poem index

High Talk: Influences from the British Isles

Year

2005
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Henry Luce, the founding editor of Time magazine, dubbed the twentieth century "the American century," and modern American poets have for the most part revelled in their independence from mother England. But there were crucial exceptions: British and Irish poets who exerted a major influence across the oceanic divide. Chief among them was William Butler Yeats, the Irish visionary poet, whose poems grappled with historical issues (the Easter uprising in Dublin in 1916) when they weren't perpetuating a mythological world-view full of arcane symbols (the "gyre" or cosmic hourglass), unusual characters (the hero Cuchulain, Crazy Jane), and a cyclical interpretation of history. Considered by many to be the single greatest poet in the English language of the past century, Yeats was a close friend of his younger American contemporary, Ezra Pound. Despite the obvious differences in their styles (Yeats adhered to traditional poetic forms and Pound was an ardent advocate of experimental verse), Pound exerted a strong influence on Yeats's later work, and they shared an increasingly pessimistic view of democratic society and its culture. In "The Second Coming," Yeats disclosed a chilling end-of-millennium revelation after "twenty centuries of stony sleep." The poem ends with a famous rhetorical question: "And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?"

W. H. Auden, whose great elegy for Yeats has become an anthology standard, may have been the most formally adroit of modern poets, equally at home in the sonnet, the sestina, the villanelle, the prose poem, and a wide array of metrical and stanzaic patterns. It is tempting to say that he came to America in a one-on-one swap for T. S. Eliot. Where Eliot, a native of St. Louis, settled in London and became head of the venerable publishing firm of Faber & Faber, Auden came from the York of his birth to New York on the eve of World War II (occasioning another famous poem, "September 1, 1939"). Auden's presence in Manhattan during the 1940's and '50's was a vital one for an entire generation of American poets, who valued the wit, elegance, and peerless virtuosity on display in Auden's work. James Merrill, John Hollander, Anthony Hecht, and Richard Howard are among those who may be characterized as the "children of Auden." When the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky took up American citizenship and began writing poems in English, the master he turned to was Auden.

The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas took America by storm in the early 1950's with a series of spellbinding poetry readings. Thomas' poems were ecstatic and dionysian, an intoxicating outpouring of language. "Fern Hill," his magnificent evocation of a childhood forever fleeing into the past, concludes with this image of the Romantic artist's struggle: "O as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means, / Time held me green and dying, / Though I sang in my chains like the sea." Thomas uttered defiance in the face of death: "Do not go gentle into that good night, " is the opening line of his beloved villanelle for his father.

Thomas, who was famous for his boozing and drank himself to death, exemplified one type of modern poet: the performer, the activist, romantically self-destructive, a cult figure. On the other extreme was Philip Larkin, a reclusive English xenophobe who spent most of his adult life working as a librarian at the remote University of Hull in the north of England. Where Thomas could be bombastic, Larkin favored clipped, ironic accents, a tone of wry resignation, and a reflexive distrust of noble sentiments. "Books are a load of crap," he advised. As for children, the reason most people have them is to get back at their own parents, because "They fuck you up, your mum and dad, / They may not mean to but they do." Larkin was the premier poet of what came to be called "The Movement" in English poetry in the 1950's, which rejected the Yeatsian neo-Romantic style of Thomas and other British poets who had emerged in the decade before. In the last ten years of his life, Larkin wrote just one major poem, but what a poem it is: "Aubade." No one has ever written better about the fear of death.

Larkin could not have written his poetry without the example of Thomas Hardy before him. Hardy, better known for such novels as Jude the Obscure and The Return of the Native, wrote poems of fierce pessimism ("Hap") in which the tone and diction, like the mood, are resolutely anti-heroic. Hardy's profound poetic sympathy goes out to the ruined maid, the blinded bird, and the caged skylark. Though more generally known as a nineteenth-century novelist, Hardy wrote poems, published in the early decades of this century, that have exerted a strong continuing influence on subsequent generations, establishing him as a major modern poet in his own right.

D. H. Lawrence was another poet who is better known as a novelist, but whose poems have had a marked influence on others, including Dylan Thomas and a number of contemporary American poets. His best-known poems are written in free verse, are imagistic in style, and evoke the inner nature of animals and plants, reflecting Lawrence's passionate regard for the natural world. Many of his other poems express furious opposition to puritanical social conventions and the hypocrisy of the middle class.

The relation between American and British and Irish poets in the twentieth century has continued as a complex and often uneasy dialogue between distinct cultures which share the world's most international language. Poetic modernism, in many respects, is an American invention, even if the poets most responsible (Pound and Eliot) were expatriates living in London, and the overwhelming influence of American poetry in this century has at times inhibited our appreciation and awareness of the wealth of interesting poets writing in English on the other side of the Atlantic. But beginning in the 1970's, with a generation of talented Northern Irish poets whose youthful careers were suddenly caught up in the outbreak of violence between Protestants and Catholics, a new wave of influence began to be felt in America.

That influence continues to be felt today in the work of such poets as Seamus Heaney (who was awarded the NobelPrize in 1995), Paul Muldoon, and the Englishman James Fenton. As the century comes to a close, it may be fair to say that no country of the three could easily be said to occupy the creative center of contemporary poetry.

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