Thursday, March 06, 2008
The Forward Book of Poetry 2008
In his foreword to the Forward Book of Poetry 2008, Chair of the judges, Michael Symmons Roberts, describes the anthology as 'a snapshot of this year's poetry'.
But what sort of snapshot is it? Certainly not 'Six Young Men', but the more typical contemporary assortment of styles, themes and voices, jostling for space in a book running to some 150 pages. And is it possible to pick out predominant or repeated themes over this extended body of poetry? Michael Symmons Roberts mentions 'water', and that's easily confirmed at a glance. But what of styles, forms and themes as opposed to pure content?
I see, in the foreground of this snapshot anthology, two things: firstly, a preference for narrative rather than simple lyricism, closely followed by a tendency towards elegy, in tone as much as actual content.
We may have safely entered the twenty-first century, but we are still in the noughties, the uncomfortable era of zero, in an age where we still have two rather than one to contend with. The noughties would appear to be an occasion for story-telling, to look back at the past, attempting to celebrate, lament or understand it. And as we near the teens, we'll be increasingly under pressure to look ahead rather than back, to break established ties with the poetry of the last century (indeed, the last millennium) and forge new themes, new poetries.
But for now, in this see-saw between nothing and something, our keywords appear to be nostalgia and, perhaps not so surprisingly, conservatism.
For those who missed the memo, the poets shortlisted for the last Forward Prizes Best Collection were Eavan Boland, John Burnside, Luke Kennard, Jack Mapanje, Sean O'Brien (eventual winner, with The Drowned Book), and Adam Thorpe. Best First Collection shortlist consisted of: Joanna Boulter, Melanie Challenger, Daljit Nagra (eventual winner, with Look We Have Coming to Dover), and Eleanor Rees.
The Best Individual Poem was won by Alice Oswald with her beautiful and epic 'Dunt', a poem for a nearly dried-up river. The other shortlisted poets in that category were: David Harsent, Lorraine Mariner, Carole Satyamurti, Myra Schneider, and Jean Sprackland.
Obviously, I can't possibly discuss all these poets, nor the extensive list of commended poems. Nor am I interested in discussing the winners in particular (I've already covered The Drowned Book on this blog, reviewed Daljit's debut in last summer's Poetry Review, and consider 'Dunt' to be one of the most important single poems of this century so far). Instead, I'm going to focus on those highlights which tap into my own thoughts and prejudices about contemporary poetry.
Going back to my observations on narrative, elegy and nostalgic conservatism as keynotes of these Forward Prizes, how do two new(ish) poets, Luke Kennard and Eleanor Rees, fit into that?
At first glance, they don't appear to, except perhaps for the category of narrative. Kennard is adventurous, nonsensical and entertaining, Rees is hard-edged and pithy: in this short selection, Kennard writes about ... well, your guess is as good as mine ... while Rees creates a quasi-mythological landscape where terrible things happen to passive, indifferent women. And in this selection at least, both poets lean towards the story-telling element of poetry.
Luke Kennard's work though does demonstrate conservative tendencies too - if you take conservative here in its associated meaning of controlled and limited; his frivolity appears excessive at first, but it's not the emotional excess of a Ginsberg, howling and letting it all 'hang out'. It reminds me in places of some of TS Eliot's playful non-sequiturs (c.f. 'Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree' from Eliot, versus Kennard's 'May I never have to bury another leopard' in a list-style poem called 'The Journalist's Prayer'). His poetry mocks serious intent with delightful frothy nonsense, and not even the 'nonsense' we're used to from the likes of Ashbery and Prynne - it lacks that complex allusive density and air of academic pretension. Rather, Luke Kennard is a dazzling young descendant of Frank O'Hara, out to lunch with Ionesco and other proponents of the Absurd, and unlikely to be footing the bill.
Yet despite his emphasis on the poem as sleight-of-hand entertainment, a political agenda is not entirely missing from Kennard's work. One of the two poems reproduced in the Forward anthology is a lengthy poem about a murderer, split into five page-long sections. This being a Luke Kennard poem, of course - he's almost a brand now, you notice - we're not in Carol Ann Duffy's intense 'Psychopath' territory here. Instead, the concept of the murderer is mocked, as are our knee-jerk reactions to the word, and indeed to the poem qua poem:
I take the murderer for coffee.
'Make sure you don't murder your coffee!'
I joke. He likes my jokes.
Later I swing a plank into his face:
This is to stop him enjoying himself –
Which is integral to the rehabilitation process.
His mouth trickles blood like a tap quarter-turned.
He likes my analogies. 'Hey, Murderer!'
I yell, 'Murdered anyone recently?'
and so on.
This poem develops into a filmic narrative, with the narrator as slightly barmy social commentator, a sinister and uneasy note behind all the jokes. See his full collection from Salt, The Harbour Beyond the Movie, for more of the same. The fractured nature of such narratives, their slippery subtexts and unfunny frivolity, may perfectly capture a certain disturbing note in the Zeitgeist, but is it poetry?
Or rather, since definitions of poetry are no longer definitive and such questions no longer applicable in the minds of most readers, is this the kind of poetry we want to take us forward into the twenty-first century, already war-scarred and in danger of planetary meltdown? Answers on a Martian.
Eleanor Rees' work feels far more like the model the 'reader on the street' - if there were such a thing - would be accustomed to associating with the word 'poetry'. The two selections here from her Salt-published Andraste's Hair demonstrate a lyrical gift that aims to be sparing and allusive, making the most of silence and the white spaces of the page, and in these two poems at least, her intent has a high seriousness. (This is not necessarily a good thing either; I'm merely noting it as I go along.) These two pieces also feel very carefully written, everything controlled, the poem balanced in both hands like a bowl brimming with milk that mustn't on any account be spilt: again, conservative.
If you know Yves Bonnefoy's work, Eleanor Rees - a Liverpudlian - seems to be coming from that rather interesting side of the lyrical tradition, which also shares some territory with Basil Bunting: although potentially an urban poetry, markers that might designate a poem as urban are carefully sidestepped or disguised here, with 'natural' objects taking precedence over the man-made, creating a quasi-mythological feeling of timelessness:
An open moon; burr of grass.
Last reaches of the split day
ending, the last
quiet pitch heard
in deep woods. Wet sod of dirt.
Scent of the sun's fire
passing field ruts and furrows,
seedlings, coiled roots, hedgerows;
flight of night-bird
turning tail into a sea breeze
beak battened to the north.
This poem, entitled Night Vision, has an elegiac tinge to it ('where are your bones, baby? Where are your bones?') and a deeply apocalyptic view of the cityscape (reminding me in places of Jacob Polley's powerful urban imagery) as here, in the closing lines of the poem:
Back alleys of the city burn.
Night boils outside the window.
The streets smoulder as the morning comes.
In terms of narrative technique, there are connections to be made here between Eleanor Rees' poetry and that of Alice Oswald's 'Dunt' - not least in terms of their similarly daring use of white space, hard to reproduce on a blog (particularly in poems from Oswald's last collection 'Woods Etc'). The longer quotation above from Rees' Night Vision displays a desire to get away from 'everyday' conventions of language and to be filmic instead: short bursts of language, concentrated, often lacking definite and indefinite articles, a narrative made up of mini-scenes, mostly uncommented-upon snapshots.
For comparison - though I originally said I wouldn't discuss it! - here is a similar technique at work in Oswald's 'Dunt':
Little hobbling tripping of a nearly dried-up river
not really moving through the fields
having had the gleam taken out of it
to the point where it resembles twilight.
Little grumbling shivering last-ditch attempt at a river
more nettles than water. Try again.
If 'Dunt' is an environmentalist's dream poem, recounting the tenacity and sheer persistence of nature attempting to revive and heal itself even when it appears that all hope must be lost, Rees' title poem for her first collection, 'Andraste's Hair', featured in the anthology, is a complex and unyielding narrative on the fractured relationships between people within a community, and between nature and that community: a woman's hair is burnt in a wood by three unspecified people; she does not struggle; the next day, a plait of hair is lying on a woman's bed, shorn; she carries it through the woods to the river; a boy cries some time later, hearing a song in the woods.
I have a few personal theories about such stylistic and thematic tendencies in current poetry - theories which will no doubt become altered as time passes. Urban and rural traditions within British society are changing and blurring all the time. We can't rely on them anymore for guidance and reassurance. We can no longer second-guess what the future holds by studying the past. The planet is in danger; ergo, we are in danger.
In the Forward anthology, poets like Oswald, Kennard and Rees seem to be presenting us with their own individually-conceived pictures of life in the twenty-first century rather than an overt message: a series of images, in fact, behaving much like a reel of film. This filmic poetry looks to the past for perspective but can't hold onto it; some of it looks to the future but can't envisage it. Or perhaps dare not. It regrets. It alludes. It entertains. It even confronts, at times, and in its own way.
But does it exude intimacy and passion, the sort of poetry we might - for instance - associate with some of the great political poets of the twentieth century, such as WB Yeats or Allen Ginsberg? Does it need to possess those traits or is it time to leave rawness and strength of feeling behind? Most importantly, does it engage?