Notes on Contemporary British Poetry

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:

Seamus Heaney, from Northern Ireland, blends image and music deftly, treating The Troubles in Northern Ireland with universal, humanistic insight and a rich, gravelly consonance that is his signature sound. Favorite poems from this set include “Churning Day,” “Punishment,” “Casualty,” and “The Otter.” It should be noted that Heaney’s inclusion in this volume prompted his lyrical objection, in an open letter, to being called “British.”

Tony Harrison, from Northern England, examines human cruelty and disdain. His work blends rhyme and violence, affection and disillusionment, treating subjects both historical and familiar. One fine example of each is “The Nuptial Torches” and “Long Distance.”

Douglas Dunn, from Scotland, treats class war and imperialism, mostly in long, continuous stanzas. He examines the working class both through persona and direct address. I particularly liked “Men of Terry Street” and “Gardeners.”

Hugo Williams, from London, elevates the mundane through the music of plain speech in terse, observational poetry. I especially enjoyed “The Butcher” and “Confessions of a Drifter.”

Derek Mahon, from Northern Ireland, living in London, blends quietness and careful progression with a fanciful turn of mind, celebrating the music of plain speech, and the dizzying power of whimsy. Favorite poems include “Afterlives,” “The Apotheosis of Tins,” “The Snow Party,” and “Lives,” the last poem taking a dig at Seamus Heaney for extensively applying the metaphor of anthropology to his examination of contemporary political events.

Michael Longley, from Northern Ireland, mixes the profane and human sacred fiercely, taking a direct look at quotidian violence through strong narratives with explosive endings. Great examples of this are “Wounds,” “Swans Mating,” and “Mayo Monologues.”

Fleur Adcock, born New Zealand, living in England, merges the real and surreal in shocking, cryptic, devil-may-care examinations of the inner and outer worlds. I was amazed by the long poem “The Soho Hospital for Women.”

Anne Stevenson, born on the east coast of America, now living on the border of Wales, treats romanticized and historical American settings through miniatures and epistles. That said, I liked the simple and more universal poem “The Marriage” best of all.

James Fenton, from Oxford, writes long, dark, strange poems that could be the love child of Wallace Stevens and Edgar Allen Poe. See, for example, “A Staffordshire Murder.”

Tom Paulin, born England, raised Northern Ireland, now living in England, treats politically-charged topics with a mildness and quiet attention to music. Favorite poems include “Settlers” and “In a Northern Landscape.”

Jeffrey Wainwright, from Northern England, takes on the topic of revolutionary class war through commitment to personae. I particularly liked the long poem “1815.”

Andrew Motion, from London, writes quiet, observational poems that are highly controlled but not contrived. There is a sense of persona always, even in the “I” voice. Consider “In The Attic” and “Anne Frank Huis.”

Paul Muldoon, from Northern Ireland, writes persona poems that are irreverent in the extreme, shifting like quicksilver from line to line. Favorite poems include “The Big House,” “Cuba,” and “Quoof.”

Peter Scupham, from Northern England, now living in the South, writes in same-length stanzas that are often imagistic, even haiku-like. I especially liked “Early Summer.”

Carol Rumens, from London, writes mostly in long single stanzas, giving close examination to objects as they represent human concerns, much like Dutch miniatures–where the physical stands in for the metaphysical. Good examples of this are “A Marriage” and “A Poem for Chessmen.”

Penelope Shuttle, from Greater London, now in Cornwall, brings the dream world into this one, exploring the intersection of imagination and terra firma. Favorite poems include “Three Lunulae, Truro Museum,” and “Travelling.”

Craig Raine, from Northern England, now in Oxford, demonstrates a keen eye for observation of the absurd in the mundane, to a sometimes humorous, sometimes deeply-felt effect. For a delicious taste of each, consider “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home” and “A Cemetery in Co. Durham.”

Christopher Reid, born in Hong Kong, living in London, writes light, glancing verse that relies on indelible images. “A Disaffected Old Man” is a favorite poem from this set.

David Sweetman, from Northern England, now in London, brings an intellectual regard to charged emotional matters, exploring the contrast between surface and depth. One fine example is the aptly titled “Looking Into The Deep End.”

Medbh McGuckian, from Northern Ireland, brings a focused, persona-like observation to self-contained settings, objects, and events. “Slips” is a favorite from this set.