The Dilemma of Superlatives


The Best British Poetry 2011,
ed. Roddy Lumsden (164pp, Ł9.99, Salt)


For poets, this is a useful anthology because Lumsden's choices are drawn from a wide range of UK poetry magazines and each poem is labelled with the source. In the back there is a handy alphabetical list of quality poetry magazines with their contact details. If you want to submit to these magazines you can read the type of poem the editors approve of. You can also find which magazines you'd like to subscribe to, and let's not forget how much these journals need our support!

The aim of the series is to provide a snapshot of what is happening in British poetry in any given year, and this is just the first one in the series. The editor will be different every year, so that for those people who may not like this yearâs choices, next year's editor may float your boat. It is a fairly safe bet that the poems will be good ones, as they have already been chosen by editors of magazines which are difficult to get into, so the anthology is a bit like The Grand National: room for some outsiders at long odds but usually won by the favourite. There is no one particular style of poetry foregrounded, which is good, but means that I canât warm to all of these poems. Lumsden has asked each poet selected to compose a commentary on their poem, which is helpful and interesting - in some cases more interesting than the poems.  The book is arranged in alphabetical order, which I like because it allows the reader to flick through and make discoveries. A thorough job has been done in many ways, as the list includes webzines as well as print-based journals, but only 37 magazines have been used as sources, and there are many more to look at. Why not Smoke
, which has a huge circulation, The Recusant, Stride, The North? Or perhaps these were read but nothing was found that was any good, which I somehow doubt.

Rather than try to discuss every poem in this anthology of variety, I am going to do my own Best of the Best. Here is my top ten of the poems in this anthology. In the time-honoured manner, they are in no particular order.

'Table Manners' by Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch (New Welsh Review
) is a poem which on the surface is about table manners at a very posh upper class table. The surface meaning is clear as the cut-glass wine goblets, but the undertow is strong and pulls the reader in. The imagery is the signpost: the poem is about suppression and communication within restricted codes. The voice is dead centre and there isnât a word wasted.

I love Matthew Sweeney's 'Communique' (The Dark Horse)
because it's so deft and witty. He manages to sidestep the clichŽd response to a new grandchild to write this lyrical and quirky piece about what the child might expect in her future:

     The email chip in your brain
     will receive messages from the dead,
     and will even answer them.

The poet hopes that new technology will allow him to communicate with the child even when he has died, as well as visit the moon and drink Antrim wine. Sweeney's poems are often delicious flights of fancy and this is no exception.

Mark Burnhope writes of despair like someone who knows it intimately. In 'Twelve Steps Towards Better Despair' (Magma),
the language is muscular and inventive, tactile and sensuous, and ends with sage advice: 'Go fearlessly'.

I also enjoyed Kelly Grovier's 'A Butterfly in the British Museum' (P.N. Review).
The poem stems from a small thing, a girl wearing a butterfly bracelot, but in Grovier's hands it becomes an objective correlative for the treasures housed in that wonderful building as well as the visitors who surge through its doors. I rarely make a trip to London without visiting the BM, which is like a good old friend now, yet he makes me see it anew, luring my eyes from the 'mystery / of the living and beauty of the dead' into 'the sky-light's deep / unpinnable blue.' This poem will sustain me until my next visit there.

Andrew Philip's '10 by 10' (Gutter)
is both clever and full of heart. It is a sequence of ten ten line poems to his wife, based on the wedding anniversary gifts, using them as metaphors for their life together. Each little poem is exquisite, leaving me unable to pick a favourite, but being a bit of a klutz myself, I love 'Dovetail' in which he talks about all the things they have both broken over the years with references to Elizabeth Barrett Browning: 'And letsâ not count the ways I dropped the iron' instead looking ahead to the days to come 'unfolding like a brand new pack of king size sheets'.

Ian Duhig's 'Jericho Shandy' (Poetry Review)
is a many layered, erudite and complex poem, which is perhaps typical of the type of work admired by the current editor of that august publication. However, for me, Ian's work possesses a grittiness which makes me keen to unravel it and get to grips with it. Duhig is an erudite poet but he is also a Yorkshire based writer, and the commanding tone of this poem reminds me of Tony Harrison.

Penelope Shuttle's poem 'The Year Strikes the Rock' (Ink Sweat and Tears)
draws its inspiration from Greek myth and uses personification to show us the year as a moody child. The poem is witty and enchanting, with a lovely ending: 'just watch her making sunshine / from the gold of Frau Luther's wedding ring'.

Deryn Rees-Jones is always an interesting poet and 'The Songs of Elizabeth So' (Poetry London)
are heartfelt ventriloquisings in the voice of a character invented by Rees-Jones, who is perhaps free to express a yearning and grief which feels fairytale and universal as well as particular and beautiful. They are songs, and would be wonderful set to music, a small tune played on a sweet instrument.

Emily Hasler's 'Valediction' (The Rialto)
is a deft response to the John Donne poem of the same name (well actually it's called 'A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning'). It also reminds me of Shakespeare's 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day' sonnet because she refutes the twin compass conceit. It is an update, as these days (shock horror) women no longer stand still waiting for the significant other to come home from travel. She does find a connection in the weather, so there is some redemption for the relationship.

Lastly, I enjoyed Heather Phillipson's unusual poem about birth, 'At First, the Only Concern is Milk, More or Less' (The Rialto).
The tone is very assured and the imagery original.

Whether the anthology delivers its aim and truly captures a snapshot of British poetry in 2011 remains to be seen. Perhaps we can only truly evaluate its success ten years down the line? Doubtless it will be a useful tool for critics looking back, and it is a little more than just one person's taste, because of the selection process being from magazines and thus poems already approved. There is to be one every year, so as the series develops with different editors, a fuller picture should emerge and a wider range of magazines may be trawled.

       © Angela Topping 2011