While it is only possible for this Ploughshares transatlantic issue to offer a snapshot of current British and Irish poetry, I have tried to make it as representative as possible. Most of the poets I’ve been able to solicit work from are included in one or other of the three most recent generational anthologies published in the UK, The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry (1982), The New Poetry (1993), and Identity Parade (2010). They range from poets still writing in their eighties (Fleur Adcock, Ruth Fainlight, Anne Stevenson, Elaine Feinstein) to young poets who have yet to publish their first book-length collections. They include poets born, raised, or educated in the US (Ruth Fainlight, Paula Meehan, Gwyneth Lewis, Eva Salzman, Anne Stevenson, Sujata Bhatt, Suji Kwock Kim); poets living there now (Fred D’Aguiar, Michael Hofmann, Andrew Motion, Paul Muldoon); and other poets who’ve taught in the US at various times (Vona Groarke, Caitríona O’Reilly).
There are poets who’ve been responsible for helping open up the readership of American poetry in Britain, including Elaine Feinstein, who allied herself with America’s Black Mountain poets during the ’60s and ’70s (Charles Olson sent her his famous letter defining breath “prosody”), and more recently, Roddy Lumsden (who has apparently clocked up the most appearances by any British poet in Poetry) and Ahren Warner (current poetry editor of Poetry London). Lumsden is also series editor and instigator of the Best British Poetry annual anthology series modeled on Best American Poetry, published since 2011 by Salt (regrettably that former poetry press’s only surviving excursion into poetry), which along with the annual Forward Prize anthologies, and the journals Poetry Ireland, Poetry London, PN Review, and Poetry Review, showcase the latest work by the best-known figures in British and Irish poetry, with American poets also featured regularly in Poetry London, PN Review, Poetry Review, and The Dark Horse.
There’s also one poem with a passing reference that I can’t resist glossing, as it points to the friendship and influence between poets on both sides of the Atlantic. In “Meditations on Yellow,” Ruth Fainlight describes the “Yellow of the daffodils I helped my friend / to pick, then carefully wrap in tissue paper / for the man who bought them”: the friend here is Sylvia Plath, and the occasion the visit described by Plath in her letter home of May 4, 1962, when she read some of her recent poems to Fainlight and was so pleased by her reaction to “Elm” that she dedicated it to her. Enclosed with that letter to her mother were several family photographs which had just been taken, including the now iconic one of Plath standing with daughter Frieda and baby Nicholas among the daffodils, the same daffodils recalled by Ted Hughes in Birthday Letters: “Remember how we picked the daffodils? / Nobody else remembers, but I remember. / Your daughter came with her armfuls, eager and happy, / Helping the harvest.”
Friendships between American and British or Irish poets have inspired and enlivened the work of many writers, sparked off by one poet admiring the work of the other, or by mutual respect, in many cases with poets reading each other’s work first in journals. I would be delighted if this issue of Ploughshares were to have that kind of influence.
It is worth noting that many of the British poets represented in this issue were born elsewhere, but established or consolidated their reputations and readership in Britain: France (Pascale Petit), Guyana (John Agard, Grace Nichols, Fred D’Aguiar), Hong Kong (Sarah Howe, with a Chinese mother), Hungary (George Szirtes), Iraq (Choman Hardi, who has recently returned to her home city in Kurdistan), Kenya (Warsan Shire, to Somali parents), India (Sujata Bhatt, who lives in Germany), New Zealand (Fleur Adcock), Pakistan (Moniza Alvi, Imtiaz Dharker, Shazea Quraishi), Zambia (Kayo Chingonyi). Others are British-born second-generation poets with one or both parents from elsewhere: Ireland (Maura Dooley), Estonia (Philip Gross), Germany (Lawrence Sail), Guyana (Jacob Sam-La Rose), Nigeria (Patience Agbabi, Jackie Kay).
This background sketch should serve as a corrective to the impression most American readers will have of British poetry being homogeneous, mostly male and white (which was the case thirty years ago). It must be a sign of changed times that the prestigious Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, established in 1934, and only given to five women poets in the twentieth century, has been awarded to five more women since 2003; and after only previously being awarded to one non-white poet (Derek Walcott in 1988), went to John Agard for 2012 and to Imtiaz Dharker for 2014.
Also, English isn’t the only significant literary language in these islands: this issue of Ploughshares has poems by some of the leading poets writing in three of our other native languages: Welsh (Menna Elfyn), Irish (Louis De Paor), and Scottish Gaelic (Aonghas MacNeacail), the latter not to be confused with Scots, the sister variety of English mostly familiar to American readers via the poetry and songs of Robert Burns (see W. N. Herbert’s “June Dolphin”).
This first all-poetry issue of Ploughshares also features unsolicited work submitted to the magazine by American poets, several of whom have previously had collections published in Britain; in addition, there are poems by Albania’s Luljeta Lleshanaku (courtesy of translator Ani Gjika, who teaches in the US) and Canada’s Anne Michaels. What comes over to me especially, reading through all these poems in Ploughshares’ traditional alphabetical-by-author format, is the sense of a multicultural, cross-continental dialogue between poets, a transatlantic conversation between poets of the US, Britain, and Ireland, which our readers can listen in on.
My only regret is that several poets whose work I especially wanted to represent—and who would have added much to the range of this issue—had no previously unpublished poems to offer, in particular Ciaran Carson, Carol Ann Duffy, Paul Durcan, Lavinia Greenlaw, Tony Harrison, Geoffrey Hill, Brendan Kennelly, Kathleen Jamie, Glyn Maxwell, Derek Mahon, Kei Miller, Daljit Nagra, Alice Oswald, J. H. Prynne, Denise Riley, and Jo Shapcott, some of whom have only recently published new collections.
I hope this selection shows the need for many more such initiatives to break down the illogical divide between readerships on either side of the Atlantic who speak the same language and have centuries of past literature in common. (Please see the Ploughshares Blog at pshares.org for an extended essay on this history through anthologies.) For me this has been a particularly welcome opportunity to give American readers a taste of what they’ve been missing for far too long. My special thanks for making it happen go to John Skoyles and Ladette Randolph, and for their help with the work involved, also to Ellen Duffer and Akshay Ahuja.
Hexham, Northumberland, UK