Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Dear World and Everyone In it ed. by Nathan Hamilton

In her review of Sam Riviere's "81 Austerities" Ruth Padel describes his poetry as being developed through (a) the internet (b) university creative writing courses. Riviere is one of the 60 young ("more or less (under) 35 ") poets featured in this substantial new anthology "Dear World and Everyone In It" edited by Nathan Hamilton. Asked by his publisher why certain young poets aren't included he says, repeated in his combative introduction, "some new Young Poets still write Old Poetry" But this is not the old mainstream v. non-mainstream argument retrod, more that the techniques and subject matter of some of the best contemporary poets don't seem to owe much to the generations that come directly before. The 2004 "next generation" poets were very recognisable to the crop of 1994's "new generation" poets, so something has clearly changed. There are few poems in this selection that owe much to Duffy or Armitage or Heaney or Hughes. A decade ago, it was like poetry - and particular the main presses - had closed their doors to new voices and new poets. Rather than conform to get heard, we've seen a sprouting of  a "networked" culture where live events, magazines, websites and pamphlets, and university creative writing course have combined outside of this "mainstream." More recently, pamphlet series from Salt, tall lighthouse, and even Faber amongst others have filled the publication gap, and those poets are amply represented here. And it is this networked culture, rather than the "internet" which has created that gap between new and "Old Poetry."

What of the poems though? This elegantly presented Bloodaxe book has reassuringly wide pages, enabling longer poems, prose poems and experiments alongside lyrics. Hamilton's introduction, a series of "Dear so-and-so" interjections that is both irreverant and combative, sets the scene. Flicking backwards through the book I came upon these lines:

"..."They were eating omelettes with dry bread."
It isn't 2 way: I read their questions in their eyes' laptops:
"What? WHAT? WHAT?! WHAT?! WHAT?!"
They sign the guest book grudgingly, like bears..." 

Easily recognisable as Luke Kennard, one of the prevailing voices of this generation. Kennard, like Armitage before him is an easy poet to copy, a difficult poet to copy well. Luckily, if there is a School of Kennard here - perhaps Riviere, Underwood, Berry might be lined up alongside him - its one with few rules. Returning to the beginning of the collection, Éireann Lorsung may seem an untypical poet to begin with; coming out of America-Nottingham; feminist in perspective, but imaginative in style, her opening poem "The Book of Splendor" is a beautiful choice. If Hamilton is setting his stall out, its for good poems and good poets over a particular style or subject. If the collection has a centre of gravity then perhaps its eastwards - East London, University of East Anglia, east coast of America - but that's only a partial telling. The crop of hybrid nationalities - frequently Americans or Europeans studying in the UK or a British poet, Amy De'ath, studying in Canada - is clearly one of the key characteristics that has fed into this 21st century poetry. At last we are moving away from the prevailing voices of Heaney and Hughes, Armitage and Duffy and O'Brien; poetry is urbanised, not so much rooted in the poetics of the Celtic fringe. Not that such distinctions are in anyway total, though there's no place for Faber Heaneyite Nick Laird, Michael McKimm's elegantly formal "The Annals of Antrim" won't scare any Irish horses.

I think what it is, is that networked culture has provided an alternate range of influences and stakeholders, and the poetry world is the better for it. There are, as Padel noted, a prevalence of university based poets.  This selection is confidently middle-class, confidently London/SE, confidently academic. It does make you ask: where are the working class voices? (No William Letford for instance.) Where are the Asian and black voices? Are writers like Kei Miller and Sandeep Parmar representative, or simply poets, cultural differences no longer as vital? Perhaps the next wave will be Anglo-Polish poets, disciples of Adam Zagajewski; for now we've Anglo-Hungarian Ágnes Lehóczky.

In the choice of poetry I think we're seeing a development of this generation. Attending a Stop/Sharpening/Your/Knives event a few years ago I enjoyed some of these poets - it was a lively entertaining evening if a little solipsitic. These poets aren't actually now that young (many are 30 or over), and Hamilton has been judicious in his choice of work. What are they writing about is now as important as how they are writing it. Thank God we've moved from the anecdotal poem that seemed to dominate English lyrics for a decade or more; here we have stories, digressions, philosophy, even politics on occasion - an art in discussion with itself but not just about itself.  There are longer poems, prose poems, experimental and visual work alongside  the more formally lyrically. There aren't really any "giants" here or presiding voices - its as if the 35 age cut off has deprived us a little of some perspective (a Richard Price for instance, a Matthew Welton.) This generation now has Salt Younger Poets, Lung Jazz, Dear World and other anthologies... it may be time to tone down the ageism - after all they're all getting older. With perhaps the exception of Keston Sutherland, who is perhaps too niche to be any generational lead, the majority of the poets have only published this century - there feels a gap in the narrative - between this generation and the new and next generation poets.

As I said, its a substantial book and generally the poets are given plenty of space rather. A couple of quibbles. The acknowledgements at the end seem only partial - how many of these poems have appeared in books? Some are mentioned, others (like Tim Cockburn or Sam Riviere) aren't acknowledged directly - and those are the ones I know. Also, similar to the Lumsden anthology "Identity Parade" not all the poets are represented by their best work. Whether this is to do with rights, or the desire of editors and poets to include recent work, I'm not sure, but "New Lines", for instance included many of the iconic poems of the day - the Chris McCabe poems included, for instance don't really do justice to his range, for which I'd recommend his debut collection "The Hutton Inquiry", and  Lehóczky's prose work included here, means that we have no room for her excellent "Budapest to Babel".Still working through the book as a whole, but I already have my favourite poems anyway:"Immediately on Waking" by Tim Cockburn is stunning, alongside that opener from Éireann, Emily Berry's "Shriek", and the chosen extracts from "81 austerities."

This book grew out of a series of mini-anthologies in the Rialto, and is published by Bloodaxe. Michael Mackmin and Neil Astley deserve full credit for handing over to a younger editor to map this changing scene. There are omissions of course; as well as Letford I'd have found room for my fellow Salt modern voices Claire Trévien and J.T. Welsch, and one might quibble at some of the more out there selections. Good as Nat Raha and Holly Pester are, their work might be better experienced live, in audio, or over a longer selection.  The internet may not have been invented in 2004, as Padel seems to think, but at least its well represented in these poems: though rarely as the subject, more often as the material. With perhaps the exception of the polemical "Jo Crot"'s fun, but meandering "Poetsplain", and one or two other poems, Flarf and its cousins, and the Ken Goldsmith school of poetics haven't made much of an impact here; and though the Cambridge influence of Prynne hangs over some of the more experimental poets, they seem among the least interesting in this company. 

Where is British poetry nowadays? I'd like to think at a good point, its certainly not "dying" as was recently said (though slam poetry may well be the least interesting of the performance genres currently appearing at a pub near you.) Many of these poets cut their teeth live but are not "performance poets" in the slam sense.   It may seem easy to draw a line with what's gone before, but I know that many of the poets here have benefited from the generosity of older poets as academics and mentors, and mainstream techniques, by their very nature, can end up showing diminishing returns over time - how else are new poets to define themselves other than through accessing a wider palate? If critics of these poems and poets might complain about their "newness", their "novelty", their "meaninglessness", then Hamiltons selection refutes most of these complains: these are substantial works, and some are substantial poets. If there is less of the anecdotal, less of the "I am" poem, less of the nostalgic, then that's a good thing - they all have plenty of time left to write their elegies.


Tim Love said...

Thanks for the write-up. You've made me want to read the book though I think I'll have far more trouble with it than you had. If it's like the original Rialto selection I think I'll find enough to keep me happy.

Adrian Slatcher said...

The poems are better than the ones in the Rialto selection (though some are the same) - I think we're seeing some of these poets develop and progress interestingly; and they all benefit from a longer selection of their work.