1An arresting title, an intriguing cover design and a collection of engaging articles, some of which contain real contributions to the field: such are my first impressions of this rich deeply-compelling collection of essays devoted to the public-private divide in British poetry since 1950, edited by Emily Taylor Merriman and Adrian Grafe. For the student of poetry, there is much here to interest and excite.
2The title, ‘Intimate Exposure’, is a subtle tease; toying with the oxymoron with its clash of register, it strikes the ear as slightly dissonant. Lying behind it – revealing and concealing, appropriately enough – is a cliché, the legal phrase ‘indecent exposure’ with its shades of unseemliness and scandal, such that the title hovers in the precincts of besmirched politicians and public figures hounded by paparazzi. But the word “intimate”, of course, pertains to a sense of the secret and inalienable self, to all the intimations – of immortality or not – of poetry’s yearnings and probings, to the seat of the emotions and the sexual body, as well as to the few intimates that readers of poetry may be cast as. While exposure – “usually” I am ready to say, although the behaviours encouraged by social networking would tend to prove me wrong – is not something undertaken lightly, at least not traditionally by the British, as the editors point out, and when it is imposed by outside agents it can be, psychologically speaking, torture. On the other hand, what is deemed private and singular may well stand to gain from a healthy airing and prove relatively banal… At first though, the effect of the title is to lead us to expect a set of articles dedicated to confessional poetry in the style of Robert Lowell or Sylvia Plath, and this is not precisely the case. Artfully and delicately, what we are actually offered is a cartography of paradox.
3The cover design is similarly rich in interpretational possibilities. It shows an eye seen through a keyhole: the proverbial peeping-tom, of whom we can but wonder if it is an evocation of poet or reader. If taken as a mirror-image of the reader as voyeur, peeping at the poet’s shame, then this ‘exposure’ would indeed be of an exhibitionist nature; if as a representation of the poet, caught in passionate scrutiny of the locked, as yet unacknowledged recesses of the contemporary human mind, then the book would be an invitation to a dexterous analysis of the strategies such poetry has devised to set up and explore, explode or maybe expose – contemporary reshufflings of what the editors locate as a ‘moveable line’ between what is private and what is public. Thus poetry carries out ‘soundings’ and offers, as Marc Porée writes in the essay that opens the volume, “anatomies of the body politic as well as insights into the lovers’ ‘most secret heart’”. The editors cater for both view-points: “[…] the consideration of the public-private divide, a subject of interest for many British poets, affects how poetry is both written and read.”
- 1 Ong, Walter, 2002.
- 2 Lecercle, Jean-Jacques, 1990.
4Now the ways in which poetry is written or read have long been informed by the public-private divide, which is crucial to poetry and has haunted it from its earliest stirrings in oral culture, with its social, mediating role enhancing a sense of togetherness and belonging in the community1. It is present in Chaucer’s larger-than-private-life pilgrims, and omnipresent in Shakespeare’s sonnets, with their withheld revelations; it is present in Milton in the religious and political ambiguities of his great epic, and in the exacerbated yokings by the Metaphysical poets; it is present in Blake’s mythopoetics and the Romantic poets’ legislating lyricists; it is present right through the canon. It is central simply because poetry is an indirect mode of discourse, and its very nature is to be in itself the arch trope or rhetorical ‘turn’. Like metaphor, poetic language is what we are compelled to reach out for when none of the language to hand will do (an extreme example of which is the hermetic poetics of the Cambridge School as described in Robert Archambeau’s article). The public-private divide is thus inherent to poetry because of this intrinsic attack – violent at that2 – on the public realm through its rejection and subversion of the available discourse.
- 3 “The linguistic, rhetorical and formal territory occupied by most contemporary poetry is still, re (...)
5Grafe and Merriman’s volume of essays is concerned with the specific context of British poetry since the 1950s, which is to say a context in which the topology and significance of this divide derive in part from modernist theories and poetics and the experimentation they inspired and continue to inspire3; in part from the acute pressures of national, political and linguistic identities and allegiances of post-war postcolonial Britain. What this volume focuses on is the way the poets discussed are not merely seen in the light of the interplay of private and public in their poetry, but rather as they engage with the question of private and public spaces as a theme. It thus offers a mapping of a shifting landscape in which “Yesterday’s private is today’s public” or the other way round. Examples are when what is private is “de-privatized” and public stances are challenged or dissolved in the articulating of a private sphere of dissonance, as shown in Daniel Szabo’s discussion of the tension between R.S. Thomas’s two personas, poet and preacher, and two languages, English and Welsh (the latter more an object of desire than a practice), or in Marc Porée’s study of how shame and embarrassment are tested and tried and subjectivity pushed to its limits through reification, either as bared, ailing anatomy (Susan Wicks), or as cited, fragmented text, a mere effect of postmodern anonymity (Carol Ann Duffy).
- 4 The polarisation between ‘mainstream’ and ‘avant-garde’ has, however, been critiqued from the insi (...)
6The issue is fraught with paradoxes – not least when a group of poets, the Cambridge School that has developed around Jeremy Prynne, stake a claim for public address while refusing to make themselves accessible to a potential exogenous reading public by refraining from publishing their work in the ‘mainstream’ press such as Poetry Review or the Oxford Anthology of British and Irish Poetry4. In the Afro-Caribbean context, the public-private divide is a matter of allegiance and choice of identity, as summarized by the Derek Walcott/Kamau Brathwaite debate, “a crude summation which posits the latter as ‘the voice of the people’ and the former as a more introspective, private speaker” (Catherine Murphy on Patience Agbabi). For Agbabi, this is resolved by introducing a porousness between performance and page, between that other, partly superimposable radical divide between orality and literacy. In Stephen Romer’s “Les Portes de la Nuit” Adrian Grafe discusses what is at stake in the transgressing of another’s private sphere, the poet’s father’s ‘Strictly private’ diary, and Torsten Caerners studies the mediating position afforded by Seamus Heaney’s “fields of force”.
7These are just some of the ways in which the theme is developed through the fourteen articles that make up this richly thought-provoking volume. They are helpfully structured into five sections of unequal length: Stating the Case; Strictly Public?; Heaney and Privateness of the Human Condition; The North, the Nation and the Public-Private Divide; and Taking Stock: From Personal Encounter to Ritual, of which the first and last contain eloquent manifestoes of the ever-present role and value of poetry. Marc Porée, taking his cue from the phrase “off the radar”, affirms that poetry “is the radar – both emitting and transmitting, beaming and detecting, penetrating and searching, reaching, in short, those places other genres cannot or will not reach.” While Catherine Phillips, who looks at the “need for individuals to express their experiences, especially the most traumatic ones of grief, and the needs of nations to muster an official voicing of loss”, observes “more of a continuum between [certain] poems and songs with a range of allusion than might at first appear.” (219) Through being recycled as song, poetry lives on.
8My only reservation is really another compliment: given the vast fast-changing period under scrutiny, “Since 1950”, one leaves the volume wondering whether it would have been better to devote less space to Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Tony Harrison and Geoffrey Hill, who are all discussed at least twice, however toweringly resonant their voices may be, and curious to see the way certain other poets meet the challenges of the public-private divide. That said, the book constitutes highly recommended reading to anyone interested in the public-divide as such, or of course in contemporary British poetry.