May I invite you to conjure up an image of a Steam Engine with the name ‘Great Poetry’ which is chundering across the world (Bit like Turner’s ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’) swathed in mist, belching fire and roaring loudly to be heard… behind it come the carriages; hundreds of them snaking and rolling as the speed increases with the inhabitants clinging to leather straps suffering a mix of pride and fear as the pace increases…
Got that? Well this collection is the premier-class carriage, the one with stabilisers and deep, spacious seats. Not, you must understand, ‘premier-class’ because the poetry is premier but because the inhabitants are select, exclusive, they are a different class to the plebs in the other carriages being mainly University fodder (with the exception of the two black contributors; one male, one female, neat eh? …as you might expect)… and top Universities at that; Oxford, Cambridge, St Andrews, Harvard etc. The single black male poet (Nii Npakpo Addo) is here, so he informs us, ‘By God’s grace’ and I have no cause to disbelieve him and oddly enough God has selected someone who is at least original. I actually quite like some of his contributions especially his ‘Hymn No. A4’ which speaks of:
tanned girls like ruffians, stutter past
I smile into them
a futile desire to touch them – different lives
even if I screamed back the silence
I like that ‘smile into them’; poignant without being mawkish.
But you know; this collection saddens me deeply; I’m being led to believe that these really are the best young poets of the year but if they are then poetry seems to be still the exclusive domain of the middle-class intellectuals and frankly I just don’t believe that. The collection seems incestuous too with the children of past judges or the protégés of past judges being included, it’s all a jolly good show chaps and to hell with the lower classes.
I can see many of you already penning emails and letters to the editor of The Journal screaming that this is not literary criticism and you may be right; but I believe it is a fair criticism or comment about the alleged experts whom we rely on to tell us what is good poetry. My opinion is that most of the poems inside this collection read as if they are the products of the teaching-by-rote school of literature and have been selected by University bods and intellectuals who have a firm idea as to how one should write poems but sadly have little knowledge or time for the wonderfully stimulating experimental poets who inhabit the third class carriages trundling behind.
I wont waste your time going through each tediously similar contribution which even includes a pointlessly banal short-story, there are faint highlights; ‘Impartial Information’ by Caroline Bird and ‘Kid Moth’ by Jay Bernard stand out but the rest; ugh I despair…
There is no price on this book; that is either because it is priceless or worthless, you must decide… and you will. One final word; this is more a criticism of the judges than the contributors, the latter have been tutored to know what appeals to the people whom they are submitting their work to and probably, freed from the shackles of what-is-acceptable, they could make words dance and sparkle as poetic words should; but that would mean they’d need to move down the train where the seats are harder and there is no vintage Champagne with the Foie Gras… I humbly suggest that they do just that.