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Saturday, 3 September 2011

Review: Best British Poetry 2011 edited by Roddy Lumsden

Salt's new series, Best British Poetry, has arrived in its first iteration, as 2011.  As the editor of the series, Roddy Lumsden, himself writes in the book, this comes after a long line of such publications in America, Ireland, and elsewhere.  It's a pity that Lumsden fails to mention David Lehman, who had made the US series the benchmark for all others, over several decades of increasing excellence, to the stage where the Best American publication is a major event in the poetry world.  Nor should Lumsden's introduction have told us to get some tea and take a nap if we wanted to question the premise of selecting the year's best poems - he should have simply ignored such potential quibbles.  After all, if the UK series follows in the successful wake of its international counterparts, it hardly needs to establish its credentials.  It is what it is.  A marketing exercise on the one hand - such books sell well and are popular - but, more importantly, genuinely useful guides to the everyperson reader who wants good poems, but not too often.

Lumsden has done well, in terms of selecting widely from young and old, across a spectrum of poetics.  It is heartening to see Giles Goodland, surely the best non-mainstream British poet now writing under the age of 55, in the same book as Emily Berry, a rising star.  Indeed, each of the poets Lumsden has chosen has something to say, interestingly, and he is I believe correct in saying that this is probably the best generation of British poets; though fans of the Romantics, Moderns and Thirties poets might balk at that.  The selection of next year's editor is also heartening - Sasha Dugdale is an excellent poet, of integrity.

Any fears that this would become a Lumsden School love-in, have, for the moment, been put aside.  Lumsden's greatest challenge will be Lehman's - to select impressive, relatively impartial poets, from year to year, to act as guest editors.  The problem for the UK scene is that it is too small to really allow this to happen.  Any poet worth their salt could easily find 70 poems by 70 poets they know, of genuine merit, in the UK, simply because we almost all know each other now, at least via Facebook.  The same is not true in America, or Canada, where thousands of miles separate writers.

A small note of concern: the book's interior design is uncomfortably close to the BAP style, in terms of lay-out and font.  Salt should have sought, I think, its own distinctive look. Secondly, Lumsden has decided to limit selection to poems by poets based in the UK/Ireland, whereas BAP, for instance, is more open, and will select poems by any poet from anywhere in the world published in an American periodical that year; as such, Canadians like Carmine Starnino have appeared in its pages, and Lumsden himself might. It would be good to open it up to simply the best poems published in Britain every year, and drop the residency test.

Regardless of such small complaints, this is an excellent collection, imaginatively and fairly edited, making it easily one of the books that every reader of poetry wanting to know about new British and Irish poetry should own.  I already look forward to the 2012 edition.
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