If there is one image that has dominated our notion of English poetry since 1945 it is that of restraint. Though many different kinds of poetry have been written here during that period, and many different kinds of critical terminology have been developed to talk about them, this common language remains: restraint, restriction, limitation, moderation, diminution, containment – with these words or others like them we know where we are. The terms are as indispensable to our discussion of contemporary poetry as are notions of ‘The Death of the English Novel’ or ‘The End of Realism’ in our discussion of fiction and of ‘The Revival of the English Stage after 1956’ in our discussion of drama. Though one can take issue as well as agree, of course, these are the terms of the argument.
To trace the evolution of this image of restraint would be an arduous process; to provide instances of it is less so. A fairly typical example can be found in Donald Davie’s Thomas Hardy and British Poetry (1973), where Davie finds himself trying to explain ‘the features of later British poetry which have baffled and offended readers, especially in America – I have in mind an apparent meanness of spirit, a painful modesty of intention, extremely limited objectives.’ Perversely, Davie wants to suggest that British poets may be ‘right in curtailing for themselves the liberties that other poets continue to take,’ but the metaphor still dominates his procedure: modesty as against ambition, limits as against freedom, meanness as against profusion. And indeed images of restraint seem naturally to cluster round our poetry: we speak of small presses, slim volumes, little magazines.
Of course the main point is that this image passes judgement, pejoratively suggesting that poetry since 1945 has been largely undistinguished. But the image also serves other purposes. It divides English poets from American ones: they are the risk-takers and expansionists, the confessionals and Beats; our poets, it is felt, are small beer. The image indicates too that after the big, bold advances of Modernism our poets have in some way held themselves back. And finally it concedes that our poets are very far from being prolific: we have as our unofficial Poet Laureate a writer, Philip Larkin, whose output from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s was about three poems a year. Since 1977 he has published nothing at all.