When I ask myself what makes poetry from the UK sometimes especially satisfying—a high-performance machine running on all cylinders—the answer has to do with the greater variety and texture of the vocabulary, the economy of its soundscapes, the material pleasure in the language. But it’s more than that. Pleasure in the language, yes, but not just its musicality. Rather, there is a heightened awareness of what Pound called “the dance of the intellect among words” and what Auden called a poem’s “verbal contraption”: rhetorical gambits, angles of attack, the games that metaphors and counterfactuals permit. Perhaps this variety arises from a culture in which verbal exchange signals so much (about region, class, education) that there can be no such thing as plain speaking.
Americans invented business English and confessional poetry; doing business in the UK is an entirely different thing, and confession there is a chump’s game. Reading Nick Laird and Joe Dunthorne, one is always aware that their speakers are arguing, persuading, bargaining, carrot-dangling, sleight-of-handing, and losing gallantly. Laird is from Northern Ireland, Dunthorne from Wales; both have won accolades for their fiction. Laird has written three novels to his four books of poetry; Dunthorne has three novels to his name, and O Positive is his debut poetry collection, though Faber published him in their pamphlet series back in 2010. Far from autofiction, their novels are as varied as their poems, with suspenseful plots and untrustworthy characters and an understanding that drama arises from bad hermeneutics—that is, misreading people.
An instinct for unexpected rhetorical strategies will give social commentary a jolt normally lacking from American poetry, which is nothing if not earnest stuff. It may also be a distancing device, but it is that very distancing that makes it extremely effective, especially if you want to persuade anyone besides the choir to read it. (In American poetry, no one has surpassed Marianne Moore at this—and she died in 1972.) Laird’s “La Méditerranée,” for instance, takes an oblique approach to the crisis of refugee deaths in that body of water. Without once mentioning the headlines, he sketches a cozy restaurant scene with a middle-aged couple, and upon seeing the sea bass on his wife’s plate, the narrator falls through the nets of universal matter—weave of the tablecloth, subatomic spaces—and arrives at the fish eye,
its lightless pupil
sunk flush as a thumb tack holding
the universe itself in place
and I stare at it, and it stares back.
It is no less than an emissary from Nietzsche’s abyss, accusing bourgeois complacency with a reminder of the sea’s apophatic drowned migrants. In the final poem of the book, “Extra Life,” he returns more explicitly to the fantasy of safety mediated through capital and technology:
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.