CONTRAFLOWPaul McDonald finds some surprises in a new and unusual anthology of English poetry from the last hundred years


An Anthology: Lines of Englishness 1922-2022 
Edited by John Greening & Kevin Gardner
Renard Press 
ISBN: 9781804470374
344pp    £14.99

The idea of ‘Englishness’ is an elusive thing, constantly in flux. Nearly everyone has a different idea of what it is. Try praising England in public and see the range of responses you get. Few would argue with the editors that we’ve seen ‘the biggest evolutions in national identity’ in the last century, and fewer would envy their task of trying to reflect them in a single volume. They outline their objectives and methodology in the form of a “Conversation about Englishness” at the beginning of the book, where they ponder the concept of Englishness and discuss their range of themes, and their determination to disrupt our sense of English poetry as an unfolding linear chronology. The chapter headings hint at the ground it covers: “Angles of Entry”, “Country”, “Divide”, “Keep Calm”, “All Change”, “And Be Merry”, “Recessional”, “Rebellion”, “Securities”, “Visionary”, “Power”, “End Game”, and “Exit Here”; inevitably there’s considerable thematic overlap.

The editors’ key organising principle is suggested by the title Contraflow: setting modern poems against older ones in ways that reveal both contrasts and continuities. The first chapter flows backwards through the decades, beginning with Zaffar Kunial’s 2020s poem “Foxglove Country”, and ending with C.Day Lewis’s 1930s piece, “You that Love England”. Subsequent chapters begin with an early poem and work forwards through decades, until we reach the middle of the book, where this structure is reversed. Within this framework, the editors aim to present, as the subtitle suggests, Lines of Englishness: a diverse variety of perspectives, often in resonant juxtaposition. There’s a glorious quirkiness to this, creating a tone that Greening hopes is suggestive of ‘Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony to the 2012 London Olympics – absolutely modern, but Shakespeare and Chaucer would have loved it’. As Ian McMillan puts it in his typically ebullient “Foreword”, ‘The almost miraculous effect of this is that it makes the reader examine the poems of each decade in the direct sunlight of the other, and it enhances the complexity of the task at hand’.

The second chapter, “Country”, for instance, opens with Edmund Blunden’s 1920s poem, “Forefathers”, which among other things is about continuity. We’re told that the speaker’s ancestors are ‘Unrecorded, unrenowned’, but their former existence underpins the sense of a stable present and a predictable future, reinforced by images of timeless rural England: ‘Here they went with smock and crook,/Toiled in the sun, lolled in the shade’. Blunden’s forefathers, their culture, and their landscape feel eternal, like the cyclic lives of the bees referenced in the closing stanza, ‘who made honey long ago’. However, this sense of permanence is qualified by the poem that immediately follows, written a century later by Rebecca Watts: “Daffodils push through in the mild first days of January”. For Watts, the early flowers should remind us that ‘nature deals not in ought/but is’, and, as global temperatures rise, we can no longer rely on what ‘ought’ to happen in our green and pleasant land. Of course we still have Blunden’s poem in our heads as we read Watts, and his assumptions about England’s durability throw Watts’s climate fears into relief. The latter qualifies, or at least complicates the former; Blunden’s poem augments the force of Watts’s in ways that may not have been evident if the poems weren’t in such close proximity. This kind of thing happens a lot in the book.

There’s an interesting dialogue too between Larkin’s 1960s “The Whitsun Weddings”, and a poem that immediately follows it, Fiona Pitt-Kethley’s “The 4.15” from 1980s. Both are set on trains, and Larkin’s aloof male speaker looks down on the ‘grinning and pomaded, girls’ who join him on his journey south. When we encounter Pitt-Kethley’s witty and liberated 80s female in “The 4.15”, she seems to belong to a different world, accidentally hitting ‘an old military type/in the balls’ with her ‘sweetened kumquats’. Yet there’s something quintessentially English about both speakers that might otherwise go unnoticed; certainly we recognise the cultural stereotypes invoked in order to reinforce each one’s sense of superiority. Both poems also contrast nicely with John Betjeman’s 1950s poem, “Middlesex”, that features in the previous chapter: his portrait of Elaine, who ‘daintily alights’ the ‘red electric train’, couldn’t be more different from both Larkin and Pitt-Kethley’s women; she represents another way of being an English woman, albeit one who’s meant to signify the past, rather than the present or the future. As we read on from Larkin and Pitt-Kethley, we encounter another train traveller in Denise Levertov’s 70s poem, “By Rail through the Earthly Paradise, Perhaps Bedfordshire”. Here the speaker longs to alight and become a part of the English pastoral landscape itself:

…I wish the train now 
would halt for me at a station in the fields
(the name goes by 
	In the deep aftermath
of its faded rhythm, I could become

a carved stone
set in the gates of the earthly paradise,

an angler's fly 
lost in the sedge to watch the centuries

We see an apparent desire to merge with the scenery of rural England, but the poem that immediately follows this is Seamus Heaney’s “Leavings”, which problematizes the whole idea of landscape as a signifier of ‘earthly paradise’. Heaney’s ride ‘down England’ takes him past a burning crop, which for him conjures images of an England ‘threshed clear by Thomas Cromwell’, and of Henry’s henchman in the deepest circles of Dante’s hell. Ostensibly these two poems appear very different – one seems to be about paradise, the other about hell – but the more we reflect on them, the more we see that it’s not so simple. Levertov’s speaker is both trapped and ‘lost’ in the sedge, condemned to ‘watch’, rather than participate in ‘the centuries’; at the same time, while Heaney’s burning fields suggest horror and upheaval, they might also imply change and regeneration.

The structure of this anthology might sound eccentric, and frankly it feels rather weird as you read it – particularly if, like me, you read it from beginning to end – but it has the potential to breathe new life into many familiar poems. To quote McMillan’s Foreword again, it creates a context where ‘Englishnesses will melt into each other or will form a queue, each one bumping into the next’. For instance, it’s illuminating to see Ted Hughes’s 1950s poem “Wind” ‘bumping into’ Sylvia Plath’s “Watercolour of Grantchester Meadows” written in the same decade: both offer dark responses to the English landscape which have particular force in juxtaposition. It’s fascinating also to read Hannah Lowe’s 2020s sonnet, “The Only English Kid”, ahead of Daljit Nagra’s classic account of racism from an immigrant’s perspective, “Parade’s End”, published over a decade earlier. Lowe’s white schoolboy is shamed and alienated by a legacy of racism, ‘all the things he hadn’t done’; and we have this in mind pages later as we encounter Nagra’s family car doused with acid by racists. While the latter may not lessen the sympathy we felt for Lowe’s ‘poor John’, we can’t help but reassess it; certainly the poems complement each other powerfully, reminding us that the consequences of racism are manifold and enduring. They are both excellent choices for an anthology of this kind. On the whole, the editors get their choices right, and their attempt to shuffle the pack makes for a refreshing and stimulating read that I thoroughly enjoyed.