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This review is taken from PN Review 117, Volume 24 Number 1, September - October 1997.

NEW POETRY, SAME OLD POLITICS GARY DAY and BRIAN DOCHERTY (eds.), British Poetry from the 1950s to the 1990s: Politics and Art (Macmillan) £12.99

Any book with the subtitle Politics and Art deserves to have potential readers scurrying for cover. They would be well advised to stay there, despite the initial veneer of sanity offered by Gary Day's introduction:

My basic argument is that an exclusive concern with politics is threatening to impoverish our understanding of poetry. It has led to an ignorance of tradition and a corresponding blankness in the face of poetry as art.

The point is well made, although Day tends throughout to present the enemy position in stereotypically extremist terms. This need not be a problem; the polemicist requires a certain indulgence. Unfortunately, before the end of his introduction Day is likely to have his surviving audience seeking refuge in one of Terry Eagleton's guides to literary theory.

Day is like a schoolboy who, having cribbed all the right answers, comes unstuck when asked to explain his workings. Suspicions are aroused as early as the second page, when he describes Alvarez's The New Poetry as a Movement anthology. As clangers go, this is a Big Ben, but it still fails to prepare the reader for the full force of Day's epigrammatic wisdom: 'Literature is a mirror in which we see the other as well as ourselves'; 'Literature aims to build a community, not Babel'; 'Sincerity is a precarious condition'; '[Poetry's] peculiar alchemy is that it can turn words into the experience they describe'; and adding a spectacular twist to the campus ...


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