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« Eruptions Distruptions [by Catharine Stimpson] | Main | 'Breaking Bad' tonight: Walt reads Walt: White on Whitman [by Ken Tucker] »

April 25, 2010


Thank you for this wide-ranging yet succinct overview of British poetry today: an eye-opening prelude to what is to come -- and very necessary as American readers know too little about developments in the British Isles. Looking forward to more about the "hybrid" or "fusion" forces, god bless 'em. Question: We keep hearing that in the recent "debate," the liberal democratic leader did better than either the labor or conservative? Is this true? Is "debate" as much a misnomer as what we have in the States? On the Typo front: when you say the "UEA mode" is the E an S in disguise? Can't wait for subsequent installments.

A small but important semantic point, is to draw the Reader's attention to the fact that what you mean is, of course, 'a roll-call of' who you think 'the best'; not necessarily who the Best British poets of this generation, actually are, Swift.

For example, what about poets in the Heaven Tree publishing cluster that sprung out from David Morely's efforts in Warwick University, who have two poets some would consider as vital inclusions; dropping those they consider the weaker choices, George Ttoouli and Luke Kennard, say, in favor of Jon Morely and Michael McKimm?

Todd's list is, I think, imbalanced and skewered toward the straight-stream of English poetry, America. 60% are poets operating in Greater London, which makes up only 20% of the British peoples. Which begs the obvious question: Is the concentration of poetic talent there really three times above the national average?

Hmmm. I don't think so: though understand how an innaccurate opinion can be arrived at. Having lived in London for many years, until picking up the pen myself (and immediately leaving), when one began on one's own poetic journey, one knows how - like in any megatropolis and capital city - it is tempting to confuse ourselves into believing the fallacy and hype, that says poets who choose to live in London are somehow inherently 'better' at being poetic, than those from the provinces.

I myself am from a small place with a population of 12,000 people, twelve miles north of Liverpool, on the Lancashire-Merseyside border: Ormskirk - not noted for its indigenous poets, but which does have, in the town's Edge Hill University, a unique writing program.

One of the first in England, created and run by London Langpoet Robert Sheppard, whose Poetry B.A., unlike the majority in England taught by square-stream normals; founded not on the history of the English lyric, but the tradition of American Modernism.


One could equally opine to dump out most of the names from your top 25 Todd, arguing it is not only very unrepresentive of British poetry as it really is, as the people on the whole, but also too unadventurous.

There's a definite London bias, the more staid end of the spectrum, lots of overpraised young poets who network and know the right names, parrot the right platitudes and flatter the vanity of the right antholgist-editor-curator-poets.

Where's any of the very many talented poets from Manchester, for example, from the Other Room grouping, who many would argue represent the most linguistically innovative and exciting Group working in England at present?

What, none of the heirs to Cobbing & Co included, the radical Concrete poets?

Fellow Lancastrian Steven Waling, and plenty others, could well ask where's Scott Thurston, Tony Trehy or Carrie Etter? The poets and critics from the British avant stream, one is sure, would opine are stronger choices for a who's best 25 list.

Many would say it's obvious to the true lover of innovative poetries, that these three offer a much more exciting vision of what's possible with the English language now, the likely future direction it should take; than say, Nathan Hamilton, Jack Underwood or Melanie Challenger.

What about Claire Askew? Surely she beats Sam Riviere to inclusion in the parade?

Look at what she's doing in Edinburgh, how she's invigorated the poetry up there, at such a young age. A real talent left out for no reason. Wholly baffling some would argue.

Or, like you yourself argued for inclusion, as a British poet - into the latest Bloodaxe anthology: what about me?

Why aren't 'I' in there?


However, one does agree with you on James Byrne and Helen Mort. Byrne is definitley the one you rarely hear mentioned, who other competitive poets don't like to publicize, because he beats 'em all into a cocked hat for the crown of one to watch over the longer span.

These are just a minor example Swift. There are as many top 25 lists in existence, as there are people with opinions on the topic of who exactly the 'best' British poets writing today are.

One thought to clarify this because, as you've told us before at your personal blog, on numerous occassions; British poetry is riven still by an obdurate factionalism that one's American collegues, breezing into London from the higher branches of AmPo, will not necessarily apprehend when on the ground conducting a brief reading tour: as Annie Finch didn't last year, for example, and whose Harriet report on her time reciting in ye brutal olde Britain, presented a picture of serenity and accord few native dabblers would recognize or claim as an accurate rendering of Reality in the contemporary village of UK po-biz.

We had a discussion about it there last summer, which only a couple of British participants turned up to debate at.

You didn't, but believe exactly the same thing as oneself Todd, because as you wrote on Eyewear:

'I often strike some British poets as uncouth, as if it was wrong to actually question why, for instance, everyone (well, almost everyone) seems to think A is a brilliant poet, and master craftsman - or why B is still a minority taste in England. These questions are never personal - they are, in one sense, political - they seek to comprehend a system of judgements, that, with few engaged interlocutors, continues, mostly unchecked, and untested, by brunt of force - the force of those with the strongest will, and often, the best publishing jobs.

As you point out, things haven't changed a great deal since the time Cyril Connolly likened the various actors in the British poetry scene of the 1930's, to 'jackals snarling round a dried up well'. But whereas there was at least a healthy culture of critical debate then, now, the average British poet setting out, is overwhelmingly not taking advantage of the new publishing reality to develop and hone the critical part of their practice.

As was demonstrated in the recent bare-knuckle bout between you and Rodney Lumsden (editor of the Bloodaxe anthology mentioned in your piece), the laughably factional tribalism of square-stream British poetry, manifested itself in the short one line grunts on his Facebook wall; spin alley of English Letters, whose poets - as you wrote Todd, after your positive review of them had been trashed by the anti-intellectual clique who huddle there: they 'seem unused to the healthy cut and thrust of legitimate, and open, literary debate.'

British Poetry is, as you wrote on Eyewear: 'about the politics of the playground, and we all know it. Know it, but dare not speak out.'


Those in the Hermetic school of thought who posit: 'That which is above is the same as that which is below', could posit that there's something seriously stagnant, awry and essentially comedic in the critical life of, not only British poetry, but English Letters generally, at present.

That there's a clearly recognizable impulse that tends toward developing and deploying one's intellect for reasons of acquiring power and privilege, as opposed to articulating the purer poetry, of truth and justice.

At the macrocosmic geo-political scale, this, the argument runs, is due to a core falsity at the heart of nihilistic noughties neo-con policy, birthed by the authors of a 'war-as-profit' document: Project for the New American Century, that was enacted into State policy and political Reality, by anti-intellectuals Bush-Cheney-Rove, and which Tony Blair zelously appropriated wholesale in his keenness to wag, smile and be yo Blair the special relationship 'poodle', who dropped his common sense at the doorstep of the Oval Office, and closed his eyes to what transpired as clearly dishonest fabrication - in order to reach where he is now.

A heavily guarded multi-millionaire who enacted, what some claim, the biggest con in recent British political history; beginning with a Weapons of Mass Destruction lie, nourished in the passing himself off as a new Labour comrade whose political philosophy turned into pure Old Tory Conservative, and intensified the longer he was in power - until the sum effect of this, like the Bush administration, became an insidious dishonesty spilling out directly from the heart of New Labour government.

The deceit foisted onto a citizenry, manifest itself in a culture of secrecy and fear. What was said, was actually the opposite of what was meant, and thus the reason for us becoming a confused people who became too fearful to speak simply and honestly, for fear it might be a capital offence to question a lie by telling the truth.

At the microcosmic level, in British poetry, for example; this manifests in a collective anti-intellectual tendency of honing our intellect and whetting its focus, on privileging the acquisition of material 'success' over that of poetic power.

Because the general critical standards in, a more or less absence of debate - are so atrophied and with so few sincerely working toward the goal of making with Letters, psychological beauty and eloquence that the 'best' poetry and Criticism is capable of proving itself to be; we English perceive poetic success, in much the same way yo Blair did his 'special relationship' with George Bush II.

Not what we write but who we know.

Who the pal/s in our faction, clique and gang, are. Who's got the power of publishing and making us a star. Who's the Queen or King, the Crown force we can stand next to and assume by osmosis and association, our reputations will be secured. By who publishes pleasant comments about us, not the poetry we compose.


At least, that's one theory. Could be total hot air and nonsense. Who knows, hey kiddas?


Desmond Swords

Todd deserves thanks for drawing attention to some excellent younger poets, and to a revivified scene here in Britain. Not the first time either - Todd has been a committed advocate for some years now.

Of course Todd's list isn't going to match up with many other people's selections. To some extent, I'm pretty tired of list-making anyway. I'm not sure how useful it really is.

NEVERTHELESS here are some of my own additions to Todd's list, which I hope might redress omissions from both "avant-garde" (as Des points out) and "performance" scenes. Although to be fair, Todd does list Keston Sutherland. Full diclosure: my own stab at it is shamelessly nepotistic as most of these people are mates or at least professional acquaintances, by virtue of the work I do in poetry.

Emily Critchley, Ross Sutherland, James Wilkes, Ben Borek, Simon Turner, Inua Ellams, Nick Potamitis, Ahren Warner

Again, this is not a definite anything - just some more names to Google.

* * *

Just a quick note to query Des's point about Londoncentricism.

Todd's post is about young poets, however you define that. It's no surprise that London is constantly overrepresented in these kinds of lists as it is a YOUNG city (over 1/5th are under 18). Traditionally on leaving university lots of young people come to London to get their foot on the job ladder. It's also the most ethnically diverse place in the country, and lots of the most interesting new work comes from ethnically diverse backgrounds.

I'm not knocking any other place in the UK, merely pointing out a few reasons why London is overrepresented.

In 2006 I produced an anthology and poetry tour called Generation Txt. On several occasions the project was criticised as being Londoncentric. This got me really pissed off, as NOT ONE of the six poets in the anthology was from London. Their origins were in fact, variously, Dorset, Cumbria, Berkshire, Nigeria/Ireland, Birmingham and Swansea. I was the only person involved in Generation Txt who was actually born and raised in London, and I was the editor/producer!

Anyway... ;-)

That's all for now.


On the Typo front: when you say the "UEA mode" is the E an S in disguise? - It's "UEA model" - UEA (The University of East Anglia) have had a Creative Writing degree course for a long time. Ian McEwan was one of their first students. As Todd says, there are many course now, but - i feel - not enough of them for long enough to have a great impact.

I presume when you say 'younger', indicating Robertson and Sampson (b. '55 and '63 respectively) you are comparing them to, say, the late Peter Porter (aged 83) rather than Duffy and Paterson (b. '55 and '63 respectively) as your fourth paragraph would seem to suggest to a reader not familiar with these names?

See also this post, from the other side of the divide.

"Full diclosure: my own stab at it is shamelessly nepotistic as most of these people are mates or at least professional acquaintances, by virtue of the work I do in poetry."

Surely Todd must admit to this too. In fact, anyone reading any discourse about the state of poetry in any country or age group today needs to be forewarned that the participants are likely to be writing very much from their own 'on the ground' perspective. A truly detached critical eye is extremely unlikely and I do wonder about the value of affecting one.

thanks for the post todd. wonderful paths to wander.

Oh goody, another list of poets.

Thanks for this Todd.

Here's a (very slightly overlapping) view from the U.S.:

The Faber pamphlets don't have any currency or arouse any discussion there. Neither does the Bloodaxe anthology. Little England is a flagging export.

Thanks Todd. A well-rounded summary.

Very much looking forward to some British poetry this summer.

Here's to July.

i have quite a lot. thanks. hope to integrate that into my blog

Quite informative and interesting topic.

The Young British Poets is quite an interesting book by Todd Shrift. This book was orgone boxed in 2012.

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
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as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman


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