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Tony Grist

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The State Of English Poetry [Dec. 9th, 2008|10:54 am]
Tony Grist
This arises out of a discussion about English poetry I've been having with veronica_milvus .

It's my belief that we're living in an age of minor poetry. These occur every so often.  Usually because a major poet has been active in the previous generation and said everything that needs to be said.
Great poets are incredibly rare.  They're the ones that change the language and alter the sensibility of those who speak and write it.  English literature has had 9 of them. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, Keats, Browning, Yeats and Eliot. (Please argue with me over that choice of names). 

The first half of the 20th century was an age of great poetry. Not only did it possess the two great poets- Yeats and Eliot- but also a host of lesser poets- some of them very nearly great. It's not surprising then that the succeeding age- our age- should be so barren. We're still recovering from the impact.

[User Picture]From: veronica_milvus
2008-12-09 12:57 pm (UTC)
I plan to pronounce further on this too.

I wonder if it is because the concept of craft as an element of Art has gone. We used to wonder at the craftsmanship of Michelangelo doing the Sistine ceiling or Grinling Gibbons' carving or whatever. Now it all seems to be about a "concept" and immediacy - hence Tracy Emin can claim her unmade bed is Art. So any fool who can read and write can string a few words together and claim it is poetry. We've given up thinking that anything should be hard to learn and admired for its craft.

I think Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes will be remembered. Lawrence Ferlenghetti and Allan Ginsberg - only as a cultural phenomenon and not becuase they "said" anything. It was mostly prattling pseudoprose.

But I would be sad if nobody had anything new to say. I'm working on it, for one!
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-12-09 01:18 pm (UTC)
Poetry always bounces back. Milton in particular cast a long, long shadow. For at least two centuries after his death poets who were attempting the "high style" (even Wordsworth, even Matthew Arnold) inevitably slipped into Miltonese, but eventually we broke free.

I agree about Heaney and Hughes. They won't be forgotten. Neither will Betjeman and Larkin and- my own particular modern favourite- Stevie Smith. They're all good- but minor.

There's no shame in being minor. Most poets are.
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[User Picture]From: brttvns
2008-12-09 04:10 pm (UTC)

From major to minor

If by minor poets you include Ted Hughes, Dylan Thomas, Phillip Larkin, R.S. Thomas, Coleridge, Tony Harrison, Byron et al, there certainly is no shame in being minor. I do hope that by your comment 'There's no shame in being minor. Most poets are' you were referring to the published titans. And not the feeble angst-ridden or ersatz abstract rubbish that floods the internet (and occasionally the literary publicationa).

I can enjoy such contemporary poets as Armitage, but I do feel a lack of passion in most modern poetry (there is a lot of imagery to be found, but without emotional weight if feels too withdrawn, lifeless).

'Pushing the boundaries' is a phrase I have often seen and heard to describe a lot of modern culture - if you ignore all the tools of your craft, what are you pushing the boundaries of?
I will use a rather weak example - being a jazz and blues fanatic - Louis Armstrong pushed the boundaries of 1920s jazz still working within a form, as did Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane later. Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin seriously bushed the boundaries of blues, but the form was still evident. But those experimental periods of Davis and Coltrane, Ornette Coleman (free jazz!) that work does not resonate today anything like their earlier work when they pushed a formal structure.
Surely the poet who can still work within a form and yet make it fresh is truly pushing boundaries. And I certainly am not sneering at free verse (I respect anyone who can write free verse that is undeniably poetry, I think it particularly difficult).
Much to think on in this thread, and am interested in any other thoughts.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-12-09 04:35 pm (UTC)

Re: From major to minor

Yes, all those guys come under the heading "minor"- but they're only minor in comparison with the likes of Shakespeare and Milton.

Most of the poetry written in every generation is rubbish. Indeed, a lot of the poetry written by some of the major poets is rubbish. Wordsworth published reams and reams of very dull stuff.

I don't despair of todays's poetry scene. There are good poets around, just no major ones that I can see- and the bad ones will- as always- be forgotten.

I'm not sure "free verse" isn't a contradiction in terms. Most verse that passes for free turns out to have some sort of structure or form or rythm sustaining it.
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[User Picture]From: brttvns
2008-12-09 04:53 pm (UTC)

Re: From major to minor

Of course - who isn't minor in comparison to Shakey! I agree with you that a lot of 'free verse' (and usually the best) does have structure, some quite rigid. Then, it can also depend on the reader and their knowledge of poetry - I once heard Dylan Thomas' 'Resusal To Mourn The Death Of A Child, By Fire, In London' as free verse! It has as much structure as his revered villanelle.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-12-09 06:54 pm (UTC)

Re: From major to minor

I've just re-read the Thomas. Fine poem. And yes, it has a very strong, though unasserted structure. Why, it even has rhymes!
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[User Picture]From: brttvns
2008-12-09 07:00 pm (UTC)


Have you heard him read it?

and one of my favourites

Unfortunately these are not taken from his BBC readings, they are superior.
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[User Picture]From: gioiaverdi
2008-12-10 02:47 am (UTC)
Your point about modern poets may be true, but I think there's a lot to appreciate in today's poets, minor or not. I personally love Larkin, Cope, Atwood, Komunyaaka, Shapcott and a number of new and emerging poets and find they speak to me at a quite profound emotional level.

(As regards the greats, I'd want to include Marvell, and Byron, personally and how can you omit Donne?)
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