How does new poetry by new poets appear? How does it find its way into publication? Such questions, even, betray enormous assumption. Poetry IS printed and IS published. It needs to be found or filtered or permitted or publicised just to make it AVAILABLE. The assumption that people will read or want or need to read on paper in print is not unquestionable in a digital age.
Sometimes, writers with a local or regional or national following ‘get known’ or recognised by major newspapers or journals. But how is a poet ‘KNOWN’ locally? Does the Verse Matters
anthology represent the normal processes of flowering or discovery?
is privileged to receive review copies of books and journals from national, international and regional publishers. As one opens the packets and flicks though the pages it’s wonderful to see names one knows. We have just received Verse Matters
(eds. Rachel Bower and Helen Mort; Valley Press, Scarborough, 2017), and it was a pleasant search through the Contents, many poets had either appeared in Stand
or, maintaining the Yorkshire and Northern theme, had visited the Stand
office in Leeds or, indeed, had helped with the journal’s production. The Leeds–Sheffield connection is strong.
There are 34 poets here, and a Foreword and Introduction. I have recently become fascinated by Stand’
s origins in 1952, and how the poets who appeared in the first issues in the early 1950s also were discovered, represented or were already nationally known. How do they compare with the range in Verse Matters?
How will a reader of this 2018 issue of Stand
, or this copy of Verse Matters
, assess in 50 years’ time what new and little-known poets are doing with poetry in 2018?
Rachel Bower’s and Helen Mort’s Introduction sets a wide and demanding context:
Last week a crowd of people watched and filmed a 22-year-old Gambian man drowning in the Venice Grand Canal. Onlookers jeered and shouted racist comments as they watched him die.
Theodor Adorno once famously said that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,’ Without suggesting there is a simple meaning to be drawn from Adorno’s complex writing, it seems fair to say that we are at a juncture in which it has once more become urgent to ask about the role of art in the face of extreme dehumanisation. (p. 11)
If this is the context in which these 34 writers work, it might be interesting to see how far that context forces itself into their words or whether the writers voluntarily choose, in their poems’ structures, to reflect on it. I want to make some comparisons with Stand in the post-war ’50s, and to look at some of the writers published then who were well known at the time but now forgotten.
I can’t within a few hundred words discuss more than a few of the writers. But I am immediately struck by the force and attraction of some of the poems, whilst being left to ask how far they reflect the Editors’ context. And if they were chosen to reflect the Editors’ views, what then? Were they so chosen in the’50s and to our eyes do they fit Silkin’s very first Editorial?
Rachel Bower’s ‘Sheffield to Aleppo’ sets the problem nicely. The opening humanises and incorporates political links in fact and vision unexpectedly:
It’s only a firework, I whisper
thumb tucked into her palm
but her eyes reflect a spark
that tells me that somewhere
she knows this isn’t quite true—
that a shot can echo when stars skim seas…
It is a serious and bodily exploration of the origins and continuation of 5th November but without forcing the moral: ‘…and I kneel / in the night and feel her sleep’.
At their best, many other poems in the Anthology seem to contain and expose such bodily tension. Helen Mort’s ‘Bartek’ feels it:
the wire pulls taut
the wire is a single thought
the wire is a line in pencil
through my name on the ringmaster’s list
There is pressure on the limbs, on the body. It is as though the writer is both performer and performance – she or he is ringmaster and whip and the tortured object. Here is Jacob Blakesley in ‘Nightfall’:
Rain slices apart
In the current environment we get cut apart or pressed together. And the pressure is enormous, historic and defining. Hannah Copley in ‘Ten Thousand’ turns lost human hearts into squeezed-tight coal:
Coal. It’s what grief becomes
If pressed upon, moment
After moment added to the pile.
And many of the poems touch or sink in water as perhaps befits, sadly, the Introduction’s opening in the Grand Canal. Malika Booker mixes the water with its threats, freedoms and pains:
And on that day w banked our canoes
on hopeless shore. Our anorexic timber too
rotted and we sunk.
And what might be tender pressure becomes wrenching destruction:
so we nestled our babies, for the faint hum
of faith, then placed them in to chubby palms
that pulverised their skin with thorns.
In 1952, so soon after World War 2, and in the midst of continuing conflicts, the desire to write in a threatening context was perhaps similar. How was it explored and articulated? I quote from the concluding lines of a poem by the now little-known poet, I. R. Orton:
But who were you for whom this was a day
When all the jarring sounds of the churning city
Screamed in your head and your eyes saw
A private execution in every public square?
(‘The Two Diaries’ Stand No 1, London, 1952)
This poem appeared in 1955 in Iris Rosalie Orton’s first book, The Dreamer and the Sheaves, published by Oxford University Press. Unknown now, her elegy to Dylan Thomas was in Stand No.9 (with work by W.S. Graham, John Fuller, James Simmons and Bernard Bergonzi), and in The Listener, The Glass, The Window, The Observer, Departure and Delta (Cambridge). She was friends with other future Gregory Fellows such as James Kirkup, and they often did readings together. Stand joined other early ‘50s poetry and fiction journals including Adam, Iris Orton’s Nightwatchman, and Arthur Boyars’ Mandrake. Between Soho and Oxford it was tense, intense and ‘clubby’.
I intend to continue this comparison of post (or pre?) War poetry through such funnels as Stand and Anthologies such as Verse Matters. Let us hope that it does matter.