Thursday, September 22, 2011

Review: The Best British Poetry 2011

I wasn’t sure whether I would like The Best British Poetry 2011. I know some of the poets in it and was fairly sure I would like their poems but I was more interested in what I’d think of the rest. I tended to avoid reading the British mainstream (until, of necessity, I had to engage with it through becoming Magma’s reviews editor) and much preferred to spend time with American and European poetry collections, along with a few Scottish favourites, and I had the fear that an anthology of British poems selected from magazines would contain too much bland and boring work.

I have to say that my eyes have been opened. I really enjoyed some poems in this anthology from writers I knew by name but had somehow bypassed. It’s certainly a positive introduction to contemporary writing in Britain – a far wider range of styles and schools (and both the famous and lesser known, both the established magazines and the new) than is customary in British publications. I will pay more attention in future. Poems that struck me (not counting those by my friends) included those by Emily Berry, Judy Brown, Fred D’Aguiar, Sasha Dugdale, Ian Duhig, Giles Goodland, Patrick McGuinness and Deryn Rees-Jones, and there were several others I much enjoyed. OK, there were also poems that struck me as pretty ordinary, but nowhere near as many as I had expected, and no one is ever going to like everything in such an anthology.

Fred D’Aguiar’s ‘The Rose of Toulouse’ got my attention with its opening section in which the streets are “not a scene for former slaves”:

Or their feisty descendants, wearing their life
Savings, nursing wounds from history, no track
Record in an ocean with bones for a library.

The poem is an evocation of French city life, into which is woven a subtext centring on the poet’s children and another one focusing on justice and domination in history. At the back of the anthology are 40 pages of short author biographies and a few paragraphs on the poets’ impetus for writing their poem. I noted from Fred D’Aguiar’s reflections that the poem seemed to me to be about more or less what he also thought it was about.

That wasn’t always the case. Sasha Dugdale’s ‘Shepherds’, according to its author, “is an elegy for the last dwellers on the [South] Downs, and a hymn of praise to the hills themselves.” Now that she mentions it, I do see how that makes sense. But I felt the poem centred on questions of religious faith. There’s an ambiguity at its heart – the Bible-carrying shepherds also read the earth’s Bible – the one written “in chalk, in rabbit droppings, and lady’s smock” which now has “no meaning for anyone, except the shepherds/ Who are gone.” The pastoral world of the Bible (both the literal one and the metaphorical Bible of the earth) is rendered unreadable in an urban age. That may be a statement of how the poet views the world, but the elegiac tone also suggests to me that something seems lost by this shift.

I found the variance between my own interpretations of poems and those proffered by the poets to be a source of considerable fascination. Both the writer’s and the reader’s ideas are admissible, of course, and a difference between them isn’t evidence of failure on either side. It may even point to a welcome complexity that the poem can’t be summed up in explanatory prose. Several poets expressed a discomfort about offering comment on their poem and I felt an initial scepticism at first glance, but I have been won over. It is simply interesting and doesn’t negate other readings. Now and again, I did realise that I hadn’t read the poem carefully enough and saw it with new eyes after reading the author’s thoughts. Sometimes, the comments were just a little pretentious..., but not as often as you might expect in an anthology of poets.

I am always happy when poets come across as unusual people and when Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch confessed (in her prose comment) that “lining objects up on tables has always fascinated me” and that she attended a “table etiquette course in Somerset three years ago,” I found new reason to trust her advice in her poem, ‘Table Manners’:

..........................Do not remove your shoes or
show any flesh. Tilt your soup’s light towards
her, like an invitation to swim. Sip
as though you’re working on it.

Perhaps not all of that will impress on a first date, but I hope someone puts it to the test. But remember the sting in the tail, that "cutlery is a code" and "ten to five means it's over." Don't say you haven't been warned. So, yes, there are more good things happening in British poetry than I had expected and The Best British Poetry 2011 will offer, to most readers, a number of welcome surprises and send them rounding up the back catalogue of at least a few of the featured poets.

The Best British Poetry 2011, ed Roddy Lumsden, is published by Salt, £7.99

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