On The Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland from 1945, and The Firebox from Picador

The Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland since 1945,

edited by Simon Armitage and Robert Crawford,

(443pp; GBP10.99 pbk)

The Firebox: Poetry in Britain and Ireland after 1945,

edited by Sean O’Brien

(534pp; GBP16.99 hbk).

Normally if two significant anthologies covering the same material, and of a similar format, are released at around the same time, one might fall by the wayside. But this is unlikely to happen in the case of the publication of The Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland since 1945, edited by Simon Armitage and Robert Crawford, and The Firebox: Poetry in Britain and Ireland after 1945, edited by Sean O’Brien. Allowing for overlap, there’s enough difference in content and approach for us to benefit from reading both together. Not that the whole picture of post-WWII British and Irish verse is covered – it couldn’t be. But the politics of anthologising are such that arguments about what’s been left out, or “ignored”, might miss what the anthologies are attempting or have achieved.

Both anthologies present from one to half-a-dozen poems by each poet, with accompanying biographical notes. These are more extensive in The Firebox – at times like mini-critical-essays – and are often extremely useful and informative. The introductions cover, as one would expect, similar grounds though the O’Brien version has a more thematic feel about it. Both are “lightly” historical and issue-based. Both books have made judicious use of the generous space available. You’ll find Hughes, Larkin, Porter, Adcock, Heaney, Muldoon, Plath, R.S. Thomas, Morgan, Motion, Carson, Boland, Jamie, and Reading in both. But while you find John Agard in the Penguin, you won’t in The Firebox. On the other hand you will find Martin Bell in The Firebox, but not in the Penguin. There are variations, especially in choices of individual poems. The differences here are enough to encourage cross-readings, though both books emerge from a similar aesthetic, even if under different names! The choices from Ted Hughes make for an interesting comparison. O’Brien shows the chthonic and cathartic side of Hughes. This is also evident in the Penguin, but the addition of “Full Moon and Little Frieda” shows Hughes’s ability to write with great tenderness. His facility with language and immense control over line are present in both selections.

Both books show a sensitivity to the varieties of English, and the differing poetics between the language bases of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England. However, one of the issues confronting a reader is whether the apparent assimilation of the poetries of Ireland and Britain is fruitful and even desirable. Armitage and Crawford write:

A sense of local accents, dialects, languages attaining their own authority, at the same time as ideas of absolute central authority dissolve, characterizes the poetry of the period and plays a strong part in the evolution of the democratic voice. In this climate it is right that as anthologists who are aiming at an English-language audience we also acknowledge the outstanding work in Scottish Gaelic, Irish and Welsh which forms part of the manifold body of modern poetry from Britain and Ireland. We have chosen to represent these languages through a small, but highly significant, selection of parallel texts.

They then go on to quote Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill’s “Ceist na Teangan” in Irish, with a translation by Paul Muldoon. Returning to the introductions we might ask if these are new manifestos for the “democratic voice”, inclusion, and pluralism. Or are they simply disclaimers for collections compiled out of tokenism – politically correct leanings towards geography, culture, gender, and so on? Given that both anthologies reflect on the enriching of the English tongue by non-English poetries, and non-English poets within the specific geography of Britain and Ireland, and from without, I’d go for the more positive interpretation. These are the initial gestures in what will become a greater project of poetic devolution and interaction between distinctly different poetries that have some geographic, cultural, and linguistic factors in common. However, they also tend to be anthologies of accommodation, as in the belief that “women’s poetry” is lending itself to assimilation – and thus “maturing” in the process – into the canon. Said outright in one introduction, this is implicit in the text and poems of the other. The real reading of these collections is in the choice of material, rather than the “directions” at the beginning. Given the pragmatism at work in these anthologies, modernism is all-pervasive. Whether working for or against its tenets, each writer seems part of its project. O’Brien seeks to come to grips with post-modernism and correctly finds its methodologies in a variety of poets from the Martianist Craig Raine through to Muldoon.

The Penguin includes visual texts by Ian Hamilton Finlay, and both books include the brilliant and subtle innovations of W.S. Graham. There are plenty of “late modernists”, from the individualist Roy Fisher, to the crossover linguistic innovator Edwin Morgan, and the unique voices of Selima Hill and Jo Shapcott – among the most exciting poets writing in English anywhere. There is a sense that they are actually enriching the language. Not much space is given to the “avant-garde”. But this is not to negate the worth of the anthologies; in the same way that they supplement each other, so might they be supplemented by an anthology like Iain Sinclair’s Conductors of Chaos, with the work of Prynne, Mengham, Lake, O’Sullivan, and Milne among others. From Harrison through Fred D’Aguiar and Grace Nichols, class, culture, and ethnicity work within the contemporary poetics. Implicitly, the real politics of these anthologies is in the destabilising of the centre. Many different viewpoints are covered. Armitage and Crawford write:

We wanted to make a lively and valid anthology, rather than staff a literary passport control point. The poet of
Inglan is a bitch

dere’s no escapin’ it

Inglan is a bitch

y’u haffi know how fi suvvive in it

(Linton Kwesi Johnson, ‘Inglan Is a Bitch’)

is as much a part of this anthology as Crocus in the Fellows’ Garden,

winter jasmine up the wall Gleam gold.

Shadows of Victorian chimneys on the sunny grassplot fall Long, cold

(John Betjeman, “I.M. Walter Ramsden”)

Given the claims of both for a kind of decentralised reading of English language poetry within Britain and Ireland, we inevitably ask: how off-centre are they? O’Brien writes:

Irish poetry forms part of the imaginative community to which we feel we belong; and this residual fidelity is accompanied by an openness to other literary cultures . . . with which we share a language . . . such as those of the Caribbean, New Zealand and Australia.

Armitage and Crawford put this egalitarianism down to a post-war “democratic voice”. But what is clear is that these are British and not Irish anthologies. Inclusion is the key word here, as are pluralism, range, and energy. The reading is still from a centre, it’s just a matter of how wide that centre is. Jo Shapcott writes in “Phrase Book”, collected in the Penguin with neat irony:

Where is the British Consulate? Please explain.

What does it mean? What must I do? Where

can I find? What have I done? I have done

nothing. Let me pass please. I am an Englishwoman.

and in “Motherland”, collected in The Firebox:

England. It hurts my lips to shape

the word. This country makes me say

too many things I can’t say. Home

of me, myself, my Motherland.