Notes on Contemporary British Poetry

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The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry, edited by Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion, has been my field guide to better-known British poets, and a useful overview for me. Having mostly studied British poets dating from before the 18th century, and American poets since that time, I have been reading this book as eagerly as I have been reading the London A-Z map book (which is not faint praise; I am enthralled with maps of London).

For each poet, I have been jotting marginalia on my tube journey to work. I include these notes here, in a similar fashion to the notes I took on Modern American poets during my MFA degree. Unlike those notes, however, these are taken on a short sampling of work, as opposed to a whole book. I therefore intend them as starting points, not summaries.

In my notes I have also included broad designations of geographic origin, since to my outside ear a poet from Leeds and a poet from Northumberland have an auditory relationship to language more in common with each other than they do to a poet from Oxford (hence my coarse-grained designation “Northern England.”) I realize I may be missing out on subtle distinctions in language and even politics. But for now, I am concerned with puzzling out in general how these poems would sound read aloud by the authors themselves, and taking a first pass this broadly has been helpful.

Compiling in this way, I am particularly struck by the complete absence of Welsh and significant lack of Scottish poets from this volume, and the controversial inclusion of so many poets from Northern Ireland. I would be interested to hear who else you think should have made it into this book.

Here are my notes:
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Poetry as Anthropology

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We come in peace

I curled open the first pages of The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry expecting to find an introduction like so many others to this type of book — full of generic exuberance for the editors’ generation. Instead, Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion (I assume the introduction was written by both) made the following observations in 1982, which still seem directionally interesting nearly thirty years on. They wrote that, “…as a way of making the familiar strange again, they [contemporary British poets] have exchanged the received idea of poet as the-person-next-door, or knowing insider, for the attitude of the anthropologist or alien invader or remembering exile.”

While the enthusiasm for Martian persona poetry by Craig Raine and Christopher Reid seems like a hyperbolic extension of this principle, the idea of poet-as-anthropologist I find not only fascinating, but useful in understanding contemporary poetry on both sides of the Atlantic. In particular, it seems to answer “what comes next?” after a glut of confessional writing. They address this, as well, directly:

This development has been antipathetic to the production of a candidly personal poetry. Most of the devices developed by young poets are designed to emphasize the gap between themselves and their subjects. The poets are — to borrow a phrase from Seamus Heaney’s ‘Exposure’ — ‘inner emigrés’: not inhabitants of their own live so much as intrigued observers, not victims but onlookers, not poets working in a confessional white heat but dramatists and story-tellers.

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