Thursday, 13 January 2011

Recent UK poetry anthologies: tradition and the individual

I'm feeling more mainstream than I used to. Of course, I don't think I've changed, but as magazines come and go, and new editors and judges appear, the centre-of-gravity in UK poetry seems to have shifted and the traditional mainstream has less of a hold, a change signposted by a burst of anthologies with much overlap of poets selected. Can that overlap be considered the emergence of a new tradition?

Identity Parade (ed Roddy Lumsden, Bloodaxe)

384 pages. 85 poets, all of whom have either published first collections within the past 15 years or make their debut within the next year. Todd Swift wrote

  • Lumsden notes in his Introduction the interesting idea that this period's period style is "individualism" - and that this may be connected to the new digital mediascape, which has at once fragmented and multiplied options. This may be so, but reading the poets and poems in Identity Parade, one is not so much struck by lack of uniformity, as by certain moods, modes, tones, and rhythms that do reoccur. Far from being an entirely heterogeneous and strange period ... most of the poems selected are relatively coherent.
    Most tell stories, express emotions, are witty or engagingly imaginative, and use the forms and manner made famous by Heaney, Muldoon, Duffy, or Paterson - clearly the four presiding spirits.
  • What is odd is how this compression of talent ... manages to diminish even the larger figures in the midst of the pack, who feel a bit crushed in the crowd. ... Also missing are the show-stoppers - the lightning-strike poems - that mark a poet or generation as great.

No shining individuals then, according to Swift. Instead a new tradition's taking over.

Voice Recognition (ed Clare Pollard and James Byrne, Bloodaxe)

168 pages. 21 poets, none of whom yet published a first book of poems. David Kennedy wrote

  • the emphasis on 'voice' might tell us something about the poetry and there is a lot of work here that probably sounds great in a reading or on a podcast ... This also means that there is a lot of largely formless free verse that lacks any inevitability on the page. But what's most surprising in the context of a generation-defining anthology is the number of voices here that seem to lack confidence or to revel in an inability to communicate.
  • And, as we have seen, anthologies with a relatively small number of poets tend to reflect exhaustion, a coming conservatism, or a combination of both.
  • The poetry collected in Voice Recognition seems largely unaware of and unconcerned with what has dominated British mainstream poetry since about 1950: anxieties about class, region, gender and race ... The editors and their poets have removed one of poetry's principle claims for recognition: its ability to offer unique insights into the relationships between private and public and between self and nation that define us all.

Andy Croft writes

  • In many ways it is a fascinating selection ... But it is a pretty depressing read too. At best it's a collection of confessional poetry, filmic sensibilities and "a multiplicity of styles" - poetry for the Facebook generation. So there are lots of ampersands, lowercase titles and references to high art and trash-culture. But there is not a single rhyme in the book, not enough anger and hardly any laughs ... And if these poets share "a deep fascination with the world as it is today," you would hardly know it from this book

So, suspicions about "a coming conservatism", a lack of concern with society, and quality. Maybe too a yearning for form or rhyme.

Infinite Difference (ed Carrie Etter, Shearsman)

211 pages. 25 poets - women only. No age/publication limits but the writing's experimental. Steve Spense writes of a chosen Denise Riley poem that

  • This is a little like Prynne yet it's lighter and its questioning mode has a more breezy lyric touch, mixing abstraction with lyric imagery. It's not as 'over-the-top' or quite as 'tongue-in-cheek' as John Ashbery can be yet neither is it as clotted or as full of resistance as John Wilkinson often is!

Spense's review (unlike the TLS's) is largely favorable and informed. He writes that

  • the sheer pleasure in reading Elizabeth Bletsoe's work comes from its mix of registers, its variety of diction and the exceptional way in which she fuses experience with learning and makes it all appear so easy and as natural as breathing. Her work is rich and highly-textured and although complex never obscure or unrewarding

Here's an extract of Elisabeth Bletsoe's work

Roddok, Robin (Erithacus rubecula)
Becoming secretive & depressed in the later months, before the vigorous reassertion of autumn territory. Stakes & ties. Paths of observance newly laid through contusions of aster, sedum & verbena bonariensis, helmeted with bees; offertories yielding a roman tessera, three pebbles from Chesil Bank & a tennis ball. A smell of burning moxa. Sulphur being ground with mercury to form vermilion; glazed with madder, sealed. Red as a releaser (your fat cherry lips), the impossible fury of it all. Oscillograph of the throat, that bob bob bobbing thing. Boundaries constructed from scribbles of sound. Marginals encompass the crossing at North Road, where fifteen burials "very shallow & without coffins" marked the putative site of Swithun's chapel.

I find it hard to judge how this selection fares regarding conformity though clearly it's not mainstream - even George Ttoouli in his anthology overview, Ineffable Compendia, writes that the poems "are mindblowingly unconventional in places".

Women's Work (eds Eva Salman and Amy Wack, Seren)

300 pages. 250 poets. Steve Spense writes

  • The material is mainly from a wide mainstream section ... This is a feast of a book which includes the big names such as Sylvia Plath, Stevie Smith and Emily Dickinson while tipping its hat towards the more experimental end of the 20th century - Lyn Hejinian and Lorine Neidecker

This aims to be more representative than the other selections here, chronicling a tradition rather than forging one

Rialto Spring 2010 (ed Michael Mackmin)

This issue has a section by 20 under-35s (Keston Sutherland, James Byrne (ed of "Voice recognition"), etc) chosen by Nathan Hamilton. He writes

  • there is this tendency ... to look for individual 'poets' on which to pin hopes of the 'next big thing'

Perhaps he's read Todd Swift's opinions. He thinks other recent anthologies have

  • vague points about vibrancy and optimism ... Most of these selections have paid a certain overstated lip service to the bouncy pluralist nature of the current poetic milieu ... But, rather crucially, this is generally without ever actually including much of anything that could reasonably be described as 'experimental', or even 'new' "poets who are actually more 'experimental' alongside examples of younger poets who might be deemed more representative of the accessibly 'mainstream'

So again, a plea for more variety, this time towards the experimental. Note how the word mainstream is not only in quotes but is wrapped in protective qualification. In the next issue there'll be more poets and an article. For now, here's a sample from a piece by Richard Parker

91. Object-pine
Derives | its | value
From all | its use | values.
But to | love is | against

Use val | ue, though | retains
Exchange. | A pine, | Baucis,
Stands next | to

And here's the start of a horse poem by Jonty Tiplady

Chose your own horse
So let them choose their own horses.
Last night I dreamt this colour etymology

of 'you'. Everything was 'clear' -
'you' came from 'Hugh', for example,

Smith's Knoll 46 (eds Joanna Cutts and Michael Laskey)

By chance 2 of the first 3 poems in this issue mention horses too. For comparison purposes I'll sample from them. The first is by Maitreyabandhu

    Take this day:
a horse standing by the fence
    of a small enclosure;
muddy eyes and coat

    Take the air around him,
barely moving. He promises
    to flick a hock-length tail,
but won't

and the second by Chris Beckett

Boast of a Fly-whisk
Tail without a horse! hair of the horse called
fierce flayer of wasps and fleas

I salute you, Gashay! relaxing on this cushy knee
   in sunny slug-warm garden.

It's perhaps more mainstream than Rialto (where Michael Laskey has a poem in the maybe-not-under-35s section). It ends with a note entitled "Following the Poem" by Kate Bingham (of "Identity Parade"), who mentions that Roddy Lumsden thinks that her generation 'does seem more harmonious' adding

  • does this mean that the poems we write, though open-minded and sensitive at all times to the worlds they arise from, are less passionately convincing?

and wondering whether

  • it's time to sign up to a new aesthetic principle. One that not everyone will like, that gives poets more of a say in what their poems say

rather than waiting to follow the poem wherever it goes. Again, I detect a wish for more individuality. Luke Kennard (who's in "Identity Parade" and the Rialto issue) in a Review of Kate Bingham writes

  • if there is any such thing as a poetic mainstream, "Quicksand Beach" fits it like a favourite shoe - personal, anecdotal, accessible
  • There is a voice and a personality here - and it is the voice and personality of a person rather than a voice a person thinks sounds like a poet. ... If there is something wrong with many poets of the 'My dog died' school, it is exactly the same thing that is wrong with many poets of the 'Subversion of language' school: it is their mimsy affectation of the poetic, their obsession with their role as A Poet.

And finally ...

Kennard and Bingham seem to share concerns about the individual and tradition whereas Kennedy and Croft see an issue with the individual and society. Nearly all of the poets featured in Rialto teach or study literature (perhaps the first UK generation for which that has been possible). This is a consequence of the way the poems were collected but I suspect most of the anthologised poets are in groups too, which might make them tend to coalesce with peers at the expense of contacting the outside world. Workshops are good at raising the general standard and smoothing off rough edges.

What about the rest of us, the wrinklies and muggles? I recently read "Beneath the Apple Bough" by Isabella Strachan. In her foreword she writes that she's been in magazines for 30 years and won the Wells competition. At the end of the book in a note entitled "The Poetry Scene Today" she mentions the difficulty she'd have being accepted by publishers like Shoestring or Tall Lighthouse and writes that "After 15 years of intensive writing" she has "decided to bow out of the poetry world". Sometimes I feel like that too. From the extracts I've seen, I think I'd find "Infinite Difference" the hardest collection. I found Rialto's selection the most interesting and look forward to seeing how Nathan Hamilton concludes.

See also Generationalism in British Poetry by J.T. Welsch

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