Lisa Russ Spaar (ed.), All that Mighty Heart, University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville and London, (2008), 202 pages, ISBN 978-0-8139-2717-6
I read this clever anthology with great interest. I am a Londoner myself and my own ancestors have been traced back to living and working along the river front that made up the Victorian docks around the Pool of London. I am, therefore, always keen to see what particular expressions of my home town are striking chords with artists, writers and commentators. The broad scope of some 500 years and the choice of some intensely personal verse all speak to the depth of scholastic and emotive research that underpins these selections. Indeed as a collection of verse this edition offers an introduction to London and its vibrant history that is as entertaining as it is thought provoking.
In her introduction Spaar outlines her own excitement when arriving in London in July 1983; ‘emerging from the hot wind tunnels of the Russell Square tube stop … [m]y heart beat wildly…I was on fire that summer with the heady thrall of London calling –- the Clash, Bloomsbury, the undertow of streets and squares mobbed by punks … the seductive Thames’; this passion, engendered by arriving in one of the world’s greatest cities, is a feeling I completely understand. My own arrival in New York in May 1984 was equally seductive. I was twenty one; I had lived my entire life in East London and had been sent to New York on business. The emotions were intense. My head was full of New York cop shows, the dancers from Fame, Led Zeppelin at Madison Square Garden, a sense of the folk musical traditions that underpinned the mystical Greenwich Village and the confused wanderings of Holden Caulfield. As my taxi swung around the Belt Parkway, the four lane highway that snakes under the Verrazano bridge, there it stood: the Manhattan skyline; a relief map of lights shining against the darkening sky; I had arrived! Of course, my experiences of New York over the coming months served to debunk many of my youthful fantasies about that great city, but I have never lost the memory of that split second. This is what Spaar highlights about her own arrival in London and the mystical effects that representations of cities have upon our expectations: ‘[in] truth, however, London, my London, — a site of projection, imagination, myth, and historical, literary, family ghosts –- had been created over time and in no small part by poetry’. This is not to say that Spaar is sentimental; she uses her introduction to highlight an important central theme in her edition: London, like all major cities, is so much more than a sum of its physical parts. It exists for all of us in a variety of ways. Cities such as London and New York inspire a myriad of artistic representations and we all create our own expectations; it is a constantly evolving artistic history that serves to create the myths, legends and mysteries that elevate a great city beyond the physical and give it a life all of its own. This collection offers not only a broad cross section of the lives of London’s inhabitants, but also allows us to share in the emotional; some might say spiritual, experiences of the many millions of people who have been affected by All That Mighty Heart.
Many might wonder why we need yet another anthology of London poetry. There are some excellent collections which have explored this subject. Spaar herself notes that many of her choices are ‘familiar and often anthologised’; however, what appeals to this reader is the organisation of the works. Citing the spirit of Clarissa Dalloway Spaar notes that she ‘felt inspired for some time to throw a big party … [to bring together] across vast temporal, cultural and aesthetic terrains, poets and poems I admire, poetic responses to London that have, in part, created the city for me.’ Like any good anthology this one is both ‘eclectic and subjective’ and therefore succeeds in bringing together some interesting voices; ones not often heard. By placing them in concert with more familiar verses the reader is allowed to move past historic or accepted views of the city and begins to explore the meta-life of the city; the aspects of the urban experience that grow out of the spiritual expectations one feels when approaching a city for the first time. Reading these poems did not perhaps have the same effect as that Manhattan skyline; I was not stopped in my metaphorical tracks by this collection; however, I was forced to re-consider some of my own deep seated views about what makes up the modern experience of living in London.
It is often the case that anthologies tend toward the historical or political in terms of their guiding themes. However, with this edition I was immediately struck by the organic simplicity of arranging the entries around the elements: Water, Earth, Fire and Air. The sections allow Spaar to offer four distinctly different ways of looking at the city, whilst at the same time allowing her the flexibility to shift the focus of each piece; sometimes this is a cultural shift and sometimes it is temporal. The effect is quite startling as the reader has to constantly adjust; the sections, like the city itself are not so easy to pigeonhole. Looking at two of these sections enables us to see just how effective this arrangement can be.
Water seems a logical place to start. The Thames is the reason why London exists; it is the city’s very life blood. It was pleasing to note that Spaar resisted the temptation to glorify the river. We open with Wordsworth’s ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’, where else, but the tone immediately shifts as we move to consider Hughes vision of the Thames: ‘filthy tonnage, tumbrels of carrion, / Not a beautiful spectacle / For the drinkers of history’. This is the strength of Spaar’s editorial choices: the reader is forced to see the city as ever changing; worlds of possibilities are evident in each verse. It could be tempting in an edition like this to give primacy to place, pomp and circumstance, but Spaar avoids this; in keeping with her own introduction to the city, the selected verses shift constantly from place to person. She has included selections by writers whose experience of London is not that of mystical rapture. My own great aunt lived along the Thames in the slums of Wapping from the late 19th to the mid 20th century and she chronicled her life in three largely biographical works: Between High Walls, My Part of the River and My Life with Reuben. Her footprints in the muddy banks of the river around Wapping are long gone, but in these works, her experiences, friends, my family, their feelings and emotions, all live on. Sadly the books are out of print and therefore her voice has receded into the din of London’s past, as no doubt have those of many others. Spaar’s decision to include every type of human experience of the river goes some way towards bringing many of these people back to the fore. London is not just an exciting and vibrant city; there are those for whom the city has been their end: J R Ackerly’s ‘Conjuror on Hammersmith Bridge’ slips into the river ‘with an expressive glance and shiver’, his trick, ‘ineffable, sublime, / That loosed despair and hatred into space, / That flicked a human being out of time / And never left a trace-‘. Equally Bernardine Evaristo despairs of the place, ‘The sun is a gangrenous sore / oozing pus into the cesspit of the Thames’. This is a place of release from misery, not one of spiritual enlightenment; London contains every moment of the human experience: ‘I am indistinguishable from night, / I will swim to the ferryman, / sweet chariot of Charon, / coming for to carry me back / into oblivion.’
Fire contains a giddying, yet thoroughly convincing triplet: Dryden’s ‘Annus Mirabilis’ and a Seventeenth Century piece by Mary Adams, ‘Oh London I once more to thee do speak’, both written to document the physical and spiritual destruction of the Great Fire, act as bookends to the angry and strident voice of Linton Kwesi Johnson’s powerful ‘New Craas Massakah’, a touching eulogy to the nine young people killed by fire in a New Cross house party in 1981. Doubtless there are those who would argue that the historic and epic destruction of The Great Fire stands alone as an historical fact and should not be compared to what could be seen as a domestic tragedy. However, London is a city shaped as much by the response to events as the events themselves. Dryden and Adams collect the grandeur of the moment and, particularly in the case of Adams, link the tragedy to what she sees as the moral and spiritual decline of the city’s inhabitants. In contrast, Johnson’s piece shows an angry, emotive and politically charged response to those tragic events; the political is shown as being closely linked to the personal thus forcing an engagement with the racial tensions and concerns that characterised London in the late 1970s early 1980s. Presenting the New Cross fire from the position of the individual encourages the reader to reassess the earlier works in terms of how these events impacted on specific individuals rather than seeing them as part of a history long since passed. In both cases tragedy has far reaching consequences, but the linking of these events across culture and time allows the reader to consider not only the huge shifts in the socio-political make up the city, but also the changing nature of the way events are chronicled and the effect of who is allowed to do the chronicling.
Therefore, the use of the elements to divide the various sections has the effect of forcing the reader to consider London as the backdrop for an on-going and evolving sequence of events. These events involve a huge cast of characters, each highly individual. London is not a theatre where travelling players may perform the occasional work of historical drama; it is alive with insignificant individuals all of whom come together to create a living breathing organism. There are highs and lows all around; every second of every day brings triumph and tragedy to us all. This is the spirit of London; this is what created the sense of excitement that made Spaar’s heart race as she left Russell Square tube in 1983 and it is to her credit that she has produced an edition that goes beyond the representation of place. Many of these poets and their works will have been seen before, but Spaar has forced an engagement with a much wider selection of works. She has broken down barriers between culture and class and by so doing she allows us to consider London as so much more than a town on the Thames
As a post script I have to mention that as I read these poems I was constantly reminded that London will become the centre of the World’s sporting attention in 2012. It is perhaps a good time for exam boards, educationalists and teachers to start to consider re-visiting the literature of London. It is important to bring to life not only the traditions or the traditional, but also the marginalised and the silenced. East London will have changed out of all recognition by the time the Olympics arrive. This might just be the right time to explore its past in much more detail. All That Mighty Heart might just offer a template for re-considering the perceived wisdom of what we believe to be required reading.
To Cite This Article:
Ian Foakes, ‘Review: Lisa Russ Spaar (ed.), All that Mighty Heart’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 6 Number 2 (September 2008). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/september2008/foakes.html. Accessed on [date of access]