Barbara Smith reviews
Lung Jazz: Young British Poets for Oxfam
Edited by Todd Swift and Kim
Cinnamon Press/Eyewear Publishing, 2012
Kingston University MA Poetry
Various poets, 2012
in autumn of 2008, seventeen young British Poets were selected for inclusion in
The Manhattan Review (Fall/Winter 2008-9), as part of a feature on young British
poets. Indeed, I went over to London the following March of 2009 and witnessed
some of the selected poets read from their work at Oxfam, Marylebone, to a
large, very receptive audience. In introducing his selection in The Manhattan
Review, Todd Swift described poetry’s “British Empirical tradition” as still
having a sense of the “neo-classical, or Romantic, mode”; that language had
become the battleground; and that the British avant-garde tended to “disrupt or
reconsider the lyric stance, and investigate language from a philosophical
position.” He went on to assert that the poets he had selected “may, or may not
in complex and creative ways [have] disentangled themselves from this fertile
muck”, with the proviso that it was a “provisional report on an unfolding
It was also acknowledged that Roddy Lumsden was completing
editing Bloodaxe’s Identity Parade (2010), a much broader anthology in scope and
range, which encompassed contemporary British and Irish poets. Swift concluded
in his introduction by observing that the original seventeen were “less
possessed by the demons that haunted post-war Britain”. Generation Next for
poetry indeed. I recall enjoying some of that seventeen entrance the audience
with the wide variety of styles and forms as well as their confident
communication of their work to the listening public. Most of that original
line-up (bar about four poets) found their way into Lung Jazz. The selection
criteria being simply that the poets consider themselves part of the British
poetry community and had been born in or after 1970.
Given these two
previous forays (also thinking of The Salt Book of Younger Poets and Voice
Recognition, also from Bloodaxe) it could be questioned why we need another
anthology of young contemporary poetry. The answer is two-fold: it raises funds
and awareness for Oxfam: “allowing poetry to make something happen” as well as
showcasing “poems that define a generation.” So, the poems themselves are doing
the talking: some as unfussily polished as Princess cut diamonds, such as Emily
Berry’s ‘Devil Music’ or Liz Berry’s ‘Horse’; others as wide to the
possibilities of language and comprehension, with Tony Williams’ ‘A New Metal’
or Rufo Quintavalle’s ‘Names and the animals’; still more playing with quotidian
observance, like Ben Wilkinson’s ‘Open Return’, and of course there is humour,
such as the playfulness of Sophie Hannah’s ‘The Dalai Lama on Twitter’. It is a
pity that the poems are not organised ‘speaking to each other’, but that is an
ordering which creates its own problems; instead the editors have opted for
alphabetisation, which enables easy retrieval.
When asked about
essential things to do when becoming a poet, one of the things often mentioned
is the need to read poetry. Not just the Robert Frosts, or Marianne Moores, or
Sylvia Plaths, Elizabeth Bishops, or Eavan Bolands but reading what is new, what
is now happening in poetry. That’s why contemporary anthologies serve as a good
place to start sipping and supping at emerging poetry, even as they are
arbitrated by others. It may be that this taste will lead us, hopefully, to
follow, support and keep on reading the poets we have enjoyed and engage with
those whose work is more challenging as we move forward, whether as readers or
The word anthology derives from the Greek, a gathering of
flowers, and has been subsumed into literary culture to mean ‘a gathering of
flowering verse’ – quite appropriate given the range of work gathered into Lung
Jazz. Describing it in floral terms, one could think of the recent trend for
seeding wildflower meadows – a variation on old and universal themes but with
definite zinging poetry pops of neons and acids and a reworking of formal
patterns These poems are for reading now and reading again in decades to come,
when we look forward to seeing who will withstand the vagaries of
On to an anthology of a different kind: The Hallelujah Chorus from
the Kingston University’s MA in Poetry. Here we have twelve poets presenting
their work in a stylish pamphlet. How do you describe such a gathering? As a,
“heterogeneous, eclectic group of styles and approaches”, according to Dr Swift,
their erstwhile poetry tutor and mentor.
Witness the erotic undertow of
a Cato Pedder, in the poem that gives its title to the pamphlet, ‘The Hallelujah
Chorus’ ‘You’re turning over your engine / in the garage of my womb’, giving an
old trope a new swing. Or see how one poet looks to the ephemera of passing
phases of youth in Robin Thomas’ ‘For the Duration’ “When this lot is over /
I’ll rip off this uniform.” How about the menacing intrigue of a poem like
Justin White’s ‘Comfort’ whose narrator “can’t sleep / without it” – it being a
gun – or is it? This too is an interesting taster – perhaps we will be reading
some of these poets in future poetry anthologies.
Barbara Smith is an Irish poet and blogger.
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