Identity Parade can
surely lay claim to being one of the most interesting of the current crop of
poetry anthologies, perhaps even the best Bloodaxe anthology ever. There are
85 poets in this mammoth (380 odd pages) collection, mainly those born
between the 60's and the 80's, so it's a selection decided by generation,
with a rough parity between male and female authors. Editor Roddy Lumsden
cites Edward Lucie- Smith's groundbreaking anthology, British
Poetry since 1945 (Penguin, 1970) as his
model, or 'signpost', and you can see why, although the differences between
the two are intriguing. While Lucie-Smith gave some impression of context via
his intro and 'chapter-headings' based upon rough groupings of poets, Lumsden
simply arranges his writers in alphabetical order with little attempt at
suggesting influence or alliances tending towards a movement or 'group'. He
makes no claim to predict or chart a zeitgeist yet what his work has,
positively, in common, with Lucie-Smith's, is an attempt to embrace variety,
difference, a 'pluralist' approach. Neither book can lay claim to being
entirely inclusive - such an objective would inevitably fail - but both aim
at as wide a representation as possible, under different circumstances.
Lumsden's book, in this sense, is exemplary, probably the most successful
attempt at presenting the various mainstreams and experimentalisms (and their
various hybrids) so far gathered in one British anthology. I'm sure I'll be
shot down in flames for suggesting this but I can't think of another book,
apart from Keith Tuma's Anthology of Twentieth Century British and Irish Poetry, which attempts this, and Tuma's anthology arguably
had a wider brief, across time.
I can't possibly do justice to all the material in this book so I intend to
discuss the work of some of the poets included, in alphabetical order, giving
space to those from different traditions, whose poetry I find most
interesting. As always, this will be a subjective overview - others will find
different work to admire in this generous and wide-ranging compilation.
Patience Agabi, best known as a performance poet, is represented by four
pieces here, the first, 'The Wife of Bafa', loosely based upon Chaucer's 'The
Wife of Bath'. There's a hint
towards a streetwise rap mode in this poem and her work combines an
entertaining, 'stand-up' feel with a feminist perspective. She's at the best
end of the 'performance' scene because, like Linton Kwesi Johnson, her poetry
also works well on the page.
It took me some time to warm to David Briggs' material but he is an
interesting poet whose work mixes techniques from both the mainstream and
from more experimental modes of writing. 'Winter Music' reminds me of Ian
Duhig's work though Briggs is less of a 'political' writer than Duhig.
It's good to see Andy Brown's poetry here and although I still prefer his
early, more playful and experimental work to the quietly reflective, domestic
yet eco-based poetry included, there's still a sense of philosophical enquiry
and exploration which works well with his more lyric mode. I look forward to
Vahni Capildeo is a real breath of fresh air. Her work combines erudition
with access, is filled with unexpected moments, fuelled by unusual vocabulary
and quiet music. Inner thoughts are expressed through an engagement with the
natural world and she's not averse to a spot of satire when the occasion
demands ('What Is Your Guy Really Like?).
hunted. Exquisite. They require
lexicon than I possess.
bouquet of hitchcock-women
a longstemmed waterglass death.
We need more poets like Tim Cumming. His work is never dull or precious and
whether creating a mood, with minimal fuss, as in 'Late Picasso', or forging
strange narratives through imaginative reconstructions of moments passed
('Snow'), his poetry is the real thing. This is attitude mixed with a sort of
nostalgia, a stream of images suggesting information-overload creating a
feeling of anxiety, yet it's an anxiety that can be managed....just. Despite
creating an environment in his poetry where everything is provisional,
perched on the abyss, he manages to keep the ship afloat. I feel a sense of
satisfaction when reading these poems - they flow and they're full of
Chris Emery, as well as being the head of Salt Publishing, is an accomplished
poet. I have to admit that I had less than a passing acquaintance with his
work before picking up this book but I'll certainly be exploring his poetry
further. He has a strong grasp of traditional technique (and traditional
subjects) but there's also a somewhat surreal, experimental streak. Some of
his work here reminds me of early Ian Macmillan and I mean that as a
All day the
destroyers have arrived
handing in their
burnt umbrellas to the coat check boy.
shivers above the escritoire
I probably shouldn't like Sophie Hannah's poetry but I do enjoy its easy
rhythms andskilful rhymes and her grasp of different forms. She manages to
carry off social commentary without getting all lugubrious about it and she
doesn't take herself too seriously, unlike Wendy Cope, for example. Like Pam
Ayres, Hannah is witty and unpretentious, skilful and entertaining and I like
that. This poetry has limitations but within these limitations, Hannah is a
Luke Kennard's work is post-modern and somewhat theatrical, hardly surprising
perhaps, for a poet who has also written for the stage. You often get the
feeling that you're in a pastiche of a hard-boiled detective novel when
you're reading a Kennard poem yet his narratives are absurd and have a dreamlike,
I kissed the
scarecrow: the scarecrow was cold and inert and tasted
It was damn silly. Abelard took the photographs and
advised me as
to how I should kiss the scarecrow - with a hand
shoulder, for instance.
Kennard's rise in the British poetry scene has been mercurial and it remains
to be seen how influential his work will prove in the long run. He's
certainly opened up new areas of experience and possibility, which should
have an effect on younger, up-and-coming poets yet there's an apolitical
aspect to his brand of post-modernism which I can't help seeing as a lack.
Sarah Law's poetry is unusual in that it manages to meld the numinous with
the experimental: her strong lyric voice is often interrupted by a more
enigmatic, puzzling mode and when this comes off, at its best, her work is
intriguing and impressive. There's a lush, textured quality to her writing
which can be both a mood-enhancer and a provocation to thought:
Ascetics are marching
sumptuous city, arresting
and swathes of waist.
One day you
order this; a genius paints
my face in
afterglow, and your wealth is sealed
in this room
with its bloom of hidden veins.
Chris McCabe is another young poet whose work straddles the mainstream and
the more avant-garde British traditions. Like Kennard, there's a surreal
quality to McCabe's writing but his work is more experimental and has a
gritty, politically alienated feel which is both serious and combative. He's
a great live reader of his poetry and his work is also humorous and
expansive. He is simply one of the very best younger British poets currently
engaged in exploring the urban environment.
I needed air
and went to do the community circuit at two
morning. Didn't see so much as a shadow of another.
endless terraces & not one with a light on.
wafer of the forked church.
airport attache case the first fox stops.
in the shape of the night it is not.
(from 'The Essex
I'm very pleased to see Helen Macdonald's work included in this collection. I
can recall a Wednesday afternoon a few years ago, discussing one of her poems
with a friend and can still remember how pleasurable that occasion was. Her
poetry isn't easy but the obstacles to reading it (if 'obstacles' is the
right word) are all part of the fun and I never feel remotely bored or
'blocked out' when reading her work. Shaler's Fish is simply a magnificent book. Much of her writing
is related to an interest in birds of prey and falconry and thus we are given
an 'airbound' view of things. She manages to fill her poetry with knowledge
without being remotely pompous or overbearing and the curious reader will go
with the flow. She's impossible to quote from in small bursts but here goes
and hopefully you'll become as addicted to her work as I am:
I can't be seen
at night. And during the day, I'll hide.
I'm good at
that. There are parts of the air so thin
you can slip
inside them, and then, with the wings
the coverts raised, each little feather
with its four
tiny muscles erect and the air between
the warmth from her back, she'd sleep.
to be nocturnal. But dusk
and dawn are
enough: larks sing in the dark, and
I know that
blackbirds do, too.
I first came across Peter Manson's work in some excerpts from his prose
writing Adjunct: an Undigest,
and it was the mix of incongruity and humour which took my fancy, that and a
sense of philosophical probing which was rooted in reality and didn't take
itself too seriously. The poems here include 'In Vitro', based on Mallarme
(one of Manson's poetical obsessions) and 'Poem', where a dense
'stream-of-consciousness' is flooded with different forms of vocabulary and
language, perhaps produced by a cut-up method which mixes the lexicon of
feeling with that of a more abstract nature. There's sense of a social
critique being conducted at a distance, through suggestion, but there's also
a hint of lyricism and humour.
Lyricism is also at the forefront of D.S. Marriott's poetry, alongside an
oblique and densely textured engagement with issues of race and political
displacement. This work is filled with movement and a sense of melancholic
anxiety; landscapes and people are described but always at a distance and
out-of-focus, as if history is being reconstructed from the viewpoint of the
loser. Marriott is one of the few black writers I'm aware of who has been
influenced, in part, by the Cambridge School and his work needs to be made
more widely available:
shore of the lake comes first,
bringing gamesmen, tourists, keepers, and peasants.
hid its modesty
a few curtains of red cloud
drives past imagining the night's wolf eye
flash of knives in the forest.
the Black Mountains')
Daljit Nagra's Look We
Have Coming to Dover! is one of Faber's few contemporary
success stories insofar as serious poetry is concerned, and the clue is all
in the title, with its multi-punning, multi-cultural questioning which still
manages to raise a smile.
Nagra's early work, published under a pseudonym, had a more streetwise and
sassy quality than the work included here but his satirical talents, allied
to a serious attempt to explore his mixed cultural background are still well
in evidence. There's a relish for language here which revels in its own
pleasures but which also aims at an explanation, or at least, a description,
of the complexities of modern British society and its relation to 'Empire',
from the perspective of 'an
outsider' who is also on the inside. The allusion to Philip Larkin in the
title of the following piece is simply hilarious:
Ah the Raj!
Our mother-incarnate Victoria
rules the sceptred sphere as she oversees
maiden 'fishing fleets' breaking wave
for the 'heaven born' Etonian. Smoke
cheroots, fetes on lawns, dances by moonlight
Alice in Wonderland no the Viceroy the Viceroy's ball!
(from 'This be the Pukka
Nagra brings in high art and popular culture to fuel his critique yet manages
to fuse the two in a levelling tactic which reminds me of that consummate
American postmodernist, Paul Violi. This is sophisticated and funny,
challenging and filled with perception. Like I said, one of Faber's few
Lo and behold, here's another. Alice Oswald is best known for her
award-winning collection, Dart,
published by Faber & Faber in 2002. If her work is essentially pastoral,
then it's a form of pastoral somewhat at odds with swathes of cliche-ridden
nature poetry produced by unnamed poets living in the Devon countryside.
There is a quiet, contemplative
aspect to her poetry but her work is often offbeat and unexpected, mixing
reverie with humour, celebration with a mild-undermining (you wouldn't call
it satire) and a succinct and satisfying descriptiveness with an underlying
sense of awe. She reminds me, at times, of Stevie Smith and I mean that as a
Last night I
thought I'd stop
at the Shamrock
cafe, behind the shop
It was dead
quiet, only me,
and my cup of tea,
and I was
looking at buying one
of the prints
on the wall of Neanderthal Man
when I heard
this tremulous moaning, just
what a gale
beginning or a gust
hurricane would make at sea.
I threw an
anxious glance at my tea.
There to my
horror, was a small
sinking in a whorl,
about the rim a foam
of tea waves
crashing in the gloom,
drank. All unawares,
a fat girl
came to the foot of the stairs
stood there, with one hand
banister, swinging around.
One of the pleasures of dipping into good anthologies is that you often discover
interesting work by writers you'd never encountered before. Perhaps this is
one of the best arguments in favour of producing poetry anthologies. Richard
Price is described as being 'the youngest of the Informationist group of
poets so I'm slightly surprised I've not come across his poetry before. His
use of wit and wordplay is very attractive and there is a playful quality to
his writing which also embraces a more serious, investigative aspect. This is
poetry which straddles the mainstream and the experimental and makes best use
of both traditions:
did not pass the test. Just past the school for private girls, in
of strips of black blazers, they colonise the flooded pits.
('Cormorants', from 'A Spelthorne Bird List')
Catherine Smith impresses in a different way. She often works outwards from
small details or re-investigates common areas of experience to produce
something unusual, often skewed and dangerous. Her work is glamorous and
dark, sometimes erotic yet she avoids the cliches by embracing them and
creates something new in the process:
My hand went out
to trace the inscriptions -
whisky, gin, vermouth. Oh that
word, vermouth -
evenings in a
silk kimono, louche, bohemian,
drink, listening to Rachmaninov,
life I deserved. ....
Set of Optics You wouldn't Let Me Buy in Portobello Road
Market, September, 1984')
Sandra Tappenden is another little known gem whose poetry really ought to be
much better known. Her recent collection from Salt, entitled Speed, from which this poem is taken attempts to deal
with the information overload and time-famine, which are foregrounded aspects
of contemporary western society. Her work is provocative and unusual,
expectations are confounded and stable truths are questioned, yet Tappenden
manages to avoid despair amid an accumulation of anxiety. Her poems are
filled with different kinds of information, pleasurable to read and they
stimulate thought as well being enjoyable:
transported across the river
complicated ripples, like the river
on a windy
day of confused reflections.
someone is pulling a rope
attached to a
promise, I know
my heart is
in the right place.
It's just the
way they come to my ear,
hidden in cloud, the next,
take care. Do I ever.
knowledge of being in debt
over; the explicable grief
airborne phalanxes even up.
There's a lot more work in this collection that I admired or found
interesting and some material that I wasn't so sure about but its abiding
strength (some might say weakness) is the incredible range of poetry
included. It's not that often that you are likely to see Peter Manson in the
same collection as Clare Pollard, for example - this must be a first. I think
Roddy Lumsden has done a splendid job with this book and more power to his