Poetry as Anthropology

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.

Certainly, the danger of deploying an anthropological trope, like any trope, is that it can quickly become what Gerard Manly Hopkins called “Parnassian”–talent operating on auto-pilot along the flight path of the accepted theme. I am thinking, for example, of the parodies of Billy Collins’s poems, where the poet makes clever observation of the elements of his home town as though he were touring Europe.

But this directional shift–from the narcissism of the first-person confessional mode to an anthropological stance–seems to hold through American poets as varied as Mark Doty (excavating gay culture during the AIDs epidemic), Tony Hoagland (dusting off the bones of “meanness” buried beneath suburbia), and Yusef Komunyakaa (retelling his participant observation of the Vietnam war in a language all his own).

In this way, American poets are no less united in the cause Morrison and Motion see for their contemporaries overseas, to “extend the imaginative franchise”–with its power to renew our understanding of what it means to be human. It is in this pursuit that poetry and the actual science of anthropology intersect. At the end of postmodernism, having our ideas of objectivity and centrality blasted to bits by the Second World War, we are beginning to pick up the pieces.

But simply gluing them back together is no longer an option. Having examined our own little fragment ad nauseum through confession, we are finally beginning to relate more inquisitively to our own, and the other, shards. In what I hope history will regard as our current period of “late postmodernism” or perhaps “post-postmodernism,” we return in poetry to the one question a Google search can’t answer for us: what is it, this thing called “being human?”