As the New Age American Male discovers his Iron John in the Texan wilderness, Thom Dibdin finds there is a calmer approach to new- manhood on this side of the Pond.
Iron John knew my father.
A new breed of masculinity is stalking the US of A, where men pay big bucks to spend the weekend drumming, hugging and taking part in initiation rites. They are following wild-man guru Robert Bly. whose recent book Iron John argues that boys just aren’t tough enough in the post-feminist era. What they need is a good dose of the mass-queue-Iine presence.
There is something deeply disturbing about a bunch of wild men, unreconstructed sexists to a homo sapiens if their portrayal in the recent 40 Minutes documentary on BBC2 was correct, laying all their emotional shortcomings at woman’s door, when they were quite patently more in need of a good psychotherapist than anything else. But the programme revealed one common desire: that of men to come to terms, their terms, with their feelings about their fathers.
Fathers and Sons is a new anthology of stories in which sons re-examine their relationships with their fathers. It could not be further from the atavistic myth-making of Iron John but the writing
reveals far more, and at greater depth. of that universal bond. Where Bly observed the ‘anguish of“soft” men‘ and then used myths to formulate a prescription, the eight contributors to Fathers and Sons simply record their own experiences.
The breadth of these experiences is one of the book’s strengths. Editor John Hoyland‘s father died during World War II, when he was three, and his only abiding memory is of the smell and texture of khaki, while John Fowles’s father clips, prunes and binds apple trees in an attempt to repress his experiences of the trenches in the First World War.
One father was a racist, another spent his life campaigning against bigotry and racial
John Hoyland with lather. ills only memory is ol “the smell and texture oi khaki.
intolerance. Judaism, Quakerism and alcoholism are all represented. Yet the stories share a sense of great relief in coming to terms with the past.
‘I found writing my own piece very cathartic indeed,’ Hoyland says. ‘If your father is killed when you are very young, then that lives with you in all sorts of personal ways. In the case of a father being killed in a war on foreign soil, you don’t have a funeral, you don’t go through the proper process of grieving and mourning. It always remains unfinished in my mind. Writing about it was definitely a way ofsorting through that, ofdealing. with the grief.‘
Despite their diverse experiences, the authors share two things. All their fathers are dead and none are rabidly right wing. Hoyland says that when he was commissioning the book several people whose fathers were still alive felt that, although the idea was something which goes very deep, they had unfinished business with their fathers, which they ought to deal with personally, rather than through the printed page.
And what about the rabid right? It would have been fascinating to read about stormin’ Norman Schwartzkopf’s relationship with his father. ‘I approached a few people with that in mind,’ Hoyland admits, ‘not the person you mentioned, but they did not want to know. They told me to fuck off, basically.‘
It is easy to come to a book like this with Iron John-induced cynicism, but the authors write with such strength and clarity ofemotion that it is impossible not to come away with a deep feeling of empowerment. Whatever your gender or background, it will provide an insight to what is, for most men, their most enduring and formative relationship.
Fathers and Sons is published by Serpent’s Tail at £10. 99. Iron John costs £12. 99 from Element
Even though the term ‘poetic’ is seen as a compliment when applied to other ionns oi writing, poetry itseli continues to be regarded with widespread suspicion. Conventional wisdom states that it it’s not diiiicult to understand, it it’s readily enjoyable, then it can't be poetry. Many people in academic or ‘lntellectual’ circles encourage such a view, in order to protect their own rareiled status as cultural guardians. Others, however, including most practising poets, are eagerto topple poetry irom its pedestal and throw it into the rough-and-tumble ol ordinary llle.
Forty such-dissenting voices are brought together in Grandchildren oi Albion, a lat new illustrated anthology ol contemporary poetry which embodies a spirit oi vigorous opposition to ‘the gaggle oi grey lugwonns and displaced Martians who’ve held the olilcial UK poetry scene in thrall tor yonks resguirmlng the same old nepotistical pretentious irrelevant gunk' — as Attila the Stockbroker puts it. The list at contributors reads like a Who’s Who at the current leit-lleld arts scene -John
into some sort ol conlluence, where it was seen to be one lorward movement ol poetry across Britain.’
A central characteristic ol this movement is a shared interest in poetry as live entertainment— much oi the work in the book was primarily written tor periormance. ‘When you’re perlormlng poetry, the kinds ol things which might be acceptable in the game-reserve oi ‘little magazines', - vanity, insincerity, narcissism- inevitably get chucked away,‘ says Horovltz. ‘It makes the work punchier, more immediate, iorces you to cutout anything oi dubious integrity— an audience won't stand lor that kind oi bullshit.’
li bullshit is thin on the ground in Grandchildren oi Albion, good writing - passionate, lunny, moving, angry, ironic, pungent, poignant, ioyiul- certainly isn’t. With its rich variety ol styles, subjects, perspectives and techniques, it represents and gives voice to the pluralistic, mum-cultural reality oi contemporary Britain. Some poems tackle ‘issues’ like racism, sexism, cultural identity, class; others explore more personal themes - sex, loneliness, alienation - but they share an immediacy, a clarity ol voice and sharpness oi vision which will advance the cause oi poetry more than the ‘grey lugworms’ everwill. (Sue Wilson)
Cooper Clark, Linton Kwesi Johnson, John Agard, Galllano, Ben Dkri, Billy Bragg, Fiona Pltt-Kethley, Attila, Michele Roberts, Paul Weller, Benjamin Zephaniah . . .
‘I tell there was a need tor an
anthology which drew together various dlilerent productive elements in recent poetry,’ explains the book’s editor, poet and ioumalist Michael Horovitz.
l’he Dreamer by Nik Morgan
‘There have been black anthologies, ieminist anthologies, experimental anthologies and so on, but I tell that all these dillerent streams should come
Grandchildren ol Albion is published by New Departures at £9.99, distributed by Airllit Book Company; mail order (£1 p&p) lrom New Departures, Piedmont, Blsley, Stroud, Gloucestershire, GL6.
The List 31 January — 13 February 1992 63