Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Murky Waters: Hearing English Poetry in the 70s
The Kenneth Allott Memorial Lecture 2008:
Part 2

Lord Rothermere

Britain was not an enemy. It was a far away country of which we knew little, a great power that had never done us any harm. Indeed Britain, in the person of Lord Rothermere, had led a between-the wars-campaign in the British press for ‘A Place in the Sun’ for Hungary, arguing for some kind of redress, a redress of the dangerous kind Hitler was to offer us later, in 1940, when parts of Transylvania were returned to Hungary, at least until the end of the war. 

Britain was a success. Its fate, its very character was potentially admirable. Our writers came to Britain and wrote in puzzled praise of it. Britain was on the right side, the winning side, in most wars: Hungary always on the losing side. Britain bombed Hungary in the Second World War but many Hungarians had been praying for Britain to bomb the Nazis out. My father re-entered Budapest in 1945 on the back of a Soviet army truck. My mother was set free from the concentration camp at Penig by US forces. My own parents were cheering for both Britain and the Soviet Union....

You will have noticed that I have been referring to Britain, not England. Like most outsiders we were not fully aware of the difference between the two and remained ignorant for some time. It was British subjects we became, not citizens of England. That which Tom Paulin once dismissed with disdain as the condition of being ‘baggy and British’ was a blessing to us. That imperial bagginess contained us in a way England or Scotland or any other nation-state might not have, and as Hungary, it seemed, had not, could not, did not want to. The nation-state was an insecure place for us. Nationalism of any sort, for my parents, always meant danger.   Britishness offered a different, administrative, identity, one not entirely definable in national, ethnic, racial, or even, it seemed, narrowly cultural terms.


I did not study sciences in the end but went to art school where I became a painter-poet. I had missed out English, so my reading was unguided and untutored apart from the personal enthusiasms of a few close friends. My first loves were the poets we jointly discovered, by chance, or not quite by chance but by pocket. There were so many cheap paperback poets, especially if you were willing to pick them up in second-hand shops, or, better still, outside them on the all-must-go shelves. Besides the anthologies I have already mentioned, which tended to be, on the whole, the second tranche of my buying and reading there was much that was cheaply available and exciting and did not smell of school: Rimbaud, Keats, Apollinaire, Rilke, Donne, Baudelaire, Ginsberg, the Penguin Modern Poets series, The Penguin Book of Twentieth Century French Verse, of German Verse, of Russian Verse.

My first reading was an indiscriminate, higgledy-piggledy, naïve, international brew that pointed to the possibilities of poetry, that demonstrated the kind of things poems could do, but did so primarily in terms of ideas rather language, in air rather than water if you like. I had not read Hughes or Larkin or Heaney or Hill. That was to come. They lay waiting in those paperback anthologies I have already referred to, including Kenneth Allott’s Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse. That was where Englishness lay, or at least partly lay.

In a discussion at a Hungarian conference earlier this year I mentioned that I was thinking of giving a talk whose subject might, very crudely, be described as The Englishness of English Poetry. They laughed. Can you imagine a talk entitled The Hungarianness of Hungarian Poetry? they asked. Such a talk would be an invitation to the worst kinds of xenophobia. The history, and fissile internal politics, of Hungary would not be able to accommodate such a discourse without tempers snapping and fists flying. It says something about the relatively relaxed liberalism of England that I don’t anticipate being shouted down here by the BNP.


But I don’t intend to dwell too long on concepts of Englishness, except in so far as such things were part of a field of expectation. What I want simply to begin to conjure is what it was I thought I was entering between the years 1973 and 1976, by the end of which time my entry into the Englishness of my own English poetry was as complete as it could be. I am interested in what that Englishness looked like, felt like, sounded like.

It is therefore more a sound than definition that concerns me. The sound of a specific moment in poetry. I am, of course, aware that the sound I am after is not to be detached from class, from empire, from history, or geography. How could it be? Language is not a locked room. Nor is poetry, to stick with my water metaphor, a private swimming pool in an exclusive club. At least I hope not. The sound I heard then did not strike me at the time as exclusively the product of class, empire or the rest. It struck me as a version of what I heard in the street and at work, that is to say, the talk of people I could not think of as nothing but the products of class and empire.

1976 is the point at which my poems began to appear with some regularity in the press. In 1978 I was one of six new poets in  Faber’s Poetry Introduction 4. The next year, 1979, my first book, The Slant Door appeared. I don’t think this is all coincidence.

[In Part 3 I go on to consider Voltaire's view of England, then move on to Pevsner

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