The New Poetry

Can poetry be seen as capable of representing a multicultural society?

Taken as individual statements, many of the poems in The New Poetry[1] show no sign of multicultural influence. “The radio is playing downstairs in the kitchen” Eavan Borland writes, in her poem Distances. The poem goes on to state that –

“The clock says eight and the light says


The imagery suggested by the words evokes a sense of almost any Northern European household in the cold dark months. The text gives no clue that Borland might be writing about Eire, where she was born and lives. In a similar way Michèle Roberts writes:-

This cathedral is God’s

great whorled ear. Under

a roof of giant cockleshells

sung prayers stream

up, shoals of bright fish

flicking through water

over pebbles of stained glass.”[3]

The word cathedral is associated with Christianity. That is the only cultural clue apart from God and prayers. It certainly isn’t talking about an Islamic influence, or the beliefs of Asia. So although in a few lines this poem gives definite cultural indications, it isn’t multicultural.

Selima Hill’s poem Monkeys, illustrates a slightly different aspect of the question. It starts as follows –

This is the bed

that I became a woman in,

that I lay naked on on tepid nights[4]

The simplicity of the words and theme make it possible to imagine the bed in almost any clime. But this is still different to being multicultural in its own right. So I feel the question has to be defined.

In doing this I see that Liz Lockhead’s poem Bagpipe Muzak includes references that are clearly multicultural. This can be seen in such lines as –

Aye it’s Retro Time for Northern Soul and the whoop and the skirl

o’ the saxes.


Over pasta and pesto in a Byres Road bistro, Scotland declares

hersel’ a nation.[5]

The reference to Soul in the first line quoted arouses associations with black Soul music, and lends to the use of the word saxes a connotation with North American musical influences. That this reference is merged in the same line with the word skirl, which describes the sound of bagpipes, gives a real sense of merging cultures and melting together of contrasting and strange mixtures. In the second quoted line, pasta, pesto and bistro are words not often found in general use in the UK fifty years ago. It was only from the fifties onwards that foods from other cultures began to become common beyond major cities. So the irony of the line is that Scotland is declaring itself an independent nation in the very midst of being infiltrated deeply by other cultures. There is a hint here, or a smile, suggesting that Scotland is no longer the virgin Celtic land it maybe still thinks it is. It is certainly a smile at the strange contradiction presented by a nation seeking devolution when it is now soaked through with foreign influences.

Interestingly with this poem, even the line “Or to jalouse we hate the Government”[6] is beautifully multicultural, illustrating the point of Scotland’s hybrid culture through a word integrated into the Scottish language through past connection with France.

But multicultural usually refers to several cultural groups living within the same geographical location, such as West Indians, Asians and English all living in one city. In a certain sense however, some cultures inhabit another country without actually living there. For instance when I stayed in Japan in 1984, Kentucky Fried Chicken businesses were just becoming common. White bread bakeries were new, taking the place of the traditional rice. American culture was inhabiting Japan, although looking around, there were almost no whites, and certainly no blacks to be seen. In this sense some poems show how other cultures, particularly America, has inhabited not only our streets, but in particular our mind. The following lines from Michael Hofmann’s poem Nighthawks depicts this.

Now we’ve arrived at this hamburger heaven,

a bright hole walled with mirrors where our faces show

pale and evacuated in the neon. We spoon our sundaes

from a metal dish. The chopped nuts are poison.[7]

Although hamburgers and sundaes did not perhaps originate in the US, their frequent display in American films, coupled with clever advertising, has been instrumental in making them part of British everyday life. But although Hofmann reminds us in the above text of American influence, he is interesting as an example of multicultural influences because he was born in Germany and later moved to live and work in London. This shows through in some of his poems –

… Of course you want to allow him

his bit of fun; after working all year for

Germany’s Wirtschaftswunder and your own.

And it’s probably more than you can provide

with your cooking, your meat-and two-veg sex,

the occasional Saurbroten … He deserves it.[8]

Poets like Hofmann – people born in another country who then live in the UK  – are a major influence in multicultural poems. Their very different viewpoints and styles can be seen particularly in the work of someone like David Dabydeen. His poem Canecutter’s Song illustrates this –

White hooman walk tru de field fo watch we cane cutta,

Tall, straight, straang-limb,

Hair sprinkle in de wind like gold-duss,

Lang lace frack loose on she bady like bamboo-flag,

An flesh mo dan hibiscus early maan, white an saaf an wet

Flowering in she panty.

O Shanti! Shanti! Shanti! [9]

Dabydeen communicates beautifully, dramatically, through the poem the enormous gulf separating him and his longing and lust from the white woman. Not only does he feel her calling him with her ‘safe, white and wet flesh’ but also he gives a glimpse of the barriers separating him from the white woman. He says later in the poem, “Bu daylight separate me an yu, and dis mud on me haan ..”[10] What he doesn’t say, strangely enough, is that threat of death or life imprisonment for him if he touched her, also separate them.

Perhaps because of my own experience of being second generation born in Britain, yet having another cultural heritage imprinted in me, I see that one of the most powerful multicultural influences comes from people who are natives of this land, yet have parents from very different cultures. When I consider what I find in The New Poetry to speak for such people, I am disappointed. Fred D’Aguir for instance was born in London of Guyanese parents. His poem Letter From Mama Dot does carry some message about the internal conflicts suffered by those of mixed culture, but it is to my mind rather traditional. He writes:-

You are travelling to them.

A West Indian working in England;

A Friday, Tonto, or Punkawallah;

Sponging off the state. Our languages

Remain Pidgin, like our dark, third,

Underdeveloped, world…[11]

My disappointment is that he re-states stale old complaints about how the British treat blacks and ‘foreigners’. It’s a dirt track with deep ruts in it. The accusations of sponging off the state have not only been well aired, but are also aimed at young whites out of work or work shy. And comedians like Lenny Henry have made a living out of speaking Pidgin and being black instead of a cross to bear. So I find this aspect of mixed culture particularly unrepresented in the poems. In fact someone like Lenny Henry does seem to represent a multi-culture, a real mixture and creative blending, instead of simply a complaining.

Therefore in general the large majority of the poems are not multicultural in themselves. They are still expressing particular niches of culture or nationality. Even those poets who are from a culture other than British – is there such a thing as ‘a’ British culture? – appear to be writing from their own cultural standpoint in many cases, rather than from a multicultural view. Fred D’Aguir in the poem quoted for instance, is writing about a view of the British from a West Indian viewpoint. Dabydeen is writing about the divide between the white and the black. Such poems are not multicultural. Only if we take the collection as a whole can we say it is multicultural. Therefore if multicultural means divisions and separatist expressions, then there are poems in the collection that are from very different cultural viewpoints. But if we define multicultural as a blending of various cultures in some sort of cohesiveness, then there is very little of this. The exception is Liz Lockhead’s poem Bagpipe Muzak.


Concise Oxford Dictionary.  (c) Oxford University Press – Software, UK, 1992.

The New Poetry. Edited by Michael Hulse, David Kennedy, David Morley. Published by Bloodaxe Books Ltd, UK, 1993. ISBN: 1852242450 (hardback). 1852242442 (paperback).


[1] As footnote 1.

[2] Page 53.

[3] Page 150.

[4] Page 86.

[5] Page 126.

[6] Page 126.

[7] Page 265.

[8] Page 267.

[9] Page 224.

[10] Page 224.

[11] Page 286.

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