Monday, June 04, 2012

Review: Lung Jazz, Young British Poets for Oxfam

There's been a blizzard of books and features about 'young poets' over the past few years. There's a new generation of poets that are, apparently, blowing new breezes through the poetry world at the moment. 'Lung Jazz' joins two Bloodaxe anthologies, The Salt Book of Younger Poets, a Penned In The Margins Book, and a feature in Rialto magazine in attempting a generational survey of the poetry 'scene'.

Its task is made a bit more difficult by only assigning one poem per poet; and it's harder to assess a poet's possible contribution to the new generation from one poem rather than from a selection. Todd Swift would have us believe, rightly bigging up his own choice, that these will be the poets to read in the future. Well, some of them will be some of the poets to read in the future: inevitably, there are so many young poets around these days, that no one anthology can contain all of them.

Already, there are some names that could be said to be ubiquitous. Luke Kennard, Chris McCabe, Amy De'Ath, Joe Dunthorne and Ahren Warner are all here; though Sophie Robinson is missing. Emily Berry is here too, and other newly-familiar names, all with good poems. In fact, this anthology has a lot of good poems; though there are a few indifferent ones, there's nothing really bad. Perhaps a reflection of the creative writing boom: there are a lot of young poets now writing 'good poems'.

All well and good; but what's missing from this anthology is also significant. There are a lot of poems here in which all the feelings and ideas have been packaged into neat and tidy little boxes, complete in themselves and often perfectly livable in. "Little boxes, little boxes, and they all look just the same." Even the ostensibly more experimental poets here, like Emily Critchley and Amy De'Ath, look rather too tidy here. Partly the nature of the beast: one poem per person tends to favour the individual poem against the sequence, or the fragment.

But there is precious little political poetry here: though it does exist, as anyone who's experienced the work of Stuart Calton and Sean Bonney can testify. The collectives around Oppened and The Other Room, and other experimental reading series, are scarcely represented. Of course, they may well have felt that it wasn't for them, or have ideological reasons for not participating (as they often do...)

OK, no one anthology can represent everything, and it probably represents the rather more mainstream to hybrid tastes of the editors. But you can't really be representative of young British poets without them, however good your selection is.

There are significant inclusions however: and this includes prose poetry. The rise of the prose poem in the last decade is one of the more interesting developments in modern British poetry, and there are about a dozen in this selection. Phil Brown's Health & Safety and Siddartha Bose's The Muckworm are my two personal favourites; but the others are great too. They perhaps make the book less tidy than it otherwise would be.

Which brings me to the introduction, a little. The poems are described as 'original, formally skillful and, in some way, thrilling.' Which is about right for most of them; but I think, worryingly, gets its priorities slightly wrong. 'Formally skillful,' in particular, suggests there is a particular skillset that a poet has to 'master' before becoming a 'good poet'. Formal skill is important; but it doesn't in itself make for a thrilling poem.

One further comment. I find it odd that no-one in this anthology seems to be acknowledging the Internet for its formal possibilities. Many of these poets are on Facebook, Twitter and are no doubt familiar with Google and other forms abound on the net. Helen Mort's marvelously disturbing Thinspiration Shots is the only poem which gets its subject matter directly from the Internet, but how about the poem as status updates, twitter feeds etc...? There are poets using flarf, for instance, as inspiration; but you wouldn't guess it from this anthology.

All of which is not to gainsay the poetry in this book. Which on the whole is very good. Despite some reservations, I'd recommend everyone buying a copy of this book from your local Oxfam. Partly because that way, all the money goes to Oxfam; but also because it does give a very good idea of a lot of what is going on in the poetry world. Just not everything.

And there's some great poems in it too.