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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.


Poetry Pleases! said…
Dear Todd

Having bought a copy of Identity Parade earlier this year, I doubt that I'll be investing in this new anthology. I've read a lot of contemporary poetry recently and my general feeling about it is that it's good but not great. Todd, if ever you felt like writing an impartial post about living poets who you think are really worth reading, I would, of course, pay close attention.

Best wishes from Simon
Anonymous said…
I don't know that I ever want to buy a book produced by anyone called Roddy.
Todd Swift said…
Anonymous - at least he is willing to tell us his name.
Roddy said…
I recall the Gregory judges 20 years ago suggesting that I consider changing my name from Roddy to something more suitable to poetic sensitivities - Roderick or RC Lumsden, maybe. Alas it is my name and I have had it all my life and have grown fond of it.

As to the 'residency test', I've stayed with the rules followed by other editors of such books. You may find the odd non-US poet in BAP, but in general, it contains poets who are from or in the US. I included Matthew Sweeney, a poet not from or in the UK, as he is published here. I decided not to include, say, Sharon Olds or Les Murray if they had a poem in the LRB or Poetry London. There was so much to choose from and I didn't feel a need to include non-UK related poets in a book with this title.

Anyway, thanks for the praise, but it would have been good to hear your thoughts about the poems rather than the premise. Why are reviewers so wary these days of actually reviewing?
Todd Swift said…
Hi Roddy, that's a good question about reviewing. I think what I did was offer a review, as over-view. I thought about reviewing individual poems, but didn't, for a few reasons: 1) Eyewear reviews are 500-1,000 words, and I tend to go for the shorter end myself; 2) with 70 poems to comment on, I couldn't really do justice to any with close readings and 3) I generally feel that a selection such as you made is an individual choice based on your taste, knowledge and experience; and it seemed good, on the whole, indeed, excellent. To comment on separate poems would not be the point - the book is the whole, the mood or flavour captured in your vision of the moment. RC Lumsden - glad you stuck with your real name. I always wanted to be ST Swift (my full name is Stanley Todd Swift) but because of Coleridge, it seemed a bit pretentious, and also some people might think I was playing with the TS in Eliot thing.
Carrie Etter said…
I agree Giles Goodland is a fine poet, but to conclude so readily he's the best non-mainstream poet under 55 makes me wonder how many you're familiar with. Carol Watts and Andrea Brady are certainly writing at the same level, to name just two, and what about Scott Thurston? Mark Goodwin? Vahni Capildeo? I could go on and on. Attend the next Hay Poetry Jamboree and enjoy the wealth of strong non-mainstream writing being written in the UK today--you'll find it that much harder to narrow excellence down to a single figure.
Todd Swift said…
I didn't do so readily. I am familiar with these other excellent poets you mention. I simply think it is time to widen the list of major non-mainstream poets - we know that the Rileys are major, that Prynne is, and so on - well, Goodland is also a major figure in his own right, and I wanted to affirm that.
Todd Swift said…
ps Carrie - I find it slightly preposterous of you, who knows my engagement with all new British poetry, to suggest I am not familiar with the poets you mentioned - especially as Vahni is a colleague of mine, and a dear friend, as you likely know. How much of your comment was rhetorical, I wonder? For the record, Vahni Capildeo is a brilliant poet.
Carrie Etter said…
Todd, I don't know about your engagement with _all_ new British poetry. The only person I might be able to make that claim about would be my closest friend, Claire Crowther.

Most of the work I've seen you comment on has been mainstream, and I had no idea Vahni was a colleague or friend of yours. If someone asks me who the best non-mainstream poet under 55 is, I'd have to offer a string of names, because there are a number of strong contenders--that's all I was saying.
Todd Swift said…
Carrie, it sounds like your judgements are based on what you know about people, and it sounds like you know more about people the closer they are to you. That's fine. However, try not to evaluate my knowledge in a public forum based on - what? - something you say you "don't know" in the first place. I intentionally didn't name a number of strong contenders for the reason that such a multiple approach would not kick-start the sort of debate I want - to start speaking of the significant younger poet. It doesn't mean I am correct, of course.
Todd Swift said…
ps, I should add, what I found disrespectful, and rather anti-academic, hence surprising coming from someone I rather respect, about your comment, was that, rather than saying "I disagree with you because" you argued basically "you obviously don't know what you are talking about". As for my non-engagement with the mainstream, as it is called, that's just silly. I edited a special section in New American Writing, for instance, almost a decade ago. I've been in dialogue with various poetries and poetics since my first anthology in 1988.
Todd Swift said…
that should read non-engagement with the non-mainstream...
Carrie Etter said…
I'm sorry you seem unable to read my comments as innocuously as they were intended. I'll desist accordingly.
Todd Swift said…
Thanks Carrie. I am glad to accept I misread your comments, and glad to take them in an innocuous light. best, t
Anonymous said…
Poems are by poets living in UK or poets with UK nationality?
Chris Crawford

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