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English Poetry Since 1940.

In the last fifty years poetry written in English has gone through a protean development, with reactions and counter-reactions. Charting this history is one of the more challenging and exciting projects for contemporary criticism. Neil Corcoran's book is an admirable contribution to this enterprise and a valuable starting point for anyone who seeks a sense of the main trends. In his introduction, Corcoran writes of his sense of poetry as a unique discourse, how his aim is to recover 'the context of its primary reception' (xiv), and to show the anxiety of influence and broadening definitions of Englishness where this is relevant.

Corcoran's account begins with the later Auden and the Eliot of the Four Quartets. His effective, compressed style becomes immediately apparent in comments like 'the portentous or pontifical is never altogether out of earshot in the final three Quartets' (6) or when he writes:

In its self-cancelling audacity it manifests, it may be, an exhaustion with style which is itself a new but, in the Eliot oeuvre, a terminal style; and its truest note is that of a melancholy serenity which bids farewell to its symbolist origins and sources, to that poetic of luminous intensity, pleading a recourse to other personal, familial, national and religious pieties and fidelities. (7)

The second chapter pairs MacNeice and Muir, observing how the former's Irishness 'might act as a major point of reference for a generation of Northern Irish writers preoccupied with matters of cultural identity' (16) and noting Muir's reluctance to use autobiographical material, with a useful reading of 'The Horses'. The third chapter explores David Jones and Basil Bunting in the context of a continuation of Modernist techniques, both writers' handling of religious tradition, and makes a shrewd comparison of Bunting and Wordsworth.

Three chapters cover the 1940s, with the discussion focused around the 'new Romanticism' of W. S. Thomas, Barker, and Dylan Thomas; the war poetry of Douglas and Lewis; and Stevie Smith and R. S. Thomas. Corcoran's account is suspicious of poets who 'play the Celtic card' in their "unironic singing robes' and there is some talk of a poetry of 'psychological regression' (42-3), Thomas being 'markedly a poet of the extraordinarily memorable individual line or two' (44). Corcoran's preference would seem to be with a poetry that is 'enmeshed in circumstance, time, place and society' (247), as can be seen in his interesting reading of 'A Refusal To Mourn'. He praises Graham's output as 'the finest contribution to post-war poetry' (47). The discussion of Douglas and Lewis draws useful distinctions between poetry of the two world wars, and there is some excellent commentary on the poems 'Canoe' and 'How To Kill', and the citation of the memorable 'War Baby' by Pamela Holmes. Smith and R. S. Thomas are characterized as 'poets of lonely singularity and distinction' (70).

The introduction to the 1950s starts with a telling comparison of 'Fern Hill' and 'I Remember, I Remember', and notes the 'pervasiveness in English mid-century writing of an educated ironic tone' (85). An account of Larkin concludes with an effective questioning of 'The Explosion'; Davie, Tomlinson and Gunn are discussed in chapter 8; Hughes and Hill are linked in chapter 9 in the way that they undermine 'the discourses of English civility and decorum' (114), the violence of Hughes's language perhaps being allowed to pass too easily. Succeeding chapters look at 'The Group', Dunn and Harrison, Prynne and Fisher, the poetry of Northern Ireland; Muldoon, Paulin, and Carson; some varieties of women's poetry; the Martian poetry of Raine and Reid; and the 'new narrative' poems of Fenton, Motion, Reading, and Morrison.

The book includes a number of sensitive close readings, and resists being pulled too far or fast into agreement with the claims of various schools or writers. The only real surprise is that Andrew Crozier's chilling support for poetry that treats the person 'as a site in which experience is to be acted out as conflict' (165) (italics mine) is left unchallenged by the critical intelligence that casts a demanding eye over Motion's poem about Anne Frank.

RICKY ROOKSBY Oxford
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Author:Rooksby, Rikky
Publication:Notes and Queries
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1995
Words:681
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