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Smith On Lung Jazz and Kingston MA Poets Pamphlet

Barbara Smith reviews
Lung Jazz: Young British Poets for Oxfam
Edited by Todd Swift and Kim Lockwood
Cinnamon Press/Eyewear Publishing, 2012
The Hallelujah Chorus
Kingston University MA Poetry
Various poets, 2012

Back 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 present”.

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 as poets.

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 time.

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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