I’ll be away from London for several weeks, and maybe that’s why it seems a good moment to say something about a vast city that almost successfully escapes description. A friend in the States recently wished me a good time in “merrie olde England,” which was kind but jolted me into an awareness that not so many Americans realize that London differs from Dickens’s depiction of the city (stylized to the point of inaccuracy even for the time when the novella first appeared) in A Christmas Carol. Several things to consider: London is a world metropolis whose only peers are New York, Paris, Berlin, Madrid, and Tokyo. As for the composition of its population, it is the world’s most diverse. Apart from the descendants of the earliest inhabitants (we can expand the definition by saying that includes the Scots, Irish, Welsh, and Cornish) it has attracted new citizens from the former Empire or current Commonwealth—from Canada, from the West Indies, from Australia, New Zealand, India, the Middle East, from Hong Kong, Singapore, Nigeria, well, the list goes on. Besides that, laws governing the European Community allow citizens from all E.C. nations to live and work in Britain. Therefore all European languages are commonly spoken on the street in London. Every world cuisine is represented in its restaurants, and shops of every ethnicity can be found somewhere in the city.
Culturally, Britain has as much as anyone could desire: in contemporary visual art, several world-class artists are producing major innovative work, for example, Lucien Freud, Anish Kapoor, Rachel Whiteread, Anthony Gormley, Sam Taylor-Wood, Paula Rego. And the stage: Partly because it is state subsidized and partly because of a tradition that extends back to the Renaissance and Western culture’s greatest dramatist, theatre in London is stronger than in any other city, both in the standard repertory and in works by new playwrights. The Nobel isn’t often conferred for achievement in drama, but Harold Pinter has received it. London has two opera houses, with the most celebrated performers appearing at Covent Garden, and a more unusual repertory (including newly commissioned works) at the English National Opera. Music performances take place every night at a wide variety of venues such as Albert Hall, Royal Festival Hall, the Barbican, Wigmore Hall, and the new venue King’s Place discussed here a month ago. Dance is strong both at the Royal Ballet and then Sadler’s Wells for more contemporary work, plus fringe events elsewhere. And if we turn to pop music, it’s clear that the U.S.’s only real rival in that area is Britain. In fact, there are some of us that tend to prefer British rock to American, exception made, still, for African-American artists.
British literary culture is a national preoccupation, one sign of which is the huge readership for London’s several daily papers, to which Manchester’s Guardian must be added because it is read in every city in the U.K. Magazines, literary quarterlies, and little magazines are found in numbers that would seem hefty even for a country with a much larger population than Britain’s. When a new novel appears, within a couple of weeks of publication it gets reviews in at least half a dozen publications, followed not long after by consideration in publications appearing at wider intervals. The British Arts Council funds magazines, literary festivals, workshops, and individual artists, not only in London but throughout the U.K. Given the intensity of the interest in literature, it’s no wonder that this relatively small country has produced many of the world’s most widely read contemporary authors. There’s no need to round up the usual suspects, we all know who they are.
But there is one topic related to poetry I want to pause over. There used to be an idea that British poets and American poets were twain, that neither could understand the other. The stereotypical American poet wrote shapeless personal narratives in leaden language about terrible things undergone, like child abuse, marital violence, drugs, alcohol, madness, and suicide. The stereotypical British poet wrote nicely composed poems using meter, rhyme and verseform about topics such as nature, pleasant domestic recollections, and exalted moments drawn from cultural history. British and American poets might both adore Latin American poetry, but they couldn’t understand each other. Nonsense. There are temporary barriers to perfect comprehension—differing vocabulary and references to day-to-day phenomena that don’t have counterparts in the other culture, but these are soon mastered. Many American poets (like Marilyn Hacker or Annie Finch) use traditional prosody, and, meanwhile, only a minority in the U.K. do. There are many experimental British poets, especially the group associated with Cambridge U., and British publication now reflects the ethnic diversity of its population. Younger British poets are irreverent, slangy, often working-class in tone and subject matter, uninterested in using polite means of expression. I’m not sure where nowadays you would find merrie olde England, but certainly not in London and not in British poetry.