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Poetry London Autumn 2008

Poetry London (no. 61) has been launched. It features poems from Les Murray, Andrew Motion, and Philip Gross. It also offers poems from a number of the "young British poets" I've included in the upcoming Manhattan Review special section, including Daljit Nagra, Ben Wilkinson, Jack Underwood, and Helen Mort.

My review of ten of the best of the year's poetry pamphlets is also included - these include work by David Wheatley, Elspeth Smith, and William Fuller. There are also reviews by, among others, Luke Kennard, and George Szirtes, well worth reading. Kennard's review is notable especially for its slightly hipster pizazz - I felt like I was reading an excerpt from A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. We now know what Kennard's favourite poetry is like - he describes John Redmond's new collection from Carcanet, MUDe, as "the most exciting and inventive collection of poetry I've read in the past few years."

This begs the question - should poetry be exciting, and/or inventive? - but I think most readers think it should be. Kennard also notes the cake-and-eat-it attitude of many British poets with regards to Christianity, while writing of Stephen Romer's new book - and introduces a sort of rear-guard argument for poetic impersonality, by suggesting that "traditional poetry" assumes "the reader is interested, by default, in the poet's life" - making any of us who do write (sometimes) out of personal experience vaguely old-fashioned-feeling; whereas, Redmond "takes a form which is itself fragmented and interrupted to the point of psychosis" - fashioning something wonderful from it. Kennard here, I think, is following Reverdy in arguing for a poetry not of correspondences (as between word and world), but abstraction (as in Cubism).

Reading Modern Poetry and the Tradition, one realises that in 1939, poetic modernism could encompass emotion and intellect, so long as the play of wit was there - a play that valued, perhaps above all, metaphor. It also knew the voice was not monolinear (unlike, for instance, Arnold's) - indeed was often multiple. I agree with Kennard that poets should avoid writing directly from, or about, their personal experience, their lives, unless (and I think this is a significant unless) - a) their life actually is interesting or unique in some aspect (one thinks of Plath's relationship to madness, or Yeats' relationship to Irish political struggle); b) the poet has something interesting or unique to say about their experience (however mundane - one thinks of WCW's plums); or c) there is sufficient irony and/or ambiguity in the treatment of the life experience to remove the poem from the realm of transparent diary entry, or mere sentimental utterance. It is this last point which needs to be underlined here, because it may be that Romer does not assume the reader is interested in "the poet's life" but rather, the treatment of the life. Romer, of course, knows his French poets and poetry, as well as any of us.

Redmond's own brilliantly ingenious transposition of "experience" into different hyper-realms of game-playing is but an extreme, and successful, example, of complex irony retreating experience, via poetic figures - and, finally, language. So, poets need not discard their lives, merely write them out ever-more imaginatively (or ironically). The problem, for some poetry (for any poetry) is that it does assume that whatever is written is immediately fascinating. Kennard reminds us to all up our games here, and keep lively.


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