Fifty Years On: the Triumph of the Penguin Modern Poets

Wootten_263446hWilliam Wootten in the TLS:

Contemporary poetry began in 1962 – in April to be precise – with the publication of A. Alvarez’s Penguin anthology The New Poetry, the first two volumes of the Penguin Modern Poets series, and the first number of Ian Hamilton’s little magazine, the Review. As with the beginning of sexual intercourse, dated by Philip Larkin’s “Annus Mirabilis” to the following year, the fact that April 1962 fell between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP was significant. On the one hand, sales of D. H. Lawrence’s book had greatly enriched Penguin Books, which allowed the recently appointed chief editor, Tony Godwin, to pursue ambitious new projects; on the other, the Fab Four had yet to ensure that the new and relevant would be more culturally synonymous with Pop than with Lawrentian intensities and critical seriousness.

In “Beyond the Gentility Principle”, his introductory essay to The New Poetry, A. Alvarez was not short of either: Lawrence stands as the “only English writer . . . able to face the most uncompromising forces at work in our time”, a writer who had “almost nothing to do with middle-class gentility” and whose example validates the verse of the young Ted Hughes. Lawrence also means F. R. Leavis, invoked at the opening and close of “Beyond the Gentility Principle”, whose criticism helped shape The New Poetry’s contributors, editor and readership alike. Which is not to say that Alvarez’s ideas had not moved on a good way from those of the Leavisites pur sang.

The significance of Alvarez’s essay tends to be portrayed in terms of its reactions: to the stuffiness and repression of post-war Britain, to the poetic attitudes of the Movement, to the anti-modernism and insularity of English literature. However, its advocacy of a path forward is quite as notable, if less likely to meet with agreement.