The question here can be briefly formulated: does poetry get better as things get worse?
Others have remarked here that we are especially fortunate to be living through a period in the UK where a great deal of excellent work is being produced both by ‘established; poets and a younger group of rising stars. There may be all kinds of reasons for this but I’m increasingly of the view that the above correlation might be a major factor.
This is prompted by a view I came across this morning that ascribes the flowering of poetic and dramatic endeavour of the 1590s as a response to the many religious upheavals of the previous fifty years. My initial response was to reject this and replace with something about the much improved teaching in grammar schools of the period or the growth in the legal profession or the rise to dominance of the mercantile class or colonial adventuring by grammar school boys on the make. I then paused and tried the ‘crisis’ thesis out on other periods. The flowering of what J A Burrows has described as Ricardian verse occurred after the Black Death of 1348 which decimated the population and emptied large parts of our countryside, the reign of Richard II was (to put it mildly) politically fragile and the practices of the church were being challenged by Wycliffe and the Lollards.
The 1590s pale in comparison with the latter half of the fourteenth century but they were nevertheless difficult times. The church was making reasonably draconian attempts to enforce some kind of orthodoxy, military campaigns were being pursued in the Low Countries and yet another futile war was being fought in Ireland, the monarch was getting older and no-one knew who would succeed her, there was famine in the middle of the decade and the elite were more paranoid than usual about domestic unrest. These were not the easiest of times.
So, the hypothesis gathers a strength that is reinforced by the Romantics who first flowered in the aftermath of the political angst brought about by the French Revolution and who flourished during a period of enormous social and political upheaval.
There is also the argument that Paradise Lost could only have been written after the various traumas of the previous thirty years.
But before I get carried away, it might be as well to consider what I might mean by crisis. The third OED definition is:
A vitally important or decisive stage in the progress of anything; a turning-point; also, a state of affairs in which a decisive change for better or worse is imminent; now applied esp. to times of difficulty, insecurity, and suspense in politics or commerce.
I want to put a slight twist on this and point out that the anxiety-inducing experience of being in a crisis stems from the uncertainty of how things will turn out. Those living through the latter half of the fourteenth century were acutely aware that disease could strike at random and with enormous force and were living through a chaotic ‘re-balancing’ of social and economic forces which are reflected in the vibrant poetry of Langland, Chaucer and others. What I’m trying to get to is that crisis is characterised by societal and individual anxiety stemming from this not knowing.
It seems to me that we are in a period of not knowing which is manifested by the rise of China and India and the consequent decline of the West together with the slowly dawning realisation, especially in the UK that the elite are both corrupt and dismally incompetent. This is matched by the massive changes wrought by the internet which do throw many prior truths into question (privacy, authenticity, ways of doing science etc.). There are also the challenges posed by an aging population and climate change.
I’m going to start with Better than Language, Chris Goode’s magnificent anthology of younger British poets. In his astute introduction Chris writes:
To write a poem is to to want to see something in the world that isn’t yet in it, however direly complicated or conflicted that wanting might be and however ungraspable the author’s sense of the lack of the poem before it’s made. And from its earliest intimations, the poem is asking questions about what will and will not be included in its compass. Which voices will be heard, what life-paths will cross within its system, whose desires can be admitted? To which areas will the reader have access? How tall must you be to ride this attraction? What moments will amount to to the constructed event in which author and audience encounter each other? How much language can this poem bear? And of course all these questions point to another: on what basis, and in the light of what responsibilities, will the poet attempt to answer as she proceeds? Which is partly to ask: What don’t I know yet? What are the known unknowns, those Rumsfeldian phantoms, that negatively shape the composition of a particular poem at a particular time and place? And what do we do with the impossibility of an approach to these questions that takes us even a whit beyond tolerable insufficiency? – Believe me, not every poet now at work is aware these are real and present questions. Here are thirteen who are.
Whilst wholeheartedly agreeing with all of the above, I’d like to argue that this awareness is bound up with and is directly related to this wider sense of crisis fuelled by the many (too many) Rumsfeldian phantoms inm the wider world.
The other point that I’d like to throw into the mix is that Prynne read ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ to a group of Occupy activists and that the Occupy movement does seem to be the most sensible political response (with its refutation of dogma and refusal to promote ‘easy’ solutions) that we currently have. I’d also like to point out Prynne’s use, in ‘Kazoo Daydreams’ of ‘Piers Plowman’, one of the great poems of the Ricardian period and concerned with all aspects of crisis as discussed above and one (in any of the three texts) that doesn’t present solutions.
I’m not suggesting that good poetry now is a direct reflection of these phantoms but what I am considering is that crisis throws things into a state of flux and that there are a number of very talented poets that have used this as a tool and are producing work of tremendous strength and depth with it as opposed to trying to make ‘sense’ of it.
In a recent discussion about readerly anxiety with John Boomberg=Rissman, John made the point that “RA may be the only response that can be made although I’m not sure that we want to make the “unjudgeable space” bearable. I think we want to bear its unbearableness, so to speak. It seems honorable, if I can still use a term like that”. I’m now of the view that these poets are engaged in this ‘bearing’ with more than a little honour.