In 2011 Roddy Lumsden spearheaded the launch of Best British Poetry (BBP), an annual series that now goes head-to-head with the prestigious Forward Book of Poetry to sift through the great and the good of British verse across a single year. Whether or not BBP has split the vote or muddied the waters for a casual poetry-reading public, it would be hard to argue it fails to offer a difference in approach. Just as Lumsden’s generational anthology Identity Parade acknowledged a debt to Legitimate Dangers, the corresponding American volume for poets of a similar vintage, so BBP follows in the footsteps of its near-namesake, Best American Poetry. In practice that means three things: first, a series editor to oversee the project from year to year (Lumsden taking on the role of Best American Poetry’s David Lehman); a different editor for each year’s respective volume; and a pool of eligible poems deliberately limited to those that appeared first in magazines, not books.
Of these three, it’s the rotating editorship that most recommends BBP, bringing to the project a transparency, an appetite for risk, and a palpable, changing sense of individual taste that can’t help but get lost amid the mandarin deliberations of a committee (which is how the Forward prizes are chosen and the corresponding anthologies assembled). It helps that the 2013 installment of the series has chosen a brilliant and very timely editor in Ahren Warner, a highly accomplished and daring young poet in his own right but also, as of this year, an influential tastemaker as the new editor of Poetry London. Many runners and riders on the British poetry scene—myself among them—would consider Poetry London to be the British magazine with the highest hit rate and most satisfying, catholic, outward-looking aesthetic of any at the present time. Judging by Warner’s first edition at the helm (Autumn 2013), the magazine appears to be in safe hands after the admirable work performed by Colette Bryce, its previous editor, in establishing its current standards.
Warner is uniquely posed to be a force for good in British poetry. Aside from the quality of his selections, the main thing we have to be thankful for is his ability to bring together distinct generations of poets. There is a diminishing, entrenched group of poets with profiles large enough to influence how the form is received, and they haven’t always sat easily beside the emerging voices of Warner’s generation: the generation of poets, roughly, under 35 who have recently been promoted by two major anthologies, The Salt Book of Younger Poets and Dear World & Everyone in It. In BBP13, Warner has struck a seductive compact between the older and younger camps; Leontia Flynn sits side-by-side with Charlotte Geater, Richard O’Brien with Sean O’Brien. (If the established name and the up-and-comer in these pairs come across as obscure, BBP13 is the primer for you.) The volume may help to dissolve whatever lingering snobberies and antagonisms might persist on either side of that age gap.
If there is a particular thread that runs through the poems in BBP13, it’s history. One has to begin with such an unsatisfyingly broad statement because history can mean quite a few things for the British poet, and perform quite a few inspirational functions. First, there’s a strong sense of the term given weight by Geoffrey Hill’s career-long work of historical witness. In a recent interview with the Daily Telegraph, Hill described his memory of seeing the German bombers destroy Coventry in the Second World War: “One is simultaneously terrified, appalled and curiously detached. Which is as good a description of a poem as I can think of.” This confrontation with the dark matter of history, for Hill, renders the lighter and self-expressive sides of poetry almost redundant: a poet writes out of ineluctable struggle, torment, and duty. Long unfashionable, Hill’s strong sense of historical poetry is gradually coming back into what I am tempted to call vogue, were it not such an un-Hillian word. Younger poets such as James Brookes, Edward Mackay, and Toby Martinez de las Rivas (the latter not in BBP13 but given a generous spread in autumn’s Poetry London) are mainlining and inflecting Hill’s influence with great verve. See Mackay’s “Afterword” for a modern take on those bombers over Coventry:
Twice licked by lightning, this man like a cometpasses twice across the blank pulse of sky to makehis shadow stand, unhitched from flesh. . .
Written for Tsutomu Yamaguchi, the only person to survive both U.S. atomic attacks on Japan, the poem forms one part of a sequence Mackay is writing, as he informs us in his note to the poem, which seeks “to inhabit the shadow of nominally pivotal moments in semi-public lives and speculatively engage with the disappointments, confusions, choices and compromises—as well as hopes—that might be found at the borders of these totems.” In a felicitous coincidence, BBP13 also includes Ruth Padel’s poem “The Okazaki Fragments,” written for Reiji Okazaki, a Japanese biologist who, irradiated by the Hiroshima bomb, went on vastly to improve our understanding of DNA before dying of leukaemia at the age of 45. (The notes throughout BBP13 are consistently fascinating and helpful.)
The less exacting version of historical poetry—in which history is less an ogre to be grappled with and slain than a great trove to be pilfered for vignettes, reveries, self-explorations, apocrypha, and other such reflections—receives no less handsome representation. In the case of John Clegg’s “Figtree,” I had no inkling the poem was informed by history until I read the note. The poem describes, with delicate and tactile imagination, the labors of a blind gardener who “trepans with the blunt / screwdriver on his penknife.” In the third and final stanza, Clegg evokes the compensating sensual acuity that many blind people experience, giving it a lovely, erotic twist:
Gauge weight, turn, unturn.He sings beneath his breathabout the excellence of figs,their mellowness,their skin-dintslike the perfect undulationin the small of his wife’s back.
Who’d know, just from reading it, that “the poem is set in Cairo between the wars,” as Clegg clarifies in the note? This is another poem that finds a sympathetic sibling in BBP13, Ian Cartland’s “Six Winters.” Cartland’s blind protagonist explores her desire to have children via synaesthetic meditations, conveyed in careful, visceral, close third person:
All sounds occupythe place of her closed eyes;or the smell of incense is rough and dryunder her fingers.
History, of course, comes with a literary dimension—as Hill would know—and a good handful of these poems make riotous sport in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Chris McCabe’s “The Alchemist” finds and explodes the text of the eponymous Ben Jonson play, dropping it higgledy-piggledy, in italics, throughout an invented monologue for the character Lovewit: “this city can lick figs, I’ll gum its silks / with clay stuck full of black & melancholic worms.” A.B. Jackson’s “Of Elephants” is even more delicious, reappropriating chunks of Philemon Holland’s 1601 translation of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History:
The clemancie of Elephants. How elephantsbreed and how they disagree with Dragons. . .Who march alwaies in troupes. Who snuffe and puffe.Who the troublesome flie haunts.
Which of these nuggets come from Pliny/Holland and which from Jackson’s own fecund imaginings, we are left to guess. Appropriation of literary history is also on display in Richard O’Brien’s “So Much Will Waste,” which serves up a swaggering, saucy update of John Donne’s “The Flea,” transposed to a Methodist chapel where the speaker is giving blood with the addressee.
I hate to state the obvious, but baby,we’re already lying down, and when it’s donethey’ll toss them both together in the van;we’ll never see those pints of us again. . .
Note the insistent tripling of the rhyme, which O’Brien adopts and drops with modern insouciance at various points throughout the poem, in both emulation and mockery of its source. Elsewhere in BBP13 literary context is less explicitly invoked but no less important, as in the contemporary metaphysical poetry of Sarah Howe, John McCullough, and Heather Phillipson. All of these poets start with the close contemplation of an object, which in turn gives rise to rich and entangling conceits. In Howe’s case it is a paintbrush jar, in McCullough’s the exclamation mark, and in Phillipson’s a “Rumination on 25mm of Cotton.” Phillipson collapses time and space, significance and insignificance, in a couplet worthy of Christopher Marlowe, when she writes of the cotton strand: “It dangles between my thumb / and forefinger. The universe slackens in its shadow.”
There is one poet in BBP13 who, above all others, cries out to reach an American audience. Mark Waldron has published two collections with Salt, the press responsible for the BBP series, which has sadly decided to wind down its list of single-poet collections. Across those two collections (The Brand New Dark and The Itchy Sea), Waldron has been busy forging a new language of deadpan, twenty-first century surreal, as receptive to John Berryman’s influence as anything written in the wake of The Dream Songs, as sceptical of the lyric self as anything in John Ashbery, and usually a lot funnier. Not for nothing does Warner, in his introduction, call Waldron “a poet . . . writing consistently better than virtually any other at the moment.” His poem in BBP13, “Collaboration,” stages a playful and traumatizing showdown between the poet and Manning, his alter ego and protagonist. Soon enough Manning whips out his cock, which, so the poet tells us, “looked something like a monstrous jewel in the / setting of the surrounding grey fabric of his trousers.” According to Waldron’s note, the Manning series is inspired by Hamlet, though the reader will search in vain for any literal ancestry: the play’s influence is there not directly, as Donne’s is for Richard O'Brien, but obliquely, through an atmosphere of paranoia, self-loathing, and depleted agency.
Beyond Waldron, there is much in BBP13 that will appeal to an aficionado of recent and contemporary trends in American poetry. One crude and uncharitable preconception would have it that American poetry remains rigorous, language-driven, and difficult, whereas British poetry clings to a long and increasingly safe tradition of lyrical realism. BBP13 undermines this characterization, at least on the British side. Some of the poetry here is unabashedly difficult, most strikingly Emily Critchley’s “Some Curious Thing II,” a fierce and intelligent nine-page dispatch from the British avant-garde, which simply wouldn’t have been selected for a comparable anthology even five years ago. Too often the British mainstream turns a blind eye to the exciting things happening on its fringes. Warner’s selections, however, emphasize freshness of language, multiplicity of perspective, and formal experiment. In so doing, they offer a tantalizing glimpse of transatlantic sympathy, rather than divide.
Image: Salt Publishing