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About this book

This critical survey of modern poetry from Thomas Hardy to Seamus Heaney considers both the self-consciously revolutionary innovations of Modernism and more traditional developments, taking fully into account the extent to which 'English' can no longer be equated solely with England. Scots, Welsh and Irish poetry, and poetry from Commonwealth countries such as Australia, New Zealand and the Caribbean, are recognised as equally important aspects of the diversity that characterises modern poetry in English; and, in particular, the contributions of North American poets such as Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens and Robert Lowell receive the major emphasis that their achievement and extensive influence warrants and attention is given to important new perspectives in the work of women poets such as Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Bishop.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

Abstract
The twentieth century has been a century of enormous, and deeply disturbing, change. Yet it is the scale rather than the fact, or even the kind, of change that has been so remarkable. The English seventeenth century saw the beginnings of what we recognise as ‘modern’ in a change from the settled world-view and corporate sense of the Middle Ages to scepticism and individualism — a change reflected in the poetry of John Donne, who wrote:
‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone; All just supply, and all relation: Prince, subject, father, son, are things forgot, For every man alone thinks he hath got To be a phoenix, and that there can be None of that kind, of which he is, but he’.
R. P. Draper

2. Modernism: Pound, Eliot, William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens

Abstract
The theme of modernism is, in Ezra Pound’s phrase, to ‘make it new’. Being ‘modern’ suggests being abreast of the times, aware of the twentieth century’s technological change and its advances in knowledge which make superstition and ignorance relics of the past that are rapidly becoming outmoded. Yet, ironically, modernist poets such as Pound and T. S. Eliot ‘make it new’ by going back to the past — by insisting on the need to re-open those lines of communication which constitute tradition. Politically, too, they tend to celebrate authority and submission rather than democracy and the freedom of the individual. In their literary work they cultivate forms which are abrupt, discontinuous and rapidly shifting, as if to match the hasty, forward-moving pace of modern life, and their versification suggests impatience with the regularity and strict rhyme patterns of previous poetry. In addition, they are difficult and elusive, as if speaking an in-language known only to those who are the ‘up to date’ members of a self-consciously new avant-garde. And yet their feeling for the age which they thus reflect is one of disgust rather than approval; what they tend to see around them is pollution and decay, an urban environment which is dehumanised, if not inhuman, and a way of life which is morally corrupt: ‘The burnt-out ends of smoky days’ — to quote the early Eliot of ‘Preludes’.
R. P. Draper

3. An Alternative Tradition: Hardy, Housman, Frost, Kipling and Graves

Abstract
If Pound, Eliot, Williams and Stevens are names which immediately spring to mind when one thinks of early modern poetry, they are certainly not the only ones. Hardy, Housman, Frost, Kipling and Graves are equally prominent. The first quartet is American — though Eliot became a naturalised British citizen; the second English — with the exception of Frost (whose first volume of verse nevertheless was published in England). Though national consciousness probably has little to do with it (even where Kipling is concerned), the ‘English’ quartet differs from the American in being far less self-consciously modernist, more readily to be seen as continuing, rather than making a deliberately sharp break with, nineteenth-century practices. In particular, they are much more willing to retain the formally correct syntax that poetry had hitherto shared with prose, their verse is more likely to ‘scan’, and their allusiveness, when they employ it as a technique, is more likely to be self-explanatory — or at least not so essential to the overall meaning of the poem that annotation becomes indispensable to its understanding. To this extent they are easier than the poets of the previous chapter, with whom ‘the fascination of what’s difficult’ (though that is a Yeatsian phrase) seems at times to become almost an obsession, and they hit the reader less frequently with a deliberately cultivated shock of the new.
R. P. Draper

4. Private and Public: Yeats and Lowell

Abstract
The poem as a self-contained, independent work of art became one of the chief tenets of twentieth-century modernism. Emotional baring of the soul was rejected in favour of a posture of detachment and impersonality. According to T. S. Eliot in his influential essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ (1919): ‘Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.’ For the ‘is’ of this quotation, however, it might be more appropriate to substitute ‘should be’. Eliot was not commenting objectively on a given state of affairs, but seeking to impose a doctrine favourable to his own agenda and that of the early modernists. Ezra Pound was doing the same, but with a franker acknowledgement of the manifesto-like nature of his assertion, when he claimed a year or two earlier that poetry in the twentieth century would be ‘harder and saner’ and ‘as much like granite as it can be’, adding, ‘At least for myself, I want it so, austere, direct, free from emotional slither.’1 What offended both Eliot and Pound was their sense that the poetry of the Romantics (and, more particularly, the Romantic tradition as developed by the Victorians) wore its heart too much on its sleeve, that it had become emotionally slack, and made the psychological state of the writer rather than the achieved substance of the poem too much the centre of attention.
R. P. Draper

5. Poetry of Two World Wars

Abstract
In the unfinished Preface to what seems to have been intended as a volume of his war poems Wilfred Owen wrote:
This book is not about heroes. English Poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.
Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.
Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.
My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The poetry is in the pity.
R. P. Draper

6. Auden and Co.

Abstract
These are the lines which begin W. H. Auden’s’ september 1, 1939’ (a poem which its author virtually disowned in later life). The ‘decade’ in question is that of the 1930s; and the comments made on it, including its ‘clever hopes’ and its ‘low dishonest’ nature, suggest the character it acquired for a group of poets who themselves take their place in literary history, rightly or wrongly, from the work they did in the 1930s. Chief among them are Auden, Louis MacNeice, C. Day Lewis and Stephen Spender — mockingly clustered together by Roy Campbell as ‘MacSpaunday’, and by Auden himself as ‘Daylewisaudenmacneicespender’.
R. P. Draper

7. ‘Black Mountain’, and the Poetry of D. H. Lawrence and Ted Hughes

Abstract
In the 1940s the American poet Charles Olson (1910–1970) became the rector of Black Mountain College, a liberal institution in the western part of the state of North Carolina. The College’s aims included the development, both in theory and practice, of a free and informal (but not formless) style of poetry dubbed ‘projective verse’. In his essay on this subject Olson deplores what he sees as ‘the reaction now afoot [i.e. in 1950] to return verse to inherited forms of cadence and rime’; and, harking back to the work of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, he argues for a more ‘open verse’ which will be responsive to the ebb and flow of emergent meaning. It will not be a verse of orderly shaping and monumental solidity, but a lithe, flexible and energetic verse capable of picking up intimations of the future rather than enshrining ideas and emotions of the past. Instead of accentual metre and rhyme Olson promotes a new technique in which syllables and lines are governed purely by the sensitivity of the poet’s ear, and in which there is an instinctive appreciation of the relation between phrasing and breath comparable to that of a good actor or musical performer. (Although he makes no actual reference to the speaking of verse, Olson was a dramatist as well as a poet; and, still more to the point, he was also a trained musician.)
R. P. Draper

8. Women’s Poetry

Abstract
The freedom and informality sought by Charles Olson implies a questioning of all established attitudes and cultural certainties. His projective verse is the expression of a rebelliousness which is not harnessed to a philosophical or political programme such as Marxism, for example, might require, but seeks to release the mind from the constrictions which it has inherited from the past and internalised so that they act as a self-policing sense of style. It is this aspect of his work which has also led to his influence on twentieth-century women writers who are vastly different from — and even in many respects actively hostile to — D. H. Lawrence and Ted Hughes.
R. P. Draper

9. Regional, National and Post-Colonial (I)

Abstract
In a conference on the Literature of Region and Nation, held at Aberdeen in 1986, Seamus Heaney was able to say quite casually that ‘we are all regionalists now’. His point is that in the latter part of the twentieth century there has been a decline (and, by and large, he regards it as a welcome decline) in the feeling that English literature has its centre in London and the south-east of England. Regionalism as a literary phenomenon in England began in the late eighteenth century in the work of Wordsworth, Crabbe and Clare, and it grew to great strength in the nineteenth century with the novels of the Brontë sisters and Thomas Hardy. But this was the regional mainly in tension with the metropolitan. Though Hardy wrote approvingly that ‘A certain provincialism of feeling is invaluable. It is of the essence of individuality, and is largely made up of that crude enthusiasm without which no great thoughts are thought, no great deeds done,’ it was in refutation of Matthew Arnold who maintained that the provincial spirit lacked ‘the lucidity of a large and centrally placed intelligence … it has not urbanity, the tone of the city, of the centre’.1 It was Hardy’s Jude the Obscure against Arnold’s dreaming spires of Oxford. In the twentieth century, however, social, political and economic forces all conspired to make the ‘centre’ less self-confident. If London remained at the heart of publishing and reviewing, places like Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Hull became much more the regional capitals of a still urban, but no longer London-based literary activity. Many of the best English poets came from the regions and maintained a non-metropolitan, or even anti-metropolitan, outlook, as do poets like Ted Hughes and Simon Armitage (b. 1963) today.
R. P. Draper

10. Regional, National and Post-Colonial (II)

Abstract
In the opening chapter of A History of Australian Literature Ken Goodwin suggests that there are ‘two major rival determinants’ in the literature of Australia: the British written cultural tradition, which settlers brought with them to Australia, and the totally different environment of the new land, including the unwritten culture of its Aboriginal inhabitants. In addition, there is the fact that these settlers were, to begin with, mostly convicts — outcasts from the mother country, and often from backgrounds, Irish and Scottish, for example, which made them unsympathetic to established British values. Consequently, although there are many modern Australians who still ‘emphasize commonality with and derivativeness from Britain’, they ‘exist alongside vociferous nationalists … and those who reject both colonialism and nationalism in favour either of internationalism … or of personal withdrawal and self-identification’.
R. P. Draper

11. Experiment and Tradition: Concrete Poetry, John Ashbery and Philip Larkin

Abstract
Consciousness of the arbitrary nature of language, its essential conventionality (in the sense not of conformity, but of operating in accordance with tacitly agreed codes which have no naturally inherent laws) has become a major feature of twentieth-century poetry. It is almost, one is tempted to say, the defining feature of the modern, were it not that post-modern poetry is still more marked by it than classical modernism of the Pound-Eliot-Williams upheaval. By freeing poetry from the demands of consecutive syntax and claiming as its own the modern cinematic technique of juxtaposing images for primarily emotional/dramatic effect, modernism opened the way to further experiments in the breaking down of accepted assumptions governing verbal expression. Once the standard of ‘correct’, transparent English, whether spoken or, still more significantly, printed, was breached, it became possible to question the conventions of presentation which educated writers and readers had come to take as inviolable rules, and which are still treated as such in the language of scientific, journalistic and critical discourse. It became possible for transgression, or non-observance, of the rules to function on a positively sophisticated, rather than vulgarly negative, level — though this, of course, also presupposes general familiarity and conformity with them, since the abnormal effects of dispensing with them, or operating them in unfamiliar ways, depends on the existence of a strong feeling for them as the linguistic norm.
R. P. Draper
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