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Todd Swift
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It is a bright, sunny autumn day in London, with intermittent rain (English paradox), as I wrap up a week's blogging here, and the Prime Minister has personally intervened last night to defend military cuts from Osborne's urge to cut. I have hoped, this week, to offer some "new bearings" in British poetry, but without sticking slavishly to birthdates or generations, though I have been, it is true, mostly casting a warm eye on the younger emerging talents. Lists and canons are invidious, only until one imagines what we'd do without them, especially in this intertwined and networked world with so very many talented poets out there. It is easy to mock Eliot and Leavis for the April cleaning they offered in the Twenties and Thirties, but it did allow us to read a number of good poets in a new light. I am a big believer in anthologies, as an art as well as a skill, and it is no coincidence that I have been offering a mini-virtual anthology at this blog, named for the finest series of American poetry anthologies ever compiled. Some anthologists (unfairly, it seems to me) become comic figures of loss, like Oscar Williams, their great efforts on behalf of others ultimately swept away with the big bad broom of "time", that so many of us foolishly hope will come and make everything orderly on the poetry shelves. Time, instead, tends, I think, to maintain the order that came before, which is why Eliot's argument about individual talents shifting the canon was always as progressive as it was reactionary - properly dialectical. Without critics, editors, anthologists, and eagle-eyed poets and readers constantly on the look-out for what was great, or good, or merely thrilling in the big book of old poems, then perhaps those orderly shelves will merely remain undusted, and samey. I will make two predictions about the contemporary poetry consensus, and how it will be read in 100 years (2110): one, Seamus Heaney will still be being read; and two, one of the other poets who will be considered few of us have heard of (or may not yet be born). Poetry's canons are made both of the famous, universally-acclaimed, prize winners, who confirm what we think poetry is, and is also formed by those transformational and utterly unexpected types who jump out of nowhere and show us what poetry could be. I think both kinds of poet should be welcome. There is a third kind of poet, I suppose, the kind who does shuttle diplomacy between the accepted, the traditional, and the radically new - or, perhaps, goes between communities, schools, nations, languages, canons, genres, media, bringing back news to the tribe. I call these poets The Go-Betweens, and without their energy and commitment to packing poetry in their bags when they travel, and declaring it upon arrival, we'd be all the poorer for it. Before sharing them (these final 8!) with you, on this my seventh day, I want to remind... Continue reading
Posted Oct 16, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Today, Hilary Clinton made headlines in Britain, by “expressing concern” about plans to cut spending here on military procurement. I mention this to underline how interconnected the US/UK relationship – “special” or not – still is, not just culturally, but military-industrially. Meanwhile, David Cameron and General Petraeus have been meeting over the botched rescue of a British citizen kidnapped by the Taliban, and maybe killed accidentally by an American rescuer, who may have thrown a hand grenade that killed her as she lay on the ground. Though there is a documented “Atlantic drift” in the poetry community, as much binds as releases the two former great powers, both watching the rise of China. Poets in the 20th century in the Anglo-Saxon world tended to speak of a mid-Atlantic current, that saw the loan-lease of poetic talents, such as Auden and Eliot. Hugh Kenner, a Canadian, wrote about this, in A Sinking Island, and then there is Fishing By Obstinate Isles, let alone A Shrinking Island, Jed Edy’s title echoing Kenner’s. I don’t think we can any longer speak of mid-Atlantic poets (Robert Lowell was one, at ease in London as Boston). I was tempted to call them Pan-Poets, or the New Jet Set (a little ungreen). I have therefore decided to call them Atlantic/Pacific poets – poets whose national identities are enwebbed in travel, education, and publication, in several nations at once, and therefore, in their cosmopolitan internationalism creatively scramble the tired old nationalist labels. In the process, they release the English-language poetic tradition since Modernism into its widest swing, the compass arm describing a very wide arc of styles and experiences, indeed. Other poets I have featured so far this week could have been included here, but this list includes a poet born in New Zealand, one born in Australia, one born in America who intelligently and creatively engage with the British and American poetic traditions, as well as ones closer (perhaps) to home – whatever that might mean. Kathryn Maris, a New Yorker now based in London, was educated at Columbia University (BA) and Boston University (MA, Creative Writing). She is the author of The Book of Jobs (Four Way Books, 2006) and a second collection forthcoming with Seren in the United Kingdom. Her awards include a Pushcart Prize, an Academy of American Poets award, and fellowships from The Fine Arts Work Center and Yaddo. Her poems have appeared in Ploughshares, Poetry, Slate, The Harvard Review, and Poetry Review. She has written essays and book reviews for Time Out, American Poet, Poetry London and New Welsh Review. She teaches creative writing at Morley College and Kingston University. Her poems are anthologised in Oxford Poets 2010. Doubting Thomas Call me Infidel, or just call me Tom. Call me handsome, call me cold, call me bitter, call me cad call me No-Better-Than-Judas-Iscariot call me bachelor, call me saint, call me numb. I was abused, I was married, I took pills, I was left, I was in love, I was a... Continue reading
Posted Oct 15, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Yesterday and today the world experienced the Chilean miracle at Camp Hope, where thirty-three miners were rescued after months of doubt and darkness - a time they survived with optimism, creativity, and inspiring communitarian spirit. The event, to my mind equivalent to the moon landings in terms of human and technical drama (not a unique thought, I am sure), is particularly resonant of the literary style of "magic realism" which came from Chile's part of the world, a style that saw the miraculous in the everyday. It therefore seems apt to celebrate, today, poets whose work touches upon, in a variety of ways, fable, dreams, enchantment, faith, and the extraordinary - poets I will label (if just for this post), "The Fabulists". When discussing this with one of the poets included below, Matthew Gregory, he had this to say: "it seems to me a kind of new Romanticism of some sort, allowing for the frivolous and the camp, something like the Victorian horror crazes, but, when it works, with something of a truthful enquiry, is like the best of magic realism. It seems to be happening generally, doesn't it? In the mid 1990s, I'm quite sure there wasn't as much vampire love on television as there is now. And in poetry, on the whole. Underwood, Kennard and sometimes Emily Berry write with many voices, untrustworthy narrators, ghosts and anthropomorphic subjects. I think reading Charles Simic, James Tate, the Eastern Europeans/Polish (Holub, Szymborska) and some Ashbery is where we'll find the nerve of this particular ache." Now, a few grumpy critics in Britain have complained that these labels I am applying may be constraints for these poets as they develop - which seems to miss the point of these posts entirely - as with all literary labels, these are provisional, arbitrary, and, indeed, like literary criticism itself, equivocal, in a creative sense. I offer these as ways to read and appreciate these poets, but not as "Swiftian" "puffery". There is nothing satirical about it, and very little puff. Though I do like Puff the Magic Dragon. Kathryn Simmonds was born in Hertfordshire in 1972 and worked in children's publishing and the charity sector before pursing writing seriously, although she has written poetry since childhood. She won an Eric Gregory Award in 2002 and her pamphlet Snug was published by Smith/Doorstop in 2004 as a result of their annual competition. Her first full collection Sunday at the Skin Launderette won the Forward Prize for best first collection in 2008 and was short listed for the Costa Poetry Award. She is also interested in prose and dramatic writing - her short stories have appeared in The Barcelona Review, The Liberal Magazine and a number of anthologies, and she has written a play for Radio 4. Now living in north London, she works as a writing tutor for the City Lit, Morley College and The Poetry School. Simmonds is one of the only poets in Britain who, though subtly and never condescendingly, replies to... Continue reading
Posted Oct 14, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
On my second day here, I want to extend the range of poets I wish to share with you, by offering three poems by three poets, who, each, in different ways, broaden the mainstream of British poetry, and, challenge its norms, without becoming iconoclasts. The first, Giles Goodland, makes nonsense of the old us-and-them tussle between experimental and mainstream that so occupied the poetry battles of the last decades, with his poems that are variously lyric, or avant-garde, and sometimes both; often inflected with surrealist play, and an interest in formal constraints. Primarily, as a lexicographer, he is fascinated by words, and lists. He is becoming a very significant mid-career poet in Britain. The second, Carrie Etter, is also admirable, for her hybrid ability to move between the differing parts of the poetry playing field - as academic, anthologist, and poet; Etter's own work is popular (and, performed beautifully) but also willing to explore language and form. Her recent anthology of experimental women poets is a highly-useful and timely intervention; further, Etter, as an American expatriated to London, occupies that vital continuum that began with Pound and Eliot (and Frost) of Americans in England who actively shape the poetic discourse of the country, and very much belong to two nations. Finally, the most cosmopolitan of the three is the Oulipo-inspired Paris-based poet-editor Rufo Quintavalle, half-Italian, half-English, whose Francophile interests have intersected with a long project to ingeniously incorporate text from Whitman into his own poems. Again, commonplace ideas of identity and labels are complicated here - it is almost silly to attempt to place his poetry, though another link with Britain is surely the Oystercatcher pamphlet, recently become a hallmark of innovation and surprise. Giles Goodland is a poet who lives in London and works in Oxford as a lexicographer. He has had several books of poetry published from the mid-1990s, when he won an Eric Gregory award. These include Littoral (Oversteps, 1996), A Spy in the House of Years (Leviathan, 2001), Capital (Salt, 2006) and What The Things Sang (Shearsman, 2009). He has also produced chapbooks for the Dusie Kollektiv and recently had a pamphlet from Oystercatcher press with the title Near Myths. He has a PhD from Oxford on the subject of "Modernist Poetry and Film of the Home Front, 1939-45"; his father John Goodland was one of the key poet-editors of the 1940s in England, and worked with Nicholas Moore. Giles is the winner of the 2010 Cardiff International Poetry Competition, one of the most important of its kind in the UK. Spider Spider, you are curled up in death like you were too cold an image of you sleeps in the mouse but also is tangled in beds seamstress of pulselessness for whom the trees make sense over a pallet a suspended grab disquiet earth the air was taken from there are birds left in which liquid spoke and seconds to none each motion ends with the finger dusted in answer you tell me shadow is... Continue reading
Posted Oct 11, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
In the UK, poets seem, like fish, to first appear in schools - darting about and flashing their stuff in unison, thus often establishing a period style, or styles, that define a moment. One thinks, especially, of the Fifties, synonymous for many with The Movement - or the 30s, and the Auden generation. Tensions arise because, of course, there are other poets, and other modes and manners, that don't get to swim with the big fish. So for every Movement there must be the Mavericks. One of the ways that schools, or generations, used to emerge, in the UK, was through education (the poets would have attended the same university) - another, through being discovered by a critic or editor, as DH Lawrence was (and, indeed, though I have implied there are no important British poetry critics anymore, I did not mean to exclude the impact of established older figures like a Mark Ford, or Ricks, or poet-critics like Tim Dooley and Sean O'Brien and Fiona Sampson. What I have been driving at is the absence of anyone like a Randall Jarrell, more precisely - a poet of the age wading into becoming a symptomatic arbiter of taste for that moment with full authority) Then, more recently, - and controversially in some quarters, promotions were established, with Arts Council funding, to generate interest in emerging poets - most famously, "The New Generation" in the 90s, which arrived around the same time as Britpop and New Labour - and which was followed by The Next Generation. Also, for decades, there have been other markers for young poets of talent - placing in major national poetry competitions; appearances in key journals, like Poetry Review or Poetry London; being included in anthologies - and winning an Eric Gregory Award. Each year, the admirable Gregory process introduces Britain to five or six younger poets under the age of 30, without a full collection. Competition is fierce - and most who win go on to soon after get an offer of publication. All this by way of introducing today's Young British Poet, Emily Berry. Berry, is, to my mind, another of the top five or ten younger poets now working in the UK - of the group without a debut collection out, one of the most anticipated, among many of her peers (along with, say, Helen Mort and a clutch of others). Her work is very much in the school of Kennard - often employing a flat, deadpan prosaic line; sinister or bizarre monologues or poetic speakers; morbid and blackly comic situations. What distinguishes Berry is her willingness to combine the very weird and even taboo, with more traditional poetic pleasures, especially emotionality, and sometimes oblique romantic confession. A fan of The Smiths, she has learned from Morrissey to explore sentimentality and the strange hand in hand. Berry has come to notice through several of the routes mentioned above. In 2008, she won her Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors. In 2007, she... Continue reading
Posted Apr 27, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
From a distance, Britain (the UK), can appear a weird place – especially these days. It’s just had a week of travel chaos with its skies completely shut down due to an Icelandic volcano. It is in the midst of a major election (to be decided in 12 days) that has been wildly galvanised by its first ever leaders debate on television (!). And one of its most popular TV shows is (still) Doctor Who, about an undying eccentric “time lord”. Current hit records include Kate Nash’s “My Best Friend Is You” where a chirpy British lass writes about sex and dating in frank terms, and Paul Weller (of The Jam) wanting to “Wake Up The Nation”. Britain has been slow to come out of the recession, and, with its youth knife crime, wildly drunken villages and inner cities, class divides (whole swathes of the population still can’t easily access college education), and obsession with celebrity (especially overpaid footballers and size-zero models and starlets) is sometimes called Broken Britain. For others, like Harry Potter star, Daniel Radcliffe, richer than Prince Harry, Britain seems to be working just fine. It’s been observed that America and England are divided by a common language, and, as Hugh Kenner was one of the first critics to point out, the British love-affair with international modernism in art and poetry was of limited duration, to say the least. Charles Bernstein and John Ashbery are coterie poets here, read by few and feared by most who do read them – let alone Hart Crane or William Carlos Williams. Few American (or Canadian) poets are published in the UK. There is a sense of isolation, even xenophobia, in some poetry quarters – and why not? The popular Tory party wants to pull out of membership in Europe. This is a kingdom united, more often than not, in the idea of its superior difference. The battle lines became drawn, again, in the 1990s, when a “New Generation” of popular mainstream poets emerged, such as Don Paterson and Carol Ann Duffy. These are now two of the most successful poets over here, in terms of prizes and cultural impact. Paterson has just won the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. Duffy is the Poet Laureate. Also popular are Roger McGough, and Wendy Cope. Rounding off the top ten poets, in terms of name recognition, might be Andrew Motion, Craig Raine, James Fenton, and of course, the Irish poets Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Derek Mahon. Also beloved, and sadly, recently dead, is Peter Porter, the Audenesque satirist of metropolitan values. Other well-established, if a little younger, poets would include Patience Agbabi, Sophie Hannah, Daljit Nagra, Alice Oswald, Paul Farley, Fiona Sampson and Robin Robertson. Meanwhile, an alternative, small press and avant-garde poetry beavers away in the margins, excluded normally from reviews in the national papers, or notice at the Poetry Society and Poetry Book Society awards. The main poets of this “experimental” mode might be said to include the “Cambridge poets”... Continue reading
Posted Apr 25, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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Apr 25, 2010