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This item is taken from PN Review 63, Volume 15 Number 1, September - October 1988.

"The thinking behind this issue," writes the editor of the spring 1988 Poetry Review, "is that it really does seem to be time to consider that England might not be the centre of English poetry." His tone is tentative as he toys with this explosive possibility. He draws back a curtain to reveal a teeming spectacle of Australian, Scottish, New Zealand, Indian, Caribbean and American activity for us to marvel at; "in Australia or the Caribbean you can be the first to have the English language dancing at your finger-tips and have something never described before to write about." It is possible to marvel at the verbal and imaginative fecundity of Les A. Murray's poems, the lushness of Derek Walcott's imaginative world. The poems by English poets in the same issue of Poetry Review are thin. Q.E.D.

But Murray and Walcott are not the first in their countries to have "the English language dancing at their finger-tips" (the image suggests that all poetry is produced on typewriters and word-processors these days). What sets them apart from other Australian and Caribbean, quite as much as British, poets is a command of their native language and the resources of the poetry of that language. Not their exoticism but their poetic competence and the scale upon which they work distinguish them.

Seamus Heaney has said, "Walcott didn't divest himself of what are, in one way, the marks of the conqueror, in another way the resources of English tradition. His negotiation between poles, the exterior pole of literature, London and the world out there, and the inner pole of the Caribbean - it... interests me, that balance." The balance Heaney admires is in the poems, not the poet. He and Walcott have something in common, they have learned from one another. There are tentative historical affinities (which have to do with colonialism) between their situations and these have vexed their relations with the English language; yet it is not historical accident but imaginative power that recommends them to one another.

I am puzzled that anyone could today consider England the centre of English poetry. Yet even Heaney speaks of "London and the world out there", as though London was more than a memory, a publishing manufactory and marketing point. When Robert Frost came to England to make his name, he was coming to a bourse, not a centre. The "centre" is the tradition, a geographical diaspora which began long ago, after the Commonwealth and the dilution of court patronage. The centre has included major non-British writers for more than two centuries. Until the 1940s London may have been the place where reputations were quoted on the big board. But history has deprived England even of this prerogative. Britain spilled its greatest asset over the globe in large pink patches and laughed at the way it was misused abroad. The laughter can still be heard - when Robert Lowell read poems by Ezra Pound at Oxford twenty years ago there were hoots and cat-calls. But such responses are reflexive, attesting to an arid arrogance and a reluctance to learn. Octavio Paz discriminates between a creative, progressive nationalism, a quest for identity through rediscovery; and one that is protective, narrowing and illiberal.

The situation of Walcott, Murray and Heaney is fortunate - as fortunate as the situation of the British or American poet. The colonials have gone, Derek Walcott writes, having "left only their language / Which is everything." He insists that the resources of English poetry - Langland, Herbert, Pope, Wordsworth, Auden - belong as much to him as to a Briton born and bred. Walcott gives short shrift to Edward Brathwaite's contention that the very dynamic of iambic pentameter is a distorting colonial residue, to be rejected lest it falsify the native rhythms of his islands.

A post-imperial masochism is at work in those British critics who suggest that England is no longer "the centre" of English poetry, who envy the subject-matter of English-language writers from more colourful climes. They also lack historical sense. Eliot said that "there is no competition among poets", which may be untrue but has a certain moral resonance. There should be no competition among national literatures. When American writing was emerging from under the aprons of English literature, it seemed necessary to kick the British grandmama down the stairs, as Poe put it, not least because the grandmama was so deuced bossy and intolerant. Her age is past. Literary nationalisms impoverish, even the reverse nationalism of such statements as "England is no longer the centre", which - the scales having fallen from its eyes - receives the unexpected, the exotic in English poetry at the expense of domestic writers and in terms which have little to do with poetry.

Yet one can understand why the Poetry Review resorts to this kind of polemic, even if the terms are awkward. British publishers find poets from abroad hard to sell. They blame readers: "the British don't like foreign poetry". If readers are not familiar with the best contemporary poetry in English, the responsibility lies with publishers and teachers, but more squarely with critics and editors who reflect what they imagine to be demands of their constituency. Politics comes into poetry at various levels. At this least poetic, this anti-poetic level, it can be impoverishing because it is Erastian, associating the work of poets with the programme and ideology of a nation. Herrick is available to Derek Walcott, or Milton to Les Murray, or Hardy to John Crowe Ransom, because the tradition cannot be subordinated to secular interests. Tradition has no fixed direction. Tomlinson's debts to Stevens and Williams, or Geoffrey Hill's to Allen Tate, or Thom Gunn's to Winters, are quite as profound as Lowell's were to Auden or Ginsburg's to Blake. Poetry, including poetry which speaks "with the voice of place" - Cumberland, Newcastle, New Jersey, Bangalore, the Cape - can be a universal resource. British writers are diminished by James K. Baxter or John Ashbery only if they choose to be.

What may stunt them, however, is something the editor of Poetry Review does not mention, since to him description of the unfamiliar seems the summum bonum of the art. In Britain and the United States the majority of poets have abandoned the enactive in favour of descriptive, mimetic and dramatic language. Heaney puts it this way: "both in America and in England, the religious sensibility has been bred out of poetry." It is an older, now rarer sensibility which prefers "With this ring I thee wed" to "I give you this ring as a symbol of our marriage". The sacramental, the enactive, perceived as a reality (not a stylistic resource): it is hard to find much of that among our younger writers. In "Homage to Yalta" (1969) Josef Brodsky wrote, "But now / What's said is 'I agree', not 'I believe'." The question of truth in poetry is hard to raise; when it is raised in its most radical and subtle terms by Laura (Riding) Jackson, for example, it is not engaged because we have lost whole registers of language, and with them registers of seriousness, of feeling, in our reading (and writing) of poetry.

Murray has little in common with Laura (Riding) Jackson, but one can admire his forthrightness: "Writing from a rural, egalitarian base and taking sacramental Christianity as my compass of value, I try to realise, through art, a certain spacious, dignified, and distinctive order which underlies our late-colonial society and its imported idiocies. I call this order the Vernacular Republic, and find that it extends beyond Australia..." Bold, unqualified, exemplary, he defines the ground on which he builds his oeuvre. It may not command assent but it elicits respect.

Of Osip Mandelstam Heaney wrote, "Language is the poet's faith and the faith of his fathers and in order to go his own way and do his proper work in an agnostic time, he has to bring that faith to the point of arrogance and triumphalism." I resist the orotundity of this, especially the terms "arrogance" and "triumphalism" as applied to Mandelstam's poems. Yet what Heaney is suggesting deserves close attention. This is not "poetry takes the place of religion" but something more plausible and more difficult for the reader and the critic. In valuing the work of Geoffrey Hill, C.H. Sisson and Donald Davie, for example - work which is different in kind from that of their contemporaries in Britain and America - might Heaney's suggestion not be serviceable? It points us away from nationalism and back towards language, the living centre, the poems. It opens out on questions of expressive form and diction, on theme. It leads towards the larger questions that an intrepid reader might wish to call "moral".

This item is taken from PN Review 63, Volume 15 Number 1, September - October 1988.

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