Overcoming Poetic Culture Shock

“We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.”

-Oscar Wilde, 1887

Oscar Wilde would be pleased to know that, based on my experience so far as an American in London, Britain and America are still very much separated by a common language. More than this, as a transplanted poet beginning to send down roots into unfamiliar ground, I am discovering that the set of poetic impulses that find favour in the UK differ from those enriched by my native soil. This makes sense: so much about art is a matter of taste, and so much about taste can be cultural.

And so, even as I have been experiencing culture shock in my ordinary life, I am also going through a kind of poetic culture shock as I find my way in this new literary terrain. One of the best ways I have found to get through culture shock of any kind is to articulate and embrace what is unique about the new environment. While it would be impossible to describe, universally and categorically, what distinguishes British and American poetics, I recognise certain differences on instinct. The Americas could not have made a Seamus Heaney; the British Isles could not produce a Sharon Olds.

And so, I have been making a personal and highly subjective investigation into the strengths of each culture’s contemporary poetry, by reading and re-reading two books: The Best American Poetry 2011 (Scribner) and The Best British Poetry 2011 (Salt). I took note of the poems I liked most, then listed the qualities held in common by my favourites from each book.

Qualities of Contemporary British and American Poetry
Context and ContinuityInvention and Spontaneity
Focus on MusicFocus on Narration
Overt Intellectual CoreOvert Emotional Core
Academic InfluencePsychological Influence

Obviously, this list does not hold up as a set of universal generalisations. Particularly when it comes to poetry, for every rule there is an exception. London might have produced a Li-Young-Lee; New York could have fashioned a Paul Muldoon. Plus “American” poets in this volume like Charles Simic have strong ties to Europe, and at least one “Brit” in the book is an American transplant. So it goes.

This evening, I will participate in the peculiarly British tradition of Bonfire Night (having previously only ever lit fireworks in the warmth of summer), and then am looking forward tomorrow night to my first gathering of a local poetry group. I am not trying to bend my sensibilities to suit the new context as much as I am trying to get in touch with what I admire and respect about British poetry, to invoke those qualities from within. I was drawn to London to learn, to be influenced, to find out more about myself by contrasts, and to embrace the Old World. Overcoming poetic culture shock helps me further that journey and lighten my load.