Woman Police Officer in Elevator
by James Lasdun
Norton, 80 pp., $19.00
Rest for the Wicked
by Glyn Maxwell
Bloodaxe Books/Dufour Editions, 112 pp., $16.95 (paper)
Selected Poems 1968-1986
by Paul Muldoon
Noonday Press/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 153 pp., $12.00
The Annals of Chile
by Paul Muldoon
Noonday Press/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 189 pp., $10.00
by Tim Kendall
Dufour Editions, 258 pp., $14.95 (paper)
When the United States became a superpower after World War II, Americans became less deferential toward English writers, with the consequence that, on the whole, postwar American readers knew little of the poetry being written in the British Isles and Ireland. Auden maintained a hold on the American audience because he lived here, and Dylan Thomas flashed briefly through the country, but apart from those two imports, modern British poets made almost no impression on the United States. We were content to let them (and the poets of the Commonwealth countries and Ireland) work in their separate sphere. This depressing situation was compounded by the gradual but widening divergence between British and American culture, and by the utter failure, in the service of a mistaken nativism, of American public (and even private) schools to keep British poetry, in a systematic way, in the elementary and secondary curriculum. The American presses that still publish poetry have tended predictably to favor American poets over others writing in English.
Several things have happened recently to change this situation. On the English side, there was a rather surprised recognition that modern American poets other than Eliot deserve to be read. On the Irish side, there was the phenomenon of Seamus Heaney, a poet whose work effortlessly made its way everywhere. Sylvia Plath’s poetry attracted the attention of English critics; Robert Lowell lived for seven years between England and America, publishing in both countries; English poets such as Donald Davie and Thom Gunn moved to the United States, teaching students both in classes and by example; Heaney taught for many years at Harvard.
Commonwealth authors, too, appealed to audiences on both sides of the Atlantic: Derek Walcott, educated in a British-derived system and writing under the sign of Yeats and Auden, moved to the United States and was powerfully influenced by the poetry of Robert Lowell. International conferences, too, ensured that poets broadened their literary acquaintance. These transatlantic transfusions have affected publishing: Carcanet, Bloodaxe, and Faber have scouted out contemporary American poets and brought them to the English audience, and some enterprising American trade publishers (among them Farrar, Straus and Giroux, the Ecco Press, and Norton) have taken on British and Irish poets.
Understandably, British or Irish poets published in the United States tend to be ones who have already acquired American connections or an American address. Of those under review here, James Lasdun has taught at Bennington and Princeton, and Glyn Maxwell has had a fellowship in creative writing at Boston University: the Northern Irish poet Paul Muldoon teaches at Princeton and lives in New York. Like Davie, Heaney, Gunn, Walcott, and other transplanted poets brought up on metrical forms, Lasdun, Maxwell, and Muldoon carry out their experiments in stanza or meter with gaiety and panache. Their spirited ventures in form offer a rebuke not only to the unarduous free verse practiced by many American poets but also to the unmusical willed employment of “form” by poets who have not absorbed it unconsciously …