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.

Wednesday 19 October 2011

"The Best British Poetry 2011" by Roddy Lumsden (ed) (Salt, 2011)

When reviewing an anthology it's traditional to react to the introduction and list strange inclusions/exclusions. In the introduction to this book the editor points out that the Forward anthologies publish few poems from magazines nowadays. I've noticed that too. This anthology picks solely from magazines (both paper and online), an idea I welcome - I subscribe to 7 of the magazines listed, and read several more. The editor read many of the magazines in the Southbank's Poetry Library taking 8 poems from Poetry London and 5 each from Iota, Magma and Rialto. Agenda and Smiths Knoll did ok too. No poems from the TLS though. Or Acumen. This policy perhaps explains why fewer big names feature (though there's D'Aguiar, Gross, Hadfield, WH Herbert, Padel, Shuttle, Sweeney and Szirtes).

It's modeled on the US version, conceptually and visually, with nearly 40 pages of notes. The American Best Poetry series has its provocative years (Lyn Hejinian's 2004 offering, for example). Lumsden's choices are far less extreme, but nevertheless they don't attempt to be representative - they're centred around nascent elliptical work. Even mainstream poets are represented by their more artistically engaged pieces, free from the distractions of unemployment fears, computer games, car accidents, mobile contracts, sleeze, comedy, and aging parents. Love and death feature less than stylistic bursts of short sentences and machine-gun imperatives.

It's tempting to keep flicking to the notes at the back, as if it were a book of crossword puzzles. Except for books like this, poets don't often help readers - a noble exception being Kona MacPhee with her Perfect Blue companion. In "The Best British Poetry" the notes vary from auto-biographical to technical. In general, the more reader-friendly the poem, the more reader-friendly the notes.

It wouldn't help me to know the name of the brides in Larkin's Whitsun Weddings, or the particular "sad height" that inspired Dylan Thomas. I don't care whether the poet got the idea on holiday or from a kids' TV program. I want notes that are more reader-centric than historical. I would like to know why the poem's the way it is. I've doubts about whether some of the poets appreciate what aspects of their poetry readers might find difficult. Some poets make an effort -

  • Christopher James' notes describe what he aimed to show, why he chose certain sounds, and what the framing device was meant to do.
  • John McCullough's notes help explain why the poem's the way it is. They attempt to appreciate the difficulties some readers might have, thus widening/deepening the readership.
  • I found Warner's notes useful (though I liked the poem before I read them).
  • The notes for "Lanterns" matched my impressions, but weren't obvious. So I liked them

Others try, but miss the point

  • McCabe's "Kingfisher" begins
    How do you describe the blue you've never seen?

    I was fixing the biting muzzles of mitts to the Boy's fingers

             you saw

                      - the tail-less hologram shoot its bib of ore -
    Why the double-spacing? The dashes? The indentation? The variously-indented dashed lines are the attempts to describe the blueness (a common theme of kingfisher poems), and they're pretty good lines. The notes (nearly a page of them) add little except the information that "the Boy" was based on his son. So why "the Boy" rather than "my son"?
  • Lizzi Thistlewaythe doesn't even bother explaining the title "Scart Gap".

Others state the obvious -

  • Colette Sensier explains that "The first part is in third person, second in first person, and third in second person, and they're different visually, as the first part has long thin lines, the second is brief, and the third in the middle" (p.149)
  • Lorraine Mariner's notes added little to the poem.
  • "Young Pterodactyl" (which I liked) had explanations that to me added little.

A number of poems fail to convey what (according to the notes) the poet seems to intend

  • Giles Goodland's "Waves" has
    • "Look through your impression of water,/ the evolution you drag inside you" (the notes say "humours in the eyeball have a similar composition to seawater, and I read somewhere that this is a relic from our very distant evolution")
    • "See/ such children it sucks like a sweet//The pebbles are frantic under them (the notes say "that feeling of having the ground pulled under you when a wave rolls back into the surf")
    The poet writes "So I let the words play around, as the children were doing, in my notebook". A different sort of playing, I bet. In this case, interesting information's been obscured.
  • Kate Potts tells us on p.147 that "the poem became a sort of cautionary tale about the idea of progress and the complex and unpredictable reality involved in getting what we wish for." It didn't to me.
  • I liked Andrew Philip's "10 x 10" - 10 ten-lined poems - but until I read the notes I didn't realise that the titles alluded to wedding anniversary gifts - paper, cotton, leather, etc. I noticed some repeated words but didn't notice that the 1st poem's lines each included an allusion to the gifts, that lines 1-10 of the 2nd piece included allusions to the 2nd, 3rd, ... 10th, and 1st gift, the order cycling around with each verse - a bigger hint in the poem's epigram would have helped.
  • Nii Ayikwei Parkes wrote "I chose to use three-line stanzas to reflect the measured manner in which realisation hit me, and I tried to end the lines to both emphasise words and add nuance" (p.144). The result however is no different from loads of the other box-stanza poems in this book. Why didn't he use good old-fashioned measure?
  • "The Year Strikes the Rock" anthropomorphises "year" - "The year is sleepless" ... "The year makes many an arduous journey" - for a page or so in couplets and an odd-man-out triplet, then ends on a different tack
    she's a realist,

    tucks all her weathers
    under her humble hairy marvellous armpit,

    just watch her making sunshine
    from the gold of Frau Luther's wedding ring
    The notes explain these lines, but don't convince me that these lines belong to this poem. Perhaps poets writing list poems still feel the need to indicate closure with (if not a big finish) a change of theme.

Some of the notes might be tongue-in-cheek. I'm unsure how worried I should be about the following

  • Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch writes "Lining objects up on tables has always fascinated me, whether pens, pencils, paper, cutlery or tools ... Transferring this fascination from the table to the page, to write a poem in which I could connect cutlery and communication took some time. It was only when I attended a table etiquette course in Somerset three years ago that I was able to begin writing the poem" (p.154)

And some don't try at all. Of course, there's no reason why they should.

  • I didn't get "White Lace Nightgown" - to me it's just unconnected poetic images strung together. Here's the middle stanza.

    The coffee mug in your palm
    is a baby's crown,
    voiletwhite soap noses
    suck the porcelain washbowl
  • Heather Phillipson wrote "I could tell you that the poem is made in the way department stores sell off their winter jumpers. I could tell you that I liquidated my current work of unverifiable postulations and what you see is a car boot sale." (p.146)
  • Kate Kilalea's "Hennecker’s Ditch" is given a treatment by Don Share that's interesting. He's given more space, but I think the poet could have helped more.

Some poets clearly don't like making things too obvious. Why worry that you might be understood, that a reader can see everything there is to see, that the poem's finite? If you mutilate it to make it unfathomable, the reader might think it deep. You risk being thought a charlatan but nowadays it's a small risk, so you might as well chance it. There are few Mark Hallidays around.

  • Abigail Perry rather gives the game away when she writes "It grew out of my revisions for another poem, one cluttered with clumsy polysyllables that were, nonetheless, semantically economical: they nailed the point I'd been trying to make. It was this that sounded the warning bell. A poem, I realised, should never 'get to the point'." (p.145)
  • Katharine Kilalea writes "On the surface, it seems a difficult poem, but it's only hard work when you try to make it meaningful" (p.134). It depends of course on what is meant by "meaningful".
  • Eoghan Walls wrote "I stuck to half-rhymes, and hid them from the eye by splitting the rhymes with a verse-break" (p.152). Why? What would have been wrong with rhyming couplets (though "rising/sink", and "cities/sky" are barely half-rhymes)?

At least I improved at appreciation as I progressed through the book. By the time I reached Richard Osmond's "Logo" I was ready to commentate as I comprehended. How do I convert a pile of words into an experience? One temptation I had was to extract the details and reconstitute it into something I could appreciate.

  • The title? Pass
  • Jack who? Ah, bells have names. Some of them have figures hitting them with mallets or axes on the hour
  • There's "rolled-iron", "woolgold", "silver plate", "smelted to ingots" - ah, a sub-theme to follow
  • "speak with raised right arm" - a salute?
  • I can't make sense of the line/stanza breaks
  • It mentions Dunwich - a flooded town that I've read other poems about (the graves are aligned east-west, so the sea reveals the feet first). It mentions Southwold - a resort that time's forgotten.
  • It ends with "this town, my untimed first person/ smelted to ingots". Maybe "untimed" means "timeless". Maybe the historically-generated self-image is glowing with golden nostalgia.

From these fragments I could construct a poem about history, time, sunken bells, and the East Coast. I'd jettison the line-breaks and the poetic "playing". When I read the accompanying notes I found little there that I'd not already worked out, though mysteries remained. The only confusion that the notes resolved with was the title - a local brewery use as a logo a man with an ax. The poet writes "I never researched or expanded upon the themes in 'Logo', so this slight, impressionistic flurry of images is all that remains. Far from serving as heroic blazon for a grand pub crawl through history, my Jack is alone, and rings his bell forlornly out to sea, an orphaned signifier" (p.143). So 'Logo' is an abandoned signifier, a stray that the poet no longer feels responsible for. Anyone - me for example - could pick it up, and take it home. These emblems are a logo of a time gone by, Englishness a brand?

I think there are few experimental pieces (no LangPo, no minimalism, though the final poem's a mash-up). There's little narrative. Several pieces follow a form that can be demanding - e.g. Jon Stone's "Mustard" has lines that end in anagrams of the title - "cry out drams", "heart's mud", etc. Some of the pieces might as well be in a foreign language as far as I'm concerned. Lines could be removed or reversed and I'd be none the wiser. And yet, I'm sure many people would see little difference between these "difficult" poems and my stuff. The most recent rejection slip I received said "I found these poems difficult to read. ... Try writing more simply and directly. Complex things _can_ be said in a simple, clear way". In what way do I find the poems in this book harder than mine?

In the olden days, writing poetry was a 2 stage process for some people. Poets had ideas that they dumdeedumdeed into a poem, choosing a title to pre-empt "What's it about?" questions. Even famous poets would to-and-fro between poetry and prose to clarify plot or sound. The 2nd stage was sometimes clumsily done (the meaning mangled to fit the form, words inverted, strange words used to satisfy the rhyme scheme) but it was necessary to suit the expectations of the era, otherwise the poem wouldn't be read.

Times have changed. Poems needn't pander to the masses or even to the non-poet intelligensia. "What's it about?" is no longer a question to fear. Moreover, there's no point anyone shouting "He's wearing no clothes!" because the masses aren't listening, and fellow poets are faced with too many vested Creative Writing interests. Some poets, consciously or otherwise, still write in 2 stages, the 2nd stage rendering the ideas to suit the expectations of the era. The aim is no longer to be easily paraphrasable - au contraire, the 2nd stage brings in language effects to disrupt the standard prose routes from words to meaning. The fractures interfere with knowledge acquisition methods use to read a text-book, favouring more the skills of song lyric, music or art appreciation. The poem needs to be in some way unresolved, not only at the level of paraphrased meaning but also at a lower level - unresolved words, ruptured syntax, less transparency. The poet leaves loop-holes - flaws? or an admission that language is fickle, that poets (like Islamic temple decorators) have to be humble?

Some poets are lucky, living in an age whose style suits them. Other poets are able to write in several styles, comfortable in any era. Most people are adaptable enough to mould their talents into a shape that suits the prevailing fashions, provided they're exposed to those fashions early enough. At the age of 18 isn't too late.

But what is the equivalent of the beginner Formalist's clumsiness? Is all disruption and fast-cutting an unquestionable sign of the modern age, the new realism? In The Poetry Circus long ago, Stanton Coblenz suggested that inauthentic poets might consciously try to avoid triteness. Even something like "They are as far part as midnight from noon or April from Night" might be redrafted, using "fresh and original images" to get "They are as far apart as a yawn from vertigo, or an aspersion from a hypotenuse" (p.31). Some poets in this book seem more to be avoiding simplicity than confronting complexity. They rough up the surface of their poems (or "let the words play around") until their poem might be given the benefit of the doubt. My problem with many of these poems is that I didn't see what this 2nd stage added to the works; it obscured rather than augmented the effects.

Stephen Burt in his "Close Calls with Nonsense" writes "Some of the most celebrated 'difficult' poetry of the past ten years seems to me derivative, mechanical, shallow, soulless, and too clever by half" and that "In pursuing certain virtues - colorful local effects, personae and personality, juxtaposition, close calls with nonsense, uncertainty, critiques of ordinary language - the current crop of American poets necessarily give up on others. I miss, in most contemporary poetry, the arguments, the extended rhetorical passages and essayistic digressions I enjoy in the poems of the 17th and 18th centuries". I rather miss those features too. If readers can touch the bottom of a poem (rather than feeling out of their depth) it's not a disaster. If the water's clear enough for them to see their own feet, all the better. I think it's a viable form of poetry (indeed, Lumsden's written many good poems of that type in the past), but it's almost entirely absent from this selection. That said, the poetry's representative of the magazines most represented here. I'm a little surprised that "Tears in the Fence" didn't feature more though.

I forgot to make a note of all the poems I liked. Amongst them were "Light Over Ratcliffe", "10x10", "Young Pterodactyl", "Collusion", "Of Other Spaces (Tate St. Ives)" and poems by Judy Brown and Emma Danes. I suggest that people browse before buying (the first few poems are online) because it's quite possible for even practising poets to like next to nothing. If they want an educational experience maybe they should first read "Close Calls with Nonsense" (Burt) or even "The Poem and the Journey" (Padel) . However, for those who want an update on "Identity Parade", or want to see the type of British poetry that becoming increasingly popular, this is just the job. It's a book that looks ahead, rather than back, and ambitious and/or career UK poets would do well to read it. It's useful for non-UK readers too - they'll get a feel for the type of UK poetry that doesn't always reach foreign shores on paper.

On p.118 there's an original typo - w131ere instead of were.

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