introducing readers to writers since 1995

November 11, 2004

Happy Is England! I Could Be Content

by Ron Hogan

newbrits.jpg"Every anthology tries to remedy a wrong," Charles Simic told the audience gathered in a small auditorium at the New School last night by way of introduction to New British Poetry. "When you tell people there's good poetry out there, you have to prove it," and this collection of thirty-six poets from England, Scotland, and Wales is certainly up to the task. (Unfortunately, I couldn't find a suitably clever allusion involving "Britain" for a headline, so sorry, Scots and Welsh; if anybody has any ideas...) Simic presented the anthology, recently published in the States by Graywolf Press, with co-editor Don Paterson and four of the collected poets--and after explaining how the book came about, he read short poems by three poets not present, including Michael Donaghy, who died two months ago of an aneurysm. Donaghy was actually born in the Bronx, moving to England in 1985, but was highly regarded (and greatly missed) within British poetry circles. As Paterson, who also read one of Donaghy's poems during his time at the podium, told me at the end of the evening, "It's incomprehensible to us that he hasn't been published here."

After Paterson's further introductory remarks (and, once the tech guy replaced the defective microphone, poems) came two British poets who actually live on this side of the Atlantic now, Fred D'Aguiar and Glyn Maxwell. Both read primarily from work not included in the volume, from D'Aguiar's "Frank Bruno Chronicles," a poetic essay about the former boxer("my black Jack Dempsey"), to Maxwell's "Cat World," which imagines the voice of the sort of God that would actually expect followers to commit suicide bombings and capital punishment in His name...casting Him in much the same tone as a human presented with dead birds and mice by a pet cat.

Ruth Padel recited the title poem of her new collection, The Soho Leopard, and I was struck while listening that she wasn't reading it--she knew the piece, which lasted nearly ten minutes, by heart. (I asked her about it afterwards, and she explained that it was her way of giving the poem more fully to the audience, no doubt influenced by her years of training as a musician.) Then Jo Shapcott read three of her poems, beginning with "The Mad Cow Talks Back," spoken by an actual mad cow that also happens to be a bit of a holy fool--and was, it turns out, published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, which I bet not too many other poets can list on their vitae--and concluding with "Phrase Book," which happens to be the last poem in the anthology as well, ending on this plaintive note:

Where is the British Consulate? Please explain.
What does it mean? What must I do? Where
can I find? What have I done? I have done
nothing. Let me pass please. I am an Englishwoman.


Thanks for the account, Ron. FYI, Paterson's intro to the volume has stirred up some controversy. See Andrea Brady's piece in the most recent issue of the Chicago Review:

Posted by: Sam at November 12, 2004 09:06 AM
If you enjoy this blog,
your PayPal donation
can contribute towards its ongoing publication.