Since 1945 British poetry has moved steadily from what many regard as twentieth century parochial to a twenty-first century international. In the space of little more than fifty years the insular, clear verse of mainland English Britain has changed from being a centralist and predominantly male, seemingly academic practice to become a multi-hued, post-modern, cultural entertainment, available to all. Some observers see this as liberating. Others regard it as more of a descent into vernacular sprawl. But, as ever, reality cannot be so readily defined. British poetry here is regarded as writing from Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England in the English language. Scots Gaelic and Welsh language poetries are excluded as is work from the Irish Republic.
During the late forties the dominance of the pre-war modernists like F.S.Flint (1885-1960) and the uncontroversial Georgians such as Walter de la Mare (1873-1956), and W.H.Davies (1871-1940) who used their verse to depict a vanishing rural and domestic scene was largely overthrown. The Second World War and the shattering of Europe saw to that. The cerebral surrealists, David Gascoyne (1916-) among them, had driven into a blind alley. When the war ended the new poetry which emerged still bore traces of the measured and uneventful thirties verse that had gone before it. Poets of what became known as the neo-Romantic movement, Vernon Watkins (1906-1967), W.S.Graham (1918-1986), Patricia Beer (1919-), George Barker (1913-1991) and John Heath-Stubbs (1918-) and others, wrote as if the British world had not changed irrevocably. The influence of pre-war founder figures W.B.Yeats (1865-1939), T.S.Eliot (1888 – 1965), Edwin Muir (1887-1959), Louis MacNeice (1907-1963), W.H.Auden (1907-1973), and Robert Graves (1895-1985) remained strong. The modernists David Jones (1895-1974) and Basil Bunting (1900-1985), with Hugh MacDiarmid (C.M.Greive – 1892-1978) in Scotland, stayed outsider forces. In Wales the Thomases, Dylan (1914-1953) and R.S. (1913-2000), made great marks on the map. But the poetry was not yet a true product of its times.
The reaction came in the early fifties, and soon after Dylan Thomas’s death in 1953, The Movement as the new tendency was called had obtained a coherence. The work of its poets nurtured rationality, was inhospitable to myth, was conversationally pitched (although lacking the speech rhythms of American counterparts like William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)) and was deliberately formal and clear. Movement poets opposed modernism and had little truck with international influences. They regarded themselves as a direct continuation of mainstream English tradition. There were few sparks but much temperate, slow reflection. Members, yoked together somewhat artificially, have not, however, all remained true to their first principles. Thom Gunn (1929-) and Donald Davie (1922-1995) went on to encompass the whole gamut of American, open field and Black Mountain writing with Gunn using syllabic meters and Davie becoming an interpreter of Pound. But at the centre a tight stiff-lipped Englishness glowed in the work of Kingsley Amis (1922-1995) John Wain (1925-1994), Philip Larkin (1922 – 1985), D.J.Enright (1920-), and Elizabeth Jennings (1926-). The anthology of the period was Robert Conquest’s (1917-) New Lines (1956). Dannie Abse (1923-), himself a Movement fellow-traveller, suggests that “the pitch, tone, strategy, and bias of the Movement poets has predominated, with modifications, to the present day” (The Hutchinson Book of Post-War British Poets, 1989, p xiii) and as far as mainstream English poetry is concerned he is more or less correct. There has been something about the English suspicion of modernism and insistence on form, often at the expense of content, that has sidelined it on the world stage. While other literatures accommodated mercurial change mainstream English poetry stuck with decorative, rational discourse. But on the fringes things were different.
The Movement had its significant outsiders. Stevie Smith (1902-1971) was a total original who wrote “like William Blake rewritten by Ogden Nash” (Anthony Thwaite – Poetry Today, 1996, p 28). Other poets, less hostile to romanticism, were also steadily making their mark – Jon Silkin (1930-1998), Sylvia Plath (1932 – 1963), and two of Britain’s greatest twentieth-century poets, Geoffrey Hill (1932 – ) and Ted Hughes (1930 – 1998), all appeared during the formal English fifties. Hughes, the gritty Yorkshire Poet Laureate engaged the primordial struggle and won. Hill’s dense, formidable poetry became, for some, the highest achievement of late twentieth-century English verse.
The Group was a movement which coalesced around nothing more revolutionary than the desire to discuss. Meeting under the chairmanship of first Philip Hobsbaum (1932-) in Cambridge and later Edward Lucie-Smith (1933-) in London the Group had members who were to form the bedrock from which Michael Horovitz’s (1935 – ) Children of Albion (1969) would later spring. Working largely in the late fifties and early sixties poets such as Peter Porter (1929-), George MacBeth (1932-1992), Alan Brownjohn (1931-), Martin Bell (1918-1978), B.S.Johnson (1933-1973) and Peter Redgrove (1932-) met to discuss how verse was. As with Joan Littlewood’s approach to theatre where the workshop assumed more significance than the script so the Group poets honed their work in an atmosphere of trenchant criticism, sobriety and mutual esteem (and some say scar-leaving nastiness). The work was largely Movement tradition with side-glances at innovation. MacBeth, in particular, was keen to embrace some of the structural changes he’d seen arrive from Europe.
As the smooth, safe fifties moved into the revolutionary sixties the critic A. Alvarez (1929-) united what he saw as the new poetry in an anthology of the same name (The New Poetry, 1962). Here Group and Movement poets, supplemented by other emerging voices such as Michael Hamburger (1924-), Christopher Middleton (1926-), Charles Tomlinson (1927-), Ted Walker (1934-), Iain Crichton Smith (1928-), Norman MacCaig (1910-1996), Ted Hughes, R.S.Thomas and others were joined in a spirit of urgency and the poet’s “ability and willingness to face the full range of his experience with his full intelligence”. Alvarez claimed that the New Poetry claimed to be beyond gentility. Looking back on it now the work looks depressingly similar to that which went before – British poetry tracking a gentle English groove. Alvarez’s confessional Americans John Berryman (1914-1972) and Robert Lowell (1917-1977) had no counterparts, except perhaps that dynamic duo, Hughes and Plath.
But explosion was around the corner. After a brief dalliance with jazz and stage performances, inspired largely by the Americans Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka) (1934-) and Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982), (Christopher Logue (1926-), Dannie Abse(1923-), and Roy Fisher (1930-) were among UK exponents), British poetry took its vital left turn. Across the western world cultural values were shifting. The old order, knocked back by two world wars and the fall of empires, was finally teetering. In America the Beat Generation, who valued spirituality over formality, and freedom over regulation, carried the torch. Here – starting with Mike Horovitz’s celebrated Albert Hall poetry reading of 1965 – the Underground became, to some, the way on. Valuing open forms and producing an anti-hierarchical, anti-war protest poetry the Underground thumbed its nose at centralist values and took its own little mag, alternative route to the people. A poetry built on wild times, popular readings and independent distribution systems exploded across the UK. Led by the Liverpool poets (Adrian Henri (1932- 2001), Roger McGough (1937-) and Brian Patten (1946-) on the back of the Beatles, and aided by Adrian Mitchell (1932-), Jeff Nuttall (1933-), Tom Pickard (1946-) and others, Underground poetry became verse’s acceptable popular face. Poetry was removing itself from its male-dominated and often academic metropolitan centres. Mike Horovitz’s Penguin anthology of the period, Children of Albion, sold by the cart load.
Not that the Underground was poetry’s only route forward. A British dimension to the world-wide concrete poetry movement appeared in the sixties work of Scottish poets Iain Hamilton Finlay (1925-) and Edwin Morgan (1920-), the Benedictine monk Dom Sylvester Houedard (1925-1992) artists Tom Phillips (1937-) and John Furnival (1933-), as well as sound and found poets such as Bob Cobbing (1920-), Peter Mayer (1933-) and the London-resident French master Henri Chopin (1922-). These “experimental” poets and their followers (Peter Finch (1947-), Tom Leonard (1944-), Paula Claire (1945-) allied themselves with the Underground in their assault on the establishment. The ousting of the mainstream from the august London Poetry Society during the early seventies was a classic example of the new overwriting the old. The Poetry Review, the UK’s longest-lived poetry journal (founded 1908) and an unstinting supporter of established values was taken over by Eric Mottram (1924-1995), a fervent supporter of expanded consciousness and alternative verse.
In the eastern counties, loosely centred around the magazine Grosseteste Review, a group of poets, most of them attached to university English departments and enamoured of American models found themselves constituting what became known as the Cambridge School, poetry united by its non-metropolitan axis and its foregrounding of language over discourse. Andrew Crozier (1943-), John James (1939-), Veronica Forrest-Thomson (1947-1975), Douglas Oliver (1937-2000), John Riley (1937-1978), J.H.Prynne (1936-), and Peter Riley (1940-) were some of the leading practitioners.
Outside these ‘lunatic fringes’, as they were derisively referred to by poets adhering to the traditional centre, the English mainstream continued, almost as if nothing else was going on. New poets, many based well away from London, began to add a regional veneer to the UK’s Georgian gentility. Tony Harrison’s (1937-) hard-edged northern realism was supplemented by Douglas Dunn’s (1942-) well-wrought, working-class observations from Hull.
As the seventies turned to the eighties the experimenters became the neo-modernists. Modernism’s apparent sterility did not prevent the emergence of a whole new tranche of writers ploughing the furrow initiated by Basil Bunting (1900-1985) and David Jones (1895-1974). Allen Fisher (1944-), Denise Riley (1948-), Barry MacSweeney (1948-2000), Lee Harwood (1939-), Chris Torrance (1941-), Peter Didsbury (1946-) and others, often published by the Ferry and Fulcrum Presses, showed that British poetry was never to fall back on having simply one trick.
In reaction, inevitably, the Empire struck back. In 1982 mainstream neo-Georgian Andrew Motion (1952-) (later to become one of Britain’s greatest successes as Poet Laureate, succeeding Ted Hughes in the role in 1998) and Blake Morrison (1950-) produced the Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry, an anthology which makes its point more by who it left out than who went in. Pop poetry may have been doing well in the clubs while neo-modernists filled the small presses yet here was proof that formalism, structure, traditional meaning and outright clarity were not qualities that had left these lands. The expected major voices of Seamus Heaney (1939-), Tony Harrison and Douglas Dunn were joined, among others, by Hugo Williams (1942-), Michael Longley (1939-), Tom Paulin (1949-), Anne Stevenson (1933-) Fleur Adcock (1934-), James Fenton (1949-), Carol Rumens (1943-), Craig Raine (1944-) and Christopher Reid (1950-). This final pair also briefly found fame when they invented the Martian school of overblown metaphor. The centre once more held, although Larkin could not see what it was that glued it together.
Steady immigration to the UK over a long period was by the eighties affecting its literature. Immigrants like Linton Kwesi Johnson (1952-) drove in new, anti-authoritarian values, made non-standard orthography acceptable and, by allying himself with black music, produced a poetry that, in Britain, was pretty much like nothing else. Style and content were matched in importance by delivery. Acceptability by academic institutions came well down the list. British black writing’s best-known early exponent, James Berry (1924-), edited the first anthology. The movement grew to include many, emerging, second-generation black Britons as well as more who had been resident here for a considerable time. Poets such as Benjamin Zephaniah (1958-), John Agard (1949-), Grace Nichols (1950-), Jackie Kay (1961-), Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze (1956-), and others readily crossed the racial divide by producing a verse whose values proved utterly beguiling to those, to use Norman Mailer’s term, white Negroes who disliked prejudice, authority and the police almost as much as the British Caribbean Blacks. British Asian poetry, extant but minimal, has hitherto fared much worse.
Continued assaults on the citadel of centralist tradition led, by early nineties, to somewhat of a poetry boom. The media, whipping the storm, suggested that poetry might be the new rock’n’roll. Pop stars began to admit to liking verse with the odd one or two to actually writing it. The trend of allying verse with songwriting set by Bob Dylan continued. The new poets of the period ranged from the many-talented and formally experimental Peter Reading (1946-) to acceptable neo-traditionalists such as David Constantine (1944-) Selima Hill (1945-), Kit Wright (1944-), Bernard O’Donoghue (1945-), Sean O’Brien (1952-), Michael Donaghy (1954-), Michael Hofmann (1957-), Carol Ann Duffy (1955-), Simon Armitage (1963-), and Don Paterson (1963-). The culture was becoming plural. For the first time since the pre-war days of Dylan Thomas the Celtic fringes were on the rise. In the fifteen years since 1990 being an Irish or a Scots poet (yet curiously not a Welsh poet) has carried with it considerable advantage. British culture now values its parts more strongly than its whole. For good post-Modernists the concerns of minorities, linguistic and sexual orientation, origin and gender have all become significant. Much of the early nineties mainstream stance is evident in the output of presses like Carcanet and Bloodaxe and is gathered in the controversial anthology The New Poetry (1993) edited by Michael Hulse (1955-), David Kennedy (1959-) and David Morley (1964-). Controversial, perhaps, because of its diversity. The anthology has no central thrust other than its multiplicity.
The New Poetry does not, however, contain many examples of Britain’s performance poetry. During the past fifteen years verse has found an increasingly welcome home on the stage of clubs, pubs and bars. Poetry delivered as entertainment, loud, in your face and, like much of the rest of our media, instantly appreciable has turned verse from an arcane art into a truly popular one. Building on the strong lead given by the Liverpool poets and their followers in the seventies John Cooper Clarke (1950-), Attila the Stockbroker (1957-), John Hegley (1953-), and others have increased public consumption of poetry on a geometric scale. Their work is dynamic, politically apposite and often delivered with considerable humour. Rarely, however, does it also succeed on the page.
The post-colonial cultures of recently politically-devolved Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales have seen poetry in those countries boom. In Scotland the influence of Hugh MacDiarmid, has been strong. Robert Garioch (1909-1980), George Mackay Brown (1921-1996), Norman MacCaig (1910-), Liz Lochhead (1947-) and others have seen their poetry find acceptance beyond their borders. The same has happened throughout the troubles in Northern Ireland with the work of Paul Muldoon (1951-), Derek Mahon (1941-), Michael Longley (1939-), Tom Paulin and others emerging brilliantly alongside the towering presence of Seamus Heaney. In Wales the dominant force, outside her borders, of R.S.Thomas has been followed by that of Gillian Clarke (1937-), Nigel Jenkins (1946-), Menna Elfyn (1951-), Gwyneth Lewis (1959-), Robert Minhinnick (1952-), Tony Curtis (1946-), and, more recently, Owen Sheers (1974-). Only in Scotland have their been significant formal innovators (Tom Leonard, W.N Herbert (1961-)). Wales and Northern Ireland (with the exception of Paul Muldoon) steer more traditional courses.
By the turn of the millennium poetry in Britain had reached a multi-faceted stand-off. Despite the work of editors like Simon Armitage and Robert Crawford (1959-) who have made brave attempts at uniting post-modern, post-Christian, post-war, post-Hiroshima, post-structuralist, post-devolution poetries under one pluralistic banner the many gleaming and disparate parts of British poetry do not like making a coherent whole. In Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales the literatures no longer find themselves overshadowed by an English big brother. The sound coming in from the centre is increasingly ignored. The argument between form and content remains as strong as ever. It has been raging for a hundred years and there are no winners yet. The counter-culture may have changed name and altered its emphasis (from lifestyle to free-form experiment and back) but it remains as strong and has as many adherents as ever. They may say there is no British L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry but there are plenty of fellow travellers. The line which runs up from Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), through D.H.Lawrence (1885-1930), Philip Larkin, Sir John Betjeman (1906-1984), Douglas Dunn, Andrew Motion, and Simon Armitage continues, although is no longer quite as central as it once was. Minority writing (ethnic, genre, sexual orientation) has as many proponents and fans as pop writing did in the seventies. Twenty-first century British poetry is no longer precisely English. Like the world literature with which it is now firmly allied it has as many facets as the eye of a fly. Saying exactly what it is remains the problem of the moment.
Abse, Dannie (editor), The Hutchinson Book of Post-War British Poets; 1989, Armitage, Simon and Crawford, Robert, The Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland Since 1945 (2000); Cobbing, Bob and Mayer, Peter, Concerning Concrete Poetry; 1978, Hamilton, Ian (editor), The Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century Poetry; (1994), Hulse, Michael, Kennedy, David and Morley, David (editors), The New Poetry, (1993); Lucie-Smith, Edward (editor), British Poetry Since 1945 (1970); Matthias, John (editor) 23 Modern British Poets (1971); O’Brien, Sean, The Deregulated Muse, 1998; Thwaite, Anthony, Poetry Today (1996).
This essay was originally commission by the American Continuum Encyclopaedia of British Literature which was published in 2003