Friday, 21 October 2011

The Best British Poetry 2011

I've now read The Best British Poetry 2011 edited by Roddy Lumsden, (Salt, 2011) - my comments are on my reviews site. Here are some extracts -

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. It's modeled on the US version, conceptually and visually, with nearly 40 pages of notes. I didn't find it an easy read. 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.

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? Some of the poets clearly don't like making things too obvious.

  • 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)?

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).

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 - Giles Goodland wrote that he "let the words play around".

But what is the equivalent of the beginner Formalist's clumsiness? Some poets in this book seem more to be avoiding simplicity than confronting complexity. They rough up the surface of their poems 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" wrote that he rather misses "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. And linguistic transparency. 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, which after all, isn't supposed to be representative.

For those who want an update on "Identity Parade", or want to see the type of British poetry that becoming increasingly popular, this book 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.

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