But something is the matter. In fact, something has been the matter with the British poetry-scene since the end of the Second World War and the appearance of the Movement in the 50s. Some poets have come forward to challenge the Movement/Post-Movement consensus that has emerged, and, although they may have made an impression at the time, they were soon relegated to the limbo consigned for anything exceptional. One of these poets, Jeremy Reed, who two or 3 decades back was very much 'the flavour of the month', said in an interview a few years ago that his own work has now been airbrushed out of the picture, like those old Soviet photographs in which Trotsky had formerly appeared. He has probably done his reputation no favours by excoriating the establishment and the way it has fostered mediocrity in poetry. The consensus is that if you stand out then you shouldn't; you should just trundle along and not presume to make waves.
On the News & Views Blog page of this magazine, I have devoted a blog to the Second World War and it does seem to me that the war was a watershed, marking a dividing line in British poetry no less than in British life. Before that watershed, you had poets like the more Dionysian Dylan Thomas and the more Apollonian, W. H. Auden, the last of whom was able to look back at the Thirties and describe it as a "low dishonest decade". At least he had his finger on the historical pulse of the time and it seems to have been the last time a well-known, shall we say representative, poet was able to make a statement which summed up the age from an international perspective. Since the war, a consensus emerged among poets in which the likes of Yeats, Pound, Rilke and other 'romantics' were made to take the rap for what had occurred - namely fascism and the Second World War. And so began a really dreadful period in British poetry summed up by the Movement poets and writers like Philip Larkin, Donald Davie, Kingsley Amis, and so on, in which Augustan values like "reason" and empiricism were now the order of the day, because, God forbid that we should ever descend into such 'Dionysian' barbarism again. No analysis of the immediate past was offered. It was simply taken for granted that poets like Yeats, Rilke and Pound were the authors of all our woes because the 'romantic' element in their work had supposedly led to the rise of the Nazis. So all such tendencies had to be reined in in the future. In fact, it was as if a new ice-age had suddenly descended on English poetry and poetry itself was in lock-down. Nothing came to life, because nothing was part of the wider currents besieging the world outside this right little tight little island of ours. The most 'history' you got in a poem was when sexual intercourse began in 1963 between the Lady Chatterley ban and the Beatles first LP - in other words, parochial to the chore. No wonder Larkin adored Mrs Thatcher. A poetry reduced to time and place with little hint at all of other possible dimensions.
That was Britain. In America, at least, you had the Beats and poets like Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, Robert Creeley, Charles Olsen, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, John Weiners, Edward Dorn, Kenneth Patchen, William Wantling, and numerous others, whose work was informed by a different, generally more Dionysian and imaginative, ethos. The Brits had given up on the imagination, because, according to that spokesman of the Movement, Donald Davie, it was thanks to the powers of the imagination that Hitler had come to power and the whole Pandora's Box which had culminated in the Second World War had been opened and all its evils unleashed. (In my blog on that subject, I have tried to suggest how dishonest it is to blame everything which emerged in that period onto Hitler.) Risk suddenly became alien to British poets after the war and it was thanks to that that we got the poets we got - the most miserable frigid bunch of codgers that had ever seemed to set pen to paper in Britain. Even the liberating 60s didn't succeed in breaking the ice, as these emergent poets and writers of the 50s became the old guard in the 60s and stifled further advances.
Chomsky's thesis in Manufacturing Consent may also apply to the manufacture of poetic consensuses such as emerged in Britain after the War. At the end of the Second World War, Britain was actually close to revolution. The country was awash with weapons of war in the hands of mainly working-class soldiers who were in a very truculent frame of mind when they come home regarding the fact that they did not fight on behalf of Churchill and his cronies only to return to the same country as existed before the war had begun, with its high unemployment, inequality and low social and economic security. Either things would change or there would be an explosion. The landslide victory for Labour after the war was an expression of this popular mood. And the welfare-state was the result - along with rationing, bombed-out cities, ghastly new high-rise buildings and slums. The old aristocratic consensus of Noblesse Oblige had disappeared and new 'democratic' one had emerged in its place. It had to. In the old order, everyone knew their place and touched their forelocks accordingly. In the new, all that deference was gone, and a certain levelling down occurred which found expression in the social-realism of writers like Larkin, and not a few others. Although middle-class, Auden had assimilated much more of the old Noblesse Oblige ethos. He could afford the noble sentiment of being for the working-class because, as Hugh MacDiarmid pointed out, he was 'not of it'. A certain upper-class 'universalism' and awareness of the wider world around him, pervaded his work, which was completely absent in Larkin, whose horizons were much more lower middle-class. If Auden was one of the representative poets of the pre-war consensus, Larkin became the representative poet of the post-war consensus, as it made itself felt in the Movement. This consensus was much grubbier than the pre-war consensus of an aristocracy and middle-class able to take itself and its 'universalist' values for granted. The horizons of the day were limited to the immediate concerns of knuckling under to the new 'egalitarian' consensus of drabness for all. Larkin was the perfect poet for this emergent consensus, just as poets like Auden and Dylan Thomas were not. Thomas, with his more incandescent 'romanticism', was in fact anathematised by the Movement, for he expressed possibilities in poetry - and therefore in life - which a post-war Britain could no longer afford to pursue. Grey, egalitarian dreariness was the new order of the day and this was to extend to our cultural life. Curious that Thomas drunk himself to death at about the time the Movement was coming into its own! I wonder if there's a connection.
It won't be the first time, of course, that a great historical event has impacted on the cultural life of a people. The French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the First World War, the Paris Commune, the Spanish Civil War, the English Civil War and so on and so forth. The examples are obviously too many to note here. But usually the cultural reverberations are more energising and liberating. Not so in Post-War Britain. I think that this has something to do with the way Britain retreated into itself after the Second World War and pulled up the drawbridge, while it underwent a period of adjustment to its new situation as a second-rate post-imperial power struggling to hold onto the remnants of Empire, while its people lived on ration-cards, and the country struggled to balance the creation of the welfare state with the need to repay its war-debts to America. No wonder it was called "the sick man of Europe". All these debilitating factors seemed to have impacted negatively on the culture at large and the representative poetry of the time. Philip Larkin's work perfectly expresses the whole enervating era in which all our horizons became small little Englander ones concerned to balance the books.
The 50s morphed into the 60s and Western societies underwent a cultural revolution which the younger generation of Britons responded to and, to a certain extent, led - particularly in the fields of pop-music, pop-art and fashion. (of course, this was nothing to the cultural revolution that occurred in the States.) British poetry, however, hardly changed at all. The Movement simply became entrenched and remained so through to the 70s. Basil Bunting's Briggflatts - a far more important poem than any produced by the Movement - had a brief spell in the limelight, then disappeared from view once again. In Scotland, Hugh MacDiarmid made waves, which were not felt in England at all. Young Britons turned to the American Beats for a more stimulating poetic fix, while the establishment stuck with the Movement. The mood of 60s Britain was admirably summed up by Jeff Nuttall in his book, Bomb Culture, in which he described the overflowing energy of a younger generation being stifled by an ossified establishment determined to hold on to its privileged position and continue to set the agenda. That was the time, by the way, when the C.I.A. funded magazines like Encounter in its efforts to keep the lid on whatever was happening in the cultural sphere. '68 came and went, the 70s hoved into view and really nothing had changed on the British poetry-scene. Not even Littack would make any dent.
With the 80s, the New Poetry emerged, no less eviscerated in my opinion. It was informed by a new 'Post-Modernist' (How people love labels!) outlook and true to 'Post-Modernism' in general, it turned out to be the preserve of academics. Most of the New Poets were university-bred poets destined for some kind of academic career as Professors of Poetry. Jeremy Reed, of course, was an exception, but his work was considered too bizarre and outrageous to be given much house-room. Younger, 'art-college types' responded to it enthusiastically, Kathleen Raine praised it, but on the whole it was treated with condescension by the other 'New Poets', whose home was journals like The Times Literary Supplement. Andrew Motion compared the bisexual, cross-dressing Reed with David Bowie and called him an "effete pseud". This uptight macho sexual repressiveness, which had become part of the whole British ethos of the 50s, has never really been challenged, even today. Above all, what they really couldn't stand was that from the point of view of the imagination alone, Reed left them all standing. And no wonder. He was far from being an academic. As I say in my News and Views Blog, Poetic Random Mutations, academia provides a false environment for poetry to grow up in. The typical kind of poetry it engenders is that of a hot-house plant which would never survive in the wild. I don't know of a poet who has survived the test of time who has also been an academic. I may be wrong, but I can't put my finger on one.
It is not that I'm advocating any particular kind of poetry to replace the limited options on offer. Quite the reverse. I would say instead, paraphrasing 'The Great Helmsman', "Let a Thousand Random-Mutations Mutate, then let 'natural selection' - not artificial or manufactured - select and see exactly what happens." What the Movement did, and all those domesticated po-mo academics who succeeded them as "The New Poets" was restrict the many different ways poetry might have of becoming poetry. Poets must find their own solutions to whatever problems their own work uniquely confronts them with. There is no "one country, one truth and one way", which Hölderlin recognised as the root of all evil - least of all in poetry. The important thing I believe is the individuation process which takes place in a poet's work, such that it is recognisable as that poet's work and no-one else's. If we adopt this principle, we might just overcome the limitations imposed by an entrenched poetry-establishment and free poetry enough to be itself again in a way that it has not been since the Movement orchestrated its suffocating coup against everything in British poetry that was vital and wanted to breathe.