Making It New

Last year the British division of Penguin Books issued James Fenton’s poems as one of their “King Penguins,” a part of their list usually reserved for current successful fiction. That they published the book under this heading and not as part of their poetry list—devoted, on the whole, to the poetry of the past, poetry in translation and in anthologies—was a distinct signal that Fenton was somebody worth special treatment. Children in Exile contains poems that have already appeared in previous smaller collections and has all the melody, the messages, and mischief of a poet hitting his stride.

The last time Penguin stirred the pool in Britain with new native talent was in 1962, when they published A. Alvarez’s The New Poetry. That anthology proposed a canon of contemporary poetry that remained influential for a couple of decades. It notoriously attacked the self-censoring “gentility” of English poetry while presenting poets who in their various elegiac, witty, discreet, lyrical, and self-consciously skilled ways exemplified the very tendency that the introduction was at pains to deplore. In the work of Ted Hughes, however, Alvarez saw an achievement behind which he could throw the full weight of his claims for “the new depth poetry” with “a new seriousness” that could outstrip the successes allowed by that style of “common sense and understatement” favored by other poets of Hughes’s generation. A correspondence between the rendered world and intuited psychic forces, an intense language highly charged with sensation in its texture and diction, a sense of deep energy sources tapped and unleashed—all the confident and renovating qualities of Hughes’s original voice had burst the gentility barrier, that “belief that life is always more or less orderly, people always more or less polite, their emotions and habits more or less decent and more or less controllable.”

Hughes’s early poem “Wind,” for example, addresses a subject that might have been treated by Walter de la Mare, a “nature” subject as potentially literary as moonlight, but to read the lines is to encounter the blast of the real thing. The wind’s force so fills the poem that the whole world takes on aspects of menace; microcosm and macrocosm are shaken, inner and outer touch and tremble:

The fields quivering, the skyline a grimace,
At any second to bang and vanish with a flap:
The wind flung a magpie away and a black-
Back gull bent like an iron bar slowly. The house

Rang like some fine green goblet in the note
That any second would shatter it. Now deep
In chairs, in front of the great fire, we grip
Our hearts and cannot entertain book, thought,

Or each other. We watch the fire blazing,
And feel the roots of the house move, but sit on,
Seeing the window tremble to come in,
Hearing the stones cry out under the horizons.

This untrammeled voice, exposing the human sensibility to its primal encounter with conditions on the planet, had…

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