Friday Pick: Generationalism In British Poetry

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I
t’s hard to argue with the generational anthology’s promise: “Go on,” it says, “pick me up. If it’s verse you’re after, here’s a handy sampler – a safe way to begin exploring the strangely well-hidden world of contemporary poetry, learning the names and trends that will let you feel part of that conversation.”

Like a mix-tape from a wise older sibling, the editor or team of editors of a given anthology has done the hard work for you. It was a difficult choice, they confess (for the sake of those not chosen), but in the end, they clearly feel these dozen or two dozen or twelve dozen poets give readers that authoritative snapshot of poetry as it stands today. Everyone wants to know what’s what, and everyone loves a group photo.

Of course, the generational snapshot is nothing new to poetry. Somewhere between Palgrave’s Golden Treasury (1861), which included only dead poets, and Al Alvarez’s The New Poetry (1962), which proved a template for generations to come, the “Living-Poet” anthology, as Robert Graves and Laura Riding call it, had become well-enough established to warrant their 200-page Pamphlet Against Anthologies in 1928. Graves and Riding are particularly scathing about publishers’ supposedly cynical uses of the anthology, but also the danger of perpetuating an “anthology system” against which poets themselves would find it “almost impossible to hold out.” For them, “All these collections are mere wanton re-arrangement of poetry that has its proper place elsewhere, or nowhere at all.” TS Eliot, a poet-publisher who argued with Graves on the subject, was nonetheless of the similar opinion that “the work of any poet who has already published a book of verse is likely to be more damaged than aided by anthologies.”

Whatever one’s opinion of the format, it seems right to acknowledge the anthology’s history, as Roddy Lumsden’s does, placing Identity Parade: New British and Irish Poets, which he edited in 2010, “in a tradition of generational anthologies which stretches back for decades.” Over the past twenty years, readerly interest in “the generation” has sustained the publication of more than twenty anthologies offering their versions of the best new British poetry. Again, it’s hard to argue with having as many perspectives as possible, especially when any claim to represent the real flavor(s) of a generation also involves a degree of taste-making. But the obvious waves of popularity for this sort of anthology – from those around Bloodaxe’s The New Poetry and the Poetry Society’s “New Generation” list in 1993-94, to five major “generational” anthologies in each of the last five years – point to a wider phenomenon. Rereading this recent history, a story begins to emerge, less a coincidence of individual volumes than an on-going conversation between them about how (and why) to frame a generation. A clearer historical perspective will also allow us to better gauge that frame’s practical and political implications.

The 80’s: Pre-History

 

In 1982, Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion’s Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry entered the every “decade or so” pattern Lumsden identifies, following Alvarez’s 1962 volume and Edward Lucie-Smith’s British Poetry Since 1945 in 1970. One contentious aspect of Morrison and Motion’s volume was its inclusion of a number of Irish poets, among whom, Seamus Heaney’s annoyance is perhaps best known. In “An Open Letter,” Heaney famously responded: “Be advised / My passport’s green. / No glass of ours was ever raised / To toast the Queen.” This political slippage becomes surprisingly significant within the history of the British generational anthology thereafter, partly because it points us to Gerald Dawe’s Younger Irish Poets, published the same year as Motion and Morrison’s “British” selection. For our story, Dawe’s book matters mostly because of its 1991 follow-up, New Younger Irish Poets. As controversial as the Penguin anthology had been, the publication of Dawe’s relatively innocuous volume sets in motion a publishing dialogue that has certainly had the greater impact on the two waves of generational anthologies since.

Peter Forbes’s editorial in the Summer 1991 issue of Poetry Review compares Dawe’s second Irish anthology to the lack of British counterpart this time around. Forbes admits such a new “canon-making” anthology appears “unthinkable,” due to the “hectic pluralism and special interest serving” factions then at work in British poetry. From this comparison, he pens what, in retrospect, appears to have been a stunningly effective clarion call: “This loss of the sense of the canon has weakened British poetry. There is an audience beyond the insiders, who would like to know what is happening in poetry – it is no use saying there’s any amount of it scattered around: a few key anthologies are essential. … Despite the chorus of criticism that greeted Morrison and Motion’s Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry in 1982, the dissent has not spawned a serious rival.”

1993-94: First Wave

 

According to Forbes, a conversation between Bill Swainson, Christopher Reid, and Robin Robertson, over drinks at the National Poetry Competition awards ceremony in January 1993 was the initial spark for the massive market campaign that culminated in a special “New Generation Poets” issue of Poetry Review in the spring of 1994. If the New Generation list was designed to be the most high-profile response to Forbes’ own call, regardless of who had the idea first, Forbes’ introduction also clearly frames the New Generation issue as a response to David Kennedy, Michael Hulse, and David Morley’s The New Poetry, with which Bloodaxe had beaten him to the punch in the autumn of 1993. Any “group portrait” of this kind is a risky venture, Forbes explains, adding snidely: “It totally defeated the editors of The New Poetry, for example.” But like Forbes, the months’ earlier Bloodaxe volume, knowingly taking its name from Alvarez’s 1962 book, also cites Dawe’s New Younger Irish Poets as a seemingly “inconceivable” model “if transposed to other parts of the British Isles.”

Kennedy, Hulse, and Morley’s implicit response to Forbes’s lament for the “loss of the canon” is in their contrary emphasis on a “new pluralism,” and their description of their book as more “defining” than “definitive.” Bloodaxe itself boldly underlined this paradoxical approach to un-definitive definition and pluralistic canon-making by publishing Linda France’s Sixty Women Poets, which criticises The New Poetry’s “all-male editorial team” and asserts itself as “a necessary sister volume,” on the same day in September 1993. In the New Generation issue the following spring, Forbes further responds to the Bloodaxe volume(s) which had, after all, taken up his initial challenge, by dismissing their claims to “new pluralism” as “journalistic clichés.” “At first sight,” he admits, “the list of twenty New Generation poets is perhaps narrower than it might have been,” but he redefines their “wilful individuality” as the “true plurality.”

Without rehashing the further details of these squabbles, suffice it to point out that these volumes are only two (or three, including France’s) among a burst of generational anthologies in this early 90’s wave, responding explicitly or not to Dawe’s second Irish volume and Forbes’ subsequent call. Regardless of who made plans first behind the scenes, the first of Carcanet’s New Poetries series (with the pointed pluralism of its title) and Ian Hamilton’s Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry in English, were both published in 1994 as well. Although neither takes the typical shape – since the Carcanet volume introduces only eight poets (working against what editor Michael Schmidt calls “the reductive tendency of recent ‘generation’ anthologies”), and Hamilton’s is critical introductions, rather than verse samples – they both insert themselves into the vibrant anthology conversation of that moment, echoed further in the revival of Penguin’s Modern Poets series the following year, and Anthony Thwaite’s Poetry Today in 1996.

Relative to that “burst,” however, from the mid- or later-90s, there is a marked lull in the generation-defining anthology’s history. It might be as simple as market saturation or a return to the “every decade or so” pattern – in which case, the lack of an anthology for the Poetry Book Society’s “Next Generation” follow-up list in 2004 is an obvious lapse. 1998’s Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland since 1945, co-edited by Robert Crawford and New Generation alum, Simon Armitage, and Sean O’Brien’s The Firebox: Poetry from Britain and Ireland after 1945 (Picador), had both grown wider than the single-generation span since Lucie-Smith’s “Since 1945” post-war selection 28 years before. On the other hand, 2004’s New British Poetry (Graywolf), co-edited by Don Paterson, another New Generation-er, was published only in the States for its intended audience. In the meantime, different types of publications filled the 10 or 15-year gap, from the late-90s to early-00s, satisfying the reading public’s famously insatiable desire for new poetry, including Carcanet and Penguin’s aforementioned series, Esther Morgan’s Reactions from UEA (2001-2005), or Faber’s one-off attempt at an annual magazine with First Pressings in 1998.

2009-Present: A New Wave

 

By contrast, there is no denying the resurgent interest in generational anthologies over the last five years, following Bloodaxe’s Voice Recognition in 2009, Identity Parade in 2010, Salt’s Book of Younger Poets in 2011, Oxfam’s Lung Jazz in 2012, Bloodaxe’s Dear World & Everyone In It in 2013, and a volume by The Poetry Business and third “generation” list by the Poetry Society (and/or Poetry Book Society) in the works for 2014. With this comes renewed self-questioning about the usefulness and definition of a “generation,” if that’s what these group portraits are still aiming for. The increasingly complex rules for eligibility are telling. Where Bloodaxe’s The New Poetry (1993) was open to anyone who hadn’t been included in the Morrison and Motion anthology, the New Generation Steering Group – made up of various editors, publishers, and as many marketing experts – devised strict rules: under 40, first published after 1989, and have a full collection of 32 or more pages. Clare Pollard and James Byrne’s Voice Recognition, on the other hand, only included those who hadn’t published a full collection among its “21 Poets for the 21st Century.” The following year, Lumsden’s much longer Identity Parade included poets who had “either published first collections within the past 15 years or will make their debut within the next year.” And within that: no one over 50, unless they first published in the last 10, rather than 15 years.

The broader scope of Identity Parade also allowed Lumsden himself to mark out a separate generation – strictly 26 and under – for the following year’s Salt Book of Younger Poets (2011). Todd Swift’s Lung Jazz: Young British Poets for Oxfam (2012) expanded its definition of what it calls “YBPs” to those “born in or after 1970.” And most recently, Nathan Hamilton’s Dear World & Everyone In It, from Bloodaxe this spring, admits to breaking most of its own rules, by admitting any UK poet “more or less 35 when The Rialto feature (from which the anthology developed) started.” These varying criteria and the titles of some of these volumes highlight the heightened focus on age markers, and the emerging opportunities for “young” poets they celebrate. The introductions all note the same sea change in poetry culture, citing new prizes for young poets, new magazines, a revival of the pamphlet form, new reading venues and corresponding popularity of reading, social networking, funding opportunities, and not least the boom in Creative Writing courses, within universities and beyond. As Byrne and Pollard write in Voice Recognition: “For many years the poetry world has belonged to older writers. … Being a poet was uncool.” As of 2009 though, “there are more avenues to gain attention as a young writer than any time before.” In retrospect, Tom Chivers, whose Penned in the Margins’ first foray into publishing was the 2006 anthology Generation Txt, also deserves credit for prescient criticism of “a general unwillingness amongst some in the ‘industry’ to engage seriously with young writers.:

Generationalism

 

If nothing else, this pocket history shows that these books have appeared neither in isolation nor of their own accord. As collective evidence, the on-going dialogue between these anthologies and poetry’s obsession with defining each new generation suggest, perhaps, some deeper social phenomenon, which we might call “generationalism.” This was the term coined by historian Robert Wohl in his seminal 1979 study of The Generation of 1914, where he defines it as “the phenomenon of generational thinking.” Generationalism, in other words, is simply a heightened generational awareness, or, as Jonathan White glosses the term in a recent issue of The British Journal of Sociology, “the systematic appeal to the concept of generation in narrating the social and political.” No doubt that’s partly what we see here, when every anthology mentioned above drops the g-word at some point – sometimes in its title, sometimes in contention, but most often as the target of its various criteria, and underlying premise.

It seems innocent enough, and historically well-grounded, given how readily we divide, say, the Romantics into their first and second generations. In their case, it seems obvious Byron and Shelley would have a different social and political outlook to the Lake Poets, given their very different relationship to the French Revolution and ensuing wars. Wohl also argues that “generational consciousness had its deepest roots and its first stimulus in the new concept of time and attitude toward change that developed in the late eighteenth century.” From there, the rise of generationalism is soon imbued with a fetishisation of youth as, what Wohl calls, “the standard-bearers of the future in the present.” Continuing through the 19th-century, after the angry young iconoclasts of Late Romanticism, in turn inspired by the Young Wethers of the Sturm und Drang, the Oedipal chain binding Kant to Nietzsche and all the fathers and sons of Turgenev or Dostoyevsky, we see the High Modernists of the early First World War’s “Lost Generation” defining itself against forebears. As Wohl notes, the ubiquity of “generational” thinking, after 1900 especially, can be traced in dictionaries. By now, we’re well-accustomed to sorting the last century into the Greatest generation, the Beat generation, the 1968 generation, the Baby Boomers, the MTV generation, Generations X and Y, and any other brand names a clever journalist cares to coin.

In the late-20th and early-21st centuries, the marketability of a generation’s implied “community” is blatant enough in the Pepsi and Star Trek jokes of which New and Next Generation poets must have quickly tired – not to mention more recent Olympic slogans. As White writes, “Generationalism may be one of the many ways politics increasingly resembles a marketing exercise.” In that case, however, the market value of the term has also been reinforced recently by more insidious political appropriations. In the late 1980s, for instance, a right-wing special interest group, Americans for Generational Equity (or AGE), drew on generous funding from corporate interests, defence contractors, banks and insurance companies to propagate a discourse of “generational” conflict, in which the younger generation was pitted against the selfish Baby Boomers’ debts. Alas, the real agenda was an attack on universal health care, and attempt to raise the retirement age, privatise pensions, etc. Articles and bestsellers in support the movement have spawned a crowded sub-genre, including On Borrowed Time: How the Growth in Entitlement Spending Threatens America’s Future (1988), co-authored by political analyst Neil Howe and former Secretary of Commerce under Nixon and former Lehman Bros. CEO Peter Peterson, or Howe and William Strauss’s many follow ups, from Generations (1991) through the on-going Millennials series (which includes Millennials Rising, Millennials Go To College, Millenials in the Workplace). All of these, along with many imitators and counterarguments, have ensured the pervasiveness of generational thinking in public debate steadily rising throughout the period covered by this anthology history. In the UK, the most obvious examples might be David Willetts’ The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Stole Their Children’s Future (2010), or chancellor George Osborne’s frequent invocations of generational conflict in now-standard conservative rhetoric.

The Problem with “Generation”

 

This isn’t to say that any invocation of generationalism is automatically part of some corporate right-wing conspiracy, but it does underline how easily the seemingly innocent notion is co-opted – especially when linked to a dubious conflation of “youth” and progress. The rise of evolutionary theory from the late 19th-century might have added a natural, organic sheen to this narrative of generational advance, but the manipulative mobilisation of false collectives had already become a stock political manoeuvre by the early 20th-century. Where 19th-century movements like Young Germany, Young Ireland, or Young Vienna brought artists and writers together under shared and explicit social and political concerns, the early 20th converted such youthful spirit towards showy or dangerous nationalistic enterprises – leaving us happier in the later 20th (post-1968) and early 21st century to absorb much of the potential for political commitment by selling Gen-Xers, Millennials, grungers, and hipsters their own supposedly apathetic identity through the latest media channels.

These poetry anthologies are clearly not above such ploys, although they add to it the eerily (and in some cases quite ironically) Thatcherite trick of defining the false collective by its “wilful individuality” (New Generation Poets) or the “essential individualism which I see in this generation” (Identity Parade). Dear World announces itself as representing a “plurality,” partly due to Hamilton’s suspicion that “categorising poetry is just a bad idea,” leaving us to wonder at the relationship between this new-new-pluralism and the old “new pluralism” announced in The New Poetry, New Poetries I, First Pressings, and others twenty years prior. Without criticising pluralism and diversity as such, these claims risk disingenuousness in their generational frames. The need for special care becomes obvious when we compare generational categories to other identity groupings, such as class, gender, or race. As White writes, “All such categories risk projecting undue uniformity onto the social world, and political claims thus denominated are potentially repressive of certain individuals even while empowering for others.” Unlike gender or sexual identities, but perhaps more like race, White describes the category of a generation as “impermeable.” In other words, no one chooses their generation, and no one can choose to leave it. “For this reason,” he explains, “those assigned to [a generation] are especially powerless before whatever public connotations that category may acquire, and limited in their ability to take distance from claims made on their behalf.”

Historically, we might sympathise with the current insistence on one big happy poetry family – a “spectrum” of poetic practices, in which everyone does their own thing and has no right to take that right from others. The bad blood of the 70’s and 80’s Poetry Wars still lingers in Hamilton’s and others’ anxiously inverted commas around ‘mainstream’ and whatever we call the “experimental” or “linguistically-innovative” other stuff. But the danger is overcompensation: while claiming to have, in some ways, progressed beyond the factionalism of former generations – the old poetry “schools” or ‘movements’ so often caricatured in new anthologies – the enforced anti-factionalism of these volumes’ risks eliding not only the meaningful social and cultural differences among its involuntary cohorts (as with the British Heaney), but meaningful differences in practice as well. As with other modes of generationalism, the “undue uniformity” of these crowded group portraits directly undercuts any potential for real commitment, aesthetic or otherwise, in its embedded, knee-jerk fear of the real difference so glaring in the poetry itself. The staggering numbers for these books – 74 poets in Dear World, 85 in Identity Parade, 153 in Lung Jazz – might look good on Arts Council applications, or in support of these anthologies’ own broad claims of  “inclusivity.” But just as the numbers themselves belie a greater support for a certain idea of poetry’s cultural role than for poems or poets themselves, the rhetoric of inclusivity comes at the expense of a critical vocabulary which would allow us to read and respond with purposeful distinctions.

We have to assume the editors are genuine in their attempts to celebrate the diversity of work in these anthologies. (Individually, we might look to Hamilton’s own Stop Sharpening Your Knives series as more honest model for collective aesthetics.) Even Graves and Riding’s accusation of cynicism on the part of publishers seems fine, if the balance is right, and if the sale of anthologies supports the publication of riskier projects. But their 85-year-old analysis is more troublingly astute in their fear of an “anthology system” which would eventually be “almost impossible” to resist. A greater fear might be that the grand, pseudo-radical claims imposed upon an imaginary “generation” have at this point made the very idea of resistance seem perverse.
 

–J.T. Welsch
 

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