A new generation arrives
SELECTED POEMS. By John Mole. Sinclair-Stevenson Pounds 6.99 - 1 85619 551 1.
Neil Philip on the relaunched Penguin Modern Poets and other writers. For anyone who first came to poetry in the late sixties and early seventies, as I did, the first series of Penguin Modern Poets was indispensable. Poets, it seemed, like other good things, came in threes: Durrell, Jennings, Thomas; Barker, Bell, Causley; Ewart, Ghose, Johnson.
The books were affordable and portable, but best of all they seemed to welcome the reader in. Unlike serious-minded single-poet collections, or stodgy school anthologies, they allied poetry to pop culture. Here were the Beats - Corso, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg - and, of course, the Liverpool Poets - Henri, McGough, Patten. These were fresh, urgent voices speaking straight at the reader.
Penguin Modern Poets must stand as one of Penguin's finest hours. But can they repeat the trick today? The first two volumes of the relaunched series suggest they may.
The last 20 years have, after all, been exciting ones for British poetry. London's stranglehold on the means of publication, and therefore jurisdiction on the acceptable modes of expression, has vanished. Just think of the towering importance a generation ago of Faber's magisterial poetry list, and its worthy irrelevance today. The strong regional voices that have emerged should be well represented in the new series: Modern Poets 5, for instance, will feature Simon Armitage, Sean O'Brien, and Tony Harrison.
But the most radical change is not this welcome poetic devolution, but a parallel shift in power from men to women. The first Penguin Modern Poets 2 (Amis, Moraes, Porter), published in 1962, contained Kingsley Amis's immensely condescending "A Bookshop Idyll". In it, Amis wittily divides the poems in a current anthology along gender lines. The men's poems are about ideas, literature, landscape; the women's are about love: And the awful way their poems lay them open Just doesn't strike them.
Women are really much nicer than men: No wonder we like them.
Today, women (or, as Amis has it, "ladies" and "girls") are no longer so nice, and their poems are just as likely to lay open some passing male as their own palpitating breasts. The new Penguin Modern Poets 2 reflects this. It's a very strong collection from just three of the many women poets whose work has transformed the contemporary poetic landscape.
A trio of female poets from the canon would have to be an introspective, fey volume along the lines of Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti, Stevie Smith. Elizabeth Jennings in the original Penguin Modern Poets 1 fitted this bill, and after that it was pretty much men all the way. Carol Ann Duffy, Vicki Feaver and Eavan Boland set down their anger and their anguish with a powerful restraint that makes us realise once again how the art of the past has refracted female experience through male consciousness. This, indeed, is a theme of poems by each of the three, in which a male painter's gaze is coolly returned by his female model: Duffy's "Standing Female Nude", Feaver's "Naked Girl with Egg", and Boland's "Self-portrait on a Summer Evening".
Childhood is another shared theme. Each poet includes a tender and moving poem about her mother; Carol Ann Duffy opens with a brilliant sequence about schooldays, "Head of English", "Mrs Tilscher's Class", and "The Good Teachers". This last, remembering the way the urgencies of adolescence elbow study aside, ends with a typical Duffy twist. Her poems lead you gently by the hand and then make a sly unexpected turn round some hidden corner: You could do better. But there's the wall you climb into dancing, lovebites, marriage, the Cheltenham and Gloucester, today. The day you'll be sorry one day.
Duffy's childhood poems are, I think, her best, in their remorseless charting of the slow betrayal into adulthood - what Eavan Boland calls "the long fall from grace."
Ruth Fainlight's Selected Poems contains the bulk of her work, including the whole of her wonderful "Sibyls" sequence, slightly revised from its 1980 form. Irritatingly, this substantial book has no index of titles and first lines, despite having seven blank pages at the back.
Fainlight, too, remembers childhood, and her mother (though this is a mother seen, even in retrospect, with a "harsh stern eye"); she, too, considers the objectifying quality of male art in a poem about painting, "Susannah and the Elders". Such similarities do not imply any lack of originality in these four notable women poets; rather, they define some of the new territory that women poets are now exploring.
It's harder for the men. They may, like John Mole in his poem "The Forest", have insights into the dark subtext of fairy tales, but who is going to read their work rather than, say, Vicki Feaver's "Beauty and the Beast" or "The Handless Maiden", or Ruth Fainlight's "A Fairy Story"? Beside the passionate tide of new female perspectives, male work, however accomplished, comes with a kind of inevitable sigh of "Hasn't this been said before?" Mole, in fact, is an excellent poet, again much concerned with children and childhood, expectation and loss. Some of the best work in his Selected Poems, such as "The Boy and the Sky" or "Mr Tod", would be equally at home in his collections for children. This is a solid collection in a tradition leading back through Ewart and Causley to Auden and MacNeice.
These influences, and, of course, Larkin and Heaney, predominate in the new Penguin Modern Poets 1. But here Ewart's wit has deteriorated into Kit Wright's music-hall turn, and Larkin's deadpan sobriety has mutated into Blake Morrison's flat and featureless monotone. These two poets make one realize how much of the necessary energy and attack of male-voiced poetry has been appropriated by the pop song. Even without the music, a volume of Billy Bragg, Elvis Costello, Shane MacGowan would have more spirit, direction and potency than this.
But Penguin Modern Poets 1 redeems itself with its thrilling selection from James Fenton. These are poems that beg to be read aloud by rebellious teenagers at subversive poetry societies. Not just the beautifully-turned work like "The Skip" ("I took my life and threw it on the skip . . ."), but the wild syncopation of "The Ballad of the Shrieking Man" or "Here Come the Drum Majorettes!": Jane meet John.
John meet Jane.
Take those jimjams off again Jezebel.
Just as well.
Join the jive with Jules and June.
Geoffrey, Jesus, Jason, Jim, Jenny, Jilly, Golly Gee - If it's the same for you and him It's the same for you and me.
It makes you want to be a teenager again, with the latest Penguin Modern Poets in your hip pocket, all dumb insolence and smoke rings, in Carol Ann Duffy's telling image.