Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Has British Poetry Had Any Significance Since Wordsworth?

This may seem an outlandish question, but I think it has some force behind it. Of course, the influence of Wordsworth on contemporary British mainstream poetry need hardly be stressed, and I have written extensively about this elsewhere. It is because of this influence that most of the celebrated British poetry of the Twentieth Century tended towards mediocrity when compared to American poetry of the same period. Certainly, there will be individual lines or stanzas from British poetry that belie this statement, but generally, I believe, the statement to be accurate.

In my last blog entry, ‘Can There Ever Be Another High Modernism’, I suggested that since High Modernism poetic innovation has been slight. Nevertheless, what little of it there has been seems to have been the product of an American sensibility, the most acute example being, perhaps, Language Poetry. Indeed, the more I look at the poetry of the last century, the more I see it as having been predominantly the manifestation of this American sensibility, incarnated in American-born poets such as Eliot, Pound, Stein, Stevens, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ashbery, Bernstein and others. The only exception to this American ascendancy was Joyce, who was Irish.

Even before the Twentieth Century, America was, for the most part, producing the better poets, such as Whitman, Dickinson and Poe. It is certainly true, one could argue, that from Poe to Eliot the influence of French poets such as Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Verlaine was very much present, but it was American poets rather than British poets who seem to have had the perceptiveness to see something of value in these French poets and appropriate it.

British poetry, conversely, has continued in the tradition of Wordsworthian empiricism and parochialism, largely antagonistic to any use of a poetic language that basis its effects on aspects other than descriptiveness and anecdotal confession. How long this will remain the case is uncertain.