Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The New Poetry (1962)

One of the first poetry anthologies I purchased was The New Poetry, a collection of British and American poems selected and introduced by A. Alvarez. First published in 1962, it was sixteen years before my sixteen-year-old self found this book at what is now one of Vancouver’s oldest bookstores to deal exclusively in new books (but, sadly, not much else).

Although I have kept The New Poetry with me throughout my many moves, and recognize within its Jackson Pollock cover some well-made poems, I cannot say I was changed much by its speed and shape, nor the sentiments its poems express. Oddly enough, the very “gentility” Alvarez despairs in his introduction infects the poems in The New Poetry -- a gentility of content, but also one of form.

That said, Alvarez’s introduction serves as survey of what was going on in modern British and American Poetry at the time -- at least what was perceived to be going if you were living in Britain (Eliot and Pound at the old end, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath at the new end). What is missing, of course, is reference to Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry: 1945-1960 (1960), an anthology that was hugely influential to a generation of Vancouver poets, largely due to the scholarship and teaching of UBC English professor Warren Tallman, who introduced the increasingly proprioceptive, composition-by-field poems of Denise Levertov, Charles Olson and Jack Spicer to local student-writers like George Bowering, Daphne Marlatt, Gladys Hindmarch and Fred Wah.

What I like best about Alvarez’s introduction is his own poetic contribution: a poem he composed using lines lifted from the poems in Robert Conquest’s New Lines (1956) anthology. Yet Alvarez does not give us his “synthetic” poem to demonstrate his skills as a collagist (a compositional method used by some of Vancouver’s intermedial artists of the early-1960s, such as bill bissett, Judith Copithorne, Gerry Gilbert, RoyKiyooka, Michael Morris and Al Neil), but to make nonsense of what he sees as a sameness in the poems of Kingsley Amis, Elizabeth Jennings, Thom Gunn and Philip Larkin. Leave it to Leavis-influenced scholars like Alvarez to cheapen what was then a (re-)emergent and refreshing literary method by employing collage not as a formal methodology reflective of the times, but as an incongruous vehicle for connoisseurial critique.

Here is Alvarez’s poem (and his punctuation):

Picture of lover or friend who is not either
Like you or me who, to sustain our pose,
Need wine and conversation, colour and light;
In short, a past that no one now can share,
No matter whose your future; calm and dry,
In sex I do not dither more than either,
Nor should I swell to halloo the names
Of feelings that no one needs to remember:
The same few dismal properties, the same
Oppressive air of justified unease
Of our imaginations and our beds.
It seems the poet made a bad mistake.

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