Saturday, 30 October 2010

Identity Parade

I recently attended the Manchester launch of the new Bloodaxe anthology of contemporary poetry, Identity Parade, which is meant to follow on from The New Poetry (1993) and Motion and Morrison's Contemporary British Poetry (1981) as the definitive collection of the contemporary poetry scene. At the event, Roddy Lumsden, the editor of Identity Parade, said something along the lines of: if anthologies are invitations to the party, Motion and Morrison's book was more like an invitation to a cocktail party; which given the inclusion of Tony Harrison and Douglas Dunn seems a little unfair. The point I suppose was to compare CBPand IP and highlight the latter's inclusiveness.

Whilst IP is certainly more inclusive than CBP, somehow it is less than the sum of its many fine parts. Unlike CBP, which mainstreamed a formal restrained poetry reflective of the political and social currents of the time (Northern Ireland, class and, to a lesser extent, gender), and TNP, which announced the rise of the marginal voice, conceived in oppostion to the metropolis (and Thatcherism), IP simply lives on the claim to represent a generally apolitical diversity.

Its voices and experiences are usually middle class (with one or two exceptions), often Oxbridge educated, the dominant form is free verse and philosophical or political verse is rare. Although the poets all have recognizable voices, the collection is dominated by intense lyric poetry, which is heavily descriptive, with a tendency to rhetorical density. Because of this, I think there may be some parallels with the poetry of the 1940's (Thomas, Watkins, Graham) although clearly there are some points of contrast as well. Naturally, there are some very fine poets included , some of whose reputations will be enhanced by the opportunity to compare them with their peers (I think particularly of Sasha Dugdale, whose poems in this anthology strike me as much wilder and more dislocating than they do in her collections, and Vona Groarke, who if she were older would have been a suitable companion to Derek Mahon in CBP). I am glad to see the inclusion of fine poets like Sarah Corbett and Julian Turner, and equally glad to note the absence of over-rated ones like Kathryn Simmons and Caroline Bird. However, I do not understand why Tim Liardet was not included, and I am sure that there are others who could justifiably complain about their exclusion. Perhaps it is inevitable that some good poets will get left out, but I regret that this may effect their future reputation and sales.

Notwithstanding the number of women poets in the anthology, I also have reservations about its claim to inclusiveness. The editor expressly excludes writers who were over 55 when their first book was published (which is direct age discrimination, though probably not justiciable because the production of a poetry anthology is unlikely to be the provision of a service to the poets who might wish to be included in it - so probably not unlawful, just a crass decision). The minority ethnic writers in the anthology reflect the code/language/idiom-mixing of ethnic diasporas, but there is nothing to compare with the rise of dub poetry in the 1980s. This is poetry written ABOUT black and asian people, and there is often an element of satire in it, albeit affectionate satire. Nowhere will you find anything influenced by rap.

Arguably, what we have is a snapshop of the new metropolitan arty middle class, slightly more ethnically diverse than before, with more women participating visibly within it. But somehow the social and intellectual milieu it reveals seems narrow. Nevertheless, there are some great poems in the anthology, which are worth reading, and I can't think of one poet in it whose work I haven't enjoyed stumbling across.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Discovery! C K Williams in Manchester


On 4 October 2010, I went to a reading by C K Williams in the Manchester literatue festival with my friend, Heather, a Canadian - invited, I suppose, because she is a North American, extremely bright and likely to be in tune with Williams's ethical concerns (a literary way of saying the uncomfortable 'p' word, POLITICAL).

I'd read a couple of poems by Williams and I loved the way his poetry modulates through an experience touching on thoughts and analysis as well as emotion, but in a way which stems from the experience at the root of the poem, not as comment upon it. What amazed me at the reading was also his capacity for empathy. He is an existential poet because his poetry is about existence and the choices which underlie it. Somehow this approach enables him to write political and philosophical poetry AND love poetry, although of course there's no reason why those categories are mutually exclusive. Indeed, their interweaving reminds me of 17th century metaphysical poetry.

There's some good reviews by Michael Hofman and Chase Twitchell on the amazon site: these say as much as I could, rather more elegantly.

Anyway, I've ordered a collected poems from the USA in hardback at half the price of the paperback in this country and I can't wait till it comes.

And Heather, who isn't a big poetry fan like me really loved the evening, which made it even better!