length how, granted their ‘essential technical complexity and inescapable self-consciousness’, the various poems discussed may ‘address, express and restructure real emotions in ways that neither evade them with formalism nor degrade them into kitsch’.16

Select Bibliography

Auden, W. H., The English Auden: Poems, Essays, & Dramatic Writings, 1927–1939, ed. Edward Mendelson (London: Faber & Faber, 1977).Find this resource:

Caddel, Richard and Quartermain, Peter (eds.), Other: British and Irish Poetry since 1970 (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1999).Find this resource:

Clark, T. J., ‘False Moderacy’, London Review of Books, 34/6 (22 Mar. 2012), 11.Find this resource:

Danchev, Alex (ed.), 100 Artists’ Manifestos (London: Penguin Books, 2011).Find this resource:

Eliot, T. S., Collected Poems 1909–1962 (London: Faber & Faber, 1963).Find this resource:

Fisher, Roy, The Long and the Short of It: Poems 1955–2005 (Tarset: Bloodaxe Books, 2005). (p. 17) Find this resource:

Graham, W. S., New Collected Poems, ed. Matthew Francis (London: Faber & Faber, 2004).Find this resource:

Lucas, John, ‘The Anthology Business’, The Dark Horse, 25 (Summer–Autumn 2010), 22.Find this resource:

Motion, Andrew, Foreword to Peter Barry’s Poetry Wars: British Poetry of the 1970s and the Battle of Earls Court (Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2006).Find this resource:

O’Brien, Sean, ‘Introduction: Who’s in Charge Here?’, in The Deregulated Muse: Essays on Contemporary British & Irish Poetry (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1998), 13–20.Find this resource:

O’Brien, Sean, The Firebox: Poetry in Britain and Ireland after 1945 (London: Picador, 1998).Find this resource:

O’Driscoll, Dennis, Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney (London: Faber & Faber, 2008).Find this resource:

Rimbaud, Arthur, Une saison en enfer, in Œuvres complètes, ed. Antoine Adam (Paris: Gallimard, 1972).Find this resource:

Williams, Bernard, On Opera (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006). (p. 18) Find this resource:


(1) T. S. Eliot, a filmed remark on a BBC Arena profile shown on Thursday, 8 Oct. 2009.

(2) Arthur Rimbaud, Une saison en enfer, in Œuvres complètes, ed. Antoine Adam (Paris: Gallimard, 1972), 116.

(3) T. S. Eliot, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, in Collected Poems 1909–1962 (London: Faber & Faber, 1963), 13.

(4) T. J. Clark, ‘False Moderacy’, London Review of Books, 34/6 (22 Mar. 2012), 11.

(5) For a case against poetry from metropolitan trade publishers, see ‘Resting on Laurels’, in An Andrew Crozier Reader, ed. Ian Brinton (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2012), 247–59; for a case against poetry associated with experiment, see the introduction to Charles Simic and Don Paterson (eds.), New British Poetry (Saint Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 2004).

(6) For anthologies that represent, all but exclusively, the supposed two poetries, see Sean O’Brien, The Firebox: Poetry in Britain and Ireland after 1945 (London: Picador, 1998), and Richard Caddel and Peter Quartermain (eds.), Other: British and Irish Poetry since 1970 (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1999).

(7) Roy Fisher, The Long and the Short of It: Poems 1955–2005 (Tarset: Bloodaxe Books, 2005), 144–5.

(8) Alex Danchev (ed.), 100 Artists’ Manifestos (London: Penguin Books, 2011), 350.

(9) See Dennis O’Driscoll, Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney (London: Faber & Faber, 2008), 73–87.

(10) See Sean O’Brien, ‘Introduction: Who’s in Charge Here?’, in The Deregulated Muse: Essays on Contemporary British & Irish Poetry (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1998), 13–20.

(11) Andrew Motion, Foreword to Peter Barry’s Poetry Wars: British Poetry of the 1970s and the Battle of Earls Court (Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2006), p. xii.

(12) See John Lucas, ‘The Anthology Business’, The Dark Horse, 25 (Summer–Autumn 2010), 22.

(13) W. H. Auden, ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’, in The English Auden: Poems, Essays, & Dramatic Writings, 1927–1939, ed. Edward Mendelson (London: Faber & Faber, 1977), 242.

(14) W. S. Graham, New Collected Poems, ed. Matthew Francis (London: Faber & Faber, 2004), 199.

(15) Auden, ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’, 242.

(16) Bernard Williams, On Opera (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006), 120.