Saturday, 4 June 2011

Poetry 2011 - Initial thoughts

These are just some of the poetry books Kirsty and I have bought so far this year, and there's a whole load more coming over the hill. Donut released a bristlingly good clutch of them early in the year, while Salt and Bloodaxe are deploying first, second and sixth books by many high quality young(er) and old(er) poets over the spring and summer. This isn't some kind of feverish shit-at-the-wall mentality either - some of these books contain work written, honed, performed and published in journals over the span of a decade or more. Some of them are also simply beautiful objects, with months of work going into the presentation.

Some of these books I'll hopefully be reviewing in full in the coming months over at Irregular Features. My initial feelings about them, having read only a few in detail, are largely positive. Much of the poetry is dark, dense and slightly loopy, mining the idiosyncrasies of our shared culture deeply - these are books to make your brain drunk.

I am concerned, however, about how difficult it sometimes seems to find a poet's 'character' beneath the initial impression that they're very good at what they do. This is partly a problem with blurbs, which I just don't feel work hard enough to distinguish themselves from one another, and which are often the entry point for the reader. When I dip into so many books in quick succession from the same cultural hotbed, I tend to want to envision the authors as members of a superhero team. What are their individual powers and what does it mean for the team dynamic? That's partly because superheroes are so easy to explain to people. We've just come from the new X-Men movie, and I could tell you, say, that Banshee is the one with the supersonic scream, Beast is a genius scientist with apelike strength and catlike agility, Mystique can assume other forms etc. You'll get the gist, and maybe already know which one interests you the most. In an era of unprecedented choice, when people, you might think, would almost rather have decisions made for them then expend the effort of weighing up a plethora of possibilities, the problem of too many talented poets is one that manifests itself in continued low readership. People crave the 'good old days' of poetry because there were only half a dozen they had to have any opinion on. That is the be all and end all of 'greatness' - climbing to the forefront of the public conscience.

I certainly don't wish for a return to elitism and thoroughly disingenuous measures of quality. I'm glad there are so many skilled poets, and so many opportunities for them to be published. But overall, and as hard-working as the staff at our best presses are, I would like to see more done to solve the problem of surface uniformity. It's being addressed by some, certainly, but the issue needs more brains round the table. We talk of the 'pigeon-holing' done by the media and its ill effects, and worry about that obsession with the angle or the story, but in terms of snagging attention and create a viral outbreak of interest, it's an important weapon that the poetry culture could - maybe - seek to utilise more often.

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