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Saturday, 29 May 2010

So who are the Young British Poets?

Potential Young British Poet Bathing In Sunny England
I call them the YBPs. The decade 2000-2010 has seen a generational shift in UK poetry, as an emerging Internet-linked wave of younger poets has come to the fore, clearly offering a vision of what will follow the New and Next Gen poets of the 90s and early 00s. As Nathan Hamilton observes in his spiky, and wide-ranging feature in the latest (spring 2010) issue of The Rialto, one of the five best UK poetry magazines (Poetry Review, Poetry London, and PN Review would also have to be in that list), in which he offers selections from 300 poets under the age of 35 who answered his editorial call, this has led to a near-mania for pronouncing on this new group. I am partly responsible for the listing and selecting, with my Oxfam DVD, Manhattan Review feature, and blogging at the Best American Poetry Website. Tall-lighthouse, the Faber pamphlets, and Bloodaxe, have also been active in helping to shape a new consensus, as have many other ventures, and small press and online projects, from the sharpening your knives initiative, to Pomegranate, to Foyles awards, and the perennial Eric Gregory.

Hamilton promises to give us his critical rationale in Part Two of his series - so Eyewear will wait until then to comment with a closer response to his Introduction and selection. It would be unfair to do so beforehand, though a few brief quick responses come to mind in the meantime. Firstly, it seems a bit much to slight the Philip Gross review in Poetry London - Gross' review was engaged and honest - hardly merely "pleasant". Secondly, it is confusing as to why Americans who don't live in the UK are included; while I welcome poets who study or live in Britain as part of British poetry, even the most open of borders ultimately strains to breaking point if total inclusivity is applied.

I gather Hamilton has simply decided to publish work that was submitted from wherever, but that could be made more clear, perhaps in part deux. Thirdly, he is a little snippy about the other previous attempts to survey this generation, suggesting that some of the poems selected were "very bad". I'd like an example of this. I am sure some were not great, or merely average, but I doubt that Pollard, Byrne, Lumsden or myself actually selected a very bad poem - that would be a serious lapse of critical judgement. Fourthly, Hamilton suggests his overview will be a generous and unsettling perspective, somehow responding to coterie and nepotistic cabalism he sees as marring even the best-intentioned such selections. As he rightly, I think, writes, poetry editorial choices are often aided by friendships, and by other forces that might be deemed extra-aesthetic.

Still, those in glass houses: Hamilton (who I have included in all my surveys, as I think he is a key figure of his young geneartion) is based in Norwich, a graduate of UEA (as was I) - and it is notable that many in this selection are similarly linked; and other links could be teased out - not that I think this is the big issue that Hamilton says it is - in the UK, poetry is too small to remain anonymous and objective for too long. We meet each other. Indeed, this awareness of so many peers allows for a more sensible and genuine survey, whereas similar attempts at canon-making in America, even Canada, are reasonably hampered by vast geosocial distances.

If these sound like serious attacks on his editorial work, they aren't. But I don't think the attempts so far have been that too shoddy, or too corrupt. Lumsden made a small error (I believe) in defining Britishness rather narrowly (and unwelcomingly) in his Identity Parade, and another error in including perhaps too many poets - but his overall judgement, in terms of taste, had integrity (if perhaps it could have been better articulated in the Introduction). So too Voice Recognition - while needfully limited in size, none included is unworthy of a wider readership. And, I believe, my selections are equally vital and useful.

I'll discuss poets and poems once Hamilton's survey is complete. The Rialto has made this a landmark issue - and everyone who wants to read good poems from young British poets should get a copy.

Hamilton has suggested there are neurological reasons for thinking 35 is a good place to limit the definition of young poet. Possibly. I prefer the more conservative 40 or 45. However, at a point like that, it ceases to be a useful working definition of fresher, breakthrough poets. In the interests of helping to finalise a sense of who IS a YBP - that is, a graduate of the 00-10 decade, I am creating a permanent page at Eyewear which will, in time, include ALL the poets that have any claim to be seriously regarded from this period. This will be a slow process.

It will be exhaustive. I will use as reference all the main and some obscure benchmarks (anthology inclusions, awards, prizes, books, pamphlets, word of mouth etc.). I will limit it in the following way: YBPs must a) have been born in Britain, have lived in Britain during the decade, be a landed immigrant or hold a British passport, or consider themselves British (even in hybrid or hyphenate form) for cultural or other reasons; b) have had poetry published, online, in magazines, or pamphlet or full collection format; c) be born in 1970 or after (this unfortunately is slightly unfair, as all arbitrary cut-offs are, to a few very good poets born in the late 60s - but then again, they seem part of an earlier wave, and are, at any rate, well-published and recognised as is; and also to new and emerging older poets, such as Elspeth Smith or Sheila Hillier - but, while these are brilliant poets, they aren't young, only new); and d) not consider themselves first and foremost Irish. That is to say, Irish poets have their own fascinating generational story, which would include Wheatley, Perry, Higgins, Morrissey, Laird, Bryce, Flynn, Gamble, and many others.

One final point - why do this? Won't time settle the canon for us? No, history has shown that canons are often shaped at the time, and are slow to be revised. Further, this is no idle marketing ploy - the period that saw 9/11, the Iraq War, the Banking Crisis, Bush-Obama, climate change, and Facebook and Myspace - has faced as much technological and sociopolitical and cultural change as differentiated 1910 from 1920 - the period in which the Pound-Eliot developments shifted taste and even perception. While Hamilton is right to argue that claims for radical innovation within this period are overstated, he is wrong to, I think, miss, the subtler shifts, to a post-theory, post-postmodern, stance. While there are entrenched avant-gardists, like Keston Sutherland, more of this YBP group emphasises a fusion of performance, pop-cultural reference, linguistic play, and genuine scholarly erudition (many hold MAs or PhDs), and wear this mesh lightly.

It would be untrue to claim that Prynne or Hill is the dominant living elder on these isles, in terms of influence. The two most influential dead poets of the last 50 years for the YBPs remain Hughes and Larkin; Plath is perhaps a third. Of the living mainstream established figures of world reputation, the most influential, stylistically, are clearly Heaney and Muldoon. Motion, Cope, Raine and Fenton, less so, but do provide a ground that is helpful. Of the middle-aged group, the most dominant, in terms of influence, are Duffy, Armitage, the deceased Michael Donaghy and Paterson. Slightly younger very important poets include Farley, Nagra, Oswald and Agbabi. That is to say, while other very good, even excellent poets, are currently writing, the 15 living poets mentioned above (all born before 1969) are the foundations on which this younger swing to the middle has emerged. Claims for less-mainstream impact although exciting is often hype. British poetry remains conservative, lyrical, and charming. It combines humour and personality. It is stylish, both urbane and rural. British poetry is a major accomplishment of world culture - not a failure to grasp the baton thrown by the Americans or French. While improved by foreign influences, it needn't apologise unreservedly for retaining its own tics and inflections. I have often chided it for being stuck in a rut. To paraphrase Churchill: some rut.

North American and antipodean poets have much to still learn, and enjoy, from British poets. The YBPs even more so.

Todd Swift
Maida Vale, May 2010
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