ROBERT SHEPPARD, The Poetry of Saying: British Poetry and Its Discontents, 1950-2000 (Liverpool University Press) £50.00
Readers of Robert Sheppard’s previous critical book Far Language will know how well he can communicate a reader’s excitement about challenging poetries. His new book will also bring those poetries new readers. It is structured around a confident juxtaposition of ‘Movement orthodoxy’ and a linguistically innovative poetry of saying. The poetry of saying, derived largely from Emmanuel Levinas, is more useful than the usual ‘builders’ yards are more fun to live in than finished houses’ critical approach to experimental poetry. Levinas’s ‘Language as saying’ assumes ‘an ethical openness to the other’. So the poetry that Sheppard arranges into a parallel history is open because its authors regard poems that, in Larkin’s words, ‘preserve [the poet’s experience] by setting it off in other people’ as ethically irresponsible. Sheppard gives a convincing outline of this parallel history in two chapters: ‘The British Poetry Revival 1960-1978’ and ‘Linguistically Innovative Poetry 1978-2000’. There also are good accounts of J. H. Prynne, Allen Fisher, Roy Fisher, Tom Raworth, Maggie O’Sullivan and Bob Cobbing.
The problem is that while the book promises an overview, Sheppard rarely strays from his specific interests and therefore takes limited, often prejudiced, views. For example, London publishers have set the bar for orthodox poetry lower and lower each year recently but this doesn’t mean that all poems that nod towards regular metre, fixed forms and closure necessarily have less to say than those that don’t. The Movement has had much less influence and longevity than Sheppard thinks but insisting on Movement influence avoids having to admit that the so-called orthodoxy is actually much more diverse and that some of it might be worth reading. It means he can dismiss Hughes and avoid discussing hard to fit figures like Geoffrey Hill, Peter Redgrove, and Thom Gunn altogether. It leads him astray about Plath whose late work is much closer to his poetry of saying than he can bear to admit. In fact, he takes little account of how women poets—orthodox or not—have generally shown little interest in dominant orthodoxies throughout his period. Similarly, a harder look at the Sixties would reveal that differences between orthodox and open were much less distinct. Sheppard is acute on Heaney but claims not to believe what he terms the concluding irony of ‘the disconnected number I still call’ in Tony Harrison’s ‘Long Distance II’ and ‘wonders what the motivation for such a discourse is’. It’s not irony, it’s the work of mourning. Motivation? 500 years of English elegy. One can only assume Sheppard is being satirical.
Sheppard can be equally unfair to the poetry he values. He quickly discusses a huge range of activity in terms of anthologies and under the headings ‘Cambridge’, ‘Crusty Revenants & Uppity Newcomers’ and ‘Being a Woman Poet’. In terms of the poetry of saying’s internal politics, he clearly favours what might be termed London innovators. Combined with his ‘ethical openness’ / ‘paraphrasable closure’ binary, this means that he privileges political and social critique and poets with one recognisable practice. This misses one of the fascinations and pleasures of innovative poets: in contrast to many of their orthodox contemporaries, one never knows what they’re going to do next. Sheppard’s preference means that a lot of the poetry he quotes looks just as inconsequential as most orthodox poems. Yes, once you’ve decoded Craig Raine’s Martian metaphors you’re not left with very much but the same is true once you know Barry MacSweeney is quoting the 16-year-old William Hague. This makes innovative poets seem more tied to the moment and more disposable than orthodox ones. What’s the point of reading Tom Raworth’s ‘West Wind’ now that ‘a handbag’—Margaret Thatcher—is no longer Prime Minister? This may seem harsh but Sheppard often locates the value of such poems more in their politics than in the inexhaustible originality of their procedures.
Sheppard pre-empts criticism: his book is ‘only a beginning’ and his ‘omissions are testimony’ to a ‘multifarious and complex’ poetry. Leaving aside the mystery of why only poetry critics keep complaining their subject is too much for them, taking his omissions with his inclusions seems to reveal a lack of generosity and sympathy. For all that, I would still recommend Sheppard’s book before Andrew Duncan’s highly eccentric coverage of the same period in The Failure of Conservatism in Modern British Poetry. But a book that wants to ‘feed…poetry’s histories and its futures’ needs a much greater willingness to engage with the inconvenient and dirty actualities of post war British poetry. To adapt Heaney’s comment about the English lyric, this means making poetry’s history eat stuff it has never eaten before. The violently polarized reception of Barry MacSweeny’s posthumous Wolf Tongue shows both how difficult this is and how badly needed. It’s a filthy job and somebody really has got to do it.
The review above was written in December 2005 and published in P. N. Review 168 (Volume 32 Number 4) March-April 2006.