The ‘withdrawing roar’: poets in ebb tides

November 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

In a recent commission from Leeds Art Gallery and Longbarrow Press, I and five other poets were asked to select and record 3 poems written between 1914 and 1940 to accompany an exhibition of British painting from that period called ‘The Darkening Plain’.  It became clear to me in choosing the poems – and looking too at what others had chosen – that I am much less familiar with poetry from the later part of that period than the earlier.  Auden dominates English poetry of the 30s – and I chose one of his poems (along with two of Edward Thomas from 1916); but surveying the period, I wondered whether my sense of uncertainty about the mid-century was to do with my first coming to poetry in the 1970s and perhaps the manner in which I encountered it.  For the reluctant school student faced with Chaucer, Shakespeare, Keats, Hughes, all as baffling as each other and none of them settled in any kind of history (‘The Eve of St Agnes’ and ‘Isabella’ full of the seamy richness of the Renaissance; Hughes’ storms and beasts dug out of a primeval loam; Chaucer’s smut very much the currency of my teenage world), there was little indication of any kind of ‘tradition’ or development; and while the formality of my university’s curriculum in the 1980s – ‘Beowulf to Virginia Woolf’ – asserted very clearly the centrality of the tradition, it also gave the sense that this was characterised by a series of peaks – and that it effectively ended around 1930.

My initial immersion into poetry therefore tended to focus on these peaks (14th century, 16th/17th century, 1790 – 1825, 1910 – 1930); and while my subsequent engagement with it has redressed the balance in favour of contemporary poetry, this has, with a few notable exceptions such as Larkin, meant from about 1960.  Where I have really engaged with poetry between 1930 and 1960, it has largely been with poets writing in Spanish (Lorca, Neruda, Machado), due to my interest in that language and culture since 1990 – and the wider availability of translations since the 1960s.

Apart from the poet’s necessary engagement with contemporary work (and even here, we might make some assertions), is there really something about the quality and durability of poetry from certain periods which necessarily consigns work from other periods to the periphery?  In addition to the postmodern, can Victorian and early C20 poetry be described as post-Romantic (1830 – 70) or pre-Modern (1870 – 1910)?  Does the assertion by some commentators that Modernism constituted a second tide of Romanticism imply that what occurred in the 70 or 80 years between these periods was unoriginal or second-rate?  And considering the ‘exceptions’ of the mid-20th century – Auden, Larkin, Thomas perhaps, Douglas perhaps – is their exceptional quality to be celebrated more or less than those whose voices came in, as it were, on a Spring tide?



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