Roddy Lumsden (Ed), Identity Parade: New British and Irish Poets, Bloodaxe Books, $27.95 (paper)
This slick new survey of no fewer than 85 poets represents what editor Roddy Lumsden calls “the pluralist now” of contemporary British and Irish poetry.
Modelled explicitly on Legitimate Dangers, the panoptic overview of the recent American scene edited by Michael Dumanis and Cate Marvin, Identity Parade’s content, the editor tells us, is “(p)lural in its register . . . plural in its regional and ethnic diversity; plural in its subject-matter and . . . satisfyingly plural in its form and style.” And if Legitimate Dangers provides a model, then Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion’s Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry (1983), which gathered twenty big names around the laureate figure of Seamus Heaney, is the reverse: “less a generation, more a supper party,” to borrow Lumsden’s pithy condemnation.
Given the deliberately generous scope of Identity Parade, we might have expected carping from established figures (Alice Oswald, for instance) who would have preferred a more exclusive gathering and not, as has happened, from passed-over poets who publish with smaller presses. Such lesser-known poets might at least have taken courage from the fact that Lumsden promotes “new and undersung” voices at all. Even the most inclusive party must have its limits.
And I take no issue with Lumsden’s guest list. His editorial criteria are spelled out clearly: the poets must have published debut books after 1993 (the date of Michael Hulse, David Kennedy, and David Morley’s The New Poetry, the last such generational anthology) or have a debut imminent; they must still be active and writing in English (not quite the formality it might appear, since many good poets of the British isles operate in the Welsh and Scots language, but fair enough); they may be foreign-born provided they’ve been “naturalized” (a loophole that has proved bafflingly controversial); and lastly they must have published their first book before the age of 50 (more contentious, but, again, not unreasonable if one is trying to construct a legitimate generation and not just a spatial-temporal cluster). These are the rules of the game, and if anyone wants to play a different game then it’s up to them to lobby for a different anthology. I struggle to imagine how such a book would not be redundant in the wake of Identity Parade.
And so to the poems, the reason such anthologies exist. What does British and Irish verse look like at the moment? What does it do that it didn’t before? Which earlier poets do today’s emulate? The quick answer to all of these questions is that they cannot be answered, since they’re founded on the specious assumption that there exists a unified entity called “British and Irish poetry.” However, as varied in practice and tone as the Identity Parade poets are, there is a trend among them toward the quieter, the quirkier, perhaps even the fabulist. Matthew Caley exemplifies this strain, particularly in his superb poem “Acupuncture”:
Waking, needle-sharp and aching in the clearing,
naked beneath the pines
they began to recover the bits of themselves they had lost
making love the previous evening
when their loud moans and the pine-moans
melded and their veins ran with pine-sap and pine-zest.
Now that the low-level cloud is dispersing
and a held raindrop is tense as a xylophone
or wind-chime waiting for sound, they simultaneously sense the start of a quest.
These opening stanzas induce an imaginative limberness to mimic the post-acupuncture body. Perceptions are tweaked, novel, tingling; the tercets range across the page, each line setting its own length and agenda. The mysterious, unspecified people “know that the taste of each other is the tang / of pine resin,” and they know all this “without thinking, / pricked into life, pricked into being, emblazoned, / their backs stinging with hundreds of tiny needles shoaling east.”
Caley has heeded the best lessons from a few dominant American poetries of the ’90s (the Ellipticals and the Dean Young school of Iowan surreal spring to mind) while taming them, as most British poetry will, with understated humor and an emphasis on social relations amid the splendor of the natural world. One finds something similar, albeit transported to a banal urban setting, in Judy Brown’s “Peckham Poems”:
Three empty buses cook to scarlet
in the stands. I split a sandwich for my son.
Its cut hypotenuse leaks mayonnaise
like something sick. I never have a headache,
almost never dream.
For too long the British poetry mainstream has cast out the influence of the great modernists in its tradition—poets such as Basil Bunting and Geoffrey Hill—in favor of modest, well-turned work about class, belonging, red London buses, and intergenerational relationships. Here we see the fight-back, as these subjects are redeemed through flights of associative, individual imagination. The stolid is not an option—perhaps the first time one can say this of British poetry since the rise of Philip Larkin and The Movement in the 1950s.
The stolid is not an option—perhaps the first time one can say this of British poetry since the 1950s.
Another casualty of Identity Parade is politics—at least in its capital-P incarnation. One could argue that the truly public and rhetorical poem has been going out of style since Auden moved to New York. One could argue that this is a good thing insofar as it keeps poets from sliding into generalities and dogma (two pernicious flipsides to the public and the rhetorical). However, the generation represented in the Morrison-Motion anthology suggests otherwise. It had as its bedrock the so-called Ulster poets: writers such as Heaney, Derek Mahon, and Michael Longley, who took on the trauma of twentieth-century Ireland and somehow, occasionally, seemed up to the task. There exists a fair consensus that Mahon’s “A Disused Shed in County Wexford” might be the greatest work from that era: an important and artistically achieved civic address at a time of huge crisis.
You’d struggle to locate an equivalent from Identity Parade, and not for want of options in the way of contemporary crisis. During the seventeen years the anthology examines, the world arguably grew more difficult; its crises multiplied. In response, poets appear to have retreated inward, to regions of the soul safe from the corruptions and cant of current politics.
But however much today’s British poetry is concerned with family, idiolect, and personal fable, and however much these tendencies might militate against the great public poem, it would be a mistake to hold that great poetry of any description is in short supply. There are three poems contained in Identity Parade that seem to be in shadowy dialogue with one another. In their heft, consistently surprising and compressed language, and urgency, they demand to be recognized as poems of stature. Or, if that seems too grandiose, simply as wonderful poems: poems that could shoulder up against the greatest from any era.
“To a Halver” by Paul Batchelor, “Rain” by Jacob Polley, and “Pie” by Anthony Rowland share some striking common characteristics. First, their respective authors each come from the north of England, which is far more than an accident of birth or geography. Speaking broadly, the North is poorer, more working-class than the south of England. And the North contains a rich patchwork of local identities and dialects, reflected in the fact that none of the three poets in question is strictly from the “North,” but rather Northumbria, Cumbria, and Yorkshire.
The three poems sprawl around objective correlatives, each a totem of slant Northern pride. For Rowland, it’s a meat pie, but it’s also all of the unhealthy, delicious, and dark parts of life that modern (Southern?) fad-mongers and dieticians would banish:
undercut by cholesterol scam: police support nut diet . . .
Bramble for afters? No, two would be spoiling us.
Policy wonks hit pies with fat tax, fatties
who puttis fast at their vly pyiss, headlines
Yorkshire chippies’ favourite rag, The Fryer.
This insane, rhapsodic set piece frequently breaks down into nonsense and early modern diction. Rowland tips us to this latter direction via a simple epigraph from a morality play dating from 1550 (“Will you go to the pie-feast?”), and for the rest of the poem—an unbroken, suet-heavy verse block—he slips in and out of a register that recalls the scatological, cantankerous tat-merchants at Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair. This is poetry burdened and buckled by the past, but stronger for it.
Polley’s poem is slinkier, more feline in its characterization of
Old rain, the same rain, my father’s father’s cold rain
taken up like a tune, confessed
to the city, hurried into the drains
and the dark and piped under playgrounds and cold-frames.
But still we have the darkness, the heritage that won’t go away.
This is brought out most vividly by Batchelor, whose hymn to a halver (or a half-brick) comprehends an entire region’s history of violence and, by extension, human violence in general.
O halver, O haffa, O half-brick: your battened-down
century of faithful service in a pit village terrace
forgotten now you’ve broken loose; now you’re at large
on CCTV, flackering out of kilter till you bounce
like far-flung hail rebounding off the riot squad
The journey is from the brick’s “faithful service” as a building block in the Northeast English mining villages to its bastardization as a missile in any modern riot worth the name. Underneath it all are the Thatcherite politics that tore apart these industrial communities in the ’80s, and so facilitated the halver’s deployment as a weapon and “totem of the unaccommodated.”
Maybe not so apolitical after all. Nevertheless, it is telling that Batchelor leaves this wider causal narrative implicit, allowing us to figure out for ourselves who’s to blame for the “gutted community centres on besieged estates.” Such allusive and allegorical tactics have always been important stock in the political poet’s arsenal, but they are particularly representative of the generation gathered in Identity Parade.
For this crop of British and Irish poets, as their anthology’s title suggests, the first duty of poetry is to reckon with the submerged and potent forces of personal identity. The best poets— and there are many good ones here, beyond Batchelor, Polley and Rowland—have the vision to use this as a through-route to social redress and the wider world.