I have just come back from New York. I spent a lot of time in a hotel room in a once smart hotel near Time Square. All around me was the grid of Manhattan above Houston. It made me think of stanzas. Regular blocks extending out imposing a kind of spatial equality on the unbuilt terrain. And that extends, of course, out across the continent as anyone who has flown over it can testify.
This stands in contrast to some common-place assertions about the difference between British and North American poetry. Americans and Canadians, it has been suggested can write big gangly poems with lines that tumble and spill because of all the open space – not quite blank perhaps but often imagined as such. Brits, on the other hand are tightly bound, poems are often more formal, lines shorter, more stanzas. You can hold a British poetry book open and recognise it from a distance. And this is because we have no blank space – just a crowded and long urbanised island.
Naturally none of this holds much water for very long -the exceptions come think and fast – Emily Dickinson was hardly known for long lines and some contemporary British poetry spills out over a whole book (think of Oswald’s Dart). And these blocks that shape New York and then the continent west of the Appalachians seem neat and ordered and stanza-like. So much for environmental determinism.
I spent some time in Strand Books – 18 miles of books. The poetry shelves were bliss. I like to find poets it is tough to find in London and I like to find the American editions of British poets with their different covers. So I picked up Robin Robertson’s Slow Air alongside a collection by the Canadian poet Molly Peacock and Wideawake Field by Eliza Griswold. WS Merwyn and Mary Oliver both say they like it on the back – so I hope I agree.