In his recent introduction to the inaugural Brotherton Poetry Prize anthology published by Carcanet our Poet Laureate Simon Armitage celebrates the diversity of contemporary poetry. His response to the current exciting variety is to look for ‘excellence in each and every poetic method’. In a context which he admits can lead to an anxiety about ‘what exactly constitutes a poem’, he makes the following declaration: ‘I’m only interested in work that is capable of saying something about life AND about language’. It’s a requirement which he concedes might look ‘fairly modest’, but which turns out to be quite demanding. ‘It’s surprising,’ he explains, ‘how often a poem that succeeds on one of those fronts … fails on the other’.
Armitage’s formulation is characteristically beguiling: a handy way of communicating one of the complex challenges facing contemporary poetry and any contemporary poet, editor, or judge. It also contains a covert salutary reminder not to go all-out for ‘relevance’ and ‘issues’ where this is at the expense of the poem.
In the business of sifting through poems for a magazine such as Stand
, however, this combination of (or binary between) ‘life’ and ‘language’ doesn’t always manifest itself at a conscious level for the editor reading the poems which have arrived through the post or been attached to an email. Very often, I have found myself suddenly shifted from consciously asking the question about the quality of a submitted poem to simply going with it – as if the poem I am reading has the power to override or short-circuit the critical process and assert itself on its own terms. Instead of asking about its quality – as if from the outside – I have found myself seemingly on its inside, utterly convinced and persuaded by its authority. Such moments of excitement punctuate the task of conscientious reading and are – I like to think – its compensatory pleasure.
In his introduction to Poetry of the Committed Individual: A Stand Anthology of Poetry
(1973) Jon Silkin contemplated a similar cultural challenge to the one facing Simon Armitage today. His key terms are not ‘life’ and ‘language’. For Silkin in the early 1970s, the challenge is how poetry might properly negotiate between the discursive and the imagistic, between sensuous lyric and narrative forms. He too is faced with a new variety in the history of poetry, one which has been produced by the removal of what he calls ‘the sentimental tyranny’ and other ‘fashionable constrictions’. The resultant new-found variety in poetry offers him the prospect of a very welcome ‘openness’ at a moment when he is still confronted more generally by ‘the comparative rigidity of English society and its culture’. He refers to it as a time when ‘a revaluation of Britain’s position [in the world] threatens to harden and shrink our responses’.
Even in this mixed context which strangely echoes our own, Silkin has the optimism to look forward to a new poetic status quo and at the same time to make out a powerful case for the socially constitutive nature of writing and publishing. His brave vision of a new kind of creative life necessitates an inversion of the usual order of things, one in which poets and the poems themselves declare the terms by which they are to be judged:
the criteria will increasingly emerge from the practice of the writers, and not from the imposition upon them of worn-through absolutes. That is, the so-called criteria will be the product of the writers and their work in relation to what they write about; the relations will originate criteria.
Reading through the submissions for Stand
always requires a special kind of attention: an alertness and an openness to the sudden presence of something new and unimagined. When that something arrives it doesn’t feel as if it is dependent on your openness or your alertness as a reader, but simply the assertion of the poem on its own terms – as if it has already persuaded you of its proper engagement with life and language.