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Mini-reviews: American Hybrid, Best American Poetry, Bloodaxe Indian Poets, Oxford Poets 2010, Baxter, Allott, and Christopher Reid

Stock-taking is endless in poetry.  I need to unclutter my shelves of looming reviews.  Here are a few quickies: American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry, out last year, proves to be an indispensable map of new poetic styles and ideas in North American poetry; similar in outlook to the Fusion Poetry idea I championed back in the late 90s, the idea of hybridity welcomes an end to stale conflict over the lyric, and aims for traffic between experimental and traditional poetics.  A must-have.

The Best American Poetry 2009, guest edited by David Wagoner, features a superb opening foreword by David Lehman, attacking the idea of negative reviewing, and discussing, among other things, Mad Men.  As always, the selection of poems is remarkable, and while each year favours a slightly nuanced critical approach - how could it not? - the editor's humanity comes through.  With poems from John Ashbery, Mark Doty, WS Merwin, Tom Sleigh, Adrienne Rich, Barbara Goldberg, and many others.  Highly-recommended.

The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets came out in 2008.  It was a necessary anthology, and editor Jeet Thayil has done us an important service by correcting the scandalous lack of attention being paid to Indian poetry in English, over here in the UK.  Indian poetry is bigger than Moraes and Nagra, as this anthology shows - and while Sudeep Sen is a notable exclusion - many excellent poets that I have published at Nthposition over the years, like Srikanth Reddy, Ranjit Hoskote, and Mani Rao, get a wide selection. As this is a diaspora selection, poets are included like Vikram Seth, Ravi Shankar, Amit Chaudhuri and Sujata Bhatt, as well.  In fact, what emerges is an exceptionally vibrant world community of brilliant Indian poets.

More recently (as in a few days ago) the latest Carcanet Oxford Poets 2010 Anthology came out.  Featuring nine eclectic poets from America, and the UK, there seems no ongoing mission statement here that makes the selection more than random, and, with three editors, the overall effect is a bit shaky.  The Introduction seems needlessly one-sided, and I cannot agree, at all, with the following: "Saying what it is like, here and now, in his or her own real experience, is the poet's primary responsibility".  I don't know what the "it" signifies, nor am I sure what "real experience" is - is that opposed to imagination or the virtual?  At any rate, this seems a startlingly reductive, empiricist and rather prosaic white paper for poetry to follow.  It explains how delightfully baroque minds like FT Prince tend to be sidelined.  The anthology features a few splendid poets, though, including Philip Hancock, and Kathryn Maris, both poets I have championed here at Eyewear and beyond.  Maris is the best of the lot, and her work is funny, formally daring, and implausibly moving and original all at once.  This is work that deserves its own full British collection pronto - she's among the ten best younger poets writing over here now, on the basis of this new work.

Recent from Carcanet, again, is Selected Poems by James K Baxter.  Baxter's life trajectory is astonishing, and the book charts it well, decade by decade, with informative brief chapters for each period in his god-haunted life.  A Catholic convert who became ever more involved in the indigenous culture of his New Zealand, Baxter's flamboyant, wonderful language went through stages of intensity, and managed to capture the diction of the Beats and also that of his native place, marrying that to more modernist and elegant strains.  How is this man not a major poet in the mind of the British?  'Wild Bees' from the Forties, for instance, is a lyric poem worthy of any of the best of the century.  And, Baxter's last work, from the 70s, is equally impressive, if in a different register.  I read through this thick book in one go, entranced by such a compelling figure.

Michael Murphy, now dead, edited the Collected Poems of Kenneth Allott, for Salt.  This is an important book, and one that will open some eyes.  Allott is more than an anthologist, and his work, on the cusp of the war years, the Forties, and the Movement period, is by turns briskly surreal and quirkily austere.  In poems like 'The Ventriloquist's Doll' we saw a weird imagination at work.  He is a minor poet, but one to be restored to major interest.

Finally, Christopher Reid's Song of Lunch, which I read in the beautiful original CB Editions, is to be aired tomorrow night with Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson.  I have rarely found a long poem so poignant, or effective.  At times rather banal, it pitches the reader into intensities of a Dantean nature with the breaking of a breadstick, or the glug of red wine, and, from rather ordinary experiences (a yellow sticky) ends with a dark vision of lost time, and lost love, that plunged the floor away from me.  Reid has distilled the Eliotean heart of the matter from Prufrock, complete with unexpected metaphor and simile, and bundled daily despair and cosmic harm into one charming, haunting ball of linguistic brio.  Subtly slight, but slightly great, this is a major poetic work of this decade, one whose imaginative reach seems linked to the poetic establishment's cliched ideas of poetry (Soho, Dylan Thomas) only to break such chains, and sing at a different sea-level.



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With the death of the poetic genius John Ashbery, whose poems, translations, and criticism made him, to my mind, the most influential American poet since TS Eliot, 21st century poetry is moving into less certain territory.

Over the past few years, we have lost most of the truly great of our era: Edwin Morgan, Gunn, Hill, Heaney and Walcott, to name just five.  There are many more, of course. This is news too sad and deep to fathom this week.  I will write more perhaps later. 

I had a letter from Ashbery on my wall, and it inspired me daily.  He gave me advice for my PhD. He said kind things about a poetry book of mine.

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