Where new writing finds its voice

Stop/Sharpening/Your/Knives (3)

Kate Kilalea

S/S/Y/K, 2009

A recent issue of the Guardian featured a poem called, ‘Some Older American Poets’. In it, Frank Ormsby denounces young poets as


…the accomplished young men
and the accomplished young women,
their neat cerebral arcs and sphinctral circles,
their impeccable chic, their sudden precocious surge,
their claims to be named front-runner


Recently, there has been a flurry of excitement following the publication of Bloodaxe’s Voice Recognition and the Faber New Poets series, each carrying a selection of young writers who the editors of big publishing houses have heralded as the next generation of major poets. 

Suddenly, a new strata is forming in the poetry community and it’s unsurprising that alongside the emergence of young poets, comes the rise of young editors, and in fact, it is this development as much as the poems within it which defines Stop/Sharpening/Your/Knives (3)

While the book was published at roughly the same time as the Faber and Bloodaxe books, and although the various books have much overlap in the poets they’ve chosen to publish, the thing which sets S/S/Y/K apart from its peers, is that where their selection comes from above – established poets and the editors of publishing houses – S/S/Y/K’s comes from within. 

S/S/Y/K is a book of young poets published by young poets, a community talking about itself rather than being spoken about. Both the title and the editorial of S/S/Y/K are a call to arms: ‘Stop sharpening your knives’, say the editors, ‘use them to discuss, carve, to write’. They challenge young writers to be less fearful and to take more risks. ‘These are early days for the poets and editors alike,’ reads the editorial, meaning perhaps, you are among peers, so speak freely.

Tempted as I was to heed the call when sitting down to write, I found myself tempered. The reluctance came partly from a fear of social discomfort, but perhaps more from wondering whether criticism was really a good idea at all? After all, poetry is thin-skinned, and younger poets notoriously fragile, and support encourages fearlessness, which makes better poetry. 

There may be an assumption from younger editors that the encouragement of honest, robust debate will lead to a better poetry. Open, or even barbed, criticism, however, does not seem to be the established practice. Perhaps there is a tradition of criticism, which comes from an older generation, which is more about creating a safe place, and not about sharpening knives at all. I am reminded of something which poet George Szirtes said to me just after the reading I did to launch my own book earlier this year:


It helps that people of the same generation support each other. I was talking to Christopher Reid [ex-editor of Faber] before you started and he was saying our generation had little group sense, just individual friendships. I think that while poetry itself is a solitary affair, readership and support is not, and that he was generally right. Of course it helps even more when different generations support each other too. 

Sometimes poetry is perceived to be a narrow ledge on which there is not much room. My feeling is that the narrowness of the ledge is only perceptible at a historical distance and no one knows who is going to be left on it at the end, that is if there ever is a proper end. While we are in our own times we should be helping each and welcoming each other – and most people do most of the time. Poetry isn’t bad like that.


S/S/Y/K is characterised by its London-Norwich axis, centred around three like-minded graduates of the esteemed UEA creative writing course. The UEA affiliation adds colour and solidity to the book, probably accounting for the its mildly academic bent and the overall technical proficiency of the poems. The several non-British poets in the collection also reflect the university’s base of international students, and cast into relief the sometimes very subtle commonalities in young British poetry (more on this later).

Trends and developments in new poetry have not been unanimously well received. Take Ormsby’s vision of the neat, cerebral, precocious young poet, characterising the generation as frigid and too controlling. Similarly, in Sean O’Brien’s recent review of the Faber New Poetry pamphlets, he points out failings including a tendency in young British poets to reference rather than recreate and for contributing to the current ‘plague of anecdotes’ in poetry.

Ormsby points to a poetry which is vigilant and highly self-conscious (rather than free and unconscious); O’Brien to a poetry which is topical and easygoing (rather than serious or significant). But what is it afraid of? What mistakes is it trying to avoid? Is poetry afraid of being solemn?

Once upon a time, Keats and Wordsworth thought poetry was a way to come to terms with the essence of being human. Even Duffy and Armitage had something of that glory in their writing. It may be that we are now beginning to make out the figure of our villain. Is the object of this rebellion perhaps, this very idea of poetry as being something grandly and crucially important?

In terms of subject, the S/S/Y/K anthology’s poems are varied, spanning the everyday, the lyric and the fantastic. Some parts were hyper-real, as though the writers had, quite aggressively, ploughed their subjects from the pages of a newspaper, others used a quirky surrealism. The poem-as-anecdote was not a feature of this book, although there were a number of riddle-like poems, which occupy a similar territory. In general, the language is plain speaking. When successful, this creates a barefaced and honest tone, when it fails, it can seem a bit bored with itself.

I have looked at two poems from the anthology which seem particularly successful. These poems seem to have overcome the fear I mentioned earlier, they seem to be doing something a bit more wild, reckless, risky, impolite and unapologetic. They are serious but not too sentimental or too poetic. They are urgent. They are complete, but not too neat or too taut – they have found a release and have been left that way, careering slightly.

Ben Borek’s ‘Filly, Warszawa’ was for me one of the highlights of this book. The poem is a straight-faced account of a man whose girlfriend turns into a horse:


Her long limbs had acquired a density
and musculature, taut like liquid oak.
Her spine had thickened into splendid fists
Of vertebrae. ‘I’m going out to meet
a friend of mine,’ her voice was low and moist.
The kitchen grew more humid when she spoke. 


The conceit is simple – animal love as human love – but expressive, and surprisingly surprising. The links between romantic love and paternal love, and of course with platonic love, are familiar, but the melding of romantic love and the way we love animals is at once vulgar and tender. The speaker’s description of the girlfriend/horse’s body, particularly, betrays him and gives the poem a rich, plangent tone. The sadness of the poem is the speaker’s, the one he tries to keep at bay with his straightforward, unadorned language, his hesitancy to ‘make too much of the thing’. The result is a poem which is loving, rather than a love poem, but also a dark poem which, in its intermingling of pity and warmth and soreness, described a strangely mature kind of love.

Another standout for me was Mollye Miller, an American poet who I’d not heard of before. Even the title of her poem, ‘The mother bat climbs over 150,000 baby bats to find the scream of her own’, is sweetly defiant,


When she bends her ear to the water
running, she hears the sound of water
over the stones
through the tree roots, fast
under swollen oak bridges, dark
she listens to the water running, and hears
the sound that resemble
the water she knows.


This delicate poem stood out not only for its uncluttered imagery, but also its modesty – the poem bends to the water, listens, and recounts, nothing more. The result is a closeness and a completeness, as though the poet has, for a moment, managed to let go of the parallel world outside the poem and recreate in it an actual event, rather than asking us to imagine it. Through this, the poem is what the poet is saying, the poem is a real thing.

This unselfconscious quality, this immediacy, returns in many poems in the book. Jack Underwood’s, ‘Ralfo’, is a visceral hunting poem which uses stocky language, and short, foreboding phrases (‘What manner of man guts and folds a dog?’) to generate a sense of a controlled violence which is at once hot and mesmerising, frightening and maybe even sexy. Joe Dunthorne’s ‘Deaths I’ll never live through #3’, is the witty tale of a severed head tumbling down the steps of a Mexican temple. ‘Relieved of (its) freight like a cab/unhitched from a trailer’, the head accumulates epiphanies en route, and closes with the warm and wonderful utterance, ‘I’m coming, my heart, I have so much news.’

The book closes with a prose poem from Agnes Lehoczky. Departing from the book’s generally shorter poems, and more tangential approach, her ‘photographs, undeveloped’ is an ambitious and long poem set between London and Budapest which deals with issues like memory and loss. Travelling at the speed of thought, the poem’s language is patient and questioning, turning back on itself, leaving its struggles on the page.

Where these poems seemed to have found the elixir of being in the present, giving them an energy and wildness, there were other parts of the anthology that felt a bit light for my taste. In some poems, there was a once-removed quality – subjects tied too tightly to an idea of form – which felt like too little passion and an excess of sanity. In some poems there was a sense of ennui that bothered me, poems which seemed to be saying, ‘We’ve seen too many attempts to be meaningful, and we’re too tired of that to try it again.’

On the whole, the editors of this book have created a collection that rewards both conviction and talent. They have taken seriously the poets who are at the junction of writing privately and publicly. This book is a great introduction to a set of new writers, many of whom are likely to become regular features in the poetry world, many of whom already are in some form or another. And for those new to it, S/S/Y/K is very a good representative anthology of the current poetic moment.