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James Acheson and Romana Huk, eds., Contemporary British Poetry: Essays in Theory and Criticism. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1996. viii + 418 pp. $24.95 paper.
Paul Bentley, The Poetry of Ted Hughes: Language, Illusion and Beyond. London and New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 1998. viii + 129 pp. $23.44 paper
Sandie Byrne, ed., Tony Harrison: Loiner. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997. xiv + 239 pp. $48.00.
Rob Jackaman, A Study of Cultural Centres and Margins in British Poetry since 1950: Poets and Publishers. Lewiston, Queenston, Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1995. ix + 336 pp. $99.95.
Keith Sagar, ed., The Challenge of Ted Hughes. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994. xvi + 190 pp. $45.00.
Andrew Swarbrick, Out of Reach: The Poetry of Philip Larkin. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997. xii + 202 pp. $18.95 paper.
News of the death of Ted Hughes reached me, last October, in upstate New York, in a bar to which I and several conference-goers had repaired after the day's academic sessions. The question of who would succeed to the laureateship came up, inevitably, and there was much discussion--both of whom we would enjoy seeing in the job, and who would be likely to get it after all. On the latter, there was an intriguingly cynical consensus, very much along the lines laid out by Martin Booth some years ago in his controversial book, British Poetry 1964 to 1984: Driving Through the Barricades.(1) Booth's point--cautiously endorsed and very sensibly qualified by Rob Jackaman in A Study of Cultural Centres and Margins in British Poetry since 1950--was that a conservative and largely academic power bloc, centered in London, exercises a disproportionately great (and essentially stultifying) influence on the shaping of contemporary British poetry, especially through its control of the poetry lists of major publishing houses and what Booth saw as its hegemony in the main organs of review. Driving Through the Barricades singled out Craig Raine for excoriation as a figure perniciously influential in his capacity as editor for a leading London publisher and undeservedly well regarded as a poet, these two facets being linked in a sinister tautology: Raine the critic and editor sets standards of reading taste, which (not surprisingly) Raine the poet alone is equipped to fulfill. Jackaman upbraids Booth both for his treatment of Raine and for his exaggerated account of the "centrist conspiracy" (10), yet he does concede that "it would be foolish to dismiss the whole thing as invalid" (15).
Other names linked by Booth to Raine as part of the "conspiracy" were Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion, and it is interesting that it was to these that we kept returning as we pondered who would be named the next poet laureate. Evidently we had all internalized our Booth, for none at the table thought these deserving of the honor--dubious honor though most poets this century have acknowledged it to be. Declining the appointment in 1984, Philip Larkin commented privately, "I just couldn't face the fifty letters a day, TV show, representing-British-poetry-in-the-`Poetry-Conference-at-Belgrade' side of it all." He couldn't bear the thought of being obliged to write about "bloody [royal] babies," but when Hughes accepted what Larkin had declined, the latter evidently felt some regret at passing up the job: "letting Ted in" gave him little pleasure, and he told Kingsley Amis that "the thought of being the cause of Ted's being buried in Westminster Abbey is hard to live with."(2) At the time, Hughes was widely thought to be capable of writing about "bloody babies" in only the most literal sense, and it is an indication of the man's remarkable gifts that he was able to do the job and yet maintain his very idiosyncratic course as a poet: in the opinion of Seamus Heaney, Hughes's first poem as laureate--the lengthily named "Rain-Charm for the Duchy, A Blessed, Devout Drench for the Christening of His Royal Highness Prince Harry"--"not only made a graceful gesture but reaffirmed an ancient tradition and re-established, without sanctimoniousness, a sacerdotal function for the poet in the realm."(3) In his fine book The Poetry of Ted Hughes: Language, Illusion and Beyond, Paul Bentley convincingly develops this view, presenting the work of Hughes's laureateship as unconventional in its paganism and its commitment to primitive, violent energies, yet deeply patriotic. I want to quote Bentley's last words on the subject, for they reveal Hughes to have been not an absurd but in many ways an inspired choice for laureate. What the poet called in 1992 his "boyhood fanatic patriotism" comes through in the "Birthday Masque, For Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II's Sixtieth Birthday," a poem centered upon a unifying vision of the state, one which in typical fashion is expressed through native myth. Thus Bentley:
In the context of the current climate of uncertainty about the role of the monarchy in a secular democracy, and given the increasingly isolated standing in a multicultural society of the Queen as head of the Church of England, there is surely a message here from the Laureate to his Queen. As Hughes writes ..., "This term, `the ring of the people,' occurs in the memoir by the great Sioux Shaman Black Elk, who saw `the ring' of his people `broken' in a prophetic vision of the disintegration of the Sioux nation as an independent moral unity. Yet his visionary concept of `the ring of the people' embraced, finally, all the different peoples of the earth, not only his own tribesmen." (119)
The self-consciously xenophobic Larkin would have sent no such message to his queen. "England is going down generally!" he wrote, tut-tutting, to his mother in 1970: "It was shown recently that one child in eight born now is of …