When Kathryn and I started our residency, the one topic we were sure we would discuss was the difference between the poetry scenes in the US and the UK. Of course, that never happened—it’s like how the song you buy the album for becomes the song you start skipping first (well, before iTunes). So here is my admittedly partial and limited perspective as a New Yorker asked to think about British Poetry.
America is fairly self-involved, and as Americans, we tend to assume that anything worth consuming will find its way here. As with the Rolling Stones and the Beatles (or William Shatner and Anna Paquin), we figure that anything worth knowing about will end up on our radar, so there’s not a lot of reason to spend our time investigating other cultures. (The IMDB list of actors born in Canada actually puts “Canada” in quotes, as though it’s not a real place). Monty Python, The British version of The Office (notice how I don’t think of it as the real Office, or the original Office, but rather the British version), and Doctor Who have all made their way to my television screen, and while this might suggest that perhaps I should be trying to explore British Culture, for most of us Americans it suggests the opposite. If it’s really cool, it ends up on our shores.
The upside of this is that we’re quite welcoming to those who want to give it a go here. Paul Muldoon started in Ireland, but now he’s the Poetry Editor of the New Yorker and Editor of the Princeton Poetry Series. Fiona McCrae was raised Hertfordshire, and is now the Editor in Chief of Graywolf, pretty much America’s only large literary press. James Lasdun is certainly doing quite well here. Certainly, Americans seem to have a special love for Irish, Polish, and Slovenian poets—but we also tend to assume that everyone outside of America wants to be an American. On the left it makes us welcoming and on the right it makes us suspicious, but it’s the same basic American chauvinism: everyone in the world who isn’t an American is simply unlucky. We really do believe that everyone in the world would be an American given the chance—and we have more than enough anecdotal evidence to keep our belief in place.
The downside is that we rarely get exposed to something truly foreign. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones were both very conscious about their use of American (particularly African-American) musical styles—so it may not be a surprise that they appealed to American ears. We tend to remake foreign texts rather than consuming them in the original in ways both obvious (The Office; Coupling) and subtle (we still call À la recherche du temps perdu by a quotation from Shakespeare: “Remembrance of Things Past.”). I suppose it’s universal that one sees the outside from your own perspective, but I think Americans may be more sheltered than most.
I think that the harder part of being an American artist is that the only rule is that you have break the rules, while still being seen as part of the genre you work in. James Longenbach gave a convincing account of poetry’s history as being a sequences of rebellions and refusals—of not aspiring to be the father, but of needing to insist on being superior to the father. (I’m implicitly endorsing Harold Bloom’s account of literature as a Freudian Family Romance.) The new trend is for wealthy Americans to declare their children will receive tiny inheritances and that most of their money will go to charity. When Kathryn last visited me, she brought me a copy of Hello with a photo spread of future European monarchs celebrating their first birthdays. It seemed so un-American. If the top of the social structure is a King who’s replicated through reproduction, I can see the interest in following the structure (look what happens to every bastard in a Shakespeare play who tries to upend the social order). We do have political dynasties—the Bushes, the Clintons, the Kennedies—but it’s not the same as royalty.
But I’ve not gone pretty far from the question of American vs. British poetry, and to get back to real topic at hand, I’ll say that in line with my earlier observations, most Americans assume that we do know British Poetry. I think I could name more British Poet Laureates than I could Americans who have won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Ted Hughes and W.H. Auden loom as large in my pantheon of touchstone poets as Robert Lowell or Frank O’Hara. But that gets back to the earlier point—we assume that the Brits we encounter are the best of the lot, and that we know British Poetry when really, you have a separate world. When I read through British journals, the poetry feels less chatty and more stylized—there’s a sense that one ought to have a bardic or poetic register, whereas we often tend to do our best to sneak poetic language in since we associate the stylized with the inauthentic. I think that Brits tend to trust craft and to foreground it, while Americans tend to want authenticity, so we mask craft even though it’s the source of our pleasure.
It’s also the case that we draw our heritage back to rule breakers. Whitman and Dickinson are usually considered the co-parents of American poetry. One was a self-aggrandizing visionary, who wrote his own reviews and the other was a mostly unpublished wildcard whose work ended up being manhandled in a tawdry family squabble. Caedmon, Shakespeare, and Tennyson (see! there I go assuming I already know British Poetry!) offer up origin stories that are fairly safe, culturally. Americans are used to the margins moving center, so it endorses a certain sort of confidence or arrogance. If no one takes your poems, it’s not that you’re a bad poet—it’s that you’re like Emily Dickinson and you’re so far ahead of your time, the editors haven’t caught up with you yet. Self-publishing because you can’t find a publisher? You’re just like Whitman. Then again, if you are successful—getting jobs, winning prizes, publishing—well, nothing succeeds like success.
What I have to do here—the corner I’ve written myself into—is acknowledge that I don’t actually know British poetry, that in a certain way, I don’t have the expertise that would be required to do a proper comparative analysis. I really appreciated all of you welcoming me to the CAMPUS and taking my ideas seriously. I’ve had a wonderful residency, and I hope I can spend some time getting to know British Poetry better in the near future.