Monday, October 17, 2011

Untidy Up Your Head

If there's one thing certain about the poetry scene at the start of a new decade of the 21st century, it's that nothing certain can be said about it, and that part of the reason for this state of affairs is Roddy Lumsden. I was thinking this as I read the Best British Poetry 2011 anthology: an intriguing attempt to copy the David Lehman-fronted series Best American Poetry.

That an anthology can veer from the experimental to the formal in such a way as this shows that Lumsden at least has a much wider appreciation of the varied poetries in Britain at the moment than most previous anthologists. One can see it too in the anthology he edited for Bloodaxe, Identity Parade, which includes both Peter Manson and the much more mainstream, Jacob Pooley. It could, in fact, be the first anthology to reflect the actual situation of poetry in this country since Edward Lucie-Smith. I'm sure that not a few of the poets in Identity Parade are not even on speaking terms with each other; but that seems to me to be preferable to the tidied-up versions of poetry we've seen in the past.

I suspect that the Salt Book of Younger Poets will continue this trend, and that is surely a good thing. Lumsden's support for young writers is one of the things I like best about him; and the fact that he doesn't expect them to fit into his own aesthetic is also admirable. He himself seems to have a shifting aesthetic, than can take in experimental and more formal concerns.

I can't say I like all his choices in the Best British Poets anthology; but then why should I be expected to? I like the fact that the experimental poets are rubbing shoulders with more mainstream names; that the two kinds of poetry are at least starting a fitful conversation in print with one another. For me, the experimental speaks louder and more interestingly; but that's my opinion.

For too long we've had arbiters of taste telling us that this aesthetics or that is the way to go. From the Movement anthologies to The New Poetry, we've had one route of empirical, narrative verse prioritised over another, more disruptive, more surreal perhaps, more focused on sound perhaps, verse in one set of approved anthologies. But then the 'alternative' too has its own anthologies, its own networks of distribution, its own aesthetics, at war with what it sees as an opposition.

I don't entirely want to get rid of those oppositions; poetry is passionate and ought to be something you get passionate about. But today's poetry is messy, untidy and seems to be going off in all directions at once. Roddy Lumsden, whatever you might think of some of his choices, has at least recognised that, and is trying to reflect the messiness of poetry, not give us it the way he thinks it ought to be and leaving out the rest.

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