The Winter 1989/90 issue of Poetry Review, the Poetry Society’s august organ, Vol. 79 No. 4, looked back over the 1980s with a number of poets looking back over the decade. This was when the Poetry Society was based in Earl’s Court and had little but sneers for spoken word. Most of the poets penning their opinions on the decade don’t get further than academia and the establishment but James Berry brings some welcome observations.
The ’80s expanded our vision a little. Fear, prejudice and injustice under attack, a little fresh consciousness seemed to emerge in the vision of our society’s institutions. They seem to have come round to looking at some cruelly excluded people’s situation. This means that protests, ongoing battles, struggles and clamours of past decades finally broke down some traditional race, sex, academic and general elite-barriers in the ’80s. Black people and women express increased participation in public life as in the arts, poetry writing reflects this.
For black writers who draw on a Caribbean culture, their participation on the British scene has meant that the narrow trail they ignited in the ’70s exploded widely in the ’80s. With their cultural distinctiveness, the Caribbean-background poets broke through and launched a poetry performance revolution. Best known as the main contributor to that enlivening of things is Linton Kwesi Johnson. In his role of both performer and recording artist Johnson’s voice rang from the ’70s to the 80’s. In his impact and influence, and with the poetry scene appearing to obviously need a fresh distinctive Black-British poet’s voice, Benjamin Zephaniah emerged.
Personally, as one of those writers whose poem was picked anonymously from thousands of entries – being the 1981 winner of the National Poetry Competition – when I was told I burst out with shocked laughter with the thrill and surprise of it. Then, later on, another pleasurable poetry involvement happened: being editor of News for Babylon working with Andrew Motion, then the Chatto Poetry Editor. To see that book arrive in print in 1984, all ready, with the work of 40 poets whose voices and experiences shared a book that had never come together before under the heading of Black-British poetry, I could hardly believe it. And still, the book makes me feel that getting it into print was a unique opportunity for me. But, also, Paula Burnett’s scholarly treatment of Penguin Caribbean Verses in 1986 amassed the overall wealth of Caribbean poetry from ‘oral’ to the ‘literary traditions’. It was good to see that self-imposed undertaking that got people’s voices together so wall as they trekked through a painful history. And now, also as editor, adding to his own prolific output, E.A. Markham works to let 1989 deliver Hinterland, the Bloodaxe Books Caribbean Verse. Significantly too, the year 1988 gave us Right of Way, some prose and poetry from the Asian Women Writers’ Workshop. Can we now look forward to a comprehensive anthology of Asian poets in Britain in the coming decade?
Released from a Russian labour camp in 1986, Irina Ratushinskaya cam to Britain and brought the opportunity to hear her readings and feel the unusual spirit that appears from he work.
While poetry on TV has stayed with the comic stuff and the non-appearance of serious or simply straight contemporary writing – not given space like, say, music is – those exceptions of Derek Walcott on the South bank Show, filmed in the Caribbean, and Tony Harrison’s BBC programme ‘The Blasphemer’s Banquet’ for salmon Rushdie exposed samples of the word art that the public was denied ordinarily, and also showed the success a wholehearted commitment to poetry can achieve. And, with radio, giving the format and space it has come to allow ‘Time for Verse’. Radio 4 has made popular radio look as if it wants to stop being condescending with the poetry it offers its listeners.
Of all the poetry books of the decade I have looked at, bought and read, none has won my admiration as much as Voices Within the Ark. Edited by Howard Schwartz and Anthony Rudolf and published by Avon Books, New York, 1980, this amazing international anthology received that kind of unflinching commitment which brought 350 modern Jewish poets together from over 40 nations and coped with translations from more than 20 languages.