This is the most interesting anthology of poetry I've come
across for quite some time, a substantial collection of work sampling the authors
so far published by Peter Hughes' groundbreaking Oystercatcher Press. As well as providing a publishing opportunity for
a selection of interesting poets largely excluded from the 'mainstream
picture' - including both young and more senior writers, I'm glad to say -
this splendid looking edition maintains the high production values of the Oystercatcher
chapbooks while also furthering
Shearsman's aim of promoting a wide range of high-quality poetry, work which
might often otherwise struggle to reach any sort of readership.
Editor Peter Hughes is a painter and musician as well as an accomplished
writer and I believe the cover artwork, a semi-abstract and splendidly
subversive watercolour, is also by him. It's a piece which manages to balance
a strong lyricism with an archaeological perception, much as his poetry also
appears to do.
There wasn't any work here that I didn't enjoy reading, often re-reading and
the diversity is impressive. At the same time this is in no way an 'awkward
anthology' in the sense that nothing here seems out of place or not up to
scratch. This is certainly a book that Fiona Sampson should take a look at.
As there are over forty poets included I can't usefully mention everyone so
here is a selection of the work that I thoroughly enjoyed reading, bearing in
mind that although I obviously have my favourites there is no poetry here
that I found less than stimulating.
Sophie Mayer combines a playful enthusiasm for language with a sharp
intellect, a feature of her work which follows through in live performance if
you're lucky enough to see/hear her read:
you're a kiss-in in
an aquarium gold
fish lips and
bottlenose a little
makes waves you
stay in the still
ness you pitch
(from 'XO 5th
Her use of traditional poetic technique is used in the making of work which
appears both streetwise and 'out there' while also having that quality of
being well-made, even though it reads as if scripted 'on the hoof'.
Irrepressible, enjoyable, sharp-witted and great fun.
Catherine Hales admits to being a great fan of Peter Dent and his influence
certainly features in her work, not that I'd want to make too big a thing
about that. Her sonnets are fractured into phrases and segments and her mix
of register is sometimes breathtaking as well as highly entertaining. She
plays with cliché and with received 'literary language' and like Sophie
Mayer, combines a sharp intelligence with a sense of playfulness and with the
music of the language. Euphony is a key word here:
consumer choice with unbelievable prices
o brave new
world she moaned & caliban snickered
dad out & about on the island
& a storm building in the east
(from 'a bestiary of so(nne)(r)ts')
Read these poems through quickly then go
back and 'rethink' them. Her mixing of the language of the classics with
modern idioms appears to aid a commentary on 'the now' but her work also has
that feel of being composed upon the instant, spoken at you in monologue
which is more a 'self-conversation' than dramatic event. Intriguing and very
Sophie Robinson has something in common with both of the above, in that she
combines the playful with the serious yet there's also a strong sense of
'attitude' here, which is tempered by anxiety and an 'interior' monologue.
This is poetry which is assertive and prickly, loaded with wordplay and
primed for performance:
of caramel - burned , earthy
against my wanton mouth in stickled
make a meal of my gushing brains, take
my faith as
fallen & my delicate curls
Pimp your pickles with my bluish
crook myself upon you, dribbling
anorexic urgency, and I don't see
lightening beneath the crusted
halo of your
charm, cowboy, so knuckle down.
(from 'Hunch and Shuffle')
Here's another poet who combines a sense of euphony with a love of words but
in Tim Allen's case the wordplay often becomes the subject itself, even on
the occasions when he has a story to tell. At times the commentary breaks out
into daylight, even if it's only a temporary respite as evidenced by the
final line in the quotation below. Here we have something approaching Tim's
views on conceptual art and academia:
in an art
gallery near the quay
explanations of process
more time than the paintings
sea walls of mist
(from 'incidental harvest')
Nigel Wheale's work has a strong lyrical tendency but it's a more multi-dimensional
lyricism than the word is usually credited with having. In 'The Soul Stands
Open', for example, there's almost a sense of 'catechism' in the formal
qualities of the poem, which hints at the proverbial, yet the moods range
from the melancholy to the satirical, to the blunt to the subversive and
finally to the assertive and the reconciliatory:
'I'd give you
my heart,' says the difficult man,
whose glance is just my father.
These lives so refined
don't even spend a name on the cat.
checking date stamps in his fridge.
'This cheese has turned to stone,' I tell him.
He replies, 'Aye, that's older than God's dog.'
And now, whatever life is, has
quit the body
It no longer needs, and leaves a small, cold child
urled about nothing. Let's not be sad in this world.
(from 'The Six Strides of Freyfaxi')
John James' poem 'Reading Barry & Guillaume in Puisserguier' is a homage
to both the late, great Barry MacSweeney and to Guillame Apollinaire, via
MacSweeney's last completed work Horses in Boiling Blood'. James is another poet - like MacSweeney in some ways
- who can combine a lush lyricism with intelligent attitude but his late work
has a more mellow feel and apart from a heartfelt aside to the poet laureate
this poem has a somewhat reverential yet very human aspect:
I had been
asked to read by the beautiful Karlien & Lucy
but I leave
my spectacles in the breast pocket of my coat
the back of the venue
I read the
last poem anyway & improvise
close the book with a coup d'emotion
Guillaume I love your poems
(from 'Clouds Breaking Sun')
Giles Goodland is a bit like Edwin Morgan in the sense that he seems capable
of almost anything when it comes to poetry. Some of the poems included here
under the heading Near Myths
seem to be playing with Ted Hughes' rewiring of mythology and combine
Goodland's usual linguistic querying and playfulness with a deeper
philosophical speculation. That he manages to suggest so much in so few words
is a testament so his prodigious skill:
flowers, old man God
paced in his
cell. He had so much work to do
like reason a
way out with
a knife made
of water. Now where was
language, the one hidden inside this one.
('Myth of Death')
John Hall's poem from The Weeks's Bad Groan has an intriguing aspect in that the 'beauty' and
the 'grubbiness' of 'the real'
world are interweaved with a painting by Miro to investigate what we may know
of the world and to what extent we may (or may not) have any influence on our
place in it. This is a sophisticated poem which retains a sense of lyric
beauty and where language - particularly the words corporate, grubby and
resistance - is investigated in a manner which is both playful and … dare I
say it, spiritual.
Ian Davidson's 'No Go Areas' brings a more overt political perspective to
this anthology but it's also a complex piece which appears realistic in its
apparent lack of optimism but not, perhaps, of hope.
Maybe the sound of revolution is the alloy
turning and the residual kindness of community.
curled lip of those that never have all the fruit and
Veg they need
or mothers fit to cook them than the overstuffed
smoothies laced with condescension.
nominal optimism of Chavez lies the word Chav.
(from 'Familiarity Breeds')
I think Owen Jones might quite like this one.
Kelvin Corcoran's another writer who deals with political issues in a manner
which is both complex and deep yet committed to humane values at a time when
it's increasingly hard to hold onto any sense of 'the positive'. His long
piece here 'From the hen-roost' has the intriguing preface:
War, one war
after another, men start 'em who couldn't put up a
and the way in which he moves across historical time, using the past to
comment on the present is both impressive in its sweep and reminds me a
little of Barry MacSweeney's Ranter, though Corcoran's work has a more
Thatcher's nasty little war
nasty rented wars,
at some point
to revelation on the Red Sea
voices like ghosts in the air,
tone burning, smearing on a nation.
(from 'What Hit Them')
Simon Marsh's poem 'Onda' seems to mix the dream world with a sense of a
geological time-frame in which all time is present at the same time, a kind
of T.S. Eliot without the angst. I couldn't help but speculate that this poem
might have been the starting point for Peter Hughes' cover painting - I
believe they have collaborated with poetry on previous occasions - but I'm
probably wrong about this. Whatever, the poem is a delight with its '…Giant
Starfish/plucked from waterless heaven/its trail turned cold so very long
I also enjoyed Michael Haslam's charming
wordplay and traditional technique and Philip Terry's Dante's
Inferno, which is streetwise, hilariously
funny and very playful in a highly sophisticated and erudite manner. Emily
Critchley is a poet whose work continues to impress with its mix of the high
lyric voice and a more penetrating, analytical engagement while Peter Hughes'
work also celebrates the here and now in a manner which combines his painter's
eye with a poet's awareness of language:
apricots & black
coffee by the mattress
on the floorboards we breathed
an aftershock of happiness
glide between wing-beats
memories coming up the stairs
In his succinct introduction to this excellent anthology Peter Hughes says
This is a
period of political regression, and of the erosion of
for independent thought in education, and of the
'consumer tastes' by multinational corporations. In
circumstances it is easy to underestimate the importance of
which begs to differ.
Which also serves here as a useful postscript. This anthology is a bargain
and a real peach of a book. If you only buy one poetry anthology this year
make it this one. You won't regret it.