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Here is the first major collection since A. Alvarez's classic, The New Poetry, and like its controversial predecessor this anthology argues as well as illustrates. There has been no abrupt break with the past, the editors say, but there is unquestionably a new Spirit in poetry today: a shared interest in narrative, a pleasure in metaphor, a post-Modernist wit - and nerve. Here is the first major collection since A. Alvarez's classic, The New Poetry, and like its controversial predecessor this anthology argues as well as illustrates. There has been no abrupt break with the past, the editors say, but there is unquestionably a new Spirit in poetry today: a shared interest in narrative, a pleasure in metaphor, a post-Modernist wit - and nerve. Charting these developments over the last two decades, the anthology opens with Seamus Heaney and includes several more poets from Ireland, alongside Douglas Dunn, Craig Raine, James Fenton, Anne Stevenson and others. It represents a flourishing Generation of poets and is altogether a brilliant new Landmark in anthologies of modern poetry.


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Here is the first major collection since A. Alvarez's classic, The New Poetry, and like its controversial predecessor this anthology argues as well as illustrates. There has been no abrupt break with the past, the editors say, but there is unquestionably a new Spirit in poetry today: a shared interest in narrative, a pleasure in metaphor, a post-Modernist wit - and nerve. Here is the first major collection since A. Alvarez's classic, The New Poetry, and like its controversial predecessor this anthology argues as well as illustrates. There has been no abrupt break with the past, the editors say, but there is unquestionably a new Spirit in poetry today: a shared interest in narrative, a pleasure in metaphor, a post-Modernist wit - and nerve. Charting these developments over the last two decades, the anthology opens with Seamus Heaney and includes several more poets from Ireland, alongside Douglas Dunn, Craig Raine, James Fenton, Anne Stevenson and others. It represents a flourishing Generation of poets and is altogether a brilliant new Landmark in anthologies of modern poetry.

51 review for The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry

  1. 5 out of 5

    Bionic Jean

    Every couple of decades, it seems, there is an anthology of poetry which claims to represent a new direction and new concerns in British poetry. “The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry” is one such, from 1982. Anthologies before and since this one, have included poets who seem to have disappeared without trace. Only in retrospect can we determine who was heralding a new era, or even whether there had been any shift in poetic taste. Does this collection have anything to distinguish it as Every couple of decades, it seems, there is an anthology of poetry which claims to represent a new direction and new concerns in British poetry. “The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry” is one such, from 1982. Anthologies before and since this one, have included poets who seem to have disappeared without trace. Only in retrospect can we determine who was heralding a new era, or even whether there had been any shift in poetic taste. Does this collection have anything to distinguish it as truly different, and modern? It is hard to say, even at this date. One noticeable difference is that poetry from now on is referred to as British. Poetry used to be English, after its language, although categories were created to avoid ambiguity, for instance Scottish poetry, or American poetry. A poet may be both Spanish and Colombian, but a poet from Northern Ireland might either be proud to be British or else resent the label. It is debatable whether the subcategories are always helpful. In fact a claim to newness: to rebirth and rejuvenation, is traceable as far back as William Wordsworth, in his manifesto in the Preface to “Lyrical Ballads”. More recently the critic John Bayley said: “When Ezra Pound said ‘make it new’ he was willing the advent of Modernism, the birth of a consciousness transformed by the disintegrations and realities of the 20th century. But ‘new’ or ‘contemporary’ poetry refers more simply to changes in fashion- recognisably different from the poetry scene a generation ago - that times have changed and required something else to be characteristic of them.” Blake Morrison, and his co-editor Andrew Motion, know poetry’s transitory nature, and that their choices are high-risk: “We are not,” they say, “the first anthologists this century to have made such a claim … in the face of manifesto-making a degree of scepticism is only proper”. They are careful not to emphasise the newness, stating that one of the reasons for including a notable poet in the twenty here, might be their lack of inclusion in the previous such anthology,“The New Poetry” edited by A. Alvarez in 1962. Poetry which will grow and last, is not easily to distinguish at the moment when it is first written and read, from the poetry which has merely jumped on the bandwagon of fashion. Such poetry will be forgotten, left behind, existing only as representing it. It seems as if both kinds are included in this anthology: some great, some lesser. What strikes a reader now is how many Irish poets are included, and this represents the thriving poetic culture in Ireland at the time; a time when the Troubles were at their peak. The editors state: “So impressive is recent Northern Irish poetry, that it is not surprising to find recent discussions of English poetry having to take place in its shadow. This is not the first time this has happened. In 1928, Ezra Pound said that ‘the language is now in the keeping of the Irish’”. Six Northern Irish poets are included, and the editors said that many more could have been. It starts with Seamus Heaney, probably the most famous of these poets, and who is represented by the largest number of poems. Seamus Heaney was an Irish poet, playwright and translator. He has been described as “the most important Irish poet since Yeats”, and “the greatest poet of our age”. In 1995 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. At the time of his death in 2013, “The Independent” newspaper described him as “probably the best-known poet in the world”. His poems often dealt with Ireland, particularly the locality where he was born and lived until young adulthood. His famous early collection “Death of a Naturalist” (1966) focuses on the details of rural, parochial life. The twenty poems here include several from that collection. Seamus Heaney also spent a significant amount of time writing about the northern Irish bog. “North” (1975), featured mangled bodies preserved in the bog. His later poems also dealt with the Troubles, attempting to put them in a historical context and reveal a wider human experience. Tony Harrison is an English poet, translator and playwright, who is one of Britain’s foremost verse writers. Many of his works have been performed at the Royal National Theatre, and also commissioned by the Metropolitan Company of New York. He has written versions of Greek tragedies, which are savage and abstruse, plus very controversial works such as the poem “V”. There are ten of his poems here, and I particularly like those from the collection “Continuous”, which deal with the lives and deaths of his mother and father. See “Turns”, “Timer”, “Long Distance”. Douglas Dunn is an award-winning Scottish poet, academic, and critic. He worked in Hull University’s Library under Philip Larkin, being friendly with Larkin and admiring his poetry, but not sharing his political opinions. Douglas Dunn went on to become Professor of English at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. There are thirteen of his poems, most of which are quite accessible, and from his debut collection, “Terry Street” (1969), which describes life in the poor Hull community where he and his first wife had first lived. He concentrates on the detail, and everyday objects, from an outsider’s point of view. He was to continue to express his concerns with the British class system increasingly more angrily. He writes in formal metrics and ‘closed’ forms, and in a deliberate manner, contrasting with his left-wing views. Hugo Williams is represented here by seven poems. He is a prizewinning British poet, journalist and travel writer, having published many collections. Hugo Williams is the eldest son of Hugh Williams and the Margaret Vyner, who co-wrote some upper-middle-class comedies in the late 1950s, such as the play and film “The Grass Is Greener”. His younger brother is the actor Simon Williams, and his late sister the actress Polly Williams, who was married to the actor Nigel Havers. His poems here deal with loss and isolation. Derek Mahon is an Irish poet. He was born in Belfast, the only child of Ulster Protestant working class parents. These poems are perhaps the most formal of all in their structure, using received forms of rhythm, metre and line. Some poems rhyme. One, “Lives” is dedicated to Seamus Heaney, and uses the image of bog bodies. I particularly liked “Refusal to Mourn”; a detailed study of an old man living in isolation in an farmhouse. In his style, his verse resembles that of Gerard Manley Hopkins. The Irish landscape is never very far away in these poems. Poems in this collection which can be read on the Net are “Afterlives”, and “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford”. Michael Longley is another poet from Belfast in Northern Ireland. He was the Assistant Director of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, and also the Ireland Professor of Poetry from 2007 to 2010. He is an atheist, but describes himself as a “sentimental” disbeliever. Certainly, religious themes are present in much of his poetry. The poems here are also concerned with the ageing process, in particular the deteriotating health of his parents, both mental and physical, and how he relates this to himself. Fleur Adcock is a New Zealand poet and editor. References to characters in Maori tales come into her poetry, although she is of English and Northern Irish ancestry, and has lived much of her life in England. Her poetry is typically concerned with themes of place, human relationships and everyday activities, but has a dark twist. Her poems here include several about cancer, in “The Soho Hospital for Women” which I find quite powerful. Many of the poems concern ordinary mundane events, with a dark edge. Some of her work is highly structured but her more recent work is more free form, and more concerned with the world of the unconscious mind. Anne Stevenson is the American-British poet and writer of over a dozen volumes of poetry, of some books of essays and literary criticism, and of a controversial biography of the American poet Sylvia Plath. Stevenson uses a hearing aid, and several of her poems relate to her experience of deafness. One critic of “The Guardian” said: “To arrive at a true understanding of Anne Stevenson’s poetry, you have to go deep.” I particularly enjoyed two of the poems here from her collection, “Correspondences”. James Fenton is an English poet, journalist and literary critic, and a former Oxford Professor of Poetry. The greatest influence on his poetry, encouraged by John Fuller whilst at Oxford, has been the work of W.H. Auden. Whilst studying at Oxford, Fenton also became a close friend of Christopher Hitchens, whose memoir “Hitch-22” is dedicated to Fenton and has a chapter on their friendship. “The Memory of War”, published the same year as this anthology (1982) ensured his reputation as one of the greatest war poets of his time. Most of these poems are concerned with fear, betrayal, and the desolation and suffering in the aftermath of various wars. They are quite long, and oblique in their meaning. He has said, “The writing of a poem is like a child throwing stones into a mineshaft. You compose first, then you listen for the reverberation.” Tom Paulin is a Northern Irish poet and critic of film, music and literature. He now lives in England - in Oxford, where he has been both a Lecturer in English Literature and a Reader of Poetry. Tom Paulin is among a group of writers from a Unionist background “who have attempted to recover the radical Protestant republican heritage of the eighteenth century to challenge orthodox concepts” of Northern Irish Protestant identity. The poetry in this anthology is passionate and political. He concentrates on the individual, often alienated by their politics or religion. Some of the poems clearly relate to a religious and political execution, or murder, depending on the viewpoint. They are difficult for an outsider to relate to. Those here by Jeffrey Wainwright are all from one sequence, save one. They are also about political and religious persecution and reformation; this time drawing parallels from the 16th century. Sir Andrew Motion is an English poet, and the co-editor of this anthology. When he was 17 years old, his mother had a horse riding accident and suffered a serious head injury. She was in and out of a coma for nine years, then regained some speech, but was severely paralysed. She died in 1978. Andrew Motion has said that he wrote to keep his memory of his mother alive, and that she was his muse. At Oxford University Andrew Motion had weekly tutorials with W.H. Auden, whom he greatly admired. He went on to teach English at the University of Hull, and whilst there he had his first volume of poetry published. He also met and became a close friend of the university librarian and poet, Philip Larkin. He wrote a prizewining biography, “Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life” (1993), which was responsible for bringing about a substantial revision of Larkin’s reputation. As executor following Larkin’s death, he rescued many of Larkin’s papers from imminent destruction. Andrew Motion was appointed Poet Laureate in 1999, following the death of Ted Hughes. Breaking with tradition, he said that he would stay for only ten years. During this period, Andrew Motion founded the “Poetry Archive”, an online resource of poems and audio recordings of poets reading their own work. Andrew Motion has said of himself: “My wish to write a poem is inseparable from my wish to explain something to myself” and asserts that he aims to write in clear language without tricks. His work combines lyrical and narrative aspects, in what has been called a “postmodern-romantic sensibility”. They include “In the Attic”,“The Legacy” and “One Life”. Several of these poems are about his mother, and one about Anne Frank’s house. I like these poems, and find them very moving. He is a poet whose work I will be searching out. Paul Muldoon is an Irish poet, whom I found almost unfathomable. He has published over thirty collections, won a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and has held the post of Oxford Professor of Poetry. His poetry is known for his difficult, sly, allusive style, and its casual use of obscure or archaic words. The wit is understated, and there is punning. One critic in the “New York Times” remarked: “Muldoon takes some honest-to-God reading. He’s a riddler, enigmatic, distrustful of appearances, generous in allusion, doubtless a dab hand at crossword puzzles.” Paul Muldoon’s work is often compared with Seamus Heaney, a fellow Northern Irish poet, friend and mentor to Muldoon, but Muldoon is more of a poet’s poet, with work which is frequently too involved and dense for general readers. Peter Scupham is a British poet. He lives in Norfolk, where he and his wife have restored a small derelict Elizabethan Manor house in Norfolk, where they have put on plays, and created a garden. He also founded “The Mandeville Press”, a small press using traditional letterpress methods of printing, with John Mole. These poems are mostly impressions of Nature. Carol Rumens is also a British poet, who has published many collections. She is the visiting Professor of Creative Writing, teaching at the University of Wales, in Bangor, and the University of Hull. She has been the Poetry Editor for various literary magazines and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1984, just two years after this anthology. My favourite in this anthology is “A Poem for Chessmen”. These poems feel like memories, seeming very personal, with at least one relating to the death of her father. Penelope Shuttle is a British poet and playwright and novelist, who lives in Cornwall. She has also written several novels, the first at the age of 20. She was married to the poet Peter Redgrove, and together they wrote the ground-breaking feminist studies on menstruation, “The Wise Wound”, and its sequel, “Alchemy for Women”. Her poems are full of elemental imagery, such as water, earth and, in particular, lightning. I particularly enjoyed the powerful imagery in “The Downpour”. Craig Raine is also an English poet. Along with Christopher Reid, he is the best-known exponent of “Martian” poetry, a movement in British poetry in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This is poetry in which everyday things and human behaviour are described in a strange way, as if by a visiting Martian who does not understand them. “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home” sparked the movement. Although he spent his childhood in what he refers to as a “bookless” home, Craig Raine won a scholarship to a boarding school and went on to Oxford, later becoming a fellow of New College, Oxford, and then a professor. His friend Ian McEwan considers that Craig Raine adopts, “very strong and clear, almost Arnoldian, ideas of literature and criticism”. I find his poems enjoyably direct, and will search out more. Christopher Reid is a Hong Kong-born British poet, essayist, cartoonist, and writer. In 2010, he became the first poet to win the overall “Costa Book of the Year” since Seamus Heaney in 1999. Like Craig Raine, he is an exponent of Martian poetry, employing unusual metaphors to render everyday experiences and objects unfamiliar. In Christopher Reid’s case, he makes word-puzzles, clearly delighting in using language not to reveal new ways of perception, but to create something new. He has worked as poetry editor at Faber, and Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Hull. David Sweetman was a British writer, critic, teacher and broadcaster. He wrote a series of textbooks on teaching English for the British Council in Tunisia, as well as a series of adventure books and biographies for younger African readers to encourage their language skills. In 1971, Sweetman became presenter of “Poetry Workshop,” one of BBC Radio London’s first literary programmes. He interviewed a number of important literary figures for the programme, including Stephen Spender and Lawrence Durrell, subsequently becoming a television documentary director and producer. Of these 5 poems, I quite liked “Looking into the Deep End”. Medbh McGuckian is a poet from Northern Ireland, who adopted the Irish spelling of her name, Maeve McCaughan, when her university teacher, Seamus Heaney, wrote her name that way when signing books to her. Most of the poems here are taken from her first major collection, “The Flower Master” (1982), which explores post-natal breakdown, and was awarded several literary Prizes. Alongside her other work, Medbh McGuckian (with Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin) has translated ”The Water Horse” (1999), a selection of poems in Irish, into English. Many of the poems in this anthology are not direct, and quite oblique in their meaning. As the editors said, “they have developed a degree of ludic and literary self-consciousness that is reminiscent of the modernists”. Others have recurring themes in some of the poetry; those of deterioration and death, isolation, war and religion; the Irish poets understandably being preoccupied with religious or political poetry. The language may be deliberately confrontational and ugly. The poems I enjoyed most were more direct, with less games-playing. I enjoyed the strong imagery, simile and metaphor in some, and the narrative structure in others. What is clear to me is that the poetry of this time has various concerns. It is not a deliberate attempt to break with the past, but rather, the best of it it builds on what has gone before. The first three: Seamus Heaney, Tony Harrison and Douglas Dunn have extended their boundaries, so that some of their later poems are more complex. Tony Harrison and Douglas Dunn are both from working class backgrounds, and a dominant theme is the isolation from their community. Along with Jeffery Wainwright, they demonstrate an awareness of economic and social differences. It seems that in being poetically articulate, they have become cut off from their roots. It is a type of political poetry, but different from their Irish counterparts. The poems of Penelope Shuttle, David Sweetman and Medbh McGuckian are different again. They may have seemed far-fetched and fanciful in earlier decades, but now seem imaginative and have a confident voice. The juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated words means that in some of these poems, the poet is concerned to create their own world, rather than say something new about the world we inhabit. We feel we do not have essential information, and are left with the impression that the stories are incomplete. Who is telling us this? What is the circumstance, or the motive? And most tellingly, can they be believed? This feels like a new spirit in poetry, and for me its success lies in whether or not I can “buy into” to the author’s thoughts. It is possible to see the poetic antecedents of Seamus Heaney in Robert Lowell and Ted Hughes, or of Douglas Dunn in Philip Larkin, but there are a number of different approaches and tendencies which were yet to develop into “schools”. What unifies this collection is, in the editors’ own words: “the sense of common purpose: to extend the imaginative franchise”.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Sandra

    Half or more of the poets in this collection ten years or more older than I, similar number born Belfast or the northern half of England. Read in daily snatches, I learnt from them I prefer poetry which uses well-chosen words to tell a tale of people rather than a seizing of a mass of flowery words to go on and on about Nature.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Ella Bugby

    This collection is hit and miss for me. I found that I wasn't interested in many poems (they were full of pessimism). Yet, the poems I did like, I liked very much. 'What we make of ourselves we take from one another's hearts' (Along These Lines, Hugo Williams). 'The evening advances then withdraws again, leaving our cups and books like islands on the floor. We are drifting You and I' (Tides, Hugo Williams) 'First time out, I was a torc of gold and wept tears of the sun' (Lives, Seamus Heaney) 'Rain This collection is hit and miss for me. I found that I wasn't interested in many poems (they were full of pessimism). Yet, the poems I did like, I liked very much. 'What we make of ourselves we take from one another's hearts' (Along These Lines, Hugo Williams). 'The evening advances then withdraws again, leaving our cups and books like islands on the floor. We are drifting You and I' (Tides, Hugo Williams) 'First time out, I was a torc of gold and wept tears of the sun' (Lives, Seamus Heaney) 'Rain drying on the slates sometimes. A builder is repairing someone's leaking roof.' (On roofs of Terry Street, Douglas Dunn)

  4. 4 out of 5

    Tanya (Novel Paperbacks)

    I can see the skill in these poems. But unfortunately there were very few I could connect with emotionally.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Francesca

  6. 5 out of 5

    Martyn Fairlamb

  7. 4 out of 5

    Anne

  8. 4 out of 5

    Jude Brigley

  9. 5 out of 5

    Andy Crawley

  10. 5 out of 5

    Clive

  11. 4 out of 5

    Chris Ziesler

  12. 4 out of 5

    Amy

  13. 5 out of 5

    Tiago Marques

  14. 4 out of 5

    Kenny

  15. 5 out of 5

    Helen Allison

  16. 5 out of 5

    Tom

  17. 4 out of 5

    David Morley

  18. 5 out of 5

    Huijsers

  19. 5 out of 5

    Симеон

  20. 5 out of 5

    Le Casas

  21. 5 out of 5

    Michael Arnold

  22. 4 out of 5

    Matthew Parry

  23. 4 out of 5

    Nick

  24. 4 out of 5

    Stephen Hackett

  25. 4 out of 5

    Charles

  26. 5 out of 5

    Tom Abbott

  27. 4 out of 5

    Noteeth

  28. 4 out of 5

    Henrik

  29. 5 out of 5

    Bobby

  30. 4 out of 5

    Geoffrey Long

  31. 4 out of 5

    Robert

  32. 4 out of 5

    Faintly Seen

  33. 5 out of 5

    Paul

  34. 5 out of 5

    Robert

  35. 5 out of 5

    Paul

  36. 4 out of 5

    Meenasindhuja

  37. 5 out of 5

    Kerri

  38. 4 out of 5

    Tim Goebel

  39. 4 out of 5

    David Eaglesham

  40. 4 out of 5

    Ryan

  41. 5 out of 5

    Ayah

  42. 4 out of 5

    Mohini Kulkarni

  43. 4 out of 5

    Dawn2012

  44. 4 out of 5

    Lorna

  45. 4 out of 5

    Noel Howley

  46. 4 out of 5

    Kasane Teto

  47. 5 out of 5

    Moumita Banerjee

  48. 5 out of 5

    James

  49. 4 out of 5

    Carolin

  50. 4 out of 5

    Kate Garrett

  51. 4 out of 5

    Victor Cosby

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