When, back in the primordial mists of the 90s, I was hired to teach 20th century poetry in English, I well-prepared to construct U.S.-based syllabi. British and Irish poetries, however, were visible to me only as hills and treetops peeking above a general fog. I knew the international modernists and a few later border-crossers, especially Plath and Hughes; I had historical context for debates about Britishness, empire, language, and identity. Otherwise, I had to worked up the field like any grad student of the era, beginning with Norton anthologies and reference essays. A familiar landscape soon took shape: Hardy, the poets of the Great War, Auden, Larkin. Mina Loy sauntered into place among my modernists, and I explored Stevie Smith’s work with delight. Thinking more white women and some, a few, ANY people of color had to be out there, I found Bloodaxe Books and then Moniza Alvi and Jackie Kay, and eventually news of a Black British scene (Jahan Ramazani’s scholarship became increasingly helpful). On the Irish side, my map was similarly faulty. I’d met Muldoon and heard Heaney while at Princeton, so Muldoon’s Faber Anthology of Contemporary Irish Poetry was the obvious place to start, but it included only ONE woman. The Wake Forest Book of Irish Women’s Poetry appeared soon, by way of remedy. The internet happened. Traveling and listening to readings has helped, too (cheers to Carrie Etter and Zayneb Allak, most recently). I still feel, however, that if I were asked to teach a course on post-1900 British women poets, I wouldn’t be confident about how to shape the story–whereas on the U.S. side, I’ve done it, and the only problem is how to give time to all the overlapping narratives, choosing among riches.
Which is why I’m grateful to have just found the series The History of British Women’s Writing, and in particular, Vol. 10, 1970-Present, edited by Mary Eagleton and Emma Parker. The ten-page opening chronology, interweaving international politics with developments in literary culture, is a tremendous gift in itself. Indeed, the essays collected here are particularly useful on what often seems like the ephemera of literary history: presses, prizes, laureates, and all the other little recognitions that eventually add up to canons and master narratives. Another great strength of the book is its head-on address to disputes over Britishness: Parker and Eagleton invoke a literary world that’s diverse along every axis, while also analyzing the forces that hamper inclusion.
Fiction receives more attention than other genres, with Jeannette King on historical fiction, Sue Zlosnik on the gothic, Ruvani Ranasinha on British Asian fiction, Suzanne Scafe on Black British fiction, and more. Other pieces are multigenre, however, such as Hywel Dix’s essay on Welsh, Northern Irish, and Scottish literature. And the editors devote discrete chapters to poetry, drama, memoir, and media-crossing literary modes.
The introduction and other elements of the editorial apparatus are wonderful, but the chapter that will be most useful to me is Jane Dowson’s “Poetry on Page and Stage.” Her overview of game-changing anthologies and magazine special issues, as well as their often mixed receptions, is pure gold. She tracks laureateships, Oxford poetry chairs, the shifting status of lyric and experiment, and the importance of poetry performance as a mode of innovation that shapes who gets heard. My reading/ listening list is now twice as long.
In other news, I couldn’t be more grateful for the kind notes I’ve been receiving all week for my own essay, “Women Stay Put,” but I am deeply tired. My three classes, now heading into midterms, are terrific–I’ve never had better groups of students–but with all the extra department work and other service that’s been on our plates lately, I am about as ready as I’ve ever been for February Break. I’m planning to escape next weekend and spend a couple of days gazing at a sunnier bit of the Atlantic, and if the waves don’t sound like poetry, for once, that will be just fine.
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