Review: Swift on Identity Parade

Todd Swift reviews
Identity Parade
edited by Roddy Lumsden

Poetry anthologies are like beds: the most interesting question is who is and isn’t in them. Roddy Lumsden’s monumental Identity Parade: New British and Irish Poets (Bloodaxe, 2010) is a long-awaited generational summing up from one of the UK’s most active poet-editor-organisers. Lumsden, a master formalist, and crafty word-player, has mentored many younger poets for over a decade, and knows the mainstream British poetry world like few other practitioners. The anthology features 85 poets – and, in pluralist fashion – they represent a variety of styles and linguistic approaches, from performance poetry to the well-made lyric. There are also a few “experimental” poets included (such as Richard Price), and the Introduction is more or less unique among such enterprises for being not editorially bellicose but open.

It is also notable – and this extends Bloodaxe’s long-term dedication to women poets – that there are more women than men represented. Lumsden has set out the terms of what made poets eligible for inclusion: their debut in the last 17 years or so, and from a British-Irish press; born in Britain or Ireland (what Lumsden calls “here”); or based here for more than a decade. He has tended to exclude, therefore, poets over the age of 55 who published first books in the 90s, and poets born in America, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand (for instance) who may have lived and worked in the UK or Ireland, for less than ten years. As such, there seems to be a desire to delimit the poetic community to national borders – a possibly latent antimodernist, or at least conservative, position. Many previous British/Irish anthologies of other decades have opted to included poets like Eliot, Adcock, Stevenson, Plath, Donaghy, Porter, Pound and Wevill – “foreigners” who moved here and made Britain home. Of more concern is the question – does the book suffer from, even still, too much inclusiveness? Its refreshingly broad church attitude would tend to err on the side of plenty rather than austere evaluative discrimination. Lumsden claims in his Introduction to have modelled the anthology a bit on the American recent door-stopper, Legitimate Dangers, from 2006; that anthology is almost unreadably thick, but does offer a panoptical overview of what some editors think is the contemporary US direction. Another similar anthology was Carmine Starnino’s Canadian book, The New Canon, with 50 new poets.

What emerges from such extensive “almanacs” is a sense that the critical faculty has been short-circuited by the sheer plenitude of published poets, many with legitimate claims to being respected, even necessary, as a piece of the contemporary puzzle. Lumsden notes in his Introduction the interesting idea that this period’s period style is “individualism” – and that this may be connected to the new digital mediascape, which has at once fragmented and multiplied options. This may be so, but reading the poets and poems in Identity Parade, one is not so much struck by lack of uniformity, as by certain moods, modes, tones, and rhythms that do reoccur. Far from being an entirely heterogeneous and strange period – at least as represented by Lumsden – most of the poems selected are relatively coherent.

Most tell stories, express emotions, are witty or engagingly imaginative, and use the forms and manner made famous by Heaney, Muldoon, Duffy, or Paterson – clearly the four presiding spirits. American influences would tend to the lighter and more amiable of the New York School type. There are very few poems here that deeply interrogate the nature of language, in the manner of Prynne, Bernstein, or Lisa Robertson. Not that this is required of poems, of course.

What is odd is how this compression of talent – and this is a very talented generation – manages to diminish even the larger figures in the midst of the pack, who feel a bit crushed in the crowd. These might be Patience Agbabi, Alice Oswald, Paul Farley, Luke Kennard, Jen Hadfield, Gwyneth Lewis, Jacob Polley, Richard Price, John Stammers, and Kevin Higgins. To select just ten of the more impressive. Then again, readers will locate other constellations and clusters of interest. Also missing are the show-stoppers - the lightning-strike poems - that mark a poet or generation as great. While there are hundreds of good, solid, well-written and often genuinely dazzling or inventive poems included, it is hard to actually recollect a dozen or more whose lines are so memorable as to represent a genuine threat to Ted Hughes, Larkin, or Mahon. As such, it may still be very much a provisional period, not yet fully formed - and the leaders of the pack have yet to fully dominate the minor figures. Or put their own stamp on the language. In a longer review I'd cite the best poems, but leave it here for the reader to find them on their own.

There any number of poets I would have liked to see here, such as John Stiles, James Byrne, Isobel Dixon, Jane Yeh, Tom French, Paul Perry, Kathryn Maris, Kathryn Simmonds, or Andrea Brady, to offer a few personal favourites drawn from poets based in Britain or Ireland. But it’s Lumsden’s book, not mine. What is missing – to some extent - is any definitive evaluative discernment, able to offer this generation a map out of the rush and roar of the poetry bourse. A selection of 35 or 40 – one thinks of the Paterson anthology of recent years – might have been less even-handed, but could have actually been diagnostic.

Still, as a survey of the last decade and a half in the UK, this is a very good, useful, and genuinely engaged and engaging effort. Identity Parade will be the de facto go-to guide for many teachers, students, and lay-readers for years to come, and offers rewards and surprises even to the hardened poetry experts out there. Lumsden is to be praised for his hard work in putting this labour of love together. The line-up is already forming for the next book of this kind, no doubt to appear in 2020 - which will hopefully star poets like Emily Berry, Sam Riviere, and Helen Mort, among others.


Rik said…
Roddy also restricted his choice to poets who had published a collection in the past couple of decades, automatically excluding all those who choose not to follow the 'traditional' publishing route. I'll not complain.

Congratulations on getting the British Library to archive Eyewear. They've also agreed to archive my poetry website, though I've heard nothing more from them since signing and returning the forms.
Neil Astley said…
This is a refreshingly fair review, except for the poet-centric notion that "the most interesting question [about anthologies] is who is and isn’t in them". For readers that is far from the case: readers are interested in the range of work included - the poems themselves - not in the who's-in-who's-out game played by poets and critics. Anthologies are published for poetry readers not for poetry insiders.
Jeffrey Side said…
A very generous and fair review, Todd. From the sounds of it, the anthology seems over-full. This is a pity, as it has left no room for the poets you mention who were excluded.
Roddy said…
You're wrong there, Rik. The book was open to unpublished poets too, and indeed, seven unsigned poets were included in the line-up. Since making my list (drafted in 2007, please note), those poets have all been signed up by either Bloodaxe, Salt or Seren.

Todd, you are shooting fish in a barrel with your comments on the numbers, and if I'd picked 40, you would've said there should be far more. You appear to be searching in vain for that one poet who 'stole your place'. You take a clear angle based on your own omission which confirms to me that you were an unsuitable reviewer for this book.

More importantly, you've made that usual egregious error - you haven't reviewed the poems but the concept, the inclusions and the editorial (which was kept short and simple in the hope of avoiding such blather). You have wholly failed to engage with the poems. What's more, you have only had the (384 page) book for a few days, so you can't possibly have given it the attention it deserves - might this be why you unacceptably sidestep the poems? Might this be why none of them stick in your head? Or might your head have been too concerned with the scorn and ridicule poured on you elsewhere after the arrogance of your previous posts and your equating me with the BNP and violence? Whichever way, it appears to be a typical attempt to cover your back after mouthing off (oh, and a nice touch to drop Patience into the 'top poets' list after your worrying assumptions about her previously).

Of the nine poets you list as missing, of course, five were not eligible. The others form part of a group of 200 or so fine poets who were seriously considered. 1100 were eligible - in fact many more given that they need not have been published.

You've yet to offer any reason why I ought not to have an anthology with a designation by nationality - which has a strong tradition (will Bauer, Elias, Frutkin, Peacock, Borson, Brown etc be in your book? Will I? I lived there for three months!). Most of the poets you list were included in anthologies after long term residence and publication here - as is the case with my choices. You seem to be very selective about your own nationality (which, incidentally, is Canadian, as in 'leading Canadian poet-editor' as you erroneously and preeningly style yourself on your site). Last year, you were, I recall 'Irish-Canadian', this year you are a cockney manqué!

As a Londoner, you are no more British than I am English. Is Tammy British? No. Is she a British poet? Yes. Because all her writing and publication has been in this country and she has been part of the poetry community here for such a long time. One of the main reasons for not including recent arrivals is that they often move on again and this book tries to represent the past 17 years and will have a ten year shelf-life.
Rodney Wood said…
I think it a very fair review and I suppose the only way to get round the question of what counts as British is to just include poets published in Britain as there seems to be so much cross pollination.
Anonymous said…
Yet again, Roddy Lumsden shows himself up as a venomous and thoroughly unpleasant human being (as well as a bad editor). If you don't like the review, apparently you're allowed to attack the reviewer with every personal slur you can summon.

Welcome to poetry.
Jeffrey Side said…
Roddy you say:

"Since making my list (drafted in 2007, please note), those poets have all been signed up by either Bloodaxe, Salt or Seren."

What a happy coincidence for them!
Unknown said…
It is really ironic that someone who calls their anthology "Identity Parade" is barely willing to countenance the precarious lack of diversity in his anthology when it is called out. It would be so easy to explain away, in humble fashion, the vulnerabilities which are critiqued by Swift, either beforehand, in the Preface, or in place of these absurdly defensive comment posts of Roddy Lumsden's. Culturalist (understable!) and sanctimonious (not so understandable, methinks), yes.
Anonymous said…
Let's just agree that we're all bitter, meaningless tossers, turn off our computers and walk away.
Anonymous said…
If it were a Picador imprint it'd be worth arguing about - Bloodaxe? Meh...
Anonymous said…
A fine work , shame so much envy.
Anonymous said…
If Todd Swift was editing a collection the only poems that would being in the final collection would be his own . .and God save us all from that! It is no coincidence that if you take the name Todd Swift and add his original Christian name Stanley mix all the letters up , add some letters and take some away you get ENORMOUS EGO LITTLE TALENT SAD MAN
Anonymous, the only problem with your witty and clever post of August 5 is the statement, "if Todd Swift was editing a collection..." - well, I have edited a number of anthologies, for Oxfam, Salt, Carcanet, Vehicule, and others. By my own count, I'd say I've included well over 1,000 poems that "aren't my own" by poets who aren't Todd Swift. So, your point is rather lost on me.

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