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About this book

Sarah Broom provides an engaging, challenging and lively introduction to contemporary British and Irish poetry. The book covers work by poets from a wide range of ethnic and regional backgrounds and covers a broad range of poetic styles, including mainstream names like Seamus Heaney and Carol Ann Duffy alongside more marginal and experimental poets like Tom Raworth and Geraldine Monk. Contemporary British and Irish Poetry tackles the most compelling and contentious issues facing poetry today.

Table of Contents


Nearly every overview or anthology of contemporary poetry in Britain and Ireland published in the last two decades has asserted the radical democratisation and pluralisation in poetry publishing and reviewing that has occurred since the 1960s. As a general trend this is undeniable. The poetry scene in the 1950s in Britain was overwhelmingly white, male, middle-class and centred around Oxbridge and London, and in Ireland (where class and regional relationships are differently inflected) it was overwhelmingly white and male. Since the 1960s and 70s there has been a gradual but radical diversification of the poetry being published and reviewed, so that women poets, poets from working-class, rural and non-metropolitan backgrounds, and poets from ethnic minorities have become prominent and recognised figures within the poetry world.1
Sarah Broom

1. ‘Wanna yoo scruff’: Class and Language

The poets included in this chapter all come from working-class backgrounds in which poetry seemed a most unlikely career choice or leisure pursuit, but whereas Paterson’s first memorable experiences of poetry as an adult were encounters with the poetry of Tony Harrison, and in particular his sonnets about his working-class family background, Harrison himself saw no such role models around him, and had to work out for himself that the Cockney Keats and the Northern Wordsworth could be used as models in quite different ways than had been suggested to him hitherto. For Leonard and Harrison, the sense of the necessity of battling against a class-bound literary establishment has been a dominating and driving force. Paterson’s poetry, with few exceptions, takes on a much less confrontational stance, something which may be partly due to his sense of coming after poets like Harrison, Leonard and Douglas Dunn, and may also be related to the very different political climate of his formative years.
Tony Harrison, Tom Leonard, Don Paterson

2. ‘My tongue is full of old ideas’: Race and Ethnicity

Patience Agbabi’s poem ‘The Black The White and The Blue’ gives a snapshot of prejudice in London life. PC Edward White, ‘East End born East End bred’, is both racist and guiltily gay; as one of the ‘boys in blue’ he beats up black and Asian men, but after his night-time transformation into a ‘West End fag’ he is himself the target of violence:
West End fag West End fag
stabbed in the back by an East End lad
son of a racist left him for dead
boy in blue is covered in red
Black man Asian man
kisses his lips and holds his hand
Nigger Paki Queer
when will we walk the streets without fear?1
The poem is compelling in performance, delivered by Agbabi in a rhythmic staccato style with powerful use of pauses. The repetition and parallelism are crucial in the poem’s communication of the incessant return and repetition of violence and prejudice as well as the damage inflicted by repetitive derogatory labelling. Agbabi is one of Britain’s most exciting performance poets, 2 and, in common with many other performance poets in Britain, she takes advantage of the direct and personal connection between poet and audience in the performance context to make forceful comments on political issues. One of the issues that is central to her work, and to the writing of the three poets discussed in detail in this chapter, is race.
Benjamin Zephaniah, Jackie Kay, Moniza Alvi

3. Gender, Sex and Embodiment

Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘Pope Joan’ takes the voice of the woman who, in popular history, is said to have occupied the papal chair at some point during medieval times. She was only revealed as a woman when she gave birth in public during a procession, after which she was reputedly stoned to death. Duffy’s Pope Joan learns the hermetic secrets of the papacy, for centuries a male-only preserve, and becomes accustomed to a position of spiritual authority. But her experience at the pinnacle of spiritual power serves only to lead her to ‘believe/that I did not believe a word’,1 and she confides to her audience, ‘daughters or brides of the Lord’,
that the closest I felt
to the power of God
was the sense of a hand
lifting me, flinging me down,
lifting me, flinging me down,
as my baby pushed out
from between my legs
where I lay in the road
in my miracle,
not man or a pope at all. (WW, 68–9)
This poem, which I will discuss later in the chapter, highlights the relationship between ‘performed’ gender and ‘material’ sex and in so doing draws our attention to a nexus of fascinating and troublesome arguments in contemporary theory. Postmodern popular culture, as well as postmodern academic discourse, has tended to undermine the binary oppositions associated with gender: male/female; masculine/feminine. While this tendency has in part been driven by feminist theory, it has also produced difficulties for feminism, since the very category upon which feminism was founded — ‘woman’ — can no longer be relied upon to remain stable.
Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy, Grace Nichols

4. ‘Widdershins round the kirk-yaird’: Gender, Sexuality and Nation

In a poem called ‘Cailleach’, the Irish-language poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill tackles that image which has been the focus of so much feminist criticism in recent years: woman as land. The poem is translated by John Montague as ‘Hag’:
Once I dreamt I was the earth
the parish of Ventry its length and breadth,
east and west, as far as it runs,
that the brow of the Maoileann
was my forehead, Mount Eagle
the swell of my flank
the side of the mountain
my shanks and backbone
that the sea was lapping
the twin rocks of my feet
the twin rocks of Parkmore
from the old Fenian tales.
Eavan Boland, Gillian Clarke, Kathleen Jamie, David Kinloch

5. ‘A fusillade of question marks’: Poetry and the Troubles in Northern Ireland

Poetry in Northern Ireland over the last few decades has shown remarkable vibrancy and diversity. The troubled political situation has certainly contributed to the energy and urgency of this poetry, as writers have struggled with the difficult task of finding a voice that speaks to and through the conflict. Poets are exposed to intense external pressure to comment on ‘the situation’, but once they do, they open themselves up to accusations of easy exploitation of violence for literary effect, as well as keen moral scrutiny of every aspect of their ‘position’. Seamus Heaney’s poetry, in particular, has, over the years, been the subject of fierce debate and has served as the substratum for the development of a fascinating critical discourse on the relationship between poetry and politics in the Northern Irish context. This criticism is, of course, only a part of a larger debate concerning Irish literature generally. Since W.B. Yeats’s troubled question, ‘Did that play of mine send out/Certain men the English shot?’,1 Irish writers in the twentieth century have turned over and over the complex issues surrounding the political efficacy and responsibility of the artist.
Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Ciaran Carson

6. ‘A rustle of echoes’: Self, Subjectivity and Agency

Romanticism’s elevation of the lyric has meant that for the last few centuries our very idea of poetry has been intimately tied up with the idea of the authentic, personal, speaking voice. Although throughout this period (and indeed within Romanticism itself) there have been myriad challenges to the notion that poetry can be the direct expression of a unified and autonomous self, the most forceful questioning of this idea has emerged in modernist and postmodernist poetry. In the case of postmodernism this has been energised partly by poststructuralist theories of selfhood and subjectivity. Over the last few decades, the term ‘subject’ has been used more and more commonly as an alternative to ‘self’ and ‘individual’. This is because the term ‘subject’ suggests the way language assigns us roles — the ‘subject’ position is the position of the actor in the sentence — and also suggests the way people are subjected to various operations of power within culture. As Paul Smith puts it,
The ‘individual’ is that which is undivided and whole, and understood to be the source and agent of conscious action or meaning which is consistent with it. The ‘subject’, on the other hand, is not self-contained, as it were, but is immediately cast into a conflict with forces that dominate it in some way or another — social formations, language, political apparatuses, and so on.1
Smith goes on to note, however, that this apparent opposition has not dissuaded people from using the phrase ‘the individual subject’ in an effort to capture the sense that human beings are never entirely subjected.2
David Dabydeen, Paul Muldoon, Denise Riley

7. The Tribes of Poetry

To most people, the idea that any poet might be described as ‘mainstream’ seems slightly odd; the whole of the poetry world appears to the majority to be an esoteric and marginal enterprise. However, marginality is always relative, and within the current poetry scene in Britain — and to a lesser extent in Ireland — the debate over whether certain sections of the poetry-writing population have been unfairly excluded and marginalised by the dominant publishers and institutions has reached a new level of intensity. A combination of events has catalysed this; firstly, and most importantly, the publication of several new books which have a clear revisionist agenda and seek to redress a perceived repression of the experimental poetry scene;1 secondly, the success of new Cambridge-based publisher Salt, which is publishing large amounts of new and existing experimental poetry and criticism of such work; and thirdly, the impact made between 2002 and 2005 by the editors of the London-based Poetry Review, a magazine which has been decidedly mainstream for the last few decades2 but has recently taken a strikingly different approach in seeking to expose work from all sections of the poetry continuum.
Tom Raworth, Geraldine Monk, Catherine Walsh, Peter Reading, Patience Agbabi
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