September 26, 2006

Oxford Poetry Conference: Edna Longley on Anthologies

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Edna Longley’s talk on ‘Anthologising Contemporary Poetry: Traditions and Cults’ was something of a disappointment to me and I will explain why in a moment. Longley began her talk by citing Marjorie Perloff who states that the anthology is dead because poems have now become free on the web. Longley argues that this is not the case because anthologies till have the job of signalling tastes and positions.

Longley tells us that she is going to focus on two anthologies:
• Vanishing Points: New Modernist Poems (VP) ed. by Rod Megham and John Kinsella
• New British Poetry (NBP) ed. by Don Paterson and Charles Simic

Longley now begins to think about terminology, ‘contemporary’ for example. She notes how some ‘contemporary’ anthologies of the past have included dead poets. She notes how Yeats became an anthology staple in England in the thirties, but not until the sixties in Ireland. In NBP, Paterson is having dialogue with the English lyric and apparently, he is of the opinion that one cannot erase tradition. Kinsella traces a trajectory through Sydney onwards but his view, apparently, is not traditional but rather sees national, regional versions of poetry.

To suggest that an anthology is ‘international’ is suspect for Longley, because to her, it suggests a virtual space lacking in time. Longley believes that the phrase ‘international’ masks regional and national views of poetry. She wonders, for example, how Irish poetry can fit into the Anglo-American domination?

She also dislikes the label, ‘poetries’, since although it appeals to pluralism, it in fact, according to Longley, masks monism. The sectional or cult poetry in fact excludes the mainstream and works from negatives, exclusive doctrines, shunning, a sense of superiority and a sense of persecution. Longley picks out here Geoffrey Hill and J.H. Prynne who exist supposedly in ‘a desert of difficulty’. She also picks out Herd and Potts who favourably reviewedThe Failure of Conservatism in Modern British Poetry. The author, Andrew Duncan, apparently studies conceptual poetry. Longley is anxious that formal play is too linked to the academy and the theoretical basis of such poetry. She notes how in VP poems are linked to a body of concepts.

Longley moves on here to discuss the aspirational blurring of poetry and politics. Poetry is described as a weapon etc. Could the political term ‘poetries’ be of value? Longley states that a critique of essentialism and multiplicity of practice militate against its value. Is ‘poetries’ simply an excuse for including bad poetry? In VP, Longley thinks that Mengham has a dilemma between not wanting to produce rivalry, but also to show the special value of the poets included. Roberts thinks that there can be singular or multiple values, where as Paterson prefers American free-wheeling.

It is at this point that Longley starts to set out her own values particularly concerning work that she considers to be anti-poetry. In these poems, the form is visual and there is no rhyme, voice etc. Longley here compares Prynne and MacNeice who both present formal clashes and subvert grammar etc. to cross boundaries. However Longley suggests that the grammatical risk taken in Prynne happens for its own sake. For Longley, ordinary words are stranger and hence more effective in MacNeice than in Prynne’s ‘theoretically informed poetry. Longley turns to Hill’s blending of the lyric and criticism drawn from the world of knowledge. Longley asks, is it a poem or a raid on a zeitgeist? Longley sees it as writing prescribed by academic readings. Poets are recruited by the academy in a Faustian bargain.

At this point she compared two poems, one by Prynne and one by MacNeice and proceeded to use MacNeice as a stick to beat Prynne with. I found this extremely ironic as she seemed to be doing something of which she accuses factional poetry groups: being negative, having exclusive doctrines, shunning, keeping a sense of superiority and a sense of persecution.

Basically, in her paper, Longley tries to show that some of the terminologies used by anthologists (poetries, international, contemporary) mask assumptions that in her mind are wrong. She is probably right here to some extent. However she ruins her own argument through her own intolerance and the presentation that ensues is sometimes a rant about poets that she dislikes. I don’t understand the lack of tolerance for other factions and group in poetry. I can only think that it emerges from the difficulties of being published and poet’s insecurities.

- 4 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Ovid Yeats

    Give her a bashing Zoe.


    If you need any real n red hot live poets to demonstrate poetry as a living art, let me know and I will supply them. I am a senior bore writing from Dublin and my area of research is the ogham alphabet and the history of Irish poetry. My practice is one founded on the key principle of memory and my critical prose is untouchable because no one can land a dig on me as they haven’t got a clue about my tradition.

    27 Sep 2006, 22:09

  2. I don’t think that you could really call it a bashing. Your blog spot is interesting – I have put a link to it on my list of links for students in the left hand column of my teaching blog:

    28 Sep 2006, 09:21

  3. John Wilkinson

    The author of The Failure of Conservatism in British Poetry is Andrew Duncan; and Longley’s comments are very wide of the mark. Duncan, who doesn’t occupy any academic position but edited the important journal Angel Exhaust, is anything but a formalist or a ‘conceptualist’ (whatever that means in poetic criticism); his pantheon includes Ted Hughes and Peter Redgrove, and his interest in Prynne extends only as far as The White Stones – see my review at – but especially ironic is that Duncan’s chief interest, as evidenced at length in his recent book from Liverpool UP, Centre and Periphery in Modern British Poetry, is invested in poetry of the ‘Celtic’ periphery in its various languages. Duncan is a polylinguist who most certainly couldn’t be associated with an Anglo-American literary hegemony.

    28 Sep 2006, 13:11

  4. Thanks for this John. I hadn’t read the book myself, so I wasn’t sure if a clear picture was being presented or not. Sorry that I copied down the wrong name. I’ll change that and I’ll get back to you when I have read the book!

    29 Sep 2006, 16:07

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