Women of the New Gen: Refashioning Poetry
Browsing through the poetry sections of bookstores on a 1994 trip to London, I recognized several of the names printed in large capitals on the spines of the current Bloodaxe and Faber paperbacks. I'd read works published back home by Simon Armitage, Michael Hofmann, and Glyn Maxwell, and I picked up their new collections at my last Waterstone's stop. Wanting also to sample a broad range of contemporary British poetry, I added to my stack a just-published anthology called The New Poetry and a special issue of Poetry Review, which was displayed, in what I took to be yet another example of native eccentricity, next to British Vogue. I flipped through the last and stopped in astonishment at a glossy two-page spread. "Young Poets' Society," read the caption under Jamie McKendrick's elegantly-drooping arm; opposite was a group portrait including three young women: Jo Shapcott, twice the winner of the National Poetry Competition; Kathleen Jamie, a Scots writer who published her first collection at the age of twenty; and Lavinia Greenlaw, the former Literature Officer at the London Arts Board and, like Jamie, winner of a prestigious Gregory Award. The women and men featured in the photographs wore identical black turtlenecks and black ski pants; the accompanying mini-essay by Glyn Maxwell pondered other similarities between the writers, as well as the sudden and startling profusion of interest in British poetry. "We have found support from some alarming quarters," Maxwell wrote. "It comes as no surprise that the Poetry Society is a prime mover in the promotion of 20 poets under 40, but the decision by Radio 1 to insert their poems between the sonnets of Whitney Houston, the love lyrics of 'Take That' and the heroic couplets of Guns 'n' Roses has raised some eyebrows."
While my own brows stayed arched with surprise for some time after coming upon Armitage et.al. amid photos of Kate, Naomi, and Claudia pitching various cosmetics, the work of what's been named "The New Gen" has come to occupy a larger portion of American bookstores' shelves in the past two years. Thus I, like many other of our country's poets, have had time to peruse the work of these writers with varying degrees of admiration, envy, and curiosity. How are the New Gen poets different, and how are they like, their stateside cousins? More particularly, since American women's poetry is widely thought to be experiencing a renascence, is there a parallel to be drawn between U.S. and U.K. female poets in roughly the same age bracket? Do they share more than an affinity for black turtlenecks?
While Carol Ann Duffy is absent from the synecdochic group portrait, she's described in the Armitage essay as having "deservedly scooped most of the prizes going" in 1994 for Mean Time. The collection's dazzlers include several monologues, a form that has become her signature since Standing Female Nude and Selling Manhattan, published by Anvil Press in 1985 and 1987, respectively. Duffy's sly, unsparing use of a male persona is especially arresting in works like "Psychopath" and "Poet For Our Times," whose bitten-off, rhyming stanzas contain a headline-writer's testament of belatedness. Here's an excerpt from the latter:
Of course, these days, there's not the sense of panic
you got a few years back. What with the box
et.cet. I wish I'd been around when the Titanic
sank. To headline that, mate, would've been the tops.
SEE PAGE 3 TODAY GENTS THEY'RE GIGANTIC.
KINNOCK-BASHER MAGGIE PULLS OUT STOPS.
And, yes, I have a dream—make that a scotch, ta—
that kids will know my headlines off by heart.
IMMIGRANTS FLOOD IN CLAIMS HEATHROW WATCHER.
GREEN PARTY WOMAN IS A NIGHTCLUB TART.
The poems of the decade . . . Stuff' em! Gotcha!
The instant tits and bottom line of art.
But it's a comparison of Duffy's "Psychopath" and "Adultery," both quoted in full below, that ultimately holds the most interest for American readers who resist the clichés of the period style, an autobiographical lyric/meditation which has become talky, subject-dependent, and ubiquitous here. The speaker of "Psychopath" is spookily reminiscent of one of the goodtime boys with dangerous eyes in Dance with a Stranger, the film alluded to in the last stanza; more important, he forces the attentive reader to ask questions about the relationship between Duffy and her created voice. Is he a grotesque, overblown caricature of a less-lethal-but-still-transgressive self the female poet would like to be, a Lady Lazarus half-stewed with Larkin's rage against certain indigenous restraints? Or is Duffy satirizing the iconography of violence, as manifested in "high" and popular forms alike, that enraptures most western cultures? In other words, is Duffy holding a mirror up to herself or to her tempora et mores?
The questions "Psychopath" poses, so to speak, arise from the fact that the author's grasp on that mirror is as secure—Duffy isn't about to be fetishized by the male glance seeking inspiration from la toilette—as her gaze toward its silver-backed surface is sidereal. Duffy has said that the techniques she "stumbled across and refined" in Other Voices, her 1990 collection, aided in pitching "my own voices—for we all have several—particularly when finding language for the painful areas dealt with" in newer poems like "Adultery." Yet, like "Psychopath," "Adultery" maintains an indirect stance toward its subject matter. Here Duffy uses the syntactically oblique strategy of directing a series of imperatives toward a part of the self—"for we all have several"—that is conducting a secret life.
Are we simply dealing with that renowned British reticence, an atavism lingering in one of the oldest of the New Gen poets, the Glaswegian-Staffordshirean Duffy having been born in 1955? Having had plenty of time to absorb the achievements of "confessional" women poets from Sexton and Plath to Olds and Glück, not to mention the innovations in the monologue from Bogan's generation to Brock-Broido's, Duffy's slightly younger contemporaries suggest that more complex forces are involved. For example, Lavinia Greenlaw, seven years younger than Duffy and one of the most compelling of the New Gen, mixes the candid and the elliptical in her poems, locating the self through a combination of the "impersonal" methods of the scientist, the geographer, and the historian. If she loves the resulting wide-angled profusion of anonymous facts and coolly-observed details, Greenlaw additionally favors the sudden perceptual or psychological close-up: the "immediacy" of Bishop and Lowell attracts her strongly, she's said, a quality she attributes also to Akhmatova, whose poems she's described as beginning "abruptly, without preamble or introduction—the scene is set by the scene itself."
"Immediacy" is a word that shimmers in the first line of a Greenlaw poem recently published in Verse, "The Heat of It." Set in a park campsite, the poem enacts the collision of privacy and exposure between a man and a woman.
In these dazed weeks of absence and immediacy, the nights rarely drop below seventy. The hill has its nightlife, amiable, averted. . . . We swarm, tucked under the roof, compelled by the tinsheet-flashlight dramatics of a storm at three a.m. I am furious with joy at catching you, for the first time, in momentary sleep. The mosquito bites strung out along my right side from thigh to ankle will erupt and itch.
There's no garrulous overload about the relationship here, no childhood flashbacks that explain why the speaker's joy is "furious" or describe her previous experiences with mosquitos. Like Duffy, Greenlaw has discussed her transition toward autobiographical poems like "The Heat of It"; in contrast, her first book, Night Photograph, contains a number of monologues and microcosmic, richly descriptive meditations and narratives in which no "I" appears. "In the Time of Elizabeth R." is a superb example of the former genre, but it's poems such as "River History" and "Love from a Foreign City," both enacting the interplay between self and subject, that show this poet at her most beguiling. A lavish catalogue of data concerning the Thames, "River History" contains no instance of the first-person pronoun, but it cunningly locates a present-tense point of view that implies an "I" close to the poem's conclusion. The relationship between the speaker and her wealth of facts, not to mention the various legacies of imperialism and erasure which the final lines of "River History" suggest, thus takes on a mysterious resonance. "Love from a Foreign City" is likewise constructed with lists of data, but here Greenlaw makes more use of juxtaposition and parataxis, offering a series of cross-cut zooms that suggests the unnerved overstimulation that besets travellers as frequently as tummyaches. Of course, the traveller in "Love from a Foreign City" is visiting her childhood home, navigating its changed topography with the same weirdly detached anxiety with which she navigates the territory of love, maternal and erotic both.
Maggie Hannan, whose first full-length collection Liar, Jones hadn't yet been published when I took that trip to London, charts the self in an even more indirect way than Duffy and Greenlaw. Hannan, perhaps the closest the United Kingdom offers to a Language Poet, succeeds where the majority of the school fails because her jazzy, refractive sonics and syntax are firmly grounded in a phenomenological reality that invites, rather than excludes, the reader. Sometimes this ground is provided by a character, as in one of her book's centerpiece poems, "Dr. Roget's Bedside Manner." Another of these, also a sequence, is called "The Vanishing Point." Its epigraph comes from an interviewer of Issei Sagawa, a Japanese man who murdered and then ate his girlfriend. "Human beings like Sagawa are very rare in this world," comments the interviewer. "You act as a prism. You are Sagawa, who ate a human being." The poem's first section is titled "Framed":
On the ground were the two bodies, entwined and presently, still . . . Listen. This is what you expect; there are two ways of seeing things. 1. On the ground were the two bodies, entwined and, presently, still. His eyes shut as if to kiss, his mouth was fast against the mouth . . . See? The radio is talking dirty . . . his mouth was fast against the mouth . . . But listen. 2. (This is not what you think . . .) . . . against the mouth of the wound...You want me to continue? . . . the wound where the bullet had entered her body . . . Then you come to the eyewitness . . . where her head had been was framed with blood, like . . . rupturing the speaker.
"The mouth," "the eyewitness," "the speaker" (the last a nice double-entendre)—the truth of any life exists in the nexus of the spoken and the heard, the seen and the being seen. And that truth, as Hannan presents it not only through characters but also through the assumption of a more "personal" voice, as in "Apocryphal" and "Tap," retains a powerful and finally impenetrable privacy.
Limited space means there are many intriguing women writers among the New Gen—Jackie Kay and the Vogue-ites Kathleen Jamie and Jo Shapcott, to name only three—and many aspects of the work of Duffy, Greenlaw, and Hannan left uncovered here. For example, in the introduction to his new book of essays, New Relations: The Refashioning of British Poetry 1980-1994, David Kennedy discusses in crucial and cogent detail the historical, political, psychological, and cultural subcurrents in what he calls "the revised mainstream." Kennedy, a co-editor of The New Poetry anthology, credits Ian Gregson with locating the true source of the New Gen in the mutually enriching roil of postmodernism and what the latter critic calls "the characteristically British refusal to eschew realism." This realism manifests itself in Duffy's work through her creation of dramatic voices which represent various aspects of the shifting postmodern self; in Greenlaw's through the scientific, geographical, or historical terrains in which the self alternately seeks and refuses definition; and in Hannan's through the language by which a self is invented, and vice versa. The result, in all three writers, is what their countryman William Empson called "enriching ambiguity" with regard to the use of autobiography. It's impossible to say how much of that ambiguity springs from the fierce indigenous privacy that prickles and growls just beneath the voices of Duffy's, Greenlaw's, and Hannan's poems, just as it's impossible to pinpoint the effects of writing in a time where all meaning seems provisional and precarious and where gender itself has become a realm with hazy, half-erased borders. What's sure is that the poems under discussion here possess a depth and an authority that is too often lacking in more naked and less artful treatments of ostensibly personal experience that screech or drone from the pages of our most prestigious journals and magazines. In contrast, these women of the New Gen, with their combination of subtlety, irony, and dead-on seriousness, may be regarded as refashioning the poetry of our time.
This essay originally appeared in the Winter 1996-1997 Issue of American Poet, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 1996 The Academy of American Poets. All rights reserved.