From a distance, Britain (the UK), can appear a weird place – especially these days. It’s just had a week of travel chaos with its skies completely shut down due to an Icelandic volcano. It is in the midst of a major election (to be decided in 12 days) that has been wildly galvanised by its first ever leaders debate on television (!). And one of its most popular TV shows is (still) Doctor Who, about an undying eccentric “time lord”. Current hit records include Kate Nash’s “My Best Friend Is You” where a chirpy British lass writes about sex and dating in frank terms, and Paul Weller (of The Jam) wanting to “Wake Up The Nation”.
Britain has been slow to come out of the recession, and, with its youth knife crime, wildly drunken villages and inner cities, class divides (whole swathes of the population still can’t easily access college education), and obsession with celebrity (especially overpaid footballers and size-zero models and starlets) is sometimes called Broken Britain. For others, like Harry Potter star, Daniel Radcliffe, richer than Prince Harry, Britain seems to be working just fine. It’s been observed that America and England are divided by a common language, and, as Hugh Kenner was one of the first critics to point out, the British love-affair with international modernism in art and poetry was of limited duration, to say the least.
Charles Bernstein and John Ashbery are coterie poets here, read by few and feared by most who do read them – let alone Hart Crane or William Carlos Williams. Few American (or Canadian) poets are published in the UK. There is a sense of isolation, even xenophobia, in some poetry quarters – and why not? The popular Tory party wants to pull out of membership in Europe. This is a kingdom united, more often than not, in the idea of its superior difference.
The battle lines became drawn, again, in the 1990s, when a “New Generation” of popular mainstream poets emerged, such as Don Paterson and Carol Ann Duffy. These are now two of the most successful poets over here, in terms of prizes and cultural impact. Paterson has just won the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. Duffy is the Poet Laureate. Also popular are Roger McGough, and Wendy Cope. Rounding off the top ten poets, in terms of name recognition, might be Andrew Motion, Craig Raine, James Fenton, and of course, the Irish poets Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Derek Mahon. Also beloved, and sadly, recently dead, is Peter Porter, the Audenesque satirist of metropolitan values. Other well-established, if a little younger, poets would include Patience Agbabi, Sophie Hannah, Daljit Nagra, Alice Oswald, Paul Farley, Fiona Sampson and Robin Robertson.
Meanwhile, an alternative, small press and avant-garde poetry beavers away in the margins, excluded normally from reviews in the national papers, or notice at the Poetry Society and Poetry Book Society awards. The main poets of this “experimental” mode might be said to include the “Cambridge poets” JH Prynne and Denise Riley. They are sufficiently respected to have been mentioned in Stephen Fry’s popularist (and traditionalist) how-to book, The Ode Less Travelled. Their work is, at least in part, underwritten by an openness to American poets from the Donald M. Allen period, especially The Beats, Olson, Dorn, and The New York School. The dividing line between these styles or kinds of poetry is language. Terms like “poetries” and “poetics” are not as common in poetry debates in the UK, which prides itself on a mainly bluff, practical, and empiricist anti-theoretical stance. Most poets here are commonsense, and avoid worked-out theories as to why they write the way they do. Their hymn book is compiled by Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes, by way of Thomas Hardy, Edward Thomas, and William Wordsworth. The watchwords are craft, form, and mastery. One is meant, a la Eliot (whose later reactionary period is privileged over his earlier avant-garde years), to control and suppress, emotion, as much as anything.
The tension arises because the UK has a very successful track record in publishing, marketing and selling well-made formally charming, often clever, lyric poems (almost a million books of poetry sold each year); public performances are reaching ever-larger audiences on stage and online – and all this “mainstream” poetry tends to ignore or mock more “lyrically disrupted” texts. However, in the last decade, a younger generation of British poets (and publications, like the leading journals Poetry Review and Poetry London) has emerged, one which, to an extent, has lost interest in the simplicity of these old style battles between the modern and anti-modern. In part, this is because creative writing MAs, MFAs and PhDs have become common here in the last five or six years, building on the UEA model.
In part, the Internet and social networking has simply made more and different approaches more available; post-Bush, the younger poets are less anti-American. And even during Bush, satellite TV made North American culture more popular than ever. The younger poets read and enjoy American writers and poets; but they still retain a native expression – which tends to understatement, irony, deflation, and, especially, wit. So, what the under-forty poets have going for them is, to brutally approximate, an ability to write an elliptical or “New York School” poem, but by way of Larkin or Muldoon, or Cope. They enjoy the eclectic virtuosity of the post-modern, and have begun to question capitalism (and express concern for the environment), but also retain the right to use the lyric I, rhyme, iambic pentameter, and popular forms (the sonnet and villanelle, especially). In America, this might be called “hybrid” poetry; I’ve called it “fusion” elsewhere.
A consensus as to who the best of these Young British Poets might be has perhaps begun to emerge in the last two years, as the first decade of the new century came to a close, with key Bloodaxe anthologies such Voice Recognition, Identity Parade, and my own section in The Manhattan Review, and the recent Oxfam DVD of 35 emerging poets, Asking A Shadow To Dance. Also very important has been the impact of small press tall-lighthouse, as an instigator of pamphlets and collections for dozens of the youngest poets since 2000; and Faber’s more recent support of young poets with its own pamphlet series. Over the next few posts I’ll intro a few of them in more depth. For now, a roll-call of the best of them might be a useful jumping off point for anyone who feels like Googling for a few hours (most have poems online, or their own blogs).
In no particular order, here are 25 emerging or recently-established British poets (I leave out the Irish this time around) you should expect to hear more about in the next few years, and who are worth reading now: Keston Sutherland, Emily Berry, Joe Dunthorne, Annie Katchinska, Sandeep Parmar, James Byrne, Nathan Hamilton, Jack Underwood, Heather Phillipson, Sam Riviere, Kate Potts, Melanie Challenger, Jen Hadfield, Luke Kennard, Chris McCabe, Clare Pollard, Jacob Polley, George Ttoouli, Liz Berry, Zoe Brigley, Helen Mort, Ben Wilkinson, Tom Chivers, Alex McRae, and Kathryn Simmonds. Needless to say, I haven’t been able to cram in every brilliant poet (friend or foe) into the list above, but it’s one that, drawn from a number of anthologies and other sources, does represent the main generational tendencies towards both experiment and craft – a very British compromise, if you will.
There are other very fine younger poets currently writing in the UK, often of hybrid identity (expatriates, with dual-citizenship, or simply longstanding foreign visitors) that are also, to my mind, part of the British poetry community, such as Isobel Dixon, Emma Jones, Katy Evans-Bush, and Kathryn Maris. There are also older worthwhile “new” poets, such as Sheila Hillier, but they fall outside the scope of this current project. I’ve listed so very many names, simply to assist the reader in trying to orient themselves to what is, at least in Britain, a burgeoning time for excellent new poetry – and to suggest the bewildering challenges facing any reader, let alone reviewer or critic, aiming to make sense of such a bounty. Unlike in Canada, with Carmine Starnino and Sina Queyras (for instance), there are few well-known younger poetry critics and reviewers currently operative in Britain, seemingly willing to do the necessary evaluative weeding out; and fewer, still, invaluable studies or guides to help track the contemporary shifts and changes. It is to be hoped all this will change in the next few years. For now, British poetry doesn’t seem broken, so much as bursting – just like this first post.