Britain lost another great Octogenerian writer - after Peter Porter - the other day, with the death of Alan Sillitoe, husband of poet Ruth Fainlight, and friend of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath (among others). Though Sillitoe - one of the original Angry Young Men of the 1950s (a group he denied belonging to) - is best known as the major post-war "working class" author of the books (and screenplays for) Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner- the two key Kitchen Sink films of the pre-Beatles period and launching pads for actors Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney - he was also a poet. Readers today might not think that Sillitoe and Porter had much in common, but it is salutary to be reminded that, almost 50 years ago, in the April 1961 issue of The London Magazine (the Alan Ross editorial debut), George Macbeth's review of Porter's debut collection, Once Bitten, Twice Bitten (from Scorpion Press), expressly linked them, when he wrote that "Porter is perhaps the only poet under thirty-five who has seriously grappled with the same issues as John Osborne, Alan Wesker and Alan Sillitoe." This issue was also noteworthy for featuring the publication of one of Larkin's great poems, "Ambulances".
Poets are less angry today, perhaps - though it is intriguing to read some of the comments made on my post of yesterday, espeially the suspicion, in at least one comment, that there is the need for critics and reviewers to clearly state their bias - who they know, and why they ally themselves to some, and not other poets; one commentator admits to listing "mates" and professional acquaintances. My list of yesterday is clearly only one written on a metaphorical back of an envelope - a gesture of goodwill, offering, to the readers of this eminent blog, some names they might not already know, in the hopes some net surfing will open up further reading. Lists are not new canons, and neither are they exclusive - especially when they admit to being only part of the story. However, so tense is the current critical/ reviewing situation in British poetry, that any attempt to suggest more prominent, or worthwhile, figures, can immediately set off warning bells.
Why? Well, partly, it is becase, unlike in North American poetry (for example) almost everyone knows everyone else, or easily could bump into them on the relatively small island that is Britain (in poetry); or, more to the point, the main gate-keepers are not reviewers or critics, but editors and publishers. Due to the small-pond feel of things in the UK, reviews tend not to be too critical (but rather, often, mates boosting mates; or savage, as one coterie confronts another) and schools of poets move forward by seizing the upper ground, and dominating the lay of the land as best they can - sometimes this means experimental groups, or The Movement, or The Group, and so on. As such, lists are just as often not helpful guidelines, as who's in, who's out documents. The idea of generating a list to commence a debate, to establish some sort of critical consensus, is fraught, and problematic, then. But it may be worthwhile to do, even still. Unless evaluative criticism of contemporaries occurs, it is hard to justify why certain poets should be read with more attention than others, or read at all - let alone studied in schools.
Simon Armitage - one of the poets most studied by students at school and popular for his formally adept, demotic working-class poems (Auden meets Sillitoe) - was on an important BBC morning radio show today talking about his new poetry book which the broadcaster called "bonkers" and lacking in poetry. By this he meant it was prose poetry by another name. Armitage read a sample on air. It was surreal and funny. The broadcaster called it lovely. It was neither lovely or bonkers but that shows how sensible educated British readers tend to set the spectrum limits of poetry; either lovely (beautiful and well-made) or bonkers (strange and possibly mad; sometimes, as with Stevie Smith, in a good way). Luke Kennard's work seeks to widen that spectrum with prose poems that have set the benchmark in Britain so far this century and surely were part of Armitage's library as he wrote.
Kennard is, to my mind, one of the five most important and influential younger British poets now writing - and might make the top ten of just about anybody's lists. His work appeals broadly, because it is, by turns, funny (hilariously so at times - he is also a comedian and actor); learned (he has a PhD in prose poetry, and loves to study theology); and experimental (he explores new forms). Kennard has added at least one new genre to the British poetry world - a poem that features some sort of improbable narrative presence, or dialogue between characters, that borders, in sinister mayhem, on the work of a Pinter or Stoppard - perhaps the speaker of the poem might be a Wolf, or a Doctor, or Fire, or Snow. His tone, too, resists - almost entirely - the sentimental, or the sympathetic. His works tend to be ultra-ironic, ironing out any lyric emotive qualities of sincerity or self-reflection. He is a kind of arch post-modernist, but the controlled, often modest, and formally aware aspects of his work, along with his subtextual interest in religion, human evil, and humour, connect him more to the cosmopolitan urbanity of a late high modernist like Auden.
Kennard holds a PhD in English from the University of Exeter and lectures in creative writing at the University of Birmingham. His second collection of poetry The Harbour Beyond the Movie was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection in 2007. His third book is called The Migraine Hotel and is available now from Salt. His criticism appears in Poetry London and the Times Literary Supplement. The poem below, which I have selected to represent his work, is previously unpublished.
THE FLAT BATTERY OF FLATTERY
The medic says it’s too funny and I agree.
The scratchy tannoy says, ‘These are the end of days, over.
Live like a semi-colon, not a comma.’
It feels like a room where ghosts conceive;
An airport is a magazine you walk through.
I drink so much black coffee my mouth tastes of pencils,
An end-of-school-year pencil case, its insides nib-scored,
Tomb-dark. I am almost mouthing tedium vitae.
I feel how the sky must feel. Here a man thinks of witches
Especially the benign ones, the witches benignly
Denying human agency. Fucking witches, he thinks.
Outside the smokers make faces: cigarettes
In a head-wind taste like socks. Here is an atheist
Explaining to a monk that he is wasting his life, and why,
and vice versa:
The monk’s paraman embroidered with Adam’s skull,
The atheist’s chinos and well-fitted salmon shirt,
How, in the light rain, they both love and ignore each other;
Both leap upstream, loving and ignoring.
Here the novelist stirs thick brown sugar into her tea.
Leaves a ring, deliberately, on her manuscript.
Her editor tells her to loosen up, but what does he know?
She is delightful, so nervous you want to lie
With your head on her lap and pretend you’re even more nervous.
Her tweed pencil skirt like a classical sculpture
Carved out of red brick. Is that even possible?
(Note: Ask sculptor. Find sculptor. Where are sculptors?)
We want nothing from each other and I love her
And I almost can’t be bothered to talk to her:
I have to force eye-contact; our eyes feel like repelling magnets.
What are we to say in the New Honesty?
You, sir, are ugly. You may already have won.
No results were found. In the flat battery of flattery
Scientists discover another ring of Hell
Then they stop, they drop their paper shopping bags.
Some of them feel uneasy about all this talking;
Some of them start thinking why not shut up?
And why not. The plane takes off and our heads swell up.
The pilot thinks: ‘I am not hungover but I feel hungover.
Why didn’t I trim my nails? I am afraid of women.
Gently now… Gently. Yeah! I’m such a great pilot!’
poem by Luke Kennard