Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Murky Waters: Hearing English Poetry in the 70s
The Kenneth Allott Memorial Lecture 2008:
Part 1

Kenneth Allott 1912-1973

Just this week while clearing books and papers I discovered my text for the lecture above. It may be interesting for some so I am in entering an edited version of it below and in a few other proceeding posts.

When I was first given the honour of being invited to give the Kenneth Allott Memorial Lecture my mind immediately went back to Allott’s influential anthology, The Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse, a copy of the second, enlarged, edition of which I bought very early in my days as a poet, probably about 1969, at which time it cost the grand sum of 6/-, thirty pence in our money. It might of course have been one of the dozens of second hand paperbacks I bought for rather less, when I was trying to build a library of sorts. I can’t remember. However, it would have sat alongside a number of other paperback anthologies of the time, including, most importantly the Michael Roberts Faber Book of Modern Verse and its companion, the David Wright – John Heath Stubbs Faber Book of Twentieth Century Verse (the first was more exciting at the time), Penguin’s The Mid-Century English Poetry, Longer Contemporary Poems, British Poetry Since 1945, and so forth.   These anthologies were my general companions to poetry in English, or rather poetry produced in England. They served up the general menu of English fare and came complete with their complex, important associations, with their inwardness, with the whole sense of being here...

...I hope you will forgive me beginning in such personal terms. If, in some ways, this lecture is about me, I rather hope it is about England too, in fact rather more about England than me. Or at least about something that hovers, not so much between England and me now, but something that seemed to hover before me at a certain stage of my development, a stage at which the unease was greatest, when I felt I had to become specifically an English poet.


What a peculiar ambition! A poet is a poet, or so I thought at starting out. We poets in our youth begin in gladness, as you know, and while despondency and madness are not yet my condition, there was a period of what you might call despondency, and that coincided with a dissatisfaction with the kind of poet I was then, and a subsequent desire, indeed a sense of urgent necessity, to become a different one, or at least to discover what I could of that difference.

My reasoning then was something like this. I was writing in the English language. But language isn’t something you do something to, it is a medium you enter the way you might enter water. It has a substance and manner of its own. It has its currents and whirlpools, its shallows and depths. You cannot tell a language: Do this! Go there! Language offers resistance. That’s the point and nature of it. Poetry is what comes of meeting that resistance and learning how to dance with it.

That, if you like, is a more articulate version of the much more intuitive discontent I felt then, in about 1973 or 1974. To put it crudely, as I did at the time: the English language - as used in England, I would add now - wants to say English things.

Today we are more aware of how complex a proposition that is. Whose English? What English? we rightly ask,  conscious of the great variety of Englishes. We are conscious that such questions will be articulated in as much political, as psychological or literary terms. It is, in effect, slippery and dangerous ground.


It did not seem quite so dangerous to a twenty-four year old immigrant in 1973. I should perhaps try to define the kind of immigrant I mean. We were not Commonwealth. Britain was not our, so-called, mother country. We had no colonial history. Britain had no criminal record for us, not even in European terms. We were Hungarians. As Hungarians in Hungary, our traditional enemies were all around us, right on our borders or not far beyond. Germans, Russians, Romanians, Slavs, Slovaks, Croats, Serbs and Turks. Even the French were our enemies because we held them chiefly responsible for the harsh terms of the Treaties of Versailles and Trianon that had cut away two thirds of our country and over a third of our population, cutting us off from even the sources of our literature. These were places our greatest writers had been born in and had written about, localities that had become ingrained in Hungarian minds as part of our history, culture and imagination. Suddenly they had vanished into hostile territory. Hungary was, and remains, a wounded country as it has been ever since 1919.

[to be continued

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