Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Monday 7 March 2005

"next generation poets" by Poetry Bookshop

The Next Generation poetry event happened in the UK last year. Fortunately Poetry is news that stays news. Thanks to my local public library I've recently had a chance to read the 20 poets chosen to lead UK poetry into the future. I read most of them quickly, giving none of them the time they no doubt deserve - forgive me Lord for I have skimmed.

The pamphlet includes a useful little article on "Reading Poetry" and blurbs about the authors. Seeing the 20 blurbs in the pamphlet one after the other was too much for me,

  • "It is difficult to pin down Nick Drake's poetry, which makes his book... all the more pleasurable to read"
  • "There's rarely any doubt about what Sophie Hannah means in any of her poems. She is a communicator"

but one can't really blame the poets for that. I knew it was a PR drive. What I hadn't realised is quite how much of a publisher-driven stunt it was. If the event were a book-selling ploy (nothing wrong with that) it would try to offer a range of entry-level books and keep big publishers happy. Only 1 poet's from Scotland (he is/was a publisher's poetry editor so he had to go in). 6 poets have strong Welsh connections. Maybe the Patterson/Crawford generation in Scotland has left no progeny. Or maybe Scotland has nothing to match the poet-inspiring (or arm-twisting) Seren, the book publisher from Wales.

Once the publishers are happy the next step would be to ensure you don't tread on too many PC sensibilities. If you can find a poet who can represent more than one minority, so much the better (note - the UK's 2001 population statistics show that 92% describe themselves as White, 4% as Asian (Indian/Pakistani, mostly) and 2% as Black).

In any anthology or selection of this type there are bound to be items whose inclusion seems inexplicable. About 20% fall into that category for me. The striking features of the selections are

  • Narrow stylistic range - Each poet has a narrow range (i.e. "has a voice"), and many of the poets I've read seem to have gone to the same workshop. The stylistic range of the main core is from anecdotal lyric to mute-Martian lyric, written in broken prose. Exceptions are Hannah (who rhymes), Draycott (who's like McGuickian), Oswald (who's non-mainstream) and Agbabi (who's non-WASP). Drake (narrow range but not too mainstream. Gay Interest) and Francis (wide range) are the male exceptions.
  • Non-Intellectualism - There's seeming censorship against the academic and the abstract, which might in turn account for the limited range of genres (and the amount of nostalgia for childhood). The diction's educated but rarely intellectual. It's strange that though the poets "explore issues" like Race, Beauty, etc, they shy away from any connection with experts in Sociology, Aesthetics, etc, prefering to present an incident at a bus-stop or overheard conversation at the Tate Museum's canteen. You might object that poetry's not supposed to be sociology. I'd reply by saying that there's no reason why poetry shouldn't call upon the expertise of those in other fields. By not doing so it risks marginalising itself even more. I think the rule of thumb should be to show what can be shown, and tell the rest, rather than restrict oneself to writing only about what can be shown. Poetry's not Pictionary.
  • Form/Word blindness - You may have heard that we in the UK are still relaxed about Form. Maybe, but judging from this selection, Form's on its last legs. For many of the poets Form means leaving every third line blank. When poets (excepting Hannah) lapse into meter it can seem rather clumsy. Many of the poets (Francis is the most obvious exception) seem not to take the letter or word layer of construction into account - they're thinking thoughts, then writing them down rather than having sound/sense/typography all active during the creation process. The words are too passive, an afterthought.
  • Narrow range of imagery - Imagery is in general disappointing. One poet describes chestnuts as "Miniature mines"! Another wrote about "the night bus,/lit-up like an aquarium/in the dark"! Particularly striking is the lack of contemporary references. Computers, mobile phones, games shows and cheap flights barely figure even in the recent publications, and War, Politics or World Affairs aren't alluded to let alone addressed.
My preferences currently are (in order, best first) Petit, Francis, Sprackland, Hill, Farley, Shukman, Drake, Lewis, Oswald, Flynn, Robertson, Rees-Jones, Polley, Hannah, Dalton, Riordan, Draycott, Sheers, Agbabi, Smith. By temperament I'm much closer to Francis than Draycott, which is reflected in this ordering. I can understand why Hannah might figure higher in others' lists, I wouldn't be surprised were Draycott put higher, and if Polley wrote more I'd put him higher. I didn't find Oswald an easy read but she deserves marks for ambition and might to non-UK eyes be a cut above the others. Elsewhere, lack of ambition and experiment abounds. As the publicity blurb says, these are "poems that remind us why memory is such an important human faculty". Too true.

No comments:

Post a Comment