Poets Dropping from the Sky

I have a very admiring review of Peter Didsbury’s new collection A Fire Shared in the new issue of the (excellent) Poetry Birmingham Literary Journal, which you can get here. When writing any kind of criticism, people often talk about poets like they drop from the sky, so I think some openness about how we (in this case, I) encounter them would be a good thing and perhaps even go a small way to making poetry, and criticism, less intimidating. Despite the navel-gazing, how I came across Didsbury’s poetry is particularly relevant in this respect because it goes back to how I got into ‘new’ poetry in the first place, and because I could easily have never come across him at all.

When I arrived at university a decade ago my idea of a contemporary poet was someone who had featured in the modern sections of the GSCE or A level anthology. So, Gillian Clarke and Seamus Heaney were contemporary poets but so, in a way, was W. H Auden. (Arguably he still is.) That, plus anything recent-looking I could find on the shelves at home, which by any standard was probably an abnormally large amount of poetry: Larkin, Plath, Walcott, Hughes, more Heaney. The odd anthology.

At university, however, I met people interested in poetry who were not my teachers or my immediate family. From them, whether by osmosis or direct instruction, I learnt there was something called ‘contemporary poetry’, which was different to the poetry I knew, because it was being written now. I also learnt that, if I wanted to be interested in, let alone write, poems, I needed to read it. Initially, I did not like this one bit. There were enough poets already, and I already knew what I liked! Besides, surely art was universal? The discovery of this world, which I did not know about, also hit a real anxiety. It is hard enough being a kid interested in words in a world which, for the most part, is not. Now, suddenly, here were people who not only liked poetry as much as I did, but knew more about it, and no amount of mentioning Auden would cover up my ignorance. The embarrassment of being interested in poetry was compounded by the embarrassment of being an imposter.  

Because I am nothing if not a diligent student, I went away and did my research. The problem was where to start. A friend mentioned Bloodaxe (the idea that people other than Penguin or Faber published poetry was new to me too), so I scoured their website. Because I was stubborn, I still did not want anything too new. Because I was a snob, it still needed critical approval. If change over time was important, and one of the reasons why I could not simply read the old stuff was that poetry had to change to keep up with the times, there was also no sense in diving straight into the new. I needed poets who would form a bridge with what I knew already.

In retrospect this was pretty strange behaviour. However, I got lucky. The two books I chose were Fleur Adcock’s Poems 1960 – 2000 and Peter Didsbury’s Scenes from a Long Sleep: New and Collected Poems. The idea of buying a single collection of poetry, on a student budget, and picking in the dark, seemed astonishingly bad value. Why on earth I did not get an anthology, I do not know, but perhaps it was for the best: anthologies are important, but a collection is a personal initiation, and more powerful for it. Both poets, from what I could tell, seemed to be in that next generation after Larkin and Hughes, and both were, crucially, still writing. (Adcock is actually in the same generation as Hughes and Plath but she had to get over here from New Zealand first.)

They are both superb writers. In a way, they did also serve as a kind of bridge: most recent poetry is far more subdued than anything I was used to from school, far less metrical, far more conversational, and far more ironic (change is on the horizon: there is a romantic wind in the air). Though each individual, and have other qualities, Adcock and Didsbury are those things too. All that says to me is they are as contemporary as anyone. Literature does not progress in a linear fashion. Sean O’Brien once described Didsbury as the kind of writer who makes you realise what you have been putting up with in the meantime. With no disrespect to the meantime, I think he is right.

I want to finish with a quick word on Adcock’s book, because I cannot help but see the two as a kind of pair, so owe it that much. The front cover is very striking: a full reproduction of Hans Holbein the Younger’s A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling. That, surely, was one of the reasons I chose it. The artwork matters. The back cover is covered in admiring quotes, and these probably played a role too. Looking at both Poems and Scenes from a Long Sleep what is striking is now is how individual the quotes are. Of course, it is easier when you are picking from a long career. Most of the quotes would have been taken from longer reviews and articles, and so talk specifics: the reason most puff quotes today are so awful is they are not, and do not.

Arguably, the most telling quote on Fleur Adcock’s book comes from ex-laureate Andrew Motion. “Throughout her writing life [it goes] she has made a fine art of folding on to principles of orderliness and good clear sense; but she has made an even finer one from loosening her grip on them.” I agree. Though I do love Adcock’s “poised, ironic… tense and tightly controlled” style, whatever the subject, my favourite poems, like the much anthologised (and very funny) ‘Things’, the eerie, sci-fi infused ‘Gas’, or ‘A Surprise in the Peninsula’, are those in which menace is very close to the surface.  

Though I do not know the full context, there is something patronising about Motion’s quote: he begins by claiming “most of Fleur Adcock’s best poems have something to do with bed”, which, besides being simply not true, I do not think is the sort of remark someone like Motion would make about a writer they recognised as their equal. It implies a narrowness of subject, which is not born out in the poems. For my money, Adcock is more than a match for Motion. Arguably, she pioneered a particularly contemporary style – poised, ironic… tense and tightly controlled – of which plenty of poetry published since often reads like a pale imitation.

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