Kevin Saving on

Identity Parade - New British and Irish Poets
Edited by Roddy Lumsden
Bloodaxe Books (2010)

Faculty Charade
or; Lack of Identity Parade
or; A Case of Mistaken Identity

Bloodaxe's latest anthology purports to represent a 'new generation of poets who have emerged since the mid-1990s'. It further claims to be continuing 'a tradition...which stretches back decades...' and which incorporates Al Alvarez's The New Poetry (1962), Edward Lucie-Smith's British Poetry Since 1945 (1970) and The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry (1982). It boasts - slightly more persuasively - succession to Bloodaxe's own, not-very-originally-entitled The New Poetry (of 1993). Its dust-jacket advertises 'a time of great vibrancy and variety...[coupled with selections from the work of]...85 highly individualised and distinctive talents whose poems display the breadth of styles and approaches characteristic of our current poetry'. Lumsden enthuses 'this might well be the generation of poets least driven by movements, fashions, conceptual and stylistic sharing'. Would that it were so.

After resolutely working my way through the 362 word-structures on offer I can only conclude, with disappointment, that either the 85 featured practitioners are not especially 'distinctive', 'individual' or, indeed, 'new' - or that Mr Lumsden has chosen to represent them through poems which fail to reflect the 'range and vigour' of each individual's personal - and idiosyncratic - canon. As Identity Parade's editor readily admits, 'a third' of the contributors to this 'generational' anthology are academics (actually it's nearly twice that, if one counts 'facilitators of creative writing workshops'), whilst another third 'do work that is literature-related'. Though it can be fascinating to examine each writer's background (via the medium of their appended profile/CV), it can also be unsettling to observe how few appear to have had the advantage of a career discipline affording them exposure to a-typical experience, unusual insight or, even, a 'grounding' in the assumption of a common and definable, non-pupillary, humanity. It may be overly facile to parrot 'what do they know of literature who only literature know?' but, just presently, it has become insidiously easy for 'poets' to propagate personal anecdotage (or, even, confabulation) when, all too demonstrably, they have little else of which to write.
 
Repeatedly, the reader retreats from Identity Parade wondering (a) what a particular word-structure was trying to achieve and/or (b) why it bothered. Julia Copus offers us one interesting example, 'Raymond at 60', a 'specular poem' (in which the top half is mirrored by the lower) and here, at least, one can discern evidence of a writerly skill at work - in which the 'patterning' of form enhances, or 'renders memorable' the poem's subject-matter/content. Mathew Hollis, in 'The Diomedes', manages to say something penetrating (even whilst deploying fashionable vers libre) about the human capacity for gregariousness -and concerning the time-structuring, risk-averse nature of contemporary western society. Such 'insight' is inexplicably rare in an anthology which showcases the 'form' which was supposed to be 'liberating' above all others. Otherwise, although Lumsden might opine that some-poet-or-other is 'innovative', 'lyrical' or 'formally adept', he appears to be unable to provide examples of anything surpassing the flashy display of self-conscious imagery, of brittle look-at-me cleverness or specious, onanistic word-play. This is an identity parade from which the witness would be unable to isolate one from another of the usual, amorphous suspects.
 
Whereas this reviewer is entirely aware that genuine poetry necessitates rather more than the employment of rhyme, metre or cadence, Mr Lumsden would do well to recognise that it also requires something in excess of their deliberate, wilful exclusion. Furthermore, the 'particular' (though of vital importance to the individual concerned) will always be transcended by the 'universal' - which is the irreducible responsibility of any 'art' that aspires to be at all 'worthwhile'. Rather like Mr Lumsden's own work, most of the word-structures in this publication fail to 'move', 'inspire' or (much) 'engage' us because, ultimately, they are neither concerned with us nor are they, in the fullest sense, contactable.

Kevin Saving © 2010