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This item is taken from PN Review 96, Volume 20 Number 4, March - April 1994.

'Today's young poets,' the Independent announced (13 January 1994), '… are most likely to be Scottish, working class and holding down a day job in the social services. They either studiously avoided going to Oxbridge, or avoid mentioning it, as they profess to despise it almost as much as they do the London literati; and they would prefer their work to be read on Radio 1than on Radio 3.' The young poets in question, part of the New Generation Poets promotion, range in age from their late twenties to their early fifties. Some, like Michael Hofmann and Carol Ann Duffy, have been prominent for years. If we're to believe the Independent, this heterogeneous lot has a sartorial style: 'the T-shirted, leather-jacketed new generation', gathering for a group photo and 'scowling their disdain for older and richer poets'.

On the same day the Independent leader declared: 'Britain has become a nation of poets: not just of amateur aspirants, but of accomplished sculptors of words, working in a variety of idioms and being published in large numbers.' True news, or false? Those who partake of the May promotion, which will include readings and events as well as extended poetry shelves in bookshops, can decide for themselves.

What may give pause is the language of the promotion, its insistence on an orthodoxy of approach to the vocation even more constraining and self-parodic than the ideological imperatives in force in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and against which this magazine took a stand. The wheel has come full circle: Roundheads gloat over the rout of Cavaliers. The issues go deeper than sartorial preference, deeper too than masking social and academic origins. If it is not precisely a question of political orientation, as in the 1960s, it is not fundamentally a question of poetry, either. It has to do with roles, presentation, performance. With marketing. And in the process 'someone is betrayed,' as Donald Davie says in his poem 'Remembering the Thirties': not only the good poets who come between the emergence of Hughes and Gunn in the late 1950S and 'today', but a larger constituency. 'Ourselves, perhaps.'

At the 'Art and Value' conference held at the Tate in October1993, Donald Davie spoke on 'Values and Heritage'. Candidly, mercilessly, he considered the terms of the conference itself and how 'cultural debate' is generally conducted at this fin de siecle, with its new taboos, fashions, promotional strategies and relativisms. Politics, forms of correctness and a rhetoric which have little to do with aesthetic judgment, much to do with guilt and redress: such considerations confer legitimacy. Poetry is read by borrowed lights.

Davie was asked to address the issue: 'What should we preserve?' A more candid question might have been, What should we sell? After all, as he points out, with current technology we can preserve, in an infinitely extensible database, everything - from ephemera to the work of Milton. The neutral database makes no qualitative distinction between things stored. When the critical odds are gone, in a cultural democracy of the kind we increasingly enjoy, what lends legitimacy, for a time, is the market, and market makers can, like speculators in other areas, affect temporarily the values of the products on offer and consumer choice.

The Independent, during the Tate conference, ran an article on the interested parties. Davie singles out Tom Paulin's declaration: 'We should think very carefully what it is we want to keep.' 'Paulin's "what we want to keep" seems to disguise only thinly his real objective,' says Davie: 'what he wants us to junk.' Marina Warner insisted on the value of recovery, and this strikes an answering chord in Davie, though he balks at her description of poetry as a 'performing art': 'But poetry is the art that I have practised; and I have practised it as not a performing art but a fine art.' Warner's description is jetsam from the 1960s back, if it ever wholly left us; it can again degrade, as it did in 'that calamitous decade', a generation of writers and readers.

It is the Warton Professor of English Literature at Oxford who, as symptom and disease, focuses Davie's attention. In his inaugural lecture, Terry Eagleton declared: 'we have begun to register the fact that if literature is concerned with anything, it is not truth or morality but fantasy and desire'. The fantasy and desire Eagleton proposes are not the 'anodyne romantic idealism' which are 'never far from the language of male domination'. Davie comments: 'Male fantasy and male desire, as the canon has recognised them in for instance Lord Byron will never do; fantasy and desire, the professor will have it, are women's monopoly.' He quotes further from Eagleton to demonstrate the appalling condescension of his views, and applies them to Felicia Hemans's 'The Stately Homes of England' which must for Eagleton, as for others seeking gender parity and restitution in the canon, crowd out Clare and Crabbe. And why will Davie not admit the poem to the canon? 'We fault the poem because it is not truthful: not only we with the benefit of hindsight can see this, but Felicia Hemans as she wrote the poem must have known it - the poems of George Crabbe were one body of evidence among many (most notably the rural England that Hemans walked in, or could have walked in) sufficient to prove to her that the vision of hierarchical stability purveyed by her poem was alie.'

This once popular poem, false in conception and ignored (except in Noel Coward's send up) until our generation, in all except its technical competence is of a kind with the tendentious poetry of the 1960s which has, blessedly, faded. It too was poetry of compromised ideology, applauded when it answered the prejudices of the time, and it has not survived those prejudices. But more fluid prejudices have been devised, not least of which is the rejection of the notion of the canon which Davie set out to uphold in his momentous lecture. It is a notion which retains an urgent pertinence not only as we read the past but as we approach the writing of the New Generation. Davie says: 'What we seek to revise - perhaps in detail, perhaps sweepingly - is the received canon of (in my literary case) esteemed texts and esteemed authors. Accordingly I have no sympathy with those, post-modernists and others, who condemn "the canonical" as in and of itself oppressive. On the contrary, the canon is there to be revised; and that's precisely why we can't do without it. It is indeed, I suggest, "what we should preserve" - not in detail, for in detail it should be continually changing, but as a whole, as an idea embodied, the canon is what we most need to keep'.

It is hard not to concur, and to add that it must be kept strenuously and responsibly open. It provides the natural lights by which we can read the new and appraise it. 'Britain has become a nation of poets … accomplished sculptors of words, working in a variety of idioms … ' Poetry in the multi-cultural nation we inhabit can thrive in the long term if that canon is maintained and extended scrupulously, not forced and distorted by competing interests and rhetorics, not compromised by the reductive mechanisms of the modern - and the postmodern - marketplace.

This item is taken from PN Review 96, Volume 20 Number 4, March - April 1994.

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