At the turn of the twentieth century, literary critic Frank Raymond Leavis set the structure by which the ensuing century's poetry would be created when he stated that the job of the poet is to highlight "the most conscious point of the race in his time" (Leavis, in Hopkins, 1997). Poets since then have followed this directive by writing about issues that are pertinent to the time and place in which they are living. As the latter part of the twentieth century, saw a number of major changes in society, so too did the poetry reflect these changes, resulting in the creation of novel and unique poetics.
A poet who has charged into the view of the public demanding attention is Peter Reading. Reading takes controversial and unpleasant issues and portrays them as bluntly and dramatically as he can, as he himself has stated "art has always struck me most when it was to do with coping with things, often hard things that are difficult to take" (Kennedy, 1996:120).
The "things that are difficult to take" are Readings disturbing observations of his decaying nation of Britain, as well as his "often appalled and appalling vision...of the ways of the homo sapiens" (Jenkins, in Kennedy, 1996:120). Reading's nihilistic and pessimistic view for his country and species is seen in lines from his work Evagatory where he states:
England, The Times screwed up in a trash-basket,
gliding astern, the Thames, the old prides,
end of an era, nation, notion,
albion urban, devenustated
(one of those routine periodic
faunal extinctions [cf. the Permian]),
anthropod aberration (posterity)
These lines demonstrate his view that not only is England nearing the "end of a nation", but as he compares it to a mass extinction of the past, it is the end of a species.
Not only does the harsh subject matter that Reading deals with set him apart, but so does the manner in which he presents it. He uses very graphic imagery and language by which to convey his point. For instance, in a piece from his work Ukulele Music, Reading answers reviews that his work is "too black", by unflinchingly outlining atrocious events. Using unfeeling language as though writing newspaper headlines, he reports: "five human bits of meat, one faceless limbless female Caucasian,/ shirts, empty briefcases, shoes, fragments of little child's coat/ pieces of movable section of wing of 747/ one piece of human back flesh (in salmon-fishermen's nets)". Towards the end of the poem he mocks the critics by ironically reusing the words of the critics in declaring all of the reports, "Too black and too over the top."
Similarly, in a work entitled C, Reading uses a very graphic portrayal of the effects of cancer to demonstrate the abhorrent sickness of the human race. After presenting the reader with a repulsive image, he then mocks the reader with the line, "You find this Limerick inapposite? Try the pretty Choriamb?" As in much of his poetry, Reading not only depicts the degenerating condition of the human race, but is showing that ignoring it does not take away from the truth of it.
Besides his subject matter, and graphic portrayal of that subject, Reading is also innovative in the technique he uses to write. He uses short fragmented sentences that add to the tension of the poems. He also sticks to a strict metric form, often employing the classic Greek and Roman metres, but also has been known to use alcaics, alcmanics, alexandrines, elegiac couplets, and even haikus and limericks (Potts, 2003). He is so particular in finely orchestrating his work that he produced C in one hundred poems that were one hundred words each (Kennedy, 1996).Another poet whose work is innovative and reflective of the contemporary age, is Bernard O'Donoghue. O'Donoghue's poems are as simplistic as Reading's are complex. He himself states that he uses simple lines and language as he feels it better represents the time and place in which his poetry is being written (Desperado, 2000).
Furthermore, O'Donoghue writes about what he sees as vices in today's society, but does not do it in the demeaning and dramatic manner that Reading does. In fact O'Donoghue's poems are almost reminiscent of Aesop's Fables as they are done in a very story-like manner, and convey a message to the audience. In not simply pointing out what is wrong, but offering, in a way, moral advice, O'Donoghue conveys more optimism and hope for today's society than is found in the nihilistic work of Reading. Quite representative of O'Donoghue's moral messages is his poem The Nuthatch. In this poem the narrator is pleased when his world becomes brightened and enhanced by a nuthatch that sings a "wood-text" everyday outside his office window. The singing "exalted every work day". However after accidentally seeing the bird one day, the speaker feels overwhelming guilt and tries to pretend he never saw it. He indulged too much in that which was already good, and so ruined the singing from that point on. In this way the poem acts as a warning against a problem very evident in today's affluent society of the danger of over-indulging.
O'Donoghue's work aims to shock the audience, but in a far different way than Reading's does. He does it, by insinuating, or implying something that is bound to surprise, or unsettle the reader (Sansom, 2003). As O'Donoghue puts it, he aims to shock, "in polite and agreeable language" (Desperado, 2000:1). For instance, O'Donoghue presents the uncomfortable idea of the death of children in his poem Kindertotenliedner, as well as the shocking insinuation that the mind is something that gradually sickens and dies. In a similar manner, O'Donoghue shocks readers in his poem The Weakness. The shock does not come from the unexpected death of the speaker's father, but rather the idea O'Donoghue communicates when the father refers to his dying as a "weakness". This shows that the farmer regards even something as major as death as a simple "weakness" as it keeps him from his work. O'Donoghue shows how people die without having taken the time to look at the stars, or to contemplate the many "fairy-forts" that they had come across in life as they are too busy with work. Most shocking and unsettling of all is the thought that a whole new generation will live on in this same manner, as O'Donoghue symbolically shows in the son having on the father's jacket at the end of the poem. This inability to truly live life is what really becomes the "weakness".
Carol Ann Duffy is another poet, who like Reading and O'Donoghue, has created an innovative poetic in which she represents the dynamic modern times. Her poetry is very different from that of the two poets discussed above in that her poetry is almost always presented in the form of a monologue (Brown, 2003). Her monologues shows emotions and the internal workings of the mind and so becomes a means of "exposing her speakers and characters as prisoners of socially acquired representatives of themselves" which are used to display Duffy's themes of isolation and powerlessness within society (O'Brien, 1998:166). A poem that portrays this relationship of individuals to society is her poem Stealing. The poem is told from the perspective of a thief who is stealing a snowman. Though he arrogantly brags about it, his stealing of other's materials shows his isolation from society, as it is the way in which he is trying to fit in. He is on the outside so he is trying to enter in by having what other's have, but he never can obtain it as he never keeps what he has stolen for long. This is evident in the snowman that he took since "I wanted him, a mate", but when he could not properly rebuild it, he destroyed it. In the many failed attempts of the thief to join society through stealing, Duffy shows the powerlessness of people in their attempt to find a place in society. Other poems very similar to this one include Psychopath, Warming her Pearls, The Suicide, and War Photographer, as these show the different ways in which lonely outsiders try to fit into a society that has no place for them.
Duffy has developed a style of writing her poems that is unique to her, and works to further the message of her work. Duffy's poems are done in strict metrical lines that reflect the conventionalism her characters are displaced from (Forbes, 2000). However the ideas and images are offered in short, disjointed phrases and sentences that are constantly pulling the reader in different directions. For instance in Duffy's poem Adultery, the constant conflict in the speaker is obvious by the number of ideas offered simultaneously. For instance, the idea of guilt is ever present in lines such as "you are naked beneath your clothes" and "Guilt. A sick, green tint". However there is also an atmosphere of excitement, and the pull of desire, seen in the "new gloves, money tucked in the palms, the handshake crackles," and especially in the repetitive line of " Do it, do it, do it". Intermingled with this, however is the fear of discovery in the "Paranoia for lunch". Lastly there is the idea that the speaker is forced to commit the act by the "Life which crumbles like a wedding cake." In constantly interweaving the different images, ideas, and emotions together by short sentences, Duffy is demonstrating the complexities of the workings of the mind, but also the complexities of the society that aids in the production of these conflicts.
Reading, O'Donoghue, and Duffy all are poets that are representative of the changing climate of the late twentieth century. They are innovative in the themes and subject matter they write about, the unique methods of writing about these themes, and they novel writing styles they develop in order to reflect society as they see it.
Brown, S. (2003) Carol Ann Duffy. English Open Access (updated 17 June, 2003). http://www.stevebrown.clara.net/index.htm (accessed 2 March, 2004)
Desperado Literature (updated 7 December, 2002) Interview With Bernard O'Donoghue. http://www.lidiavianu.go.ro/bernard_o'donoghue.htm (accessed 3 March, 2004)
Forbes, P. (2004) Carol Ann Duffy. Contemporary Writers. http://www.contemporarywriters.com (accessed 2 March, 2004)
Kennedy, D. (1996) New Relations. Mid Glamorgan, Wales: Poetry Wales Press Ltd.
O'Brien, S. (1998) The Deregulated Muse. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books Ltd.
Potts, R. (2003) Repeat to Fade. The Guardian. (updated 13 December, 2003) http://books.guardian.co.uk/reviews/ (accessed 1 March, 2004)
Sansom, I. (2003) A Natural Way With an Enigma. The Guardian. (updated 13 December, 2003) http://books.guardian.co.uk/reviews/ (accessed 3 March, 2004)
The John Hopkins University Press. (1997) The John Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Edited by Groden, M. and Kreiswirth, M. http://www.press.jhu.edu/books/hopkins_guide_to_literary_theory/f._r._leavis.html (accessed 5 March, 2004)