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The Guardian's Modern Poetry Classics

The Guardian is one of the more left-leaning, liberal, newspapers, but whenever it reports on Poetry with a capital P, it tends to be about as radical as The Daily Telegraph or The Sun.  Witness its big spread in Friday's G2 section, which, to its credit, emphasizes the good news that "Poetry" is alive and well in the UK, and, according to Don Paterson (cue that photo of his blue piercing gaze) selling as well as much literary fiction.  Alongside this lively piece, is a brief canonical to-read-list, by Sarah Crown, suggesting 8 "essential poets": Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage, Sean O'Brien, Don Paterson, Craig Raine, Geoffrey Hill, Jo Shapcott and Alice Oswald.  Not one of these poets, of course, deserves to not be listed - they are all very good poets, and a handful of them may be touched by genius.

Still, it seems a little wearying to see that this establishment list is offered as the main example of what's on offer today - after all the hoopla in the main article.  These are the poets published by Faber, Penguin, and Picador - top list poets from large presses.  Not one poet on the list is from Bloodaxe, or Carcanet, Salt, or represents the other traditions in contemporary UK poetry, such as performance, or late modernist, or for that matter, Black or Asian, or post-colonial, poetics.  Further, "Poetry" tends to be equated with British poetry, without really indicating how global English-language poetry has become, or how fragmented and multiple it is, in terms of style and intention.

One sees how, conservatively, reputations are consolidated in London, through prize-winning, and publication.  My quarrel is not with these poets, whose poetry is all excellent, but with journalistic lists that exclude different options for readers, readers targeted precisely for their relative ignorance of the subject.  Nor does The Guardian ever mention the politically-engaged poems and poets of the UK, of which there are many.  Also missing is mention of the little magazines and small pamphlet presses like The Wolf and Tall-lighthouse, Oystercatcher, and HappenStance, where so much now happens - or indeed blogs like Eyewear and many others.  As often is the case with such articles, the intention to big up poetry, but the usual lazy reaching for comfortable Rolodex yields relatively stale and over familiar news.  In this case, the article is good news, but it could have been even better.


Tom Chivers said…

I agree with all of this, with the exception of your line 'One sees how, conservatively, reputations are consolidated in London'. I may be misreading your point here, but let's look at the list itself:

Carol Ann Duffy, born Glasgow, lives Manchester

Simon Armitage, born Huddersfield, lives Huddersfield

Sean O'Brien, born London, raised Hull, lives Newcastle

Don Paterson, born Dundee, lives St Andrews

Craig Raine, born County Durham, lives Oxford

Geoffrey Hill, born Bromsgrove, lives Cambridge

Jo Shapcott, born London, lives London

Alice Oswald, lives Devon

I really don't see the connection!

Todd Swift said…
Hi Tom - I am referring to the London media - to whit, the Guardian, no longer published or edited out of Manchester. Nor are Faber, Picador, or Penguin edited much else besides London. I meant that decisions about reputation still seem to be made by certain reviewers, marketing departments, and editors based in London.
Rob M said…
I'd agree with you on the London comment, Todd. In any list conducted in Scotland of the top 8 contemporary *Scottish* poets, Don Paterson would of course be included, but I imagine Edwin Morgan would come top of most lists. For some reason, he escapes the attention of the London media.

The Guardian list didn't include Heaney, so I think we can assume that it excluded anyone from outside Britain. Kind of odd it didn't include Paul Muldoon though, given that he's from the north of Ireland.
Tom Chivers said…
Oh ok, yeah I can see your point then. But which is really a wider point about the clustering of national media in the capital.

(The Guardian is not 'London media' in the same way as, say, the South London Press or Camden New Journal...)
Jon said…
I agree with this - and furthermore, it puts you (as in, the commentator) in a tricky position when these thoroughly unrepresentative lists are nevertheless made up of undeniably good poets. So much easier and more satisfying to say, "Pah!" to it, but we end up sounding like we're neither agreeing nor disagreeing.

The Guardian is too powerful. It's dispiriting to see it as the first point of call when many poets or performers are looking for a validation quote to sell their work ("Top dollar!" **** The Guardian). That and having made any fleeting appearance on telly!
Alan Baker said…
"A little wearying..." sums it up. Personally, I don't think any of those poets are "essential" to an understanding of modern British poetry, except possibly Alice Oswald and Geoffrey Hill. Indeed, most of them would leave you with no understanding of it at all. How about this for an alternative list:

Tom Raworth
Denise Riley
Geraldine Monk
Lee Harwood
Kelvin Corcoran
Peter Riley
Giles Goodland
Maggie O'Sullivan

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