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Sunday, 28 October 2007

"Masters of all they survey"

There is a nice irony in the fact that the Observer has chosen to start its poetry page in its Review section with a headline that resonates with tropes of conquest - observation eliding into possession - that is, "Masters of all they survey". This page seems a wrong start, even as I am glad to see the paper taking on the responsibility for giving poetry more space in its pages.

My problem is with the trope of "mastery" itself, in relation to poetry. As Craig Raine wrote recently, in his controversial essay about Don Paterson's poetry, "The two great, natural enemies of poetry are exaggeration and euphemism." I am not sure this is always so - hyperbole is a poetic option - but exaggeration in the criticism and publication of poetry is rampant in Britain, and has lead to runaway critical inflation. It has also lead to a small, select group of mostly male poets dominating the conversation that the media is having with poetry. Sean O'Brien's recent Forward-winning collection, The Drowned Book, has on its back cover the following phrase: "The Drowned Book again shows O'Brien a master of the authortitative line ...." That seems like a lot of emphasis on mastery and control - and authority - and it is a somewhat male way of reading things, I think.

The media often says poetry is dead or dying. The media is often the one who killed Cock Robin, though. The new Observer poetry page, to return, has begun inauspiciously, if it is intending to present, to the readers of its pages - who, one would imagine, from the emphasis elsewhere, on trendy films and pop music, are otherwise geared to intelligent people in the 25-50 range - the actually-exciting truth about contemporary poetry - that it is vibrant, heterogenous, multicultural, and appeals to young and old. What, precisely, possessed the editor to allow the first page, then, to focus its observant eye on three white, male poets - one dead, one middle-aged, and one slightly older than that - Henry Reed, John Burnside and Hugo Williams?

Reed is a fine Forties poets, and I am glad to see his book is out. I very much like the work of John Burnside, especially - and spent several days with him in Montreal this spring, when we both read together at a major Canadian literary festival - so this isn't about their work, or anything personal. But how about a little balance? It might have been fun to have a poem by one of the younger, rising stars of British poetry - Luke Kennard, Daljit Nagra, Katy Evans-Bush, say - or mention of one of the many fine established women poets currently working in the UK. Instead, the page rather solemnly establishes an establishment feel (Hugo Williams is on record as actively mocking J.H. Prynne) and a feel that experimental, different, edgy, or more radical poetic efforts will not be looked at.

I could be wrong, of course, and we shall have to see how Adam Phillips navigates his way through the various channels of British poetry and poetics, now. You might think I am carping, but first impressions do count. This is why, whenever I present poetry events, or anthologies, I do seek a careful and nuanced balance of styles, and options - because I believe that the single most important fact about poetry currently is that it is not just one kind of thing - but many ways of being poetry. It is precisely this unmasterable, destablising flow and pulse that disturbs the smooth-running of the central London publisher-editors, who seek to keep a lid on things. But you cannot master poetry, anymore than you can conquer the sea with a sword.
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