Contemporary British Poetry


Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Barry MacSweeney and Jeremy Halvard Prynne are an interesting representation of contemporary poets. ‘Contemporary’ is a term that has been used to define the age of modernism and postmodernism. A finer stratification of times will categorize poetic works of poets such as J. H. Prynne, Veronica Forrest Thomson and John Ashbery among others as postmodernist. In this paper, all the poetry that was created before 1900 (pre-twentieth century) will be viewed as traditional and shall endeavor to find all the similarities and differences that distinguish these eras of British poetry. Among the influential traditional poets are people like Geoffrey Chaucer, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Alfred Tennyson, Lord Gordon Byron, William Blake, Ludwig Wittgenstein, John Keats, Roland Barthes, Algernon Charles Swinburne, William Shakespeare, Basil Bunting, and Simon Armitage among other British poetic legends (Aberach 225).

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Other non-British poets worth mentioning are W. B. Yeats from Ireland, Denis Roche, and Guillaume Apollinaire from France, and Robert Johnson and Charles Olson from America. All these different individuals had varying levels of influence on contemporary poets, and particularly on Prynne, Barry, and Thomson (Aberbach 66). Modernist poets with an equally potent influence on these and other contemporary poets are Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, T. S. Eliot, Wystan Hugh Auden, Philip Larkin, Joyce and Shelley. A closer analysis on Veronica Thomson’s poetry reveals the inclination to follow the guidelines of the linguistic theory, Empson’s literary theory, and Dadaism (Alison 33).

Consequently, most of her poems are about the language itself, usually addressing a grammatical, or general linguistic concept through verse. A good example is the poem “Selection Restrictions on Peanuts for Dinner”, which defines the usage and applications of selection restrictions. Another distinct feature of Thomson’s poetry is her ‘twisted’ usage of allusion as a poetic device (Alison 78). In her defense, she is a pupil of Ezra Pound, used allusion objectionably. She is known for her double-allusion, or alluding to a specific content in another poem, which the other poet had also alluded to from another poem or source. This makes it difficult for readers to understand her poetry. Another feature of her poems is her articulation, or according to Read, arts of ventriloquism (12).

The other contemporary poet that this paper analyses is Barry MacSweeney. It scrutinizes his poetic technique of temporal location in details thereby passing judgment based on whether he simply duplicates the work of past poets or there is an acceptable criterion which he uses (Bedient 55). This section also addresses the question on whether one can come up with a formula that should direct the insertion of past events or archaic language into current poetry. If so, what is it? Barry heavily borrows from Apollinaire and Robert Johnson in his collections or sequences, especially in Pearl and Hellhound Memos (Jarvis “The Poetry of Keston” 145).

He also portrays the status of his life in his poetry, as is evident that he was an alcoholic in the ‘phlegm-soaked’ Hellhound Memos, and that he was enamored of a certain woman when he re-wrote Pearl. This is an interesting poet to view under the lens of relating the past to the present in terms of poetic because he integrates both eras in his poetry. J. H. Prynne is the third poet who this paper provides a thorough analysis of in view of gauging the impact that the traditional poets, poetic, and poetry had on his work. Prynne is similar to Thomson Forrest in terms of loyalty to the linguistic theory. Most of his poems are about the language itself, and they do not tell stories or relate experiences (Brooks, and Faulkner 70).

Rather, they are about concepts in science, economics, and other technical fields. In short, his poems create an unexpected junction where terminologies from unrelated fields meet in harmony. This is an interesting style that has been defined by critics as ‘dense and alarming’ whereas admirers and proponents have termed it as ‘beautiful and astonishing’ (Coy, and Ludwig 56 ). However, it is important to note that even Prynne was influenced by a traditional poet, namely Charles Olson. This poet was renowned for his love for science and nature. Prynne started in a similar vein as Olson but later broke off both poetically and politically (Forbes 14).

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Other distinguishing features of contemporary poetry include structuralism, cultural dislocation, and intertexuality (Veronica Forrest Thomson is remembered for this). Although Barry, Prynne, and Forrest-Thomson have very different writing styles and write on varying themes, they have some features in common, which I will disclose later in the paper. Contemporary poets have been commended for their noticeably different stylistic devices in poetry, which rival traditional poets’ plain styles. Due to their inventions and ingenuity, many people find poetry interesting to read, and many more people are becoming poets. It is important to note here that poetry no longer languishes in darkness without mediatic intervention as it did I the past (Forbes 10).

Today, poetry enjoys almost publicity as other visual arts. This explains the wealthy information that is available on contemporary poets and their publications, while information on traditional poets is rarer to find. The traditional eras that I will feature in this paper for comparative purposes are Romanticism, Georgianism, and Modernism. I intend to analyze the works of the three poets introduced above, comparing their poetry with that of their predecessors, and thereafter come up with a conclusive answer to the question that informs my research, “Is contemporary British poetry an old wine in a new bottle?”

A Description of Organizational Management

The characteristics of Poetry in this era are plenty, and most are radically different from those of previous eras’ poetic. This can be explained by the wave of technological, scientific, economical, social and political developments that are characteristic of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. For instance, nowadays, rap music, and stand-up comedy, is considered poetry, these introduce a completely new concept in poetry (Forbes 9).

However, different as they may appear, the influence of traditional poetry is undeniably present. It is also important to note here that art remains majorly concerned with human nature, which tends to be permanent and not transient like scientific developments or economic theories. For this reason, poets like Prynne and Forrest-Thomson who are trying to keep up with the revolutionary trend of science may end up losing perspective. The meaning and purpose of poetry has already been diluted as cultural conventions have been purged with time, but poetry is at its climax in the contemporary age and the trends taken by current poets will determine its nature in days to come (Ferguson 69).

The driving force behind Prynne’s school of poetry is the notion that “if studying science, for instance a Physics textbook is allowed, even expected to be mind-boggling, why not poetry? Why is it o.k. for somebody to pick up Prynne’s poems and complain of how difficult they are to understand or interpret instead of struggling literally to grasp the content as they would a scientific concept?” (Bedient 37). This thinking holds water. Nevertheless, it is still a risky terrain since poetry has always been an ‘easy’ subject to grasp without a lot of technicalities. Another popular feature of contemporary British poetry is the influence of other cultures on the poetic. This is referred to as intertexuality referring to the influence of multiculturalism on contemporary British poets (Brooks, and Faulkner 85).

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This feature cannot qualify as exclusively contemporary as some modernistic poets also translated the works of great poets of other cultures who had existed before their generations. A good example is Philip Larkin, who was influenced by Dante and Boccaccio. Contemporary British poets are being influenced by French, Irish, American, African, Asian, and Caribbean cultures to mention but a few (Alison, and Deryn 64). These poets are influenced by aspects like the effects of colonization on Africa, the value of civilization for underdeveloped countries (this is characteristic of the work of Paul Muldoon), Asian technological advances, racism, and globalization in general. Poets like Veronica Forrest-Thomson and Barry Mac Sweeney have translated the works of poets from the French culture, namely Denis Roche and Apollinaire respectively (Alison, and Deryn 90).

Poets have been influenced by the political unrest in Iraq and Afghanistan, poems have been written on Saddam Hussein, Osama, Idi Amin, and Fidel Castro among others who are not British (Joshi 39). Prynne’s work has heavily been influenced by American Culture as it heavily reflects aspects of Charles Olson and the Black Mountain School of poetry. The influence of globalization can be felt by reading British poems. Specifically, contemporary British poems are no longer influenced simply by one’s urbanity. Rather, events surrounding the poet are recorded in verse, regardless of their subject (Forrest-Thomson “Beyond Reality” 12). Technological advancements like the computer age and internet have increased the range of poetry to an international level. Today, numerous websites exist where people just submit their poetry and it is either published or rejected. The entries are numerous ranging from ten to fifty thousand poems a week. The advent of phones, which can access internet, means that people do not even need to own computers to access the internet, which in itself is a very large source of information. In the internet one can find out what is happening all around the world and go ahead to write poems about this very fast (Hess 197).

This also means that there is a lot of competition as it is no longer only British poets being judged in Britain. British poetry is also no longer selling on in Britain hence the need for the poets to be abreast with global events and to write on an international viewpoint. The computer age has also brought about new challenges for British poets because of copyright issues (Howarth 74). On these poetry websites, a quick analysis on the poems yields results that in the contemporary world are surmountable to plagiarism. However, since the medium is electronic, it is difficult to tell who stole whose work (Howarth 76).

The other problem of this plagiarism is that there is a lot of content that is very similar, hence if a person is looking for a distinctive style, he / she is bound to fail. The numerous poems available are thus overwhelming publishers a well. They are too many and there is not enough demand. There are not so many followers of poetry these days, which means that very few people buy poetry. The most common purchasers of poetry include schools and universities, the rich elite with an appreciation for art, and these tend to prefer paintings to literary art. Consequently, publishers are more likely not to read through every piece that is sent to them for publication (Hess 211). To make matters worse, accountants who have no inkling whatsoever of what constitutes good poetry are now taking over publication firms (Hiley 567). The result is the selection of poetry, not on quality, but on demand or popularity and that has led to the disposal of a lot of good poetry.

Prynne is a good example of the wave of development in his poems on science. Examples of his works include “Pigment Depot” and “Again in the Black Cloud” in Wound Response, and “Aristeas in Seven Years” which is a passionate verse on archaeology, and “Acquisition of Love”, a poem on genetics, both found in The White Stones (Watson 87). Allen Fisher and Andrea Brady are other examples of contemporary British poets whose works are almost similar to that of Prynne. Barry MacSweeney’s poetry portrays an element of him depicting his status of life in the poem, alcoholism, and an obsession with a certain woman. This integration of personal life experiences or feelings into a poem is a quality borrowed from Romanticism. Nevertheless, it is important to note that whereas Barry incorporates his own feelings and experiences into his work, he does this using past poets’ works to conjure the specific feeling he wants to portray, then he presents this past into the context of the present.

This way, he does not duplicate the traditional poem word-for-word (Jarvis 153). That is a characteristic of contemporary British poetry. The poets may borrow from older poems, but they never simply translate, or duplicate these older versions, instead, they get a concept from them that will enhance their propagation of their intended message best, and take that specific context. Translation experts have also stipulated the importance of being conversant with at least one language for a person to translate effectively (Piette 202). This necessary linguistic prowess refers both to one’s ability to read and to write effectively. However, Prynne shies away from this kind of display. If anything, he shuns it completely. His poems do not tell any stories neither do they describe experiences. Instead, they report on abstract qualities of fields such as science, linguistics, economics and art (Windle 461).

The poem is so far removed from whatever the author is going through in his/ her personal life at the time. This stands out as a characteristic observed in some traditional poets, especially W. H. Auden. Auden was very Wordsworthian in his poetry. Therefore, since Wordsworth was a Romanticist, so was he (Kendall 24). However, he shied away from complete ‘nature worship,’ preferring in its place Byron’s poetic technique, although Byron too was a Romanticist, he was more mature, and realistic that his colleagues who bordered on the ideal and surreal (Pybus 73). Therefore, Forrest-Thomson and Prynne have acquired some of Auden’s traits in poetry. An example of Auden’s poetry that illustrates this point is “The Managers”.

T. S. Eliot, another Romantic poet who heavily influenced contemporary poetry had the view that any poetry that does not define certain values or beliefs, and only focuses on the perfection of stylistic devices is inadequate. Most contemporary poets take this view for gospel and strive to write poems with certain deep values and beliefs informing them. For instance, sonnet mastery is a depiction of such a value and Veronica Forrest-Thomson uses sonnets in the presentation of several of her poems. A good example is the “Selection Restrictions on Peanuts for Dinner” poem. The stanza, “Sweat is no more impure” covers almost two thirds of the line in the right side, and then “than tears” comes on the left in the second line. This heavily implies the presence of a Volta (Read 81).

Contemporary poetry in Britain has undergone a metamorphosis in terms of it being publicized and poets getting monetary rewards for their works. Other romantic poets who influenced these contemporary poets include A. C. Swinburne, Lord Alfred Tennyson, Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Carlos Williams. The trend of poetic revolution has always been an attempt to emulate and improve on the predecessors. Although since time immemorial poets have had to support themselves through careers in other associated or different vocations, nowadays one can make a living out of poetry, if their poems are good enough. This can be attributed to the revolutionized technological developments, which make it easier for a poet’s work to be appreciated by a wide audience in a short span of time. Poets can now write in Britain and have their work recognized in America, Africa, and Asia for instance, within no time. This has increased the available volumes of poetry, and stiffened competition, making contemporary poetry the most ingenuous of all time. An example of this phenomenon is Robert Frost. He is an American poet who moved to Britain while his work was still unrecognized, only to meet Edward Thomas who recognized his talent and launched his poetic career in both Britain and America (Whitted 21).

Another example is Paul Muldoon, an Irish poet with a distinctly sophisticated poetic intelligence, now international. However, the issue of materialistic poetry still bothers most poets, as they cannot make a living writing poetry. Most of their poems are recognized after their death, and the financial gain attributed to their work is post-humus. However, recognition for one’s poetic prowess is being awarded accordingly. For instance, Carol Ann Duffy was awarded the 2009 appointment as Poet Laureate’s in the United Kingdom. More recently, Andrew Motion clenched that title (Hiley 565). Publicity has thus increased considerably in the early twenty-first century. Finally, female poets are on the increase in contemporary poetry, Forrest Thomson, Margaret Atwood, and Maya Angelou include some of the popular names of women who have written contemporary poetry (Alison, and Deryn 76).

On women, it is important to note the important role played by poet Denis Riley on influencing feminist poetry, she is the inspiration guiding most of the contemporary British feminist poets. However, that is not to say that female poets were not in existence before Riley’s explosive poetic career, they were in plenty. Research conducted by Adriana Craciun indicates that between 1730 and 1830 alone, at least 2484 poetic volumes were published by women, and that the number of female poets in that era was not less than 900 (Alison, and Deryn 55). Therefore, female poets are not a uniquely contemporary aspect in the history of British poetry. The only difference is that they are more vocal and assertive in the contemporary era. The multiplicity of contemporary poetic styles is another feature worth mentioning. In the contemporary era, there are experimentation poets, who have a very interesting way of presenting their poetry. Experimentation has been driven by the belief that the previous poets were unpredictable hence, new poets constantly seek to find a solid ground for their poetry. The famous saying of Ezra Pound “Make it new” could also have fuelled these poets thirst for changing the conventional (Pound 12).

However, other factors contributed as well, for instance, the World War I shook most people’s faith in European Imperialism, World War II was even more shocking, industrialization in Europe, universal literary competence and employment also affected this writing styles. Another contemporary style is language poetry, whereby the poets are only concerned with linguistics in the composition of their poems (O’Neil 61). This takes the format of the subject being a linguistic concept that they wish to define or if not, they use linguistics to define a certain concept of human nature. Either way, an untrained eye will find difficulty in fathoming this kind of text because it requires special training in literary and linguistic theory. Prynne and Forrest-Thomson are most affected by the aspects of language poetry, but other contemporary poets who specialize in this kind of writing include Bob Perelman and Silliman (McHale 129).

This school of poetry has its genesis in 1971 in the NY magazine, and Ezra Pound is one of its founding fathers. Soon, they produced a publication called L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine which cemented the presence of this school in society. Despite initially restricting themselves solely to poetry writing, the academic field soon took interest and they started teaching language poetry in schools and universities (Wilkinson 102). It is characterized by arbitrary and seemingly nonsensical verses and the poetic style is in outright defiance of traditional requirements of poetry. However, readers find the poems interesting and well composed. Another feature of contemporary poetry is its inclination towards surrealism. MacSweeney illustrates this aspect very well in his poem “Icarius”.

However, contemporary poets, and particularly Prynne, Veronica Thomson and Barry MacSweeney have faced much criticism for their use of difficult language or jargon in their poems (McHale 215). In other words, not unless one has majored in the particular field, which the poem is about, he/she cannot understand the poem in front of them. This is a true allegation for all these poets. If we take Veronica’s “A Plea for Excuse” for instance, this is a poem on linguistics and to the trained eye or ear, an intellectual jukebox describing “the importance of technique and precision in poetry”. This is a poem, which uses “forced enjambments” to assert its formal control (Middleton 949). It features jargon that is both literarily critical and linguistically technical. Veronica Forrest uses language in the place of experience in this poem, as technical as that sounds, it sounds even more complicated to an inexperienced reader trying to figure out what the poet is saying, or one who is trying to establish the poet’s disposition by analyzing her work. J. H. Prynne’s work is even more complex. For instance, here is a stanza from “Pigment Depot” in Wound Response, “We apply for rebate in the form provided / injected with vanillic acid diethylamide / our displacement is fused / by parody (Coy, and Ludwig 177). This is pure Chemistry jargon. Readers without a knowledge base on carbon or acidity for instance will not grasp anything from these poems (McHale 43). MacSweeney is the simplest of the three poets under scrutiny in this paper, but his work has also raised a lot of controversy in terms of the language he uses. For instance, the fifth poem in Hellhound Memos “Your Tentship” contains a line “Please spill me the dew from cusloppe’s rim”. ‘Cusloppe’ is an archaic English word for cowslip (Piette 203). By archaic, I mean fourteenth century. Such terminologies disorient a reader who has not figured out Barry’s technique of using temporal locations and language to allude to the past.

The contemporary field of poetry in Britain features numerous literary competitions. The monthly ones are mostly organized by poetry magazines and other small presses. Poets are required to pay a fee that ranges from $10-$20 dollars each and given the large numbers of poets that are present in Britain, this can make quite a large sum. It is during these competitions that a lot of talent is usually recognized. However, a lot does not necessarily mean that many participants will find any sponsors. A few do, usually two or three, and these get a formidable reward in terms of cash, and a slot in the magazine for the next month or so, or a chance to have their collection published. However, this system is marred with irregularities. For instance, it has been alleged that these event organizers collect a lot of money from numerous registration, but give back only a little of it to few winners as prize money, keeping the rest (Whitted 19). That could be true because poetry does not sell as well as fashion or business and so there is a need for alternative income. Apart from this arbitrary prizing of a few poets, the adjudicating team is usually swamped with material and keen reading through all the text is virtually impossible, and so most people do not. As a result, a lot of good and unique poetry is disposed off and talent goes down the drain.

Another aspect of contemporary poetry is the reviews necessary to prove to the public a poet’s worth or the lack of it. The same problem facing the adjudicators of competitions faces reviewers and the result is poorly reviewed poetry. In addition to this, most reviewers are journalists, and they write poetry part time. There is therefore a conflict of interest during reviewing and most tend to prioritize journalism or spend a lot of time on the editing of their writing style or the marketability of a review article, than on the independent qualities of poems. In addition to this, there stands a growing culture of ‘back-scratching’ undermining the sincerity of reviews. Most of the reviewers also write poetry and they need to get good reviews. The zeal to attain cultural and intellectual status blinds most poets into losing their integrity. That is how corruption gets an opening, in the writing of good reviews just to guarantee good reviews for themselves. Their ‘club membership’ is at stake and if by any chance they defame a fellow poet, or write things about his work that will jeopardize his status in society, it is often followed by a quick, prompt and sincere apology, or a clarifications that negates the negative sentiments. Contemporary British poetry publishers are also flocked by a multiplicity of multinational poets for instance Paul Muldoon and Carol Ann Duffy are not British yet their works are published by Bloodaxe, Routledge, Cacanet, and Peterloo, among other firms.

The academic environment has also taken a keen interest in tutoring students on poetry theories. High school students learn about Romanticism and the poets who ascribed to it, and in university, they learn about linguistic and literary theories, with names like Empson, and Austin making numerous appearances on their coursework. Most of their lecturers are contemporary poets themselves. They therefore write poetry, and then teach their students on how to read and write similar poetry. For instance, Prynne was a student at Cambridge, he then went ahead to teach poetry. There is an element of supplementary careers for a poet that replicates its self in these contemporary times. Evidently, just like it was in the traditional era, poetry does not pay so well, or nearly well enough to support the life of a poet and his family. Poets’ attitudes are also an interesting feature of contemporary British poetry. Most contemporary British poets are self indulgent, self-centered, and self-serving. An analysis of Barry’s work for instance shows his struggle with alcoholism, and his writing about it. He does not seem to have been writing with the aim of influencing somebody in the same situation for the better. Instead, he was kind of writing it for himself. Prynne has been passed up during many nominations due to his arrogance, which makes people believe that he would not even turn up for the awarding ceremony. Although that attitude by other poets could also just be a cover up, for not wanting to acknowledge his prowess, as that is another trait shared by most contemporary poets (Hess 307). Veronica Forrest Thomson is notorious for her objectionable usage of private allusion and symbolism, and although she learnt this questionable style from Pound, “who haunts most of her work,” she was intellectual enough to have figured out the negative effects of such usage on her readers, but she did not give heed to that either. This attitude has also led to a form of ‘intellectual snobbery’ or the need to stand out from the rest of society and realism (Hess 338). As a result, contemporary poets develop traits like racism, contempt for the masses, which could be an explanation for Prynne’s solitary existence, a retreat to arcane philosophy, idealism, existentialism, and post-culturalism.

The issue of personality cults is also common in contemporary scenes, where the founding fathers of a certain school of poetry are viewed as being beyond reproach. This inhibits progressive growth of poetry, which is supposed to be achieved through constructive criticism. The sad state of contemporary poetry criticism is that if a poet is criticized, he / she adopts a different approach altogether abandoning the initial approach instead of correcting his / her follies and writing better poetry, for example Lowell ‘jumped’ from Confessionalism to Formalism. This is detrimental to poetry and of late poets have gone as far as totally ignoring critics’ sentiments and continuing to write in the styles that please them. Poetry is becoming more and more individualistic. Contemporary poetry is mostly built on theories that have since been repudiated or extensively developed by their respective fields. For instance, poets are writing on Freudian Psychiatry whereas presently even Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is headed for history, other archaic topics or subjects include structuralism, and deconstruction. It is about time poetry evolved subject wise into the metaphor theory, hermeneutics, neuroscience, and other current trends. At least on this point J. H. Prynne is stepping in the right direction with his incorporation of stock brokering, genetics, and other technological terms in his poems (Middleton 951). However, there is also a need for the proper usage of technical terminologies if they are adopted. Another reason why contemporary poetry is not so popular in Britain is that its ‘truth’ is dead. Poets have become social pariahs in terms of literary contribution because they do not write on current social, economic, and political events, but journalists do. In addition to this, when they do write, they use complex, mostly unintelligible vocabulary and are always coming up with ‘startling new devices.’ In short, readers are confounded and poetry just does not have the same appeal as TV programs and movies, or even novels.

Chief characteristics

Contemporary British Poetry is characterized by numerous distinctive features that set it apart from traditional poetry. These include the stylistic devices used, the themes that contemporary poets favor, the prevailing attitudes of poets on monetary gain, the publicity accorded to this poetry, the standard of reviews and nature of reviewers, the effect of technological developments on the quality and quantity of poetry, and other general characteristics. The distinctive features or characteristics of contemporary poetry are explained bellow.


This refers to several characteristics including a keen disregard by contemporary poets of traditional or cultural requirements of poetic prowess. For instance, formal verse is replaced with free verse so that the poems are still traditional in all aspects but with a modern exterior or look (Jarvis 155). Free verse can take many forms. It can either resemble the formal verse, with the only difference being that its lines and meter are longer, or it can take a standard verse format that appears like a blank verse that has been rearranged throughout the page. An example of this rearranged standard verse format is T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, the final possible format is one that incorporates quantitative variations in rhyming or one that lacks rhyme and meter but still has cadence. It could also mean the deliberate integration of modernist characteristics like anti-realism, intellectualism, individualism, and experimentation (Jarvis “The Poetry of Keston” 144). Anti-realism refers to the nature of art representing itself and not anything beyond it, so that readers cannot find ‘further reading’ on the artwork that they are seeking to understand. This further complicates poetry and estranges readers because most of contemporary poetry does not make any sense at first glance and is requires a lot of further research to grasp its contents. However, the only sensible further reading available is the poets’ own interpretation of their work, which does not appease most inquisitive readers who are looking for reliable authorities to back a poetic writing (Piette 204).

Anti-realism also depicts a preference for allusion, which is often private, over description. This creates an even tougher scenario for untrained or inexperienced readers as they will never recognize or even if they are able to identify, the process of analyzing an alluded concept is often so taxing that most people just give up altogether. This poetry also features a perception of the world that has been arrived at and is being portrayed in the poem through the artist’s inner feelings and mentalities. In that respect, it is very subjective. The themes that are written about are very inquisitorial over conventional views. For instance, authors pick topics on homosexuality, abortion, pornography and go ahead to try to justify their presence or even necessity in society, all in a bid to make the reader question most of the dogmatic views society has on certain issues. Finally, the usage of myths characterizes anti-realism and unconscious forces in the place of reality. Experimentation is quite different from the scientific version where researchers come up with a hypothesis that they try to approve or disapprove. Artistic experimentation is guided by a distrust of previous artworks and their authors. Consequently, contemporary poets seek new ways of writing poetry that they think will either improve on their predecessors’ writing techniques and works or completely overhaul these old forms. Poetic revolution is an inevitable process with the passage of time. However, it is important to note here that poetry as an art is concerned with the more permanent aspects of human nature. It is not always shifting, or rediscovering new ‘truths’ like science, geology, or business. It is therefore imperative that poets maintain an aspect of predictability, and standardization in terms of writing. Without such regulation, the original purpose of poetry shall be lost with the passage of time. Of course, there are those who correctly assert that whatever purpose poetry served a century ago is no longer the same for today.

This may be true, but it is also important to understand that poetry does not change: it is the time that passes. This means that even in the revolutionized contemporary poetry, there is an aspect of traditional poetry, if not in anything else, in the name ‘poetry’. Another aspect of experimentation manifests itself in the form of a complete contradiction of readers’ expectations. Contemporary poets seem to delight in constantly surprising their readers. When a person picks a poetry book for instance, they expect to find poems with stanzas, meters, stylistic devices like metaphors and similes, descriptive lines on unclear meanings, and allusions made to familiar aspects. None of these characteristics can be found in a book for contemporary poetry. Instead, poets like Barry MacSweeney use fourteenth century terminologies like ‘Cusloppe’ and Veronica Thomson’s multilevel allusion serves only to confound them further. The other aspect of contemporary poetry is individualism, which refers to prioritization of the artist’s perspective over all. Contemporary poetry is rich with self-centered poets who no longer write for the society or community, but they do it for themselves (Yezzi 29). They are after status and recognition more than they are seeking to express the issues troubling or affecting the community. For this reason, their work disregards any conventional usage of stylistic devices, seeking instead to embrace personal or scholarly techniques.

Their poems are characteristic of a poet’s nurturing of his or her individual consciousness. They report on the personal growth of the poet. Therefore, there is a distinct deviation of themes from conventional subjects such as religion, science (with the exception of Prynne of course, although even he cannot be said to be fully scientific as most of the scientific jargon he uses is in his poetry is misplaced and misused), and social mechanisms. There is a marked obsession with the maintenance of an individual’s intellectual independence, which saw many poets shun their colleagues in fear of losing their independence. J. H. Prynne has been greatly praised for his unique poetry with some even going as far as declaring him the best in England so far. However, he is neither a regular nominee nor candidate for most of the poetic awards given in the English or even international poetic society because people do not believe that he will even show up. This demonstrates the level of detachment contemporary poets have from colleagues in the same literary field and art. However, to its credit, this poetry is characterized with peer reviews of poetic work. That is a traditional aspect of poetry as even in the past, poets’ work was reviewed and criticized by fellow poets.

However, this method of reviewing poetry by fellow poets is fast its losing integrity. This is because a legacy of back scratching is developing within the poetic realms. Other individualistic aspects include an aristocracy of the avant garde and exclusiveness. Contemporary poetry is majorly associated with cerebral writing, as opposed to a writing based on emotions. Cerebral writing is concerned with thought processes and very technical in nature. The resultant work is analytical and fragmentary with more questions being posed to the reader than answers being supplied by the author. This stands out as one way through which this poetry evokes readers’ participation and contribution. It features cool observation, without an ‘unnecessary’ display of emotion or passion. It is a ‘collected’ and ‘mature’ poetry. Auden wrote such poetry, with most of this ‘mature’ influence coming from Lord Byron (Yezzi 30). The perspectives displayed in such work are detached and impersonal, although the poets are usually very engaged with their fields. Finally, intellectual poetry is presented involutedly. This simply means that when complete, the subject usually explains the poetry. If it is on linguistics for instance, like Veronica Forrest Thomson’s “Individuals”, the subject will be on a linguistic concept.

This poetry also has a marked persistence in consistent prose with punctuator line breaks. These line breaks serve as attention detractors, which direct the reader to a specific part of the poem with a specifically important meaning, or with artistic rhyme. The most recent of poetry features unadulterated prose whose only variations come in the form of a multiplicity of assonance and melodic echoes. Another form that contemporary poetry takes is the maintenance of the conventional appearance of ‘line of text’ or even the usage of rhyme while truncating the impression of an implied speaker or of the poem being narrated, and mocking the rest of the traditional poetry’s cultural inclinations. These poems are also written on majorly experimental basis, meaning that they have a minimalist usage of words and generalizations. If a word or phrase does not contribute directly to the text in question, it is abandoned completely regardless of producing a ‘nonsensical’ effect on the poem as a whole. There is also the overemphasis of soundtracks and graphics that relate to the contemporary audience. All these features are evident in contemporary poetry’s persistence in ignoring and avoiding the traditional culture established by ‘poetic’ legends.

Another feature is the removal of the author from the limelight created by the poem. The poet is not the main subject and even the implied possibility of his presence behind the scenes is done away with. Instead of such personal reference, contemporary poetry prefers to exalt a poet’s intentions in the writing of his work. It also emphasizes on his role as the ‘voice’ of a certain era, giving poems the authority, status, and recognition necessary to be the watchdogs of society (Yeats 41). These poems are also famous for their intentional contradiction of readers’ expectation. A poet feels very proud and successful when his works defy public expectations completely. That has led to the creation of some very unorthodox poems, like J.H. Prynne’s which contain a jumble of difficult jargon that has not necessarily been applied correctly, but is only placed in the poem to confound the reader. Other poets use this technique to look educated or informed. Contemporary poetry also features a lot of irony, parody, and pastiche, which is more often than not incorporated to prevent an effortless discernment of the poet’s sources. This practice has been heavily criticized by critics who have come to term it ‘the art of articulation / ventriloquism (Read 74).

Veronica Forest Thomson is known for this and an example of where it manifests itself boldly is in the poem “Cordelia” where she writes, “March is the cruelest station”. This is an example of a hidden meaning an a reader from without England, or one who has not studied Literature may pass this phrase off as a highly intelligent creation of Forrest’s, or go ahead and misinterpret it. Part of how she manages to accomplish this obstruction is by the usage of private allusion, a feature, which shall be discussed I detail in another part of this paper. Contemporary poetry is a leading advocate against ethnicity, gender, and all other forms of cultural repressions and discrimination. This is evident in the themes adopted by most of the poets in their works. This spirit has also been largely influenced by the socio-political developments that have washed over the twentieth century.

Legislators have passed policies against any form of oppression and it would be absurd if poets continued to write chauvinistic or racist poems. Another common feature is also in the condensation of the content. This is achieved by the avoidance of generalizations and unnecessary words, writing that is composed primarily of abstract thoughts, and sometimes the construction of pure nonsense. This happens because of the literary restrictions imposed upon poets. In schools and universities, poetry lectures are busy drilling holes in students’ heads with ideas of literary theory. Strict adherence to this theory results in interesting poetry indeed, but sometimes, it can be derogatory, especially when all a poet focuses on is fulfilling the requirements of the theories without allowing room for any flexibility or variations.


Most of contemporary poetry has been defined as groundless. The basis of this almost insulting description lies in the application of flat media-like imagery. This type the type of imagery that lacks any external point of reference. It is cut off from further illustrative explanations as it seeks to explain itself. For this reason, a reader has no other evidence other than that which is presented in the poem to use in validating a poem’s sentiments. The poem is therefore groundless. Another possible reason for this definition of contemporary poetry could be the lack of sensuality in these poems. Contemporary poets have numerously rejected conventional requirements of poetry citing their predecessors’ unpredictability as their reason for deviance (Silliman 42). They prefer primary and unmediated poetry instead of the sensuous poetry of old. Another feature of groundlessness is the depiction of art and life as fiction. This view governs most of contemporary poets writing and in the event that both concepts are portrayed concurrently in a poem, the result is magical realism and a multiplicity of finales.


In addition to lacking sensuality, this poem is neither harmonious nor organic. The latter qualities are characteristic of modernist poetry. Its aesthetic quality is minimal. The contemporary poets have reduced the aesthetic quality of their poems so much so that one cannot simply read contemporary poetry for the sheer fun of it and/or simply to enjoy and appreciate art. Contrary to this admiration, readers are forced to pore over their Oxford English Dictionaries every time they consider reading J. H. Prynne’s The Waste Land, or Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s “Selection Reductions in Peanuts for Dinner”. The result of these complexities is negative in that most of contemporary poetry lacks a following in the public. Why bother with reading poetry when you can simply watch a movie and have more fun? Most people go for the latter. Another feature of these poems is their open endings. There stand no definite ‘meaning’ and or ‘resolution’ that one can derive from this poetry. Instead, poets argue out one possible perspective of examining a certain concept and leave the option of picking on a possible conclusion to the reader. At a glance, this poetry looks incomplete, as the author was onto something but did not quite get it; it leaves the reader at a near-climax where they have to finish the race for themselves. This technique is present in most contemporary poets works including Prynne, Barry, and Forrest-Thomson’s but it was most evident in Philip Larkin’s poetry, speeches, writings, and reported conversations. It is noted in his autobiography that at some point it became too much, he would start a conversation and stop at the most inopportune time. It is rumored to be a trend that he and a group of friends developed. Kind of their own private slang, it features versions of abstract thoughts all jumbled up, and to the un-intellectual, or even distracted intellectual reader may appear to be nonsense. Most critics have gone ahead to actually call it nonsense because it defeats the purpose of poetry, which is to communicate and be understood.

Contemporary poetry is also notorious for its heavy fragmentation of text. The lines are usually short and choppy and they are very spaced out. Examples of this feature can be found in J. H. Prynne’s “The Distance” and Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s “Selection Restrictions in Peanuts for Dinner” (Silliman 3). I should note here that this poem by Veronica Forrest-Thomson fits this paper to a slight, and most of the features of contemporary poetry described here can be seen in its lines and text. Anyway, the fragmentation of contemporary poetry results in collages and montages, which serve as a kind of further abbreviation in this poetry. These features offer an allusive explanation to the concept that the poet is speaking about in his poem. However, another pitfall appears on that notion because it means that if the reader does not understand or relate to the allusion, it shall have been wasted on them. Sadly, though, contemporary poets do not seem very concerned about the readers’ grasp on their work’s content. This poetry also avoids any descriptive stylistic devices such as metaphors. This sounds contradictory in terms of the aim of the poets to be as precise as possible, and that is not the first contradiction of which this poetic has been accused. However, the only further elaboration I can offer on the avoidance of descriptive stylistic devices is that the poets are avoiding sensuality, or abstaining from the conventional culture of poetry. This poetry also features the mixture of genres with pastiche, travesty, clichés, and parody. In general, they feature a sense of deliberate misrepresentation created through distorted impressions and descriptions. Most of these poets are known for their ‘satirical’ writing. The final feature under formlessness is the poets’ avoidance of controversial themes. They embrace controversy in stylistic devices, and other non-conventional tendencies. However, they steer off political, economic, and social controversies. This feature also has both negative and positive impacts. It works to their advantage in that they would not want to lose readership, especially because the world has become much diversified in terms of values and beliefs. One never knows just who is listening to him/her. In addition, he/she never knows how people will take the message communicated. Therefore, it is wiser to avoid sensitive topics. The negativity of avoiding controversy lies in producing boring or redundant poetry. Most people have shifted their attention to the more graphic, and transient (in terms of content) media. Journalists are bound to report on the most controversial happenings of society, which is what keeps people plugged in. However, poets and their insistence on ‘deep’ linguistic, philosophical, or psychological content can only keep one hooked for so long. Instead, their works are relegated to rich and prominent societal figures with an appreciation of literary arts, or schools and universities for poetry analysis, or publishers interested in poetry.


Contemporary poets apply only the ‘well known’- by their publics and audiences, in their artwork. This is a prudent feature of contemporary poetry because it guarantees that the audience will associate more easily with their works. People generally react positively to the familiar and contemporary poetry’s success has been linked to this aspect. For instance, Barry Sweeney’s poems in Hellhound Memos relate on his alcoholism ‘I have not been trying with much effervescence to overcome my love for alcohol {…} lately” (MacSweeney 19), a feature that Lord Gordon Byron’s “Don Juan” is renowned for (Jarvis 152). People can relate to being drunk and so Barry’s poems are personalized by his readers. His reference to ‘shell suits’ and ‘a rack of E’ in “Me the Multiplex Moron” and ‘my free delivered catalogue’ in “Sky so very vast blue” displays the contemporary nature of his poems as these slangs are characteristic with late twentieth century atmosphere in Britain. Another trait that poets who use this feature have is the tendency of inviting their readers and audiences to contribute to, and / or participate in the poems. This mostly takes the form of implied meanings, which challenge the reader to analyze actively the contents of the poem or its important concepts, then draw the most conclusive analysis of the missing meaning, or obstructed intention of the poet.

Populism is also denoted by the incorporation of materials that have been derived from a myriad of social sources. J. H. Prynne comes to mind as the poet who is capable of incorporating terminologies from fields that are as diverse as science and geology. His art of combining words from various avenues is impressive, although this sentiment is not inclusive of his logicality. Whereas he is good at mixing up words lyrically, the correct usage of the words he favors is an issue that is yet to be settled by his critics. Veronica Thomson has written poetry on various subjects ranging from paintings to English Grammar. Given the fact that she is notorious for applying private allusion in her poetry, which is usually in reference to a very wide range of past and present poets, one can accurately assert that she writes from various social sources. It is also not surprising that this type of poetry is associated with an Elitist literary language. This is because most of the poets who fall under this category were educated in contemporary or more specifically, modernist schools and universities, which lay a lot of emphasis on literary theory. Part of literary theory is about the linguistic theory, which advocates for the creation of poetry on language.

In short, poets write about issues like grammar, and use of prepositions, or adjectives. This forms the body of the poem, with each successive line giving a further illustration of the point of discussion, or even a typical example on the usage of a particular grammatical aspect. A case in point is Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s “A Plea for Excuses”. This poem is on linguistics itself and it is about precision and technique in poetry. It borrows from Austin’s theory. It is in fact titled after the title of his speech on the same (Austin 4). In this feature, there is an aspect of language figuring out the subject, or even mediating an experience. For a reader to understand the poet’s intent, he/she has first to understand the concept of language being advanced, then use the same method applied in the reaching of his / her understanding, to the grasping of the hidden meaning. A taxing process indeed, but the gratification that comes with the final understanding makes it worth the struggle. Contemporary poetry is associated with an arbitrary and even playful nature. The poet can be seen as a humorous person, who writes just for the sake of it, and not necessarily trying to make a point. There is a definite lack of seriousness about cultural restrictions and poems shirk their responsibility of conforming to the conventional style of poetry. Whereas this may put off some readers, especially the very focused and serious, it is a good quality in that is depicts humor in poetry. For decades, poetry has been associated with the elite and their avant garde aristocracy, and even presently, it still possesses some element of this avant garde. However, this need not be the case, and especially not with contemporary poetry, which has defied all odds to get to its position in society. Like Ezra Pound once said, “Let’s try the new” (Pound 14).

Since contemporary poetry is already ‘new’, there is no reason for its poets to be held back on such a mundane matter as a sense of humor. If anything, that may be just what society needs right now to get its focus back on poetry. The final aspect that I will address on contemporary poetry is the use of media images as building blocks. This is mostly so because they are what is available as contemporary art. To clarify this further, I will refer to traditional poets who used nature as their building blocks, it was what they knew, what they saw around them. In contemporary times, city or urban life has removed most people from their rural areas and so nature is far removed from the consciousness. In addition to this, nature is associated with poverty, and poor sanitation as compared to the lucrative nature of urban life, and most people, prefer not to be reminded of the existence of such conditions. Poets are no exception, but even if they were, it would make reason stare to write about something that nobody wants to hear. The other distinctive characteristic of this poetry is in its usage of private allusion and symbolism. Forrest’s “Cordelia” mentioned above could illustrate these concepts best (Thomson 5). The line “March is the cruelest Station” could be misconstrued to mean different things depending on the reader’s socialization and cultural experiences. However, the folly lies on the poet’s obstruction in writing.

The phrase may make sense to English or literature majors who know that Eliot wrote, (“April is the cruelest month”) while alluding to Chaucer, (“Whan that Aprille with his shoures soot…”). The reader also needs to be familiar with the English Railway network as ‘March’ is a stop about three quarter way from London to Cambridge via Ipswich and Dullingham. The usage of allusion and symbolism in this case is objectionable. Allusion’s purpose is to familiarize the reader with a particular concept that the author may have had difficulty in expressing, or capturing in words, thus reverting to allusion (Irwin 293). To fulfill its purpose, the object or subject alluded to must be common or public enough for the reader to easily identify or recognize it when he/ she sees it in the poem. In Forrest’s case, a foreign reader will be very at sea, as to what ‘March’ is alluding to, and even the idea derived from Eliot, who in turn derived it from Chaucer, may escape many uncultured readers (Thomson 3). However, this is the nature of allusion and symbolism in contemporary poetry and readers are struggling to keep up with the multi-dimensional arrangements of meaning or methods used in poetry nowadays.

In the early 1970s, there came about a new school of poetry, known as l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e poetry. This was heavily influenced by literary theories and its subscribers had some fiercely anti-capitalist and Marxist views. Their poetry rejected any representation of bourgeoisie values as well. They borrowed heavily from the writings of Barthes. Its creation is associated with Ezra Pound, Louis Zukofsky, and Gertrude stein and it has numerous followers among contemporary poets. Some of the more loyal ones include Charles Bernstein and Ron Silliman. This poetry can best be defined by what its writers did not ascribe to, and these includes narratives, or any forms of narrations in poetry, personal expressions- they advocated for poetry with an absentee author, which was largely Barthes’ ideology (Hiley 566). They also shunned any sort of organization in their work. This included the use of stanzas, preferring line poetry in their place, but the lines used were arranged and constructed to hold the reader’s attention, and make him / her want to know more. An example of such usage is depicted in Bob Perelman’s “Chronic Meanings”- “Come what may it can’t / There are a number of / But there is only one / that is why I want to” (Silliman 6). In addition, most of the poets generally wrote poems, which had no special purpose or even meaning as depicted in the above poem. The poems were not meant to emphasize on any known human condition, or to be used by certain high school students to understand poetry.

They were somewhat just written to piece words together and not necessarily in a chronological order. These poems despised any portrayal of poetic control and rhetoric control within these poems was literally unheard of. They were inclined towards open endings then advocated for by poets like William Carlos Williams and the Black Mountain School of poetry. Despite the clumsy picture depicted by these descriptions, this poetry was a clever art indeed and words were not just stringed together haphazardly, legendary poets like Pound took their time to put together poetry and came up with very entertaining results. One such poem, which illustrates the sense of humor, is Charles Bernstein’s “Thinking I Think I Think”. “Don’t give me a label as long as I / am able. Search & displace, curse / & disgrace. Suppose you suppose / circumstances remonstrating…” (Silliman 9). An interesting aspect of language poetry, which seems to overlap with the rest of contemporary poetry’s general characteristics, is the use of a speaking voice. Although it may be said to be in tandem with another contemporary poetry’s style of using media devices, it does not quite sit well with that definition either. The result is usually a verse that resembles the speech of a radio presenter. An example is Robinson’s “Hey poetry lovers! / it’s good to see you / here on the page/ / the white spaces / are looking good / today, huh?” (Silliman 12).

J. H. Prynne

He has several collections of poems published by different presses. His first collection, Force of Circumstance was published in 1962 by Routledge. He then published three more collections in 1968, but the White Stones, published in 1969 caught the world’s attention. His last work was published by Bloodaxe in 1999, which is a neat collection of 440 poems. J. H. Prynne’s work is unique on almost all levels. He does not write on personal experiences, and his work does not feature personal expressions. Instead, like Forrest-Thomson, he writes or areas of discourse and practices strict rhetoric and poetic control. He also writes on observations and contextual thoughts, which he presents in a ‘collected’ manner and he remains behind the shadows as the implied author. At a glance, his poetry appears as casual writing that has been phrased painstakingly. An analysis of the work proves that he is serious about his subjects, but it maintains certain arbitrariness about it. This can be seen in the poem “Lend a Hand in Bands around the Throat” where he says, “Now these hurt visitors submit, / leaning in the brilliant retinue / to be helpless by refusal…” (Prynne 44) His reference base is very wide, and his vocabulary is living proof. It ranges from Business to geology seemingly effortlessly on his part. However, this does not mean that his vocabulary is correctly used. His work gives very limited information and out rightly shuns conventional poetic styles.

Prynne is famous for his dispassionate perspectives on humanity’s response to stimuli. His tone is indifferent most of the time and he repeatedly writes portraying the inconsequentiality of existence. His subject is contained within the parameters of his poem, without any external sources and he is usually biased about several of the concepts he writes about. He also lacks ‘pure sense’ in some of his writings. A good example is in, “High Pink on Chrome” where he writes, (“Pretty sleep lips; the carrots need thinning, / pork chops are up again. We sail and play / as clouds go on the day trip…” (Prynne 47). This does not mean that he is stupid or mentally inebriated. It simply means that sometimes something may make sense to him but he fails to bring the reader to the same conclusion as he, leaving the reader at a climax for him / her to figure out a proper meaning for the poem. This type of writing was associated with Philip Larkin (Ferguson 139). Prynne achieves this through among other ways, the juxtaposition of multiple elements without any apparent congruence, or systematic flow.

People have associated Prynne’s writing with the influence of several poets, but the one poet who seems consistently linked to it is Charles Olson, an American poet. Among other things, Charles Olson is renowned for his usage of Predictive verse. This refers to the use of words as objects or subjects in a poem, and not just as ‘referents’. This style is beautifully captured in his poem “Maximus” (Olson 12). Prynne’s writings bear a certain resemblance to Olson’s, especially on the field of science and in the usage of unintelligible writings. Another poet to whom Prynne’s writing is attributed is Edward Dorn. Dorn belonged to the Blank Mountain School of poetry and he was a firm believer that “breadth rhythm is continuous with the deep organic nature of man” (Olson “The Collected Poems of Charles Olson” 90). Simply put, this phrase emphasizes on open-ended lines, which forced readers to breathe in before embarking on the next line. This feature is commonplace in Prynne’s work. Other qualities espoused by Olson and Dorn and featuring in Prynne’s writing include a keen non-conformity to linear predictability, and a good example is his poem “The Distances”, estrangement, oblique choice of words, rewriting of inaccurate generalizations, especially on the more technical fields where he has no training. In this context, ‘inaccurate’ refers to Prynne’s incorrect explanations and consequent generalizations of complex phenomena.

The other values espoused by Olson and Dorn are an avoidance of a fixed ending or a final interpretation, use of puns, and writing on a wide subject matter. Prynne has been associated with the ‘obscure reveries’ of poets like Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser. His writing is opacious which means it is characterized by language, music, and socially important content. It has been associated with the “pinched observations of Larkin” and the “violent music of Hughes”. An example of these qualities is portrayed in the poem “In Sketch for a Financial Theory of the Self” where he writes, “the names / do you not / see, are just / the tricks we / trust, which / we choose” (O’Neil 243) such beauty in verse is commendable. Unlike T. S. Eliot, to whom he has also been compared, his poetry uses present experience in coming up with a subject and so it is relevant to the contemporary society. His work seems to assume a general direction, which has been described by some critics as “the doctrine of returning to a lost wholeness, an ‘edenic’ origin” (O’Neil 245). This is a state that has also been associated with Ezra Pound’s poetry. Finally, Prynne’s poetry seeks to identify the ‘real’ by defining the processes of reality. In short it does not bear descriptions of what reality is but instead guides the reader through its processes to a personal recognition of reality.

Veronica Forrest-Thomson

In many ways, Veronica Forrest Thomson’s writing is similar to Prynne’s, at least the most contemporary aspects of it. However, she also features unique poetic features that Prynne lacks, and these are mentioned, and explained in detail throughout the poem. She is notorious for naming and basing a lot of her poetry on the titles of great speeches given by people she finds interesting. For instance, “Fetes Nationales and Zazie in the London Underground” is named after “Zazie dans lu Metro”, a 1959 novel by Raymond Queneau (Forrest-Thomson “Collected Poems” 23). “The present King of France is Bald” is Bertrand Russell’s expression (1905). This describes the status of proper names and ‘definite descriptions’. “A Plea for Excuse” is named after a speech given by Austin on the use of ‘technique and precision’ in poetry, and the poem follows to do just that (Austin15). Intertexuality is therefore vivid in its influence on her work. For instance, in her poem “Selection restrictions on peanuts for dinner” Charles Olson’s influence is evident in the step-down format that her work takes. Prynne’s influence on ‘rhetoric control and discursive tone’ is also evident if this poem is compared to his “A Night Squared” and “Into the Day” (Thomson-Forrest 34).

The poem on selection restrictions also depicts structuralism’s conception of ‘different identity’ in the usage of similar sounds with different meanings as in ‘noix’ and ‘noisette’ (Read 82). This is done by linking sound and sense. Thomson’s poetry is heavily influenced by the linguistic theory and its characteristic transformational grammar. This is evident in the separate analysis of syntax, semantics and phonology. Her poetry also portrays critical thought, which results in an admirable aesthesia. An “aesthetic of deliberate dislocation” is also depicted by Forrest, which simply refers to “an assertion of English poetry.” She incorporates in her work Empson’s literary theory and even a bit of Dadaism. Ezra Pound, with his unique prose, is one of her most significant influences as is attested to by her objectionable usage of private allusion and symbolism. Others include Ludwig Wittgenstein and especially his language games, John Ashbery, Prynne, T. S. Eliot, Roland Barthes who influences her view and writing in and on mythology, currents, and structuralism, Max Jacob, and Denis Roche. This poet clearly shares a lot in common with Prynne.

Barry MacSweeney

Barry MacSweeney stands out as an interesting poet whose work seems quite different from that of Veronica and Prynne albeit qualifying as contemporary. His poetry seems very much influenced by Rimbaund and Blake (Jarvis 149). Barry is mostly remembered for his translations and mimicry of other poets, especially of a French origin. He translated Guillaume Apollinaire’s work into English while inserting contemporary features that distinguish his translations from the traditional versions. For instance, he rewrote “After Apollinaire”, and “From Guillaume’s Fete”. Other works by him include “At the Hoppings”, “Icarus” which featured surrealism made people begin to notice his poetry, and most recently, he wrote the sequences Hellhound Memos and Pearl. Pearl was another one among his borrowed works, the original version being called Perle. MacSweeney’s earlier translations have been described as “reckless imitations.” For instance, he refers to Catholicism in a “sly, republican, and political tone” when he is trying to imitate Apollinaire’s tone in “Zone” (Jarvis 150), where Apollinaire compares an airplane’s ascension to Jesus Christ, saints and prophets. MacSweeney is known for his direct jokes, sentimentality, and “almost maudlin” writing which allow him to take big risks in his writing. Hellhound Memos relates experiences of its own time-twentieth century Britain. Barry uses phrases such as “color gas” and “the British DIY chain, B & Q” in “So Quiet Tonight” to portray the contemporary nature of his poems. However, his allusion is direct and obvious, a characteristic of the original or traditional technique of presenting poetry. The contemporary allusions serve as references of location and time or ‘deixis’- ‘the ability to point out’ (Jarvis 153)

This technique enables a reader to identify different eras, cultural times, and social contexts. This therefore stands out also as a contemporary method of using media references or the well known as building blocks in poetry. Barry’s poetic style is unique in its successful portrayal of the present within the context of the past. An example of how this works is in “Linda Manning is a Whore”. There he writes, “Quench in my hart the flames / of badd desyre so foolishly addressed…” (Jarvis 155) this traditional language is used to express present feelings. Another aspect of Barry’s poetry is the use of archaic language to depict spiritual urges as well as emotional strain that cannot be captured as well by contemporary poetry. For instance, in “Sense the Stars and the dark waters”, Barry says, (“Hellhound, thee with vast purchase, off, off!”). This usage presents the opportunity to impart “traditional exhortation” (Jarvis 151) This style of writing has been christened Postmodern Historicism. It refers to the use of traditional language to “depict spiritual and emotional strain.” Barry, in Hellhound Memos applies another non-contemporary style, which is personal expression. He confesses that he has not been too keen to stop drinking alcohol of late. Pearl has been described as a “yearning-for-innocence” sequel, which is an “affectionate remodeling of literary work”. Barry’s style of reworking past works to satisfy present is known as “retro policy” (Jarvis 157).

It involves finding imperfections in traditional works and correcting them to make the work suitable for present times. This type of work is more concerned with creating a ‘sense’ of the past rather than directly duplicating the traditional work’s content. This poetry uses ‘active’ allusions to portray a current personal experience that the poet is undergoing, or a phenomenon that interests him. In Hellhound Memos, Barry is depicting a ‘current’ struggle with alcoholism, whereas in Pearl, he is expressing a personal memory. It is important to understand that in this poetry, these experiences or personal expressions that are usually in the present are the focus of the poetry, and not for instance the 1930s of Robert Johnson in Hellhound or the medieval circa fourteenth century period where the language is derived from in Pearl. For instance, Barry’s poem “now that the vast furtherance” in Hellhound is an expression of his desire to find ‘rest’ from alcoholism, and possibly the disappointment and shame that resulted from his failure to be nominated / appointed as the Oxford university’s Chair of Poetry. The past is presented either in retro display or as an active part of the present.

Barry presents us with a new form of contemporary poetry, which is also unique in its characteristics just as Prynne’s and Forrest Thomson’s are. It is important to note here that intertexuality is evident in all these three contemporary poets. Veronica Forrest Thomson is famous for her adoption and absorption of the French culture in her literature. Amongst the French, she has interacted with Jacques Derrida (Gregson), Jacques Lacan (Raiit), Raymond Queneau (“Zazie dans lu metro”), and Denis Roche, whose work she translated. Prynne has also interacted with several other cultures including the Chinese culture, where he is christened Pu Ling-en, and the American culture (Charles Olson) among others.


The intended purpose of the paper is to find an answer to the question of whether contemporary British poetry is an old wine in a new skin. This simply means that the paper’s findings should give a conclusive answer on the state of contemporary British poetry in relation to traditional poetry. Results indicating that there are more similarities than differences between the poetry written within both eras, invoke the conclusion that indeed, contemporary poetry is an old wine packed in a new skin. For instance, Barry Mac Sweeney’s writings in both Pearl and Hellhound Memos feature a mixture of contemporary and traditional poetic styles. Barry writes his poems to express himself, what he is currently feeling, be it shame, love, nostalgia, violence, or alcoholism. This trait is more common among Romantic poets who are of the traditional era. However, in contrast to this, he is fond of surrealism, and the depiction of the retro display, which is simply the depiction of the past in the frame of the present as he does in Pearl, and this is a contemporary poetry characteristic. Whereas Barry is the most affected poet in terms of having a very thin line that distinguishes him from traditional poetry, both Veronica Forrest Thomson and Prynne have ‘fall-back’ moments in their writing when they revert to traditional poetry. For instance, Forrest’s usage of sonnets in “Selection Restrictions in Peanuts for Dinner” takes her back to the Shakespearean age, and Prynne’s loyalty to the Black Mountain School of poetry which emphasizes on open ended lines with room for ‘a breather’ take him back to the days of Roland Barthes, who is the father of that theory. This paper seeks to conduct this analysis based on the works of Veronica Forrest Thomson, Barry MacSweeney, and J. H. Prynne, of whom only Prynne is still alive, but all are great poets in contemporary Britain. The analysis includes a close inspection of each poet’s works to gain an understanding of their poetic style, followed by a comparison of their works, which will draw out similarities and differences within the contemporary realm, and then what follows is an analysis of the poetic climate before 1900 and slightly into the twentieth century. Among some of the contemporary poetry’s characteristics that are explored are iconoclasm, groundlessness, formlessness and populism. This analysis is necessary for the provision of a contextual picture on the status of poetry as compared to the past or traditional culture. During this analysis, some of the aspects that are given special attention include periods, and in particular, these are stratified into Georgianism, Romanticism, Modernism, and Postmodernism. It is important to note here that these are just general stratifications and that stratifications that are more detailed are included within the text and explained appropriately. In each time, the participant poets will be provided, together with a comprehensive definition of their poetic techniques, common themes, status of life, possible inspirations of their work, and general information on the socio-economic and political developments surrounding their adoption of various attitudes and writing of different works. Among the poets in traditional Britain that are covered in this paper are Wordsworth, Tennyson, Coleridge, Guillaume Apollinaire, Blake, John Keats, Byron, and Roland Barthes. Modernists include T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Ezra Pound, Philip Larkin, and Charles Olson among others. Foreign poets are also incorporated to illustrate their influence on Veronica Thomson Forrest, Prynne, and Barry, especially concerning intertexuality. In conducting the analysis on these latter three poets, some of their poems, and those of their predecessors will be paraphrased or quoted word for word to illustrate various concepts. In the second part of the paper, I look into the background, which I have interpreted to mean the state of poetry preceding the contemporary period. Although I have already touched on some of these characteristics in brief in the first section, the second section gives a more definitive outlook on the same. It gives a comprehensive discussion on poets like Auden, Byron, Tennyson, Coleridge and others who had a significant influence on contemporary poetry. The section also brings into perspective the process of poetic revolution while incorporating the reasons for the revolutions thereby providing an alternative possibility for anti-progressive change that occurred in the past, should contemporary poetry land in the same murky waters. Finally, I provide an outline of the research process within this paper that is a little similar to this objective statement but more comprehensive and precise because it is compiled after the paper has been written.


Contemporary poetry is not the first type of poetry to exist. In fact, that is the reason why it is called contemporary poetry, to refer to the age in which it has become manifested, which is in the present. Consequently, this poetry borrows a lot from earlier versions and forms of poetry, although most contemporary poets are at pain to admit this. However, it is only obvious that this is the case because contemporary poets did not invent poetry, they found it in existence, and it had been for centuries on end. All they did was pass judgment on the credibility of traditional poetry which was largely negative, and that is why a new or contemporary type of poetry has been established. Therefore, to foster a wholesome understanding of contemporary literature, we have to start from the beginning.


These included poets like Virgil the Italian poet who wrote Aeneid, Homer who wrote Odyssey and Iliad, Publius Ovidius Naso (Ovid) who wrote Metamorphoses, the Heroides Books among others, Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Horrace) a Latin poet who wrote many short poems including “The Snows Have Fled” and “The Fleeting Years” among others, and Boewulf. Most of the classical poems were very lengthy and poets often spent their lives writing them so that they were transformed into books. After the classical poetry, there followed a doubtless large number of poetic ages that transpired, but those will not be considered in this paper since space is limited. Therefore, Romanticism is the next most relevant age of poetry


Some of the poets who belonged to this category are William Wordsworth, Alfred Coleridge, John Keats, Lord Gordon Byron, Simon Armitage, William Blake, and Roland Barthes. These poets had major issues with the concept of reality. They believed in an inherent beauty of the supernatural. They believed in the existence of a greater power beyond, or outside the physical world which they lived in. however, this supernatural was beautiful and worked to favor them, and it was not frightening, evil or macabre. They also exalted individualism and the use of complex terminologies to express personal experiences or feelings. These poets were obsessed with nature’s beauty and inspirational power. They therefore frowned at anything that endangered nature such as the technology that was just budding at the time. Their poems contained messages of warnings against technological dependence. Examples of such poets’ artworks include William Blake whose mythological techniques led to write “The Lamb, The Tyger, The Chimney Sweeper,” and “The Clod and The Pebble” among others. William Wordsworth was a Romanticist legend. He believed that poets were superior writers and wrote poems that had nature as their subjects. Some of his great works include “I Wondered Lonely as a Cloud” and “We were Seven.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a close ally of Wordsworth’s. They actually founded Romanticism. Some of Coleridge’s great poems include “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Christabel”. Lord Byron wrote “Don Juan”. Percy Bysshe Shelley was radical as well and he married the woman who wrote Frankenstein. He rallied for social justice and even wrote about it in his poems, which include “Mutability” and “Ode to the West Wind” among others. John Keats, another Romanticist poet, was also an interesting character. He did not associate with contemporaries believing that these would dilute his independence. His works include “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Romanticism was followed by modernism, which is what preceded post modernism, and some of the poets who belonged to the modernist era include Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Philip Larkin, and William Carlos Williams. Auden is known for his morality, political, social and psychological content. He views on Marxism, religion and spirituality are clearly articulated in his work as well. He was also very anti-romantic, versatile, and inclined to scientific probing, while using fragmentary texts with concrete imagery to express his society’s political and psychological concerns. These poets had a major effect on post modernist or contemporary poetry, and in a way, most of their views are still operational. For instance, experimentation was spiked by Pound’s exhortation to poets to try something new and Larkin’s language techniques largely inform the followers of the language theory. Larkin is also famous for his universal mortality themes, rejection for neo-romanticism, tough exterior, and a focus on intense personal emotion while avoiding self-pity and sentimental prose.


This paper provides a comprehensive report on the state of British poetry. It accomplishes this through an analytical review of the contemporary poets Veronica Forrest Thomson, J. H. Prynne, and Barry MacSweeney work. In addition to this, it also reviews other contemporary poets’ work in order to come up with a strong reference base for my conclusions. The information presented herein has been derived from a multiplicity of sources including poetry books, journals, magazines, and electronic sources. After collecting as much information as possible on a particular poet, the information is the organized into stylistic devices, attitudes, themes, and poems by the author. From this arrangement, it is easier to fill information into this dissertation outline that has stratifications that are more general. For instance, on the subheading “A Description of Contemporary British Poetry” I highlight a few significant concepts, which include money matters, attitudes of society and poets, publicity, status, and evaluation of poetry among others. Into this framework, I then fill information based on the data I have collected on various poets. This paper relies heavily on literature review, which was very fruitful, in that a lot has been written on poetry in Britain. Among some of the most productive essays and articles I benefitted from are Michael O’Neil’s book on the importance of understanding traditional poetry first before seeking an understanding of modern poetry. This relationship between past poetry and contemporary poetry is fundamental in the fostering of such understanding because it emphasizes on where the change occurred and why it occurred. Most of contemporary poetry is an offspring of romanticism and other poetry movements such as naturalism, surrealism, and neo-modernism. O’Neil provides a non-reductionist view on this relationship by describing different poets’ thematic embodiments while still appreciating the importance of and influence on form and language. (O’Neil 34) He speaks of Romantic poetry “being poshumously renewed” (O’Neil 11). He assets that for instance, Eliot’s epiphanic moments which he experienced when writing “Four Quartets” bear a resemblance with Wordsworth’s poetry. The only difference between the two is Wordsworth’s avoidance of social and historical “entnglements” which are characteristic of Eliot’s work. (O’Neil 54). The review of MacSweeney’s “Horses in Boiling Blood” provides an enlightening picture of this poet who is not as popular as either Veronica Forrest Thomson or J. H. Prynne. This paper depicts Barry as others before it, a drunkard obsessed with the past. It gives a verse in his poem “At the Hoppings” to illustrate this perspective, (“I breathe alcoholism into the air / then the starres and argent sky swoon through my fillers / And the shells hit our skulls / This beautiful trenchwater {…} This gorgeous meadow / I rise up in polished black boots / which I polished myself because we received supplies / the roses are dead and we die too / but the roses will eventually winne”) that is a poem that is imitated from Apollinaire’s “Fete” (Piette 202). This imitation does not backfire on him because Barry believes that Apollinaire will approve of his near duplication. Barry is very contemporary in his writing despite his affiliation with poetry from the traditional era. For instance, in the above verse, the abstract thoughs expressed in fragmentary phrases are a characteristic of contemporary writing, which resemble both Prynne’s and Veronica’s poetry. Therefore, Barry borrows from the past but shapes the contents into a present context including the stylistic devices used (Piette 203). Matthew Jarvis gives a more detailed summary of Barry MacSweeney’s style. He says that despite Barry’s apparent preoccupation with the past, his poetry portrays a cultural foundation of the late twentieth century Britain (Jarvis 150). He gives examples of phrases Barry uses to illustrate this point. Jarvis also points out the usage of ‘diexis’ in MacSweeney’s work, which he defines as “the ability to point, to locate entities in space, time and social context.” In further explanation of this concept, he explains that when they borrow from the past, it is not through flashfowards and flashbacks but instead incorporate the past culture into the present so as to ‘diversify its temporal location’ (Jarvis 153) Howarth’s book on contemporary British poetry is also very enlightening in terms of relating different ages and eras of poetry. He posists that the split into multiple contemporary schools of poetry was triggered by ‘Coleridgean aesthetics’ a characteristic of the early twentieth century poetry. Howarth provides an interesting perspective into poetry including what he calls a “struggle against rhetoric” and defines as “the presence of words and forms externally influencing the poet’s heart” (7, 22, 59). In his opinion, this aspect was the cause of the unity between Georgianist and Imagist poets, and it lacks in the romanticism and post romanticism scenes which explains the numerous splitting into several sub-schools of poetry.Howarth asserts that there is a systematic slippage between form and content which has several external influences working on it including political connotations. He also posits that the bone of contention in the contemporary era lies on Organicism. (Howarth 47) The rest of the articles have been incorporated into the in-text citations within the paper. I have also gone into the details of the stylistic devices applied in both contemporary and traditional poetry. Some of those used by contemporary poets include private allusion and symbolism, this is a technique that is favored by Veronica Forrest Thomson in her poetry, but also Prynne and MacSweeney have an aspect of it in their poetry. These are also the problems of syntax and subject position which mostly affect Prynnes poetry because of his writing styly and these are portrayed in his collections “Kitchen Poems” and “Daylight Songs”. These problems are evident when the articulation of ‘self’ becomes an issue, as is the case in the above collections. It is also important to note here that Prynne uses poetry as a “truth seeking” tool, a quality that was popular with Coleridge.

An outline of the Research Program within the Topic

The reseach problem in this paper consists of a multiplicity of stages. First, I idenified the topic, which is in form of a question thereby acting as a hypothesis of sorts. This question is “Is contemporary British Poetry an Old Wine in a new bottle?” To answer his question conclusively, I needed informaion on both the old and the new so as to pass judgement. However, I also needed to define the parameters tht my research was going to cover so that the information I collected would be relevant. And so I established a working definition of the term contemporary to refer to the post 1960s. That made all the other poetic groups and schools formed before then ‘traditional’ and subject to comparison to the poems written after 1960. This definition makes a lot of sense even in terms of the three poets that this research is supposed to base the analysis on. For instance, Prynne published his first collection in 1968 and most of the poems by Barry that have been discussed in this paper were post-1990 productions, for instance Hellhound Memos was a 1993 publication and Pearl was published in 1995.

The next step after establishing the different time periods was the collection of information. This was taxing because there is so much information on British poetry of all ages, and some of it is not accurate. There were many sources to draw from and among them were poetry journals and magazines, books on poetry, and electronic sources. There was therefore a need for a lot of clarification and comparison of the collected information so as to ensure I had it all right. After this came the reading and analysisng of that information. This stage required serious reading and notetaking on the various poets avaialble, the stylistic devices applicable to various eras, the stylistic devices preferred by individual poets, and the works written by different poets. For a poet like Veronica Forrest-Thomson, it was not enough just to read her poems and figure out her stylistic devices because she is a unique poet. There was therefore the need to read her own explanations on what her poetry was alluding to and generally what it meant. This meant reading her “Poetic Artifice”. This was also the case for Prynne and barry, but at least they have some followers who have studied and intepreted their works to assist untrained readers undersanding. However, this reading was not enough to draw a comprehensive picture of contemporary poetry and so I had to look into articles,research papers, and essays on the same for a bigger picture. I also had to look into the works of other contemporary poets of today like Paul Muldoon, Catherine Duffy, Ashbery, and Motion, among others so as to grasp their poetry better. In the end, I had obtained enough information to understand the nature and characteristics of contemporary poetry, and poets.

The next group was traditional poets, and these included Romanticists, Classics, Neo-Romanticists, Modernists and other sub-groups among these. The process of collecting information on this group was taxing as well, and even more so because there is not as much diversified information on them as there is on contemporary poetry. Much of that information has been relegated to old books and encyclopedia. However, I collected enough to satisfy the needs of this reseach. This informationwas then analyzed constructively by dividing it into general subheadings wherein information was filled correctly and presented sensibly.


Contemporary British poetry forms a rich database of litearature. It is also characterized by many civil wars within its realms as poets seek to gain status and economic spoils for their work. Some of the subgroups that join to form it include language and experimentation poetry which are interesting works of art but quite different from the conventionl meaning of poetry. However, this seems to be the treand with all poets nowadays, to steer as far off as possible from the conventional requirements of poetry. The general reason that has been issued for this treand is that traditional poets were ‘unpredictable’ or that they ‘struggled with reality’. However, as poets continue to strip off the conventional make-up qualities of poetry, poems continue to lose their popularity in society. People are no longer engrossed in writing poetry or even reding it, they prefer to watch the television or read novels or even just ‘facebook’. Poetry is at a risk of losing its following entirely. However, technological developments have also transformed the nature of poetry. They have equipped poets like Prynne with a subject to derive terminologies from and poetry is gradually becoming more difficult to read, understand or relate to. All these are differences in poetry that have come with time. However, Barry’s poetry puts the question of this paper within focus. His poetry uses contemporary devices to express its content, which content is usually the poet’s personal feelings or experiences. This is done in such a way so that the past is not recounted word for word, inteead, it is expressed as the present in a style that has been described as postmodern historicism. Frederich Jameson captured this style quite elegantly when he said, “ a well-nigh universal practice of the postmodernism demonstrates that contemporary producers of culture have nowhere to turn to but to the past: the imitation of dead styles, speech through all the masks and voices stored in the imaginary museum of a now global culture.” (Jarvis 150) He then goes on to note that this practice only ‘dresses’ up the present with the past, it does not borrow the content of traditional literature for naught, the intention of poets like Barry is is usually to capture certain strong strains of emotional and spiritual feelings in a was that contemporary language cannot. Contemporary poets therefore write poems that superficially appear like they are of the past, but a closer inspection reveals the usage of allusion and symbolism that cements the entire poetic experience to the present. This is a style that even the poets before them applied. For instance those post-classical poets who rewrote masterpieces like Beowulf and Odyssey to suit their times sailed the same ship as Barry. Another feature of contemporary poetry is that much as its followers and participants are radically opposed to the work of their predecessors, the still cannot do without these traditional concepts in their individial creation of poetry. For instance, the usage of rhyme, rhythma nd sonnets has been in existence since the beginning of poetry and it continues to prevail. These poets’ subjects also range from politics to society and other aspects like economic status, which was the same for traditional poets, only that theirs was either capital or marxist or whichever other political movement of the time, while today’s write as conservatives or radical. The issue of poetry not being sufficient to cater for a poet’s livelihood is the same for all time periods as well, and so really, the differences that exist are not as substancial as contemporary poets are led to believe. At the end of the day, poetry is still poetry and if for instance an alien is presented with a poem from both of this time periods, it will may notice differences in terms of content and style, but the two pieces still fit the definition of poems. My answer to the research question is yes. Contemporary poetry is an old wine in a new skin.

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