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This review is taken from PN Review 234, Volume 43 Number 4, March - April 2017.

Cover of The Alvarez Generation: Thom Gunn, Geoffrey Hill, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and Peter Porter
Michael DanielsTell Me More
William Wootten, The Alvarez Generation: Thom Gunn, Geoffrey Hill, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and Peter Porter (Liverpool University Press, 2015) £25; 
Clasp: Late Modernist Poetry in London in the 1970s, ed. Robert Hampson & Ken Edwards (Shearsman, 2016) £12.95;
Andrew Duncan, A Poetry Boom 1990–2010 (Shearsman, 2015) £14.95
WHEN POETRY WAS characterised by dominant movements and critics were truly opinion-forming, Penguin’s 1962 anthology The New Poetry, with Al Alvarez’s introductory essay ‘Beyond the Gentility Principle’, crystallised a manifesto, or at least a taste, which helped define the poetic agenda for a generation. This essay, a ‘contemporary pulse-taking’, now serves as ‘a significant record of the mood and obsessions of the time’, and the starting point for Wootten’s impressive reassessment.

‘Obsessions’ is apposite, and hovering behind the book is the question of how far Alvarez was simply reflecting what he observed, and how far he shaped public reception with his ideas of what poetry ought to be, and his appropriation of poets who became known as The Group.

Wootten traces Alvarez’s debt to the critical ideas of Leavis, Empson and others, and much of the argument circles around an Aristotelean idea of the relationship between sincerity, seriousness and truth. Alvarez conceived of a poetry, in contrast to the ‘good taste, clear syntax’ and ‘even tone’ of The Movement, which could accommodate Modernism in the form of Eliot’s technical and formal intelligence, alongside a Lawrentian willingness to peer unflinchingly at the pain and violence of the psyche, ‘nakedly, and without evasion’. Poetry made in this way would embody the Leavisite imperative to transcend its own artifice and speak to life directly.

The conflation of psychic pain with strong poetry was central to Alvarez’s conception, and the first edition of The New Poetry produced distinct models in the urban-sexual aggression of Thom ...


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