Google the state of British poetry today, and a surprising world of factions and fashion is uncovered. I have little experience of these movements. I suppose I view British poetry from the centre, placed there by my education and coloured by experience of a life in literature on the ‘Celtic fringe’. ‘Fringe’ is a misnomer. The Celts have never been at poetry’s perimeter. The first known, named poets of these islands, Taliesin and Aneirin, sang their verse in British, the language spoken from south of the Scottish Highlands throughout western Britain to the south coast. Taliesin’s Gododdin, the epic poem about a battle fought where Scotland now borders Northumbria, is still read today in modern Welsh, is still influential. It is the very source and the centre of British poetry.
Arguments about modernism versus the rest, about whether anything new can still be done with the language of poetics, are interesting. However, in the poetry world of my experience, in writing, publishing, editing, reading and listening, in spreading the word in education for children and adults, the question is not what style we adopt, or how we can break and re-arrange English syntax to make it new – and I’m aware I may be missing something here – but what can we say and how well can we say it. I am concerned with how we express our human condition and share it with each other, with who and how many can participate in this ancient art as listener, as reader. I believe poetry is for everyone, sometimes to struggle with, maybe, but mainly to carry by heart wherever we go. Both the simplest of great poetry, our nursery rhymes, and the most dramatic, the language of Shakespeare, have delighted and nourished the populace, the millions, not just an elected, selected few. Of course, poetry must always find new ways to sing, must be fresh, must surprise, must take us by the heart with its song, its imagery, its syntax. But it can still be simple, grammatical, and speak plain English.
What has changed? Until the early seventies, when I published my first collection with a small Welsh press, all such publishers were ignored by the reviewers writing in national newspapers. In the Times Literary Supplement, for example, only collections from the main publishing firms were ever reviewed, a double exclusion. In anthologies of British poetry, women’s voices were a tiny minority, Welsh and other ‘regional’ voices virtually absent. In the long ago of the 70’s the late Adrian Henri once said to me: ‘You’re in two political predicaments, being a woman and Welsh.’ I hadn’t thought of it, but he was right. There were few models for a young woman daring to write poetry. Most anthologies, even that excellent, popular florilegium, The Rattle Bag, published by Faber thirty years ago, edited by two of the greatest poets writing in our time, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, includes poems by one hundred and twenty four men, and eleven women. Wales was all but invisible anywhere in publishing. Schools and exam boards ignored the work of living poets. One excuse was that only quality counted, and so it should be, but we should remind ourselves that those who control and judge art can be wrong. In another age, another country, Emily Dickinson remained unpublished in her lifetime. John Donne was silenced and invisible for centuries.
All’s changed. New poets are coming through all over Britain, and so they should, for there are new things to say, new ways to say them.
It’s a thrill to open a new book and hear the authentic voice of poetry sing from the page. Sometimes an image simultaneously enters the imagination of many poets at the same time. At the turn of the millennium it was angels. This year it is bees, making honey in poems by Jo Shapcott and others, famously in the beautiful collection called The Bees by Carol Ann Duffy. But Sean Borodale’s A Bee Journal is like no other, for the bees are real, and the book is an accurate study of an apiarist’s year, each poem a perfect study, a perfect poem. Kaddy Benyon’s poems are fired and weighted, lit and made dark, by a female physical awareness of the relationship between herself and the world, herself and her mother, her grandmother, the priest, an unnamed gardener. Her poems are salted by a Catholic sense of sin in the Irish tradition, but new. This is heart-lifting stuff.
Photograph by John Davey