Transatlantic Elegies: Dunn and Hall

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Donald Hall’s keen observations on grief in Without had a profound impact on my understanding of the possibilities of elegiac poems. Since relocating to London, Douglas Dunn’s slim volume Elegies has deepened my understanding of the form, and some of its specific cultural implications. Both collections were written in the wake of the poet’s wife’s death from cancer. And each, in its way, is a remarkable achievement of transcending loss to make art. But here the similarities end, and certain differences — ones I find illustrative of the subtle divide in Anglo-American poetics — begin.

Whereas Hall’s poems are largely confessional, Dunn’s might be called archaeological. Taking the first poems from each book as examples, we find in “Her Long Illness” an account in the third-person that is none-the-less told in scene, revealing intimate details of the couple’s final moments together. By contrast, Dunn’s “Re-Reading Katherine Mansfield’s Bliss and Other Stories” takes us through an examination of the stains on a book’s pages, invokes Robert Frost’s “A Considerable Speck” in addressing a fly, and only obliquely touches on the matter of grief itself in the final words of the poem: “one dry tear punctuating ‘Bliss’.”

Some of this stems from the vantage point taken up by the speaker — whereas Hall is re-living experience, going back to the hospital scenes in his mind, Dunn is reflecting, rooted in the present, casting forward and back. How each poet chooses to reflect or relive, however, and the effect this produces in the poems, brings colour to certain value differences between the two poetics.
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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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