Tim Dooley, Reviews Editor Another London
London’s South Bank Centre is celebrating the Festival of Britain’s sixtieth anniversary this summer. In the summer of 1951 Poetry London marked the festival with a special issue. Its editorial looks back to 1851, drawing comparisons between the Victorian world of the Great Exhibition and the brave new world of the Skylon and the People’s Palace. Contrasting the two eras the editors note:
We are to all intents and purposes at war with Russia, as we were a hundred years ago... But in the course of these hundred years we have also succeeded in abolishing poverty in these islands together with many of the grosser abuses and vices of industrialism. (...) The meat ration may only be 10d in the lb. (or whatever), but we are beginning to pay a belated homage to Ezra Pound, while immovably enthroned as our G.O.M. sits Mr. Eliot instead of Sir Alfred Austin or Robert Bridges.
Though they look forward (as readers in 2011 might) to ‘a testing time artistically, morally and intellectually’ in the ‘bleak atmosphere’ of the decade ahead, they are optimistic about ‘the renewed vitality in literature and poetry in particular’ dating back to the modernism of the 1920s with which they claim continuity.
The Poetry London of 1951 was a completely different enterprise from this magazine, though we will be contributing to an event at the Saison Poetry Library celebrating the festival. The earlier Poetry London was founded by the formidable Tambimuttu in 1939 and lasted for twenty-three issues, folding in the winter of 1951. Its greatest days had been in wartime, with a circulation of up to ten thousand in 1942. Its detractors (including Geoffrey Grigson, who – in what now reads uncomfortably like a racial slur – called it ‘a vast junk shop, or oriental bazaar’) saw an unwelcome openness and lack of critical rigour in what has been described as its ‘diversity and modernity’.
Inclusiveness is certainly a quality that strikes the reader of the 1951 magazine sixty years on. Despite the singular male pronoun used for ‘the poet’ in the editorial, and although all its editors were men, thirteen of the forty-four poets published in the year’s three issues are women, a more generous representation than might be found in many magazines thirty or forty years later. Poetry London, like the present magazine, was internationalist in aspiration and practice. The 1951 issues include translations from Welsh, French, German, Italian; ‘Letters’ from Spain and New York; and reviews of Chinese, Dutch and American poets. The poets published include some of the iconic figures of the period: George Barker, Lynette Roberts and David Wright. But it is perhaps most interesting to see the figures emerging in 1951, who would go on sometimes to quite contrasting literary careers. Harold Pinta (later better known by his birth-name of Pinter) appears in
a high gothic mode, complete with a woodcut of a woman emerging from a coffin, and there is striking early work by Charles Tomlinson and W S Merwin.
Another product of the Festival of Britain was Poems 1951, a collection published by Penguin of the winning poems in a competition run for the festival by the Arts Council. It introduced eight poets including Jack Clemo and Robert Conquest to a national audience and marked what John Hayward described as ‘an experiment in official patronage’, the first support for poetry by the fledgling Arts Council. Poetry London is pleased to have obtained continued support from Arts Council England in the recent National Portfolio funding round, which will give the magazine stability over the next four years. It is with sadness we note, however, that cuts in public expenditure have left the Poetry Book Society and important independent presses like Arc, Enitharmon and Flambard without such support.
It may indeed be a bleak decade ahead.
The poems in this issue were edited by Martha Kapos; the reviews and features by Tim Dooley.