Essays on the Public-Private Divide
in British Poetry since 1950
Edited by Emily Taylor Merriman & Adrian Grafe
Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2010
229 pp. ISBN 978-0-7864-4221-8
Reviewed by Helen Goethals
Université de Toulouse (Le Mirail)
All those present at the Paris Conference on the “Public-Private Divide in British Poetry since 1950”, and those unable to attend, will have been looking forward to the publication of its proceedings. And yet it is well known that successful conferences do not always make successful books. A different type of care is needed if the excitement of an oral exchange is to be transferred to the new mode of communication that is the written page. To turn conference papers into essays takes an art which conceals art, one which involves rewriting and rearrangement, advantages which are pleasingly apparent in this collection.
Readers will not be disappointed with this handsomely-produced book. As one reads through the fourteen essays, the assembled critics can still be heard talking to each other. The effect is no doubt encouraged by the helpful device of putting the critics’ last name in brackets next to the title at the top of each page, so that the reader knows at any given point who is talking. It is also helped by an elegance of style that is employed (almost) throughout. The ideas developed here are felt as well as thought, in language that engages the reader because it is jargon-free. Here is fresh proof that a critic’s style often resembles the genre he or she likes to read: those who study novels are wont to slide into prolixity, those who read poetry aim at writing that is “precise, but not pedantic”.(1)
The pleasure of what Philip Larkin ruefully referred to as “required writing” owes much to the studied order in which essays have been placed. As in poetry itself, the attention demanded by the quiet precision of the arguments is induced by a rhythmical arrangement of the essays, which have been grouped into five titled movements. For the reader, each grouping corresponds to a natural reading-session. As in poetry, however, the rhythmical arrangement only orders the parts. The whole is held together by an underlying ideological order which, page after page, is constantly dialectical.
That dialectic is neatly marked in the hyphen of the book’s subtitle: the divide in question is “public-private”. This subtitle opens the way for the critic to play with that hyphen as best suits his or her once private, now public, preoccupations. The essays take their impetus from the organizers of the conference, Emily Taylor Merriman of San Francisco State University and Adrian Grafe of the Université d’Artois. Taking as axiomatic a modern division of the public and private, “that these two spheres of human life are somehow separate”, they have invited an array of international critics to discuss the poetry written within the British Isles since 1950 in the light of this division. The differences of approach in their own essays nicely mark the extent of that discussion. Adrian’s patient reading of Stephen Romer’s poem “Les Portes de la nuit” opens up a very private poem, while Emily’s shrewd remarks about recent collections by Geoffrey Hill tease out matters of great public moment. As the joint introduction makes clear, theirs turns out to be a “marriage of true minds”, a discordia concors that is sustained throughout the entire collection.
With a list of public figures as various as Hannah Arendt and Arthur Scargill, and over forty poets, the index gives some idea of how close the discussion might have come to being a dialogue of the deaf. That it did not do so is perhaps because, in true “tradition and the individual talent” fashion, the work of a central group of poets is never entirely out of sight. This begs a question: if Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Tony Harrison and Geoffrey Hill are such towering figures on the contemporary poetry scene, perhaps it is not just History that has been written with a grande hache?(2)
Although the critics assembled here use no such blunt instrument, arguing with a steadiness that is both dogged and delicate, yet they never lose the plot. In essays that focus on poets as different as J.H. Prynne and Patience Agabi, they never fail to attend to one aspect or another of the central dialectic. This is not a book which deserves only selective reading though, by providing a linear summary of the main thrust of each contribution in their introduction (5-8), the editors do make that possible. Still, it is not an approach I would recommend: here the parts, however stimulating in themselves, really do yield a more pleasing whole.
The underlying thesis of the critical discussion is that contemporary British poets are writing out of the same political situation that Dean Acheson attributed to British politicians: contemporary poetry has lost an empire and it has not found a role. The lost empire is a poetry-reading public, what Derek Walcott, and others, have called “a society that listens to its poets”. Without readers, poetry cannot exist.
The antithesis is that most of the poets discussed here, each in their individual way and with varying degrees of reluctance, seem to have negotiated the divide. The collection is on the whole comfortingly upbeat, with most of the poems cited as evidence of the success of “peculiar language” at building bridges between public and private worlds. Poets and critics alike agree with Tony Harrison that there is no such a thing as a private voice that would not reach out to a public discourse. In the end, though some may question, all rally to the idea that the personal is political, and come to see the hyphen as symbolic not of a divide but a continuum. This is because, whatever problems may be posed by poetic diction, or by the inclusion in poetry of, say, a northern dialect, poems are written in signs that must be mutually recognized. As several of the critics point out, the public for poetry is visibly swelled when it becomes an audience, when poetry is read aloud or in performance. Poets use ordinary language, but they use it differently, in ways which release its force.
True to the editors’ desire for symmetry, it is in the opening and closing essays that we find the sensitive core of the dialectic: how can poems, such as those in Susan Wicks’ Open Diagnosis, speak publicly and without embarrassment the private fear and terror of being diagnosed with a fatal disease? And how can the manifold public form of the elegy be made to contain the one private grief? The answers to this question are to be found not just in these compelling essays, but throughout the book. When poems help us to face down private and public terrors, it is because they perform catharsis, through what Tony Harrison calls the “shared intimacy” of their being read. The poets’ plight is ours, for in any circumstances there is nothing more unjust, more painful than being refused a hearing. “You are the we of me” the excluded member of the wedding wanted to scream. Whether she spoke in private or in public, if there was nobody there to listen, part of her could not exist. We should not be surprised: all human life began with Adam’s need for someone to talk to.
And the synthesis of the public-private dialectic? If the collection works, as I think it does, each reader will feel moved to develop their own, in discussion with others. Like T.S. Eliot, we should see the use of poetry and the use of criticism as not separate but hyphenated concerns. Will the reading public for this collection of essays on modern British poetry be as small as the public for the poetry they write so well about? That is up to us readers, and to all who mediate between writer and reader. I have no doubt that we are, as Heaney says, “hunters and gatherers of values” but it is the predominant means of communication at our disposal at any given historical time—all that predetermines who speaks to whom, how, when and where—which regulates what maybe hunted and what may be gathered. And why.
(1) T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”, line 222.
(2) Georges Perec,W ou le souvenir d’enfance, 1975, 1.
Cercles © 2011