Fred Beake: On `OTHER'

OTHER: British and Irish Poetry since 1970 edited Caddel and Quartermain, 1999, Wesleyan University Press.

This anthology is largely designed for an American Audience, and concerns itself with "being oppositional" to the British Mainstream i.e. predominantly the Fifties derived ideology, whose most famous poet was Larkin, and has (by a curious trahison des clercs) by occupying almost all positions of importance, whether in journals, newspapers or media, so unconsciously as to almost require no conspiracy, taken over British Poetry since (certainly) 1975 (and the famous coup against the Poetry Society by the Director of Literature at the Arts Council), so totally that it is widely believed nothing else exists.

Having been in favour of much of this Other poetry for most of this period of history, I ought to be more pleased by this book than I am. My large objections are two fold.

One. It has in fact almost as separatist an agenda as those it attacks. If this were truly an Other anthology it would embrace the very isolated neo romantics of the period, and poets such as Peter Russell, Katherine Raine, Sally Purcell, Jenny Johnson, Steve Sneyd, Brian Merrikin Hill, William Oxley, and perhaps Jon Silkin, not to mention the formidable (and wholly different) Edward Boaden Thomas, whose work I doubt if these editors are even aware of. The reason I suspect is in the materialism which is the unconscious assumption of so much of British contemporary Society. Even the dreams, and hence the poems, it seems must be of reality; and this is as true of this anthology as its main stream opponents. Is it symbolic one wonders that MacSweeney, who has his own strongly admitted Romantic roots, is not represented by Ranter or Brother Wolf, or Finnbar's Lament, but by the rather minor Odes and the (admittedly good) Pearl poems. J.H. Prynne moreover, arguably the most romantic poet about, and some think the best poet of his generation, is notably absent, whether by his choice or the editors, it would be interersting to know.

Two. The selections are often odd, especially in a book that is meant to be introductory. Roy Fisher, perhaps the most important figure after Prynne, is sparely represented, and it seems unforgivable not to have included something of his deeply important A Furnace. The reason is maybe an apparent desire to include poems that are whole, but A Furnace could be represented by a section or sections. One does wonder if the poem's apparent hints in the direction of a romanticism Fisher had previously eschewed are partly responsible. Similarly where is Douglas Oliver's The Infant and the Pearl, as good a long poem as anyone has written since Briggflatts? Is the problem that this is a poem that uses formal structures and narrative? Certainly the poems that represent Oliver seem nothing like his best. Then why is that very great poet Brian Coffey not represented by Advent or the Death of Hektor. The Prayers is not bad, but it is not outstanding. And Griffin was primarily a master of the short poem!...

However, let us not wholly gripe. The book has some palpable hits.Wendy Mulford's Nevraumitelny is as good as anything she has written: a brilliant and reader-involving meditation round Mary Butts, with a real music of its own. Maurice Scully's Variations, after much swanning about, ends with a beautifully sustained lyric in short lines. The slow meditative drift of Carlyle Reedy's The Doll Museum is much more convincing aloud than on the page, and much of it could be written out in longer lines to its advantage when read silently; but nevertheless it has a most powerful atmosphere.

As usual on these occasions the West Indians are dragged along, as fellow sufferers against the establishment, and comon exponents of an oral art. Whether they quite fit is a good question, but they are delightfully alive and direct, and they use the old fashioned virtues of sound and rhythm with a positively medieval delight (as indeed does Tom Leonard). One does groan slightly though at the absence of the very great Edward Kamau Brathwaite, who, whatever his strict nationality, seems to belong in a book like this, not least (if slightly anachronistically) for the Arrivants.

And if one looks at the whole of this curate's egg of a book, what collectively does one find? Certainly a not unhealthy interest in rhythm. Though here one must pause to say that one could wish that some poets gave as much help to their reader as Hopkins did, and were less obsessed with the belief that everyone else will be able to follow the nuances of their own voice, because they themselves can. Still, when it is well done, as in John James' Sister Midnight, Chris Cheek's Roller Coaster, Griffith's Shepherd's Calendar, or Forest Thompson's Richard II, it is very well done.

Second one notes an almost obsessive interest in the phrase as opposed to the sentence. This is presumably ultimately out of either or both of Hopkins and the Modern Americans from Williams to Olson. However it also seems to reflect an intense interest in improvisation straight out, with on the whole little intervention by the rational mind. At its best this is intensley refreshing, but it does not half lead to some dreary passages. Since I have praised its magnificent end I will mention the first part of Scully's Variations as a particuarly bad example of this, but he is not alone...

Finally I must mention a contradiction that intrigues me. Bunting is undoubtedly the start for many of these poets, yet Bunting, certainly in Briggflatts, is, however indirectly, a poet of narrative. The poems of this anthology (except for the West Indians and Leonard) almost totally eschew it. Some extraordinarily intelligent strategies are used to get round this, but the fact remains that poetry without some degree of narrative has a tendency to go otiose, certainly on the page. Tonality/ narrative will sooner or later have to return (as witness The Infant and the Pearl).

So to try and sum up. In part this is an opportunity missed. This could have been a broader and a much better book. However there is much to admire. There is a feeling about the best work, that it was what its author meant, which is somewhat lacking from the anthologies of the Main Stream. There is constant formal experiment. If from time to time, this is as dreary as a minor Victorian trying to imitate Shelley, this is not perhaps wholly surprising. What is much more interesting is that in Forest Thompson, Mulford or Griffiths say, it succeeds.

Last this book contains much that is fresh and alive, which is what counts.