Saturday, March 20, 2010

Needles in the Haystack of British Poetry

"Identity Parade," published by Bloodaxe and edited by Roddy Lumsden is the first comprehensive anthology of new British and Irish poets for 17 years. Firstly, Lumsden and Bloodaxe have done a remarkable job, not just in taking the haystack of contemporary British poetry and pulling out most or all of the needles, but in accepting the pluralism of the contemporary scene as a given. A more minor triumph is that four of the poets I'd have quibbled with, had they not been included, Richard Price, Chris McCabe, Luke Kennard and Matthew Welton are all well-represented. That these are included, shows that Lumsden in particular, has a keen eye for the contemporary scene - it is hard to imagine a Bloodaxe anthology of a decade ago finding room for them (and not just because they are published by Salt and Carcanet.)

In his introduction, Lumsden doesn't talk about the poets, but about the need for a new anthology, the selection criteria and the poetry landscape from which they were pulled. By choosing 85 poets, he runs the risk of too wide a selection, but so nicely laid out is the book, and so generous in its size, that every poet gets a short biography and a reasonable selection of their work. It is up to the reader to pick their favourites, or - given that the poets appear alphabetically - plot their own pathway through a diverse poetic scene. Whether Faber will be ashamed or pleased that "only 3" of the poets debuted on their imprint, would be an interesting subtext, I guess - except that it is Carcanet and Bloodaxe, and more recently Salt and Seren, who have provided the publishing opportunities that the closed lists of more major publishers have rejected. That there are more women then men in the anthology, and from diverse backgrounds, is not a surprise - as Bloodaxe in particular has always been particularly strong in this respect. It's still somewhat surprising to read that "a third" of the poets are in some way, in academia - though given the rise of the "creative writing course" perhaps its not that much of a surprise.

Lumsden's selection rules won't please all - its notable that poets like Armitage and Paterson are excluded, not because of their age, but because they were published too early for inclusion. If this gives us a collection of many minnows and few giants, then I don't think this is a bad thing: there are no overarching geniuses of contemporary poetry, whilst there are clearly a lot of modest, but worthwhile talents. By reflecting what is, and drawing a line under a generation - now in their late forties or early fifties that hardly needs the "bump up" that inclusion would give - Lumsden has created that rare thing, an anthology that is likely to please readers and critics.

My quibbles would be minor ones - I would have liked some selections from Chris McCabe's startling debut as they offer more of a jolt than the ones included (disclaimer: I published some of those early poems in Lamport Court); and there are no long poems included, and few extracts from longer works or sequences. I've only just been looking through the collection, so it will take a while for a "critical review" - i.e. of the poetry itself - but Lumsden doesn't even try to give a critical perspective; preferring to map the landscape, rather than draw conclusions. He speaks of "individual voices" and of a lack of engaging politically engaged poetry, and of there being no dominant figure. He is not wrong, yet there are limits to the anthologist's role when it is purely curatorial. The "missing" more established figures do skew the collection somewhat - and recent poetry prizes have been won by such a wide range of writers, both ones included here, and more established writers - and it does not even try and be an anthology of the most important poems of the last twenty years. It means that a writer like Simon Armitage or Ian Duhig remains poorly served by the existing anthologies - a gap for a companion volume in a year or two, perhaps? What is clear, and where the book is vital, is that for anyone wanting to explore contemporary poetry further, this is a beautifully produced, and generously edited starting point.


I had missed Todd Swift's review of "Identity Parade". It seems a reasonable summation, albeit with a bit more of a poetry world insider's beefs, though it does fall to the inevitable temptation of criticising the collection for being what it "isn't" rather than what it "is."  I guess this is reviewers/bloggers prerogative. And I guess its writers/anthologists prerogative to respond, and Lumsden, intemperately, does. Apparently Swift's review and perhaps more accurately, the somewhat incredible letter that preceded it, caused quite a furore in the small, febrile world of poetry. Luckily, I missed that one.

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