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This article is taken from PN Review 44, Volume 11 Number 6, July - August 1985.

Choosing Voices: Harrison, Heaney and Motion C.B. McCully

Tony Harrison, Selected Poems (Viking) £9.95, (Penguin) £3.50
Tony Harrison, Palladas: Poems (Anvil Press) £2.95 pb.
Seamus Heaney, Station Island (Faber & Faber) £2.95 pb.
Seamus Heaney, Sweeney Astray (Faber & Faber) £2.95 pb.
Andrew Motion, Dangerous Play (Salamander) £8.95

The 1982 Penguin anthology Contemporary British Poetry has been much discussed, and I have no wish to trample that critical cabbage-patch again, but it is nevertheless a significant coincidence that three arbiters of the rumoured 'new spirit in British poetry' should choose to publish major new collections at around the same time of year. What is significant about the coincidence is not so much that it reinforces the canons of 'metaphor . . . bizarrerie . . . and the art of narrative', but that it reveals the power of imaginative range and its correlate, stylistic variety. Broadly considered, in fact, some of the best verse of the 1980s is characterized by its plethora of allegiances, and by the apparent viability of many alternative aesthetics. Talk of a 'new spirit' camouflages this fact, and implies the production of a fairly homogeneous body of verse impelled by a tacit principle of rejection. Now, while there is a case for making out that such a 'principle of rejection' operates in the work of some contemporary poets - particularly with respect to the sceptical, precise, solipsistic poems that tended to find favour in the 1960s - it is mischievous to infer from this that contemporary verse is so much different from (or worse, superior ...


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