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This article is taken from PN Review 166, Volume 32 Number 2, November - December 2005.

The Battle for the Centre Ground Peter Howarth

The ever-smouldering flame of the British poetry wars was last year reignited in public by Don Paterson's T.S. Eliot lecture and his subsequent media skirmish with Harold Pinter. Although Paterson's claim that Pinter's poetry is worthy-but-dreadful seemed fairly unremarkable in itself, several daily newspapers gleefully picked up the story's irony, a new war between poets about whether they should be writing poetry against the Iraq war. But Pinter was only collateral damage for Paterson's offensive, which had begun earlier in the year with his barbed introduction to New British Poetry, an anthology introducing US readers to Simon Armitage, Paul Farley, John Burnside, Alice Oswald and a host of other contemporary talents, and which pointedly excludes both performance poets and 'postmoderns' (left unelaborated, but evidently the successors of Charles Olson and Jeremy Prynne). Paterson declared that his chosen poets now form an alternative to today's compulsory declarations of one's alternativeness; their radical quality is to be 'mainstream', happy enough with traditional forms, retaining a sense of poetic closure and as such, in the best position to re-engage the general, intelligent reader currently turned off by the unappetising choice between popular rabble-rousing or unpopular incomprehensibility. Pop poetry is dismissed as a nuisance, nothing but simple 'recognition humour' or the 'undisguised moral exhortation' of 100 Poets Against the War, whose unsubtle instrumentalism makes poetry merely a vehicle for a set of political sentiments agreed on in advance. 'Postmodern' poetry, on the other hand, is a more ...


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