Saturday, March 17, 2007

UK Poetry: Should I Stay or Should I Go

What Up With British Poetry?

For an American audience not necessarily familiar with contemporary British poetry, The Times Literary Supplement provides examples of the most demeaning tendencies: placid, sentimental expositions of nostalgia and linked clich├ęs invariably given 19th century allegorical titles like “Old Man,” “Solitude,” or “The Burden.” Here is a recent example, by Kevin Halligan, of the kind of British poetry familiar to readers of the TLS:


The days go by us like the cars,
Either fast or slow,
One followed by another
Rushing through an amber light,
Or grinding up a hill,
Or casually taking a corner
With a dog gulping the breeze.

Then all of them run together
At once, almost identical.
Someone with a tinted window
Swerves to the right
Attempting a new direction,
And the rest follow as at a funeral,
Keeping a respectful distance.

Such a poem—with its knock-knee rhythms, its Hallmark, dog-gulping-the-breeze images, its facile analogies, its empty rhetoric (“Either fast or slow”), its predictable structure (first one thing, then surprise, “at once” something else happens), its elegiac tone and faux wisdom—uh, didn’t we hear the one about the days running together before?—at best offers us fuzzy reassurance that things are as we’ve been told they are: life is modest, mildly poignant. The reward of the poem is its reminder that we knew about the days all along.

As an antidote to such drivel, I recommend the forthcoming Chicago Review which features several hundred pages of British poetry and poetics.

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