Where new writing finds its voice

What’s new?

Helen Mort

City State
Ed. Tom Chivers
Penned In The Margins, 2009

Voice Recognition: 21 Poets for the 21st Century
Ed. James Byrne and Clare Pollard
Bloodaxe, 2009


In an interview for The Wolf in 2002, the late Michael Donaghy was asked whom he considered to be ‘promising new poets’. His reply was admirably succinct: 

I’m more interested in promising old poets... In America, poets Anthony Hecht and Richard Wilbur have new collections out. They are both in their eighties...

Two new anthologies, City State and Voice Recognition, raise interesting questions about what it is to be ‘new’, and prompt us to return to Michael Donaghy’s comment and wonder: what is it about ‘newness’ that means we should celebrate it as a quality in itself?

As the editors of Voice Recognition note, 2009 has been ‘a year of unprecedented attention for young poets’, with Jen Hadfield becoming the youngest ever winner of the TS Eliot Prize in January, and a plethora of articles on the subject in national newspapers, such as April’s feature on ‘The Facebook Poets’ in the Times. This latest anthology from Bloodaxe adds to the jubilant atmosphere, introducing 21 Poets For The 21st Century, adding, no less, that ‘the future of poetry begins here’. A daring claim: the blurb tells us that this book will introduce us to the defining voices of a generation, some of the most exciting young poets of the century.

By contrast, Tom Chivers in his introduction to City State sounds a note of caution about the kind of bold statements that often preface anthologies (‘This is it. The Poetry’). Here, he claims, ‘[T]here is no manifesto, no flag to raise, no team to join’. Instead, the anthology constitutes a ‘subjective snapshot of poetry as it is being practiced in 2009 in London by a new generation of writers.’ What’s more, this is a snapshot defined as ‘characteristic rather than representative, impressionistic rather than photographic’.

City State is less photographic portrait, more sightseeing journey across the metropolis in rush hour: a journey that by turns bewilders, delights and throws up unpalatable truths. The anthology showcases a real range of styles, from Jacob Sam La Rose’s heartfelt verse, to Chris McCabe’s complex, darkly witty observations. Though diverse, the poets featured here often seem to riff around several themes that are associated with London itself: dislocation, escapism, breathlessness.

There’s a restlessness running through the work in City State, captured shrewdly by Ashna Sarkar in ‘Conviction’:


in the grey of the anti-climax, I ache for what comes
next and what came before


This restlessness is explored as part of what it is to be young, but also part of what it is to live in London. As Sarkar concludes in ‘Such a Lot of World’, a poem where the narrator considers running away to Detroit (‘I’ll elope with myself across the seas...’), London is both home and unfamiliar, by turns limited and limitless:


London for now though. 
I live in it like the ache in my chest,
Like the eyes in my head and the kiss behind my lips.


Escapism frequently surfaces as a theme, from the bronze lion who comes to life in Imogen Robertson’s ‘The Statues at Buckingham Palace’, to the steamy clinch in Kirsten Irving’s ‘In The Fantasy of Screwing Your Teacher’, a witty reflection on the gap between what we have and what we script for ourselves.

Swithun Cooper’s poems explore the experience of moving to London and feeling both welcomed and dislocated (or, as Heaney would have put it more succinctly: ‘lost, unhappy and at home’). Addressing ‘a man reading Country Walks on the Central Line’, Cooper’s half-comic lament mourns the loss of a different life:


I too miss the scent 
of shit and hillsides, long to skin my palms
on strips of bark.


Cooper’s characters yearn for a connection with others – he describes a couple thrown together by the lurch of a bus, or how close strangers can seem on a busy tube train (‘see, our feet / nearly touch and we’re wearing similar shoes...’). In ‘I will use my years of northern weather’, the narrator reflects on how we wear our different identities: 


I will sit at the edge of a Shoreditch squat,
gazing as the ceiling sifts plaster on dancers
and ricketing hail starts to bludgeon the place,
then lean on my lover, say ‘Parties like this
were all over West Yorkshire’. When rainstorms strike,
with acres of sea crashing into the streets,
I will turn up my jacket against the commotion
and laugh in my collar of summers I knew –


Tom Chivers evokes the city’s colliding worlds in ‘Speaking of the Dead’ (‘the alley / damp with fox, hexed / by another world’s junk, / leads out to the city’) while Siddhartha Bose’s ‘Shoreditch Serenade’ is an east London odyssey, inventive, vivid and disjointed, with a host of characters and dialects. He captures the kind of movement that many of these poems evoked for me: ‘we floated like / bottletops, scrap paper, haymoss, / Towards the estuary where Bethnal Green meets Brick Lane.’

Indeed, there’s a slightly drunken, delirious feel to a lot of these poems, sometimes echoed by their use of form: sprawling about the page, or crossing the boundary with prose. Though lacking coherence at times, something about this loose, undisciplined work suited the tone of the anthology, the idea of a snapshot taken from a moving bus: half-blurred, half-clear. City State celebrates London, in all its contradictory glory.

It would be difficult to characterise Voice Recognition as a snapshot. There’s an interesting range of work presented here too, united by the editors’ interest in ‘daring, originality’ and ‘a magpie-like ability to tightly grasp any number of worthy ideas’. Experimentation with voice is a thread drawn out in the editorial, and the poets here show a confident command of different voices and a willingness to take risks with them. 

This is epitomised by the work of Emily Berry, who moves seamlessly from the voice of a mother in ‘My Perpendicular Daughter’, to that of a fetishist in ‘Corsetry’. Then there’s Jay Bernard’s ‘At Last We Are Alone’, in which she adopts the persona of a skinhead who chased her father down the street:


The head teacher, unaware, calls me a thug.

I am a thug. I lie down in the soft grass
After school and rub my bald head.


These poems are full of acute observations, moments that make the reader pause like the narrator in Sarah Jackson’s ‘The Instant of My Death’, shot at with a child’s harmless, toy gun:


a piece of me stopped then, though the bus moved on
and the fat man beside me cracked open an apple with his thumb


Where more formal or lyric poems surfaced in this anthology, they added welcome variety. Miriam Gamble’s tender poem ‘Tinkerness’ contains a portrait of George Best (‘something in the way you man that ball / is endemic to this city’) and Adam O’Riordan’s ‘The Leverets’ jolts us from the everyday just as its narrator is startled from ordinary life by a dead creature, ‘heavens condensed in its brown eye’, and notes its significance as an omen: ‘then, nothing for years, until the birth of your sister’.

These poems are often self-aware, wry, gently ribbing a world that at times takes itself too seriously. Joe Dunthorne’s work is humorous without being lightweight. Take the subtly ironic ‘Filters’:


My big sister rings to say she is riding around
On the back of Richard’s motorbike
And would I like to meet for a drink.
My sister is gay and I am always
Dropping this into conversation.


Meanwhile, Heather Phillipson notes in ‘Crossing The Col d’Aubisque’:


I’ve known so much about insignificant things
I’ve known nothing. Not like the way a horse
Knows grass.


It’s a good reflection on youth and experience – the feeling of knowing everything and nothing at once. 

The editorial in Voice Recognition has something to say about that too, stating ‘talent must be fuelled by experience of a life outside the poems’, it must go beyond ‘mere recounting of anecdotes or minor stages of epiphany’. The examples used to illustrate these stirring words are a slight anti-climax: ‘[M]any of the poets in this book have benefited from immersing themselves in the creative stimuli that can be found through travel, translation or through visual art’. Though such conventionally middle-class activities offer rich stimuli for writing, and many of the poets in Voice Recognition write with a voice that moves beyond the confines of class, it would have be interesting to see a broader definition of experience discussed.

Indeed, it could be argued that the material chosen here doesn’t go far enough to capture different experiences of life in the UK today. Each of the poets conveys their own, individual experience articulately – a fine example of this is Ailbhe Darcy’s ‘He tells me I have a peculiar relationship with my city’, with its poignant reflection on possession and local identity: 


My left breast
thingmote, my right sugarloaf,
my throat a high and narrow pane, frogged
and pointed like a lancet.

My country stretches from a ham’s span
outside the pale to the top
of Parnell Street. I cannot leave...


But what larger picture is formed in collecting these lucid fragments? 

The editorial observes that this anthology reflects the vibrancy of London poetry: ‘after years of other regions being prominent, there seems a real shift back to the capital, which is becoming a magnet for poets all over the country’. But should a volume claiming to survey the best young writers of the twenty-first century (of which 90 per cent is yet to come, we must remember!) cast its net a little wider?

All of this brings us back to Donaghy, and to the necessarily reductive nature of identifying a zeitgeist, giving it a label. Good poetry is good poetry, regardless of age, gender, nationality, race… and I won’t be burying my Richard Wilbur just yet. In fact, taking advantage of the recent press interest in poetry, perhaps it’s time to exploit a different niche and release a new tome for the twenty-first century: I Shall Wear Purple: A Compendium of Octogenarian Poets...

Appropriately enough, whenever I think about the idea of being a young writer, it’s 1976 vintage Richard Wilbur that I turn to. ‘The Writer’ is a poem that evokes the challenge faced by Wilbur’s young daughter, writing a story. The poet compares her efforts to the struggle of a trapped starling, striking the windowpane, the floor, the desk, waiting ‘for the wits to try it again’, until, ‘suddenly sure’:


It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life and death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.


It’s hard to think of any writer, young or old, who could put it better.

There is a great deal of interesting, strong poetry to be found in both these new anthologies – poetry that would certainly find an audience in its own time, but which benefits immeasurably from being showcased by Bloodaxe and Penned In The Margins. It will be exciting to see what happens when these talented poets step out from the confines of the anthology and take a solo flight.