Review: Swift on Identity Parade

Todd Swift reviews
Identity Parade
edited by Roddy Lumsden

Poetry anthologies are like beds: the most interesting question is who is and isn’t in them. Roddy Lumsden’s monumental Identity Parade: New British and Irish Poets (Bloodaxe, 2010) is a long-awaited generational summing up from one of the UK’s most active poet-editor-organisers. Lumsden, a master formalist, and crafty word-player, has mentored many younger poets for over a decade, and knows the mainstream British poetry world like few other practitioners. The anthology features 85 poets – and, in pluralist fashion – they represent a variety of styles and linguistic approaches, from performance poetry to the well-made lyric. There are also a few “experimental” poets included (such as Richard Price), and the Introduction is more or less unique among such enterprises for being not editorially bellicose but open.

It is also notable – and this extends Bloodaxe’s long-term dedication to women poets – that there are more women than men represented. Lumsden has set out the terms of what made poets eligible for inclusion: their debut in the last 17 years or so, and from a British-Irish press; born in Britain or Ireland (what Lumsden calls “here”); or based here for more than a decade. He has tended to exclude, therefore, poets over the age of 55 who published first books in the 90s, and poets born in America, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand (for instance) who may have lived and worked in the UK or Ireland, for less than ten years. As such, there seems to be a desire to delimit the poetic community to national borders – a possibly latent antimodernist, or at least conservative, position. Many previous British/Irish anthologies of other decades have opted to included poets like Eliot, Adcock, Stevenson, Plath, Donaghy, Porter, Pound and Wevill – “foreigners” who moved here and made Britain home. Of more concern is the question – does the book suffer from, even still, too much inclusiveness? Its refreshingly broad church attitude would tend to err on the side of plenty rather than austere evaluative discrimination. Lumsden claims in his Introduction to have modelled the anthology a bit on the American recent door-stopper, Legitimate Dangers, from 2006; that anthology is almost unreadably thick, but does offer a panoptical overview of what some editors think is the contemporary US direction. Another similar anthology was Carmine Starnino’s Canadian book, The New Canon, with 50 new poets.

What emerges from such extensive “almanacs” is a sense that the critical faculty has been short-circuited by the sheer plenitude of published poets, many with legitimate claims to being respected, even necessary, as a piece of the contemporary puzzle. Lumsden notes in his Introduction the interesting idea that this period’s period style is “individualism” – and that this may be connected to the new digital mediascape, which has at once fragmented and multiplied options. This may be so, but reading the poets and poems in Identity Parade, one is not so much struck by lack of uniformity, as by certain moods, modes, tones, and rhythms that do reoccur. Far from being an entirely heterogeneous and strange period – at least as represented by Lumsden – most of the poems selected are relatively coherent.

Most tell stories, express emotions, are witty or engagingly imaginative, and use the forms and manner made famous by Heaney, Muldoon, Duffy, or Paterson – clearly the four presiding spirits. American influences would tend to the lighter and more amiable of the New York School type. There are very few poems here that deeply interrogate the nature of language, in the manner of Prynne, Bernstein, or Lisa Robertson. Not that this is required of poems, of course.

What is odd is how this compression of talent – and this is a very talented generation – manages to diminish even the larger figures in the midst of the pack, who feel a bit crushed in the crowd. These might be Patience Agbabi, Alice Oswald, Paul Farley, Luke Kennard, Jen Hadfield, Gwyneth Lewis, Jacob Polley, Richard Price, John Stammers, and Kevin Higgins. To select just ten of the more impressive. Then again, readers will locate other constellations and clusters of interest. Also missing are the show-stoppers - the lightning-strike poems - that mark a poet or generation as great. While there are hundreds of good, solid, well-written and often genuinely dazzling or inventive poems included, it is hard to actually recollect a dozen or more whose lines are so memorable as to represent a genuine threat to Ted Hughes, Larkin, or Mahon. As such, it may still be very much a provisional period, not yet fully formed - and the leaders of the pack have yet to fully dominate the minor figures. Or put their own stamp on the language. In a longer review I'd cite the best poems, but leave it here for the reader to find them on their own.

There any number of poets I would have liked to see here, such as John Stiles, James Byrne, Isobel Dixon, Jane Yeh, Tom French, Paul Perry, Kathryn Maris, Kathryn Simmonds, or Andrea Brady, to offer a few personal favourites drawn from poets based in Britain or Ireland. But it’s Lumsden’s book, not mine. What is missing – to some extent - is any definitive evaluative discernment, able to offer this generation a map out of the rush and roar of the poetry bourse. A selection of 35 or 40 – one thinks of the Paterson anthology of recent years – might have been less even-handed, but could have actually been diagnostic.

Still, as a survey of the last decade and a half in the UK, this is a very good, useful, and genuinely engaged and engaging effort. Identity Parade will be the de facto go-to guide for many teachers, students, and lay-readers for years to come, and offers rewards and surprises even to the hardened poetry experts out there. Lumsden is to be praised for his hard work in putting this labour of love together. The line-up is already forming for the next book of this kind, no doubt to appear in 2020 - which will hopefully star poets like Emily Berry, Sam Riviere, and Helen Mort, among others.

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