By Thea Lenarduzzi
“BLOG is the ugliest word I ever heard . . . ”. It pains me somewhat to write this post in the wake of these lines read by Anne Stevenson last night at the final event of British Academy Literature Week.
Stevenson read a selection of her poems (some from her most recent – “probably my last” – collection, Astonishment), in such a way as to leave us in no doubt that, despite her age (she is celebrating her eightieth year) and partial deafness, the commitment to music evinced by her youthful piano and cello playing has not waned in the slightest.
We heard poems about wonder (or “astonishment”, as Stevenson insists all her poems have been) drawn from the many phases of her life and career: from an early metaphysical exercise, “Sierra Nevada”, in which the blow of nature’s indifference is softened by the suggestion of reconciliation in rhyme (If we were to stay here for a long time, lie here / like wood on these waterless beaches, / we would forget our names, would remember that / what we first wanted / had something to do with stones”), to her more recent poems written for family weddings and friends’ birthdays.
“Small Philosophical Poem”, written in the 1980s, conjures a strange domestic scene, playing on Stevenson’s upbringing by a philosopher father (who studied under I. A. Richards and Wittgenstein) and novelist mother: it’s dinnertime and Dr Animus, “whose philosophy is a table”, is “eating his un- / exceptional propositions”, when “his wise / wife Anima, sweeping a haze-gold decanter / from a metaphysical salver, / pours him a small glass of doubt . . .”.
After such breadth and variety, Stephen Regan’s discussion on (ode to?) anthologies was a welcome trot through the “Where have we been?” of modern British poetry, bringing us smoothly to the second phase of the evening – a panel talk asking, “Where is British Poetry Today?”, for which Regan and Stevenson were joined by Simon Armitage.
Taking in Al Alvarez’s survey of the state of modern poetry (The New Poetry, 1962), Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion’s 1982 Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry (with its uncomfortable inclusion of Seamus Heaney, which occasioned the lines, “Be advised, my passport’s green / No glass of ours was ever raised to the Queen”), and Armitage and Robert Crawford’s corrective (though admittedly awkwardly-titled) Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland since 1945 (1998), Regan suggested a few directions, “should the editors of the next anthology come knocking”: more existential dilemmas, more eschatology, and more space for mourning, grief and loss. (Thankfully, however, humour too would play a part, along with poems about nature – motivated by contemporary ecological concerns, or more general explorations of place – and heritage, too.)
But the thing with anthologies is, no sooner is their poetry of the “now” than it is of the “then” (to paraphrase a line from Stevenson): tidied, bound and shelved. The names are ones we know and have known for some time (Larkin, Hughes, Muldoon, Oswald and Stevenson herself), which attest to the fertility of pastures old(er). Armitage’s reassurance that “there’s never been a golden age of poetry” was well-timed. We must think in terms of moments, not eras, he said, for poetry is where it has always been – “just about alive . . . . Utterly unkillable”. There is now no dominant style, no school to speak of; poetry prizes dictate the “industry standard”, but little more. The future of poetry is tied up with that of the book and print media in general; “the book in the hand”, as Regan later termed it – “the book object”, Fiona Sampson, chairing the panel, volunteered (“I’ve never thought of a ‘book object’”, said Stevenson) – is threatened by a sea of “poetic space junk”.
And yet Armitage was cautiously unpessimistic (“concerned”, yes, but not “worried”, as such…). He noted in the work of his students at the University of Sheffield the development of an “amphibious” quality, which makes their poetry equally at home on the page, the screen, stage or film. Should we take this weakening of written words to be an opportunity for a strengthening of those spoken, shouted or sung? Is this, perhaps, evidence of poetry reinventing, or, rather, rediscovering itself?
More overtly underwhelmed by the possibilities of mixed media was Stevenson. “There’s an awful lot of poetry about”, she said, emphasizing one word in particular. “And with 9,000 teachers of Creative Writing in US Colleges, turning out ten protégés each . . . you’re bound to bring the standard down”. With characteristically wry humour she questioned that age-old obsession with “doing something ‘new’” (“it’s terribly hard to do anything new, you know”), which operates at the expense of more self-probing verse (not to be confused with the “Words about words about words to pamper the ego / Of some theoretical bore”); and “Do It Yourself Poetry” built in ignorance of proper craftsmanship (with no sense of rhythm, form, heritage ). “We are losing contact with language . . . . I wouldn’t even begin to talk about the visual arts, ‘Conceptual Art…’” (that carefully placed emphasis again, a glint in her eye, and a laugh: “I am eighty, you know!”).
“I’ll just throw all of that in”, Stevenson quipped before bringing the evening to a close with a reading of her most recent poem, “An Old Poet’s View from the Departure Platform”, its final stanza running thus:
“I gaze over miles and miles of cut up prose, / Uncomfortable troubles, sad lives. / They smother in sand the fire that is one with the rose. / The seed, not the flower survives.”
And there we all were, ready to go.