Publication Date
Publication Status
Out of print
Literary studies: from c 1900 -
Trim Size
228 x 152mm

The Failure of Conservatism in Modern British Poetry


How modern is modern? How does the new come to be the surface which makes the personality visible? How does an offset become a peak? One of the key differences in the poetry world is between those who see a stream of innovation over the last 50 years, a source of hope and renewal at each moment, and those who see innovation as self-willed and unnecessary, so that poems in the style of the 50s still “look up to date”. There seems to be a lot of confusion about this issue: this book is an attempt to improve the quality of debate by describing the stylistic innovations since 1960, giving dates to the changes, and fitting them into the horizon of a time – a unique composite of collective ideas, wishes, or projections, evanescent and rich in fine interactions. An ample accumulation of descriptive and comparative material allows us, finally, to detect what is innovative and what is not – and gives us a technical vocabulary with which to describe poems, capturing them as art-historical objects, before or beside aesthetic judgment. Probes into the zone of conservatism allow us to identify it as a form of melancholia, a collective rancour, a thermal death, a distrust of consciousness – a modern disease which thrives on islands. Finally, we stumble into the zone of what isn’t clear yet, or hasn’t happened, in order to flourish the names of poets to whom the future may belong.

Reviews of this Book

‘… Duncan is an honest and unevasive critic. He makes an intelligent case for writers who have been poorly served by other critics, when they have deigned to notice them at all, and shows the reader whose only knowledge of British poetry comes from anthologies that the contemporary canon need not be the way it appears, and that real alternatives exist.’ —David Wheatley, The Times Literary Supplement

‘Duncan's work is exciting, original, valuable and full of fascinations, enthusiasms and energy. It bounds with life and hope. The first thing it deserves is to be debated, and the very last, cold-shouldered. Duncan has a busy, active, provocative mind; and there's such a wealth of stimulating, controversial and topical material here that it can't easily be ignored or dismissed except by those with vested interests of their own to hide.’ —Richard Burns, Poetry Review

‘I agreed with Andrew Duncan’s argument in his The Failure Of Conservatism In Modern British Poetry with regards to Larkin [...] many young contemporary poets still appear to be writing under the sign of Larkin – all safe and sensible.... Larkin who despised Modernism and [after the grafted-on volcanic eruptions stoked up by Ezra Pound] returned English poetry to its current domestic solipsism. My writing through of Larkin seemed to produce a bizarre hybrid of Tristan Corbière and perhaps, early Barry McSweeney. It was also conceptual – using an entire Larkin book as template – the ghost of iambic pentameter [ ‘the first heave is to rid ourselves of the pentameter’- Pound] lingering behind lines utterly [inimical] to Larkin's perview – as if the English mainstream and the English avant-garde traditions were having a punch-up. Which they are, amongst other things.’ —Matthew Caley, Magma Magazine