from Poetry Wales, Spring 2012
Surprisingly, now is a good time to be a young British poet: a time of possibility and enterprise, expectation and friendly competition. Listen to the headlines, of course, and you'd think there could hardly be a worse time. Money is tight in the austerity-battered arts economy, and established poetry lists grow ever more cautious of taking a punt on new talent; indeed, right now the global publishing industry—and this applies across the board, not just to poetry—resembles nothing so much as an eighth-century monastery, bumbling about in fear as digital media's longboats pull up on the shore. Yet faced with such an inauspicious time to come of age, the generation of poets born after 1980 is getting on with it, collaborating, inventing opportunities and writing. Go to a reading series in London such as Days of Roses, The Shuffle, or Clinic, and you will find poets drinking together and making introductions, flogging chapbooks and badgering new friends to submit to this or that journal: as it should be, in other words, and in marked contrast to the internecine bun fights that have blighted the mainstream poetry scene over the last year.
Published in October, The Salt Book of Younger Poets (ed. Roddy Lumsden and Eloise Stonborough) testifies to this moment of unlikely, ramshackle optimism. I say this not because I'm in it, but because I'm proud to be in it. When I received my contributor copy, I began reading in slightly sceptical mood, chuffed to be included but afraid that we risked exposing ourselves too soon, like a junior Eisteddfod lobbying to get covered on Newsnight Review. When I continued reading, it quickly became clear that the anthology needed no special treatment. As one would expect from such a youthful showcase, there was brio and verve in abundance, but poem after poem surprised with its care and control, its depth and breadth of reference.
It says something about the life cycle of this generation that Lumsden and Stonborough decided to set an age limit of 26, rather than settle for the round number of 30. In his foreword, Lumsden reasons that
Two fairly recent (and recommended) anthologies ... featured poets from a younger generation but the editors set a higher age limit of mid 30s and I felt there were more than enough poets of great promise in the younger age band to warrant their own showcase.
This leaves implicit the identity of the poets aged between 26 and their 'mid 30s' who received exposure in these two anthologies (Voice Recognition, edited by James Byrne and Clare Pollard for Bloodaxe, and City State, edited by Tom Chivers for his own press, Penned in the Margins). It's actually rather important, as the poets gathered in the Salt anthology owe a large amount of their practice to the mini-generation a half step ahead of them. To get the measure of these slightly older younger poets one has to go by way of their flagship magazine.
Stop Sharpening Your Knives (or S/S/Y/K to its followers) comes out at irregular, roughly annual intervals, edited by a roving crew of poets in their late 20s and early 30s, many of whom met on the still-influential University of East Anglia creative writing programme. Some poets one could fairly label S/S/Y/K poets include Sam Riviere, Emily Berry, Jack Underwood, Matthew Gregory, Heather Phillipson and Swansea's own Joe Dunthorne. Most of these have won Eric Gregory awards in the last ten years, and a handful have had their debut pamphlets released by Faber and Faber as part of their fledgling New Poets series.
Without a formal manifesto, S/S/Y/K has carved out an aesthetic more recognizable than any wave of British poetry in years. Discussing this aesthetic is trickier than identifying it, since many people outside of the magazine's coterie resort to the same contentious criticism: namely, that S/S/Y/K is 'quirky'. This is a patronising piece of critical shorthand, yet in this case naggingly descriptive. If we take 'quirky' to mean unusual, jokey, twee, and evasive of authentic sentiment, then S/S/Y/K is all of those things; the question is whether or not the epithet can ever be intended as a compliment. In the fourth edition of the magazine there is a quirky poem by Matthew Gregory called 'Young Pterodactyl'. It is also a powerful and strange poem, an allegory (as I read it) about two people nearing the end of their relationship, who latch onto a common project to distract themselves from the unwanted reality of their break-up. This common project is a baby pterodactyl.
We carried it home, a parcel of angles and nerves
and if anyone saw us, I couldn't tell ...
The next morning I held it, flapping inside my arms
like a dishtowel, while you offered it bits of steak.
Here lies the rub with S/S/Y/K. The poem that moves you, which ends on a fine description of something 'enormous as a mood / roosting over our heads', diverts its full emotional impact via the fantasy of a dinosaur. 'Young Pterodactyl' is a very well executed poem but much depends on whether or not you accept its bittersweet and unworldly conceit. More often S/S/Y/K offers up rambunctious jeux d'esprit, but a similar caveat will still apply: you have to divorce yourself, somewhat, from the real world and buy into it as you might a comic book. Some people find melancholy and depth in Batman. Others might say that they have to divorce themselves from the real world in order to enjoy Paradise Lost. Art adopts the fantastic, the magical, the sublime and extra-terrestrial, and uses it to illumine the lives that we lead on earth. Art can also just be for kicks, with no case to answer to the po-faced critics who would plumb it for meaning. Somewhere between these two poles lies the best work from S/S/Y/K; I'm just not sure where.
There is little overlap between the poets who regularly publish in S/S/Y/K and the contributors to the Salt anthology. One or two of the latter have had poems in S/S/Y/K, a few more have followed its lead and set up artful and artsy mags of their own (Clinic and the online Pomegranate being the two most prominent examples), and in Jack Underwood a younger member of the S/S/Y/K editorial team shows up in the Salt anthology. Generally, though, there is a gap, rather like that artificially stark one that exists in a secondary school between the sixth form and the uniformed younger years.
As in the school, the younger poets have been watching closely and emulating their near-elders. It is difficult to imagine the poetry in the Salt anthology without S/S/Y/K. The two mini-generations share, in particular, a fascination with totemic animals and personae. Give yourself a pound for every poem about birds that you find in either S/S/Y/K or the Salt anthology, and you'll soon have enough for a handsome nut-feeder. (In fairness, this can be explained to a large extent by Birdbook: Jon Stone and Kirsten Irving, two particularly promising and indefatigable poets from the S/S/Y/K generation, masterminded this 'micro-anthology' for their press, Sidekick Books. Across a planned several volumes, they aim to gather one new poem for every species of bird native to the British Isles.) Everywhere pamphlets and online magazines team with poems about pigs and whales; poems spurred by dictionary entries and web sites; poems written in the voice of characters from Greek myths and video games (Sidekick again: their Coin Opera is to Mario and Sonic what Birdbook is to the wren).
James Midgeley is a writer typical of his generation, in terms of both poetic practice and biographical details (MA from Norwich? Check. Set up and edited a short-lived but very good magazine? Check. Gregory award? You get the idea). His 'Butterfly Antennae' embodies much of what twenty-something poets are doing nowadays. A distracted meditation on modernity and distraction, it declaims in its opening stanza that
Tonight there is too much interference to think.
In a town's scattered Rubik's cube of televisions
one face is switched to static.
The poem's short, fragmented sections enact the over-connected meltdown that they report. Throughout, a clipped, laconic narratorial voice offsets the frustration and unease. Everything down to the funky and nostalgic reference to the Rubik's cube is just so.
As confident and cool an opening as this is, the poem's most telling move comes with the third section's haunting image of constriction and claustrophobia:
I heard of a man who was lighting a film set
when a hawkmoth mistook his ear for an escape
and writhed against the eardrum's straitjacket.
This 'I' feels as though it has just wandered in. A bemused participant in the poem rather than its conscience, it is no more or less significant than the televisions or the hawkmoth. Variations on this depersonalised 'I' recur through the anthology, in the work of very different types of poet. Even Sarah Howe, a writer whose voice has plenty of sincerity and gravitational pull, works distance into her first-person pronoun. Here is the opening of her numinous and brilliant poem 'Faults Escaped':
I wake to a sodium forest. Passengers
speed through intensifying haloes.
The bright underpass thirsts tonight.
Like the speaker in 'Butterfly Antennae', the 'I' here is important insofar as it bears witness to a vivid and strange universe. Later in the poem the speaker reveals a little more of herself, with a confession that 'I like to listen for the gabble of surfaces— / all summer the dripping walls, the wind- / blown gate unable to stop'. But this declaration of ego and desire wrong-foots us; it is the surfaces themselves that are important, not the speaker.
On the face of it, we should celebrate this lack of self-absorption. At the beginning of their writing lives, most poets will turn to their own emotions and memories and quarry them for material; juvenilia is characterised largely by this failure to step outside the bounds of one's own perspective. The Salt anthology contains very little juvenilia. Better than we have any right to expect from poets under the age of 26, the work upholds Eliot's dictum that art should be 'an escape from personality'.
Oli Hazzard's escape has so far been a particularly fruitful and interesting one. His poems often take place in an ominous landscape of forests, valleys and rivers, timeless except for the occasional 'fuzz of telephone / Wires overhead' ('Moving In') and pylons that 'stand bow-legged, mercenary' ('Badlands'). The action is intense and human, usually describing an encounter between two individuals, but oblique enough to stand for an emotional state rather than this or that biographical experience. Here is the opening of 'Arrival':
The vibrating harp of rain drove them
sprinting into the pine wood. Made content amongst shadow
and cicada trills, they soon grew fond of the names
they'd given the trees and animals; in night's recesses
they learned to conjure mephitic
fumes from the bomb-puckered earth,
to sing certain obscene songs ...
How good is this? How vatic and arcane, yet contemporary? Reminiscent of early, difficult Auden—the Auden of 'spring's green / Preliminary shiver', rather than the Auden who stops all the clocks and praises limestone—it belies the notion that today's young poets are working in a cutesy, self-contained bubble. And it's no anomaly: James Brookes, Amy De'Ath, Helen Mort, Vidyan Ravinthiran and Ben Wilkinson, to name but five, are all creating similarly serious and novel bodies of work. What unites them with S/S/Y/K and all poets at the quirkier—or, in less pejorative terms, self-aware; humorous; pop-culture-savvy—end of the spectrum is a distrust of the traditional poetic 'I', that dull old codger who hangs around insisting that a speaker should be traced back to the poet, and that the main joy and purpose of poetry is to communicate a worldview, a story, a claim about one's background and ethics. The question of where a poet comes from, and what they stand for, may well be turning obsolete.
What might this mean in Welsh context? To reduce the issue to facts and quotas, there are three Welsh poets in the Salt anthology: Nia Davies, Sophie Yeo and myself. Davies (who hails from Sheffield but has Welsh roots) writes rich and adventurous poems. Appropriately for someone who works with Literature Across Frontiers, her work feels borderless, influenced by experimental American and eastern European poetries as much as—probably more than—the British canon. Her Welsh identity, if it is on display at all, shows in the dense, heavily stressed fabric of the verse, which seems (or sounds) conversant with Cynghanedd, Hopkins and Glyn Jones. In the event that an 'I' surfaces in her work, it is defiantly plastic and multivalent.
Yeo sits more squarely in the mainstream of the anthology. She attended Oxford around the same time as a group of poets born between 1988 and 1990 that includes Laura Marsh, Lavinia Singer and the anthology's co-editor, Eloise Stonborough. I can only speculate about whether or not these four were reading and influencing one another at university, but their work appears to share a sensibility. They take the playful, shape-shifting tendencies of the generation but apply a gentle and slightly archaic metaphysical tweak, as if channelling the Donne and Sidney they have been reading for tutorials. (If this sounds condescending, I don't mean it to: such an engagement with the canon is precisely what literature students should have, and these four pull it off winningly.) Singer's 'The Mapmaker's Daughter', an ambitious ecological monologue and winner of Oxford's prestigious Newdigate Prize, is one of several poems in the anthology that feels destined to make its way into many future anthologies; Marsh's 'Apollo's Hyacinths' might be the loveliest love poem in the whole book. It is a compliment, then, to say that Yeo provides stiff competition with 'Love's Progress':
She will dine with you, but you will drink more.
You know you will never quite get it right,
never quite know how to follow, when to laugh.
Love is slightly weary from the train,
the dust on her sleeve as grey as your restraint.
The weariness and restraint of those last two lines carefully disguises the great swell of hope that comes with the knowledge that love—in the parlance of the poem—has got off the train.
Some excellent writing, then—but still not much 'Welsh perspective', whatever that may mean. Should we care? It's a fair question. Certainly, Anglo-Welsh writing of the mid-to-late-twentieth century overwhelmingly gave the Welsh perspective and settled sometimes, in the process, for cosy identity politics. Nobody wants to regress to tidy, prosy lyrics about chapel-going, ancestors, local 'characters' and getting battered down the social. Equally, though, my generation of poets has to put pressure on its own tendency to shirk the question of identity altogether. After all, poetry about territory, kin and memory is not just for the hidebound and provincial; it is a tradition that takes in Basil Bunting's Briggflatts and Geoffrey Hill's Mercian Hymns as well.
The Welsh poet who offers a way forward here is not in the Salt anthology. Though young enough to be included, Meirion Jordan proves a victim of his own success, in that he falls foul of the criterion that no contributor should have a first collection already: his Moonrise came out in 2008. Many things distinguish this debut volume, not least among them the fact that its jacket blurb manages to say something sharp and perceptive alongside the obligatory round of compliments. John Fuller gets it right with his judgement that Jordan's work 'explores the interwoven attractions of futile histories, impossible alternative worlds and, at its heart, the real and finally most surprising world'. It is this relationship between alternative reality and actual reality that positions Jordan on an interesting fault line in contemporary poetry.
Unsurprisingly for a graduate of the UEA programme, Jordan's work has more than a touch of the S/S/Y/K to it. Humour fizzes through Moonrise and bubbles up in charmingly dark party pieces such as 'The new world' and 'The Nuclear Disaster Appreciation Society'. 'The new world', in particular, is great—a romp through a post-eco-disaster Wales that, like much good comedy, has the good sense to take a single joke and ram it home, way beyond the point at which it should stop being funny. In this case, the joke is a simple one that hinges on placing Welsh town names in an apocalyptic setting:
100 percent humidity at Rhandirmwyn.
Kurtz Jenkins on the shores of Llyn Clywedog,
and everything from Llanidloes to Rhaeadr
declared 'the dark interior'.
Jordan's jokes work, however, because they come at judicious intervals, between longer spells of 'straight' lyric. The most handsome of these is the opening poem in the collection, 'Calculus'.
Tonight I have been wearing the rhythms of the sea
all day, the swing of it rising in my arms,
my fingers scathing the backwash
for the solidus of flat stones ...
A good deal of what thrills about this opening is its unabashed, Romantic (note the capital) egotism. This does not have the ring of persona or character acting; it is not an allegory, a feint, or a way of talking about something else. It stands for itself and the elemental pleasure of pulling stones from the 'backwash' of the sea. If 'The new world' adds a little Norwich zest to the earnestness of Welsh lyric verse, then this might be the reciprocal gift. The poem ends with an emptying out of the beach:
The sunbathers depart. The swimmers.
Soon I will be alone. Tonight
I will be out late, then very late,
turning my pebbles at the spinning moon.
At a time when much poetry is busy with multiple voices, the self-possession and solitude of these lines take on a radical edge. Jordan stares down and renovates the cliché of the lone poet keeping company with the moon. With freshness and style, 'Calculus' suggests that an important direction for British poetry's immediate future will involve recovering our faith in 'the real and finally most surprising world'.
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Editor: Zoë Skoulding