Blackbox Manifold

Issue 12: Adam Piette

Review of: Dear World & Everyone In It: New Poetry in the UK, edited Nathan Hamilton (Newcastle: Bloodaxe, 2013). £12.00  paperback. 1 85224 949 8.  336pp.

The first anthology was Meleager’s, a collection of epigrams he collected into a garland of flowers in the first century BCE – he included over a hundred of his own poems, most of them erotic in nature. The anthology does not itself survive but can be reconstructed as much of it was included in the Byzantine Palatine Anthology compiled by Constantinus Cephalas in the tenth century. Two of the epigrams stylishly reflect on the act of anthologizing.

As Kathryn Guzwiller has shown,[1] the Muse in the prooemium elegy that must have opened Meleager’s anthology tropes the anthology as a garland of poets, and the poets are given flower-names, Meleager himself is the snowdrop. The Muse explains that she brings the garland as a gift for her friends the poets, and as a common possession of initiates, presumably lovers of poetry. Scholars like Alan Cameron have reconstructed the sections of the Garland, and reckon it may have had four sections, erotica, epitymbia, anathematica, and epideictic, so variously erotic verse, elegies for the dead, dedicatory verse, and praise/blame oratorical epigrams.

Guzwiller argues that many of the poems are artfully self-referential, the poems reflecting on the nature of being garlanded erotic gifts within the hedonistic closed world of Greek epigrammatical initiates. So we can see that from the outset, the anthology’s organization invites us to act as insiders within the poetry-consuming trade, to learn more about what makes poetry and its sub-genres work; to think about the ways the individual poems in the anthology express different ideas about poetry, be they amatory, political-satirical, elegiac. Meleager’s example also mischievously suggests that most anthologies are also stages for the presentation of the editor’s own gifts too, not only as anthologist weaver of garlands, but as a powerfully erotic champion of poetry in the here and now and future of publication.

I’d like to look at Dear World & Everyone In It: New Poetry in the UK less as an exercise in school-formation or generation-building, though it certainly is that: Nathan Hamilton presents the poems gathered together as collectively mixing process and product poetry, therefore mainstream and experimental – stating that this younger generation of poets find the political division unhelpful, even stifling. Peter Riley, in his review of the anthology in the Fortnightly Review,[2] has retorted that simply having poems from both wings under the same roof does not imply that they shall ever meet, and perhaps it is naïve to suppose that simply reading poetry you hate technically and culturally will change your mind.

Still, I buy the argument: if they are under the same roof, then they can semi-consciously, as language within the same common text, present common purposes and filiations (as in a complex sequence) which no amount of censorship will deny. Equally, the anthology does a fine job of expounding an anti-editorial method of generation-capture, if you will – Nathan asked a first wave of poets to nominate three poets they admired under 35 or so, then asked those poets the same question as well as contributions, and the final group was just asked for work. So this is a collaborative and expansive list of nominees, moving out from coterie towards a pretty representative bunch of writers. So, yes, this is consciously about a generation; and it is about changing the way schools of poetry act in the UK. But I would suggest an anthology needs just as easily to be cherished for Meleager’s reasons: as displaying a thematico-technical set of concerns which still have those old designs on us, amatory, political-satirical, elegiac; and that some of the poems will also be reflecting on the art of poetry itself, whether it be the lyric per se, or the act of writerly communication with the readership as it occurs in the actual reading experience.

I also had, Dear World, my own mad method: I read the anthology to enjoy each poem in and for itself, as though it were not in the anthology at all; but I also had an eye on the poems as garlands, perhaps not as sweet little snowdrops or primroses, as Meleager rather sickeningly would have it; more as language objects which we can treat as products or processes, and which are reflecting on art as well as the other matters to immediate hand. The benefits of doing this rather crazy thing, a Meleagerization of this perfectly modern 21st century anthology, I could not foresee.

Firstly, is there an elegiac thrust to any of the poems? Yes there certainly is, if we take elegy in a more contemporary sense to mean an exploration of the historical work poetry can do, its care for the past, its voicing of the dead. The poets who took on the elegiac mantle do this strangely, however. History is being written as a form of interlude with Meiran Jordan’s work, poems are ironic historical reconstructions. Kate Potts stages poetry as ‘Un’-history, exploring rapt states of myth and story. Toby Martinez de las Rivas and Thomas Ironmonger have poems which are superironic recastings of older bankrupt forms, e.g. penitential psalm or ‘Olympic Ode’.

If the elegiac power of poetry is ironized, what is left of the elegiac function? A Gothic spookiness: for Michael McKimm, the poem is a space to tell old tales of dead superstitions (of Ireland). Or it is a Jacobean bone-machine, ventriloquial resuscitation of the dead - a ‘live skeleton / rattled with libido’, if we follow the logic of Chris McCabe’s work here. Or poetry is a shrunken head in a cargo hold on the move, a historical voice, speaking from the shadows, for Frances Leviston. In other words, for the poets reflecting on history in this anthology, the elegiac function is pretty much dead and buried, surviving as fake voodoo sensationalism from a souped-up aether.

        If we move on to consider the political-satirical purposes of poetry, the poets engaged in public dissentient work are similarly rather grimly disturbed by the limitations of the contemporary public sphere. Laura Kilbride senses poetry as lost in a space where ‘rolling news’ dominates, revealing citizens as ‘official subjects of the rolling deep’. For Andy Spragg, the poem is variously a dump, or tricked into an apparatus for taking all our things away, or lost in airspace / deep space where ‘they’ are listening. Hannah Silva is even more dejected – for her, protest poems are political thoughts whispered into envelopes, fastened down ‘with a tongue lick and magic’, but never sent. Against these depressives stand another brand of poet, however.

It is heartening to read the work of Elizabeth-Jane Burnett, Jo Crot and Keston Sutherland, who reinvent political poetry as radical intervention in contemporary culture, however stymied. For Burnett, poetry can act as a space for eco-protest, aware of its marginal complicities and fake pastoral, but urgently political nevertheless. For Jo Crot, the poem is a public stage for wild utopian and countercultural activist/political play, and for Sutherland it is an arena for Beckettian, Popean, Keatsian angry political monologue. The political verse here is often an exercise in satirical dramatic monologue, as with Emily Toder’s autistic ecological prose voice or Heather Phillipson mimicking a social researcher snooping on privacies.

            As with Meleager, the most popular role, however, is the erotic-amatory: again modernized in the sense that the poets here are reflecting on the current status of the  love lyric as textual space for negotiation of intimacies between the I and the you. The common assumption, as found in these self-conscious exercises, is to stage the lyric as variously fragile or flatly ironic. We have mad striated lyrics calling on ‘you’ to let the poet in into ‘the grey / innards’ (Richard Parker); ironic exercises in ‘This is me’ trivia, with poetry as cod advertising (Sam Riviere); writing addressed to ‘you’ at a slant, staging incision, bodies, strings, holes (Sarah Kelly); poems as ‘hollow flute[s]’, with ‘shrouds’ of song (Sandeep Parmar), or as slips or ‘sips / of breath’, fragile letters always still there (Tamasin Norwood).

The poetry may be celebrated as a light song of light (Kei Miller), with the very lightness of lyric having a certain intimate agency on the page, as with the ‘light as white space’, ‘light as process’, transitional, the page a kissing surface (Laura Elliott). Or it may stage the silly bankrupt assumptions of romantic love and desire and their deleterious effect on the serious exchange which poetry’s negotiation of shared affect-in-language should embody. So poems may be hyperaware of themselves as ‘feminine’ and ‘pink’ (Eirann Corsung), or of their status as letters practicing the ‘empty rhetoric of love’ to non-recipients (Steve Willey). This irony deepens with work which engages with the mechanics of the lyric. For Amy De’Ath, the poem stages a statue of self looking atonal, speaking and responding by way of a brain shared between sexy I and sexy you.

A lyric poem is written in ‘invisible ink’, ‘drafted to loss’ (Melanie Challenger), is powered by a lyrical heart ‘stuffed and mounted’ in 24 ribs (Mendoza). It is inhabited, for Jack Underwood, by ‘the voice you read with inwardly’ which is in love with Death (‘private as the name you say’). Michael Kindellan even writes a mini-drama to show how a love lyric is made: it begins as a ‘gossip hum’ in the throat, staging ‘many selves’. These selves are ‘[driven] into [the heart’ like a gun ‘bleeding in your pocket’; and the poem is a dirty pearl shot from that gun. If we take anything away from these ironic lyricists, it is this comic sense of the erotic lyric that it has become artificial, a showily sexy contract between I and you, a mechanical and dirty secret exchanged rather lethally and pointlessly in Kindellan’s terms.

            If the erotic, elegiac and political purposes of poetry are on the verge of bankruptcy for this wised-up generation, what other things might poetry be made to do? Post-L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, the linguistic turn might be an area that is still working; and for a group of the poets in this anthology play with language is the main thing strange. For Patrick Coyle, poetry is alphabetical letter play, including comic-obsessional rants on type/typography. Poems, for Elizabeth Guthrie, are communication objects, typographical building ‘letter block / type’,  ‘pipe-like chunks’. Or they are language games beyond games, as Angus Sinclair playfully argues: 'Boys are not interested in games but grammar / the living organism, our own estranged tongue.' For Holly Pester, the poem breaks language down to alphabet and sexy foolish play of phonemes – poetry savoured as simple distance vision text.

Attention to language surfaces might even recuperate the garland-collecting impulse of Meleager, as with Amy Evans’s work staging the collecting of words like shells on the shore, but the language wrack is subject to textual ‘as if’ shifts. More philosophically convoluted, the poem for Fabian MacPherson is a language mesh with ‘Buttons to / space through un-shapes’. Oddly, the effect of the language turn in much of the work here is to break down the barrier between prose and poetry, as with the work of Colin Herd and Emily Berry. Sarah Howe writes a poem as hybrid grotesque crossing of poetry and prose like cursed victim of incest. This prose/poetry dissolution can end up as the blank fear that the poem is not a poem at all, ‘only the bones of one at best’ (Tim Cockburn).

            Poetry might also play a role tracking addiction to technology. Poetry can document a car accident, for instance, as well as figure the language unconscious as ‘black electricity wir[ing] my lung’ (Siddartha Bose). More often than not, however, the technology that is summoned by these poets is slightly out-of-date, as though poetry and print itself is old-fashioned, cranky, amateurish now. We have the poem as a recorded song or paper message silent in a bucket (Camilla Nelson); as  a ‘quiet little engine’ for computing language - affects as afterimage narratives (Emily Critchley); poetry as broadcast from a sealed chamber (hard radio), from a ‘tiny radio shack’ (Tom Warner).

The poem is like old cardboard which radiates like early morning news (Agnes Lehoczky); the poet is found tweeting ‘our atomised telegraphic contact’ (Andrew Bailey); the poem is like a call on the ‘phone historical and loving’ (Sophie Robinson) a ‘sadness telegram’ in a palindrome (Oli Hazzard); a ‘telephonic dream’, just verbalisation caught out of discursive air (Nat Raha); a radio broadcasting old myths from deepest space (Jim Goar). The technology of poetry, some of these poems suggest, can only find oddish objects to identify with, anglepoise lamp (Holly Hopkins), an empty vacuum flask (James Midgley); a pontificating bridge (Ahren Warner); or an air terminal space the better to air the love poem (James Byrne). The nearest we get to a more IT-savvy analogy is with Emily Hasler, where poetry is compared to google earth looking down on home town. Again, the sense here is that the old forms cannot hold, and yet persist in the imagination as still the only way forward – poets perch over radios, write telegrams, dream of telephones, as though those forms of communication are closer to what poetry tries, still, to do.

            If there is a clear-eyed vision of the present limitations of poetry’s function in the dear world, what, from the evidence of this garland of language objects, beyond technology and language play, is the effect of reading a lot of poetry? For some poets, poetry creates a retreat-space, a modern version of Lady of Shallott in her tower. For Kate Kilalea, poetry is a rickety house the breaking mind retreats to, or a house for the study of water. For Stephen Emmerson, the poem is a cubical space traversed by storm and arguments and waves, with ‘completed wire graffiti’ on the walls, signs that literature ‘abandoned nothing structures’. This architectural image is strong: the poem is a ‘prophetic wall’ in suburbia holding ‘soft furnished strictures’ which distract through ‘melodramadaydreams’ (Rachel Warriner); the poem a ‘hooded place equipt with / rupture’, the reader invited to intimacy at the same time as page technology is understood as dead scholarly zone (Rebecca Cremin). More positively, the poem is like a studio apartment where phenomena come to light (Eileen Pun), can be as fun as annotating dailiness in a Wood Green cafe (Marcus Slease). But the negative sense of retreat does still dominate, with the poem as a room for staging of oblique memory, for Matthew Gregory, or, for Ollie Evans, a lazy arena for the poet as Belacqua (following Beckett), decomposing on the beach, waiting for nothing.

            Implicit in the anthology is this iterative mannerism whereby an accepted function of poetry is taken up and thought to tatters. If the 20th century added anything to poetry’s roles, it was as a shared psychoanalytic space between transferential I and countertransferential you, and the Freudian poetry could then mix things up with Marx, or develop a Surrealist agenda. This is still trackable in work here: Simon Turner stages poetry as fake anthropology / ethnography, but does have a woman suckling a spider, and reflects on the traces on the body of milk and blood. Jonty Tiplady, equally, scenes a boy at a window, watching a wood turn into wounds.  Surrealism colours the work of Ben Borek, the poem a randomized surreal sentence machine staged as love letters set in city/communication networks, and of Luke Kennard, whose poem stages a sunken diner where surreal events once happened.

            Finally, and perhaps most depressingly, many of the poets here suspect that poetry has been too compromised by capital, and become a mere commodity. Stuart Colson reads text as texture as fabric as garment, so mere clothes to be hung and sold. Stephen Fowler thinks poems might be read as mere recipes for making things, though this is certainly unsettled within the colour and wit of the language. Tom Chivers stages the poem as a diminishing return, an act of desperation because so commodified ‘like a spice, ground // and nose ward’. Marianne Morris even reads the contemporary poem as retail space, though poems may act as remonstrances against readers’ collective complicities. If the poem is a thing, then what kind of thing might it be? For Ben Stainton, it might be a red car embarrassed to be heard at bus stops.

            Against all this, and even against the grain of the retrenchment we can witness against poetry’s purposes and powers in the world in the actual work set out here, the sensing of poetry’s retreat, its commodification, its alien and dated techne, its puzzled interrogation of its bankrupt erotic, political and elegiac roles, even its frowning surmise as to language-work as just play: against all these rather dismal circumstances, we do, however, have not only those poets who are aggressively working some other kind of energy up, as with Sutherland and Crot, or finding renewed spooky felicities in the fading forms, as with Lehoczky, Turner, Emmerson; we also have Nathan Hamilton as anthologist malgré lui.

Despite his selfless method, and despite the anti-Meleagerean premise that this is an anthology aimed at presenting a generation not a tradition or a coterie, this is still his anthology, as the witty and playful sparring introduction proves, and as the presence of secreted poems in the paratext also demonstrates. It is his playful good humour and friendly, generous spirit which presides over this anthology; and it casts a good light on the poems which seem, on their own, to be saying such harsh things about poetry’s relation to the world. That friendly light makes a garland out of the tough language objects, has a reader smile and accept communication as comedic transference of collective energy, despite the rolling news.

This is a garland of flowers, with Nathan as comedian hosting the party and throwing the poems as gifts to the dear world and everyone in it. As his introduction ends: ‘Eddie Izzard in a dress saying ‘BUnch of flowerrrrrrs!’ This is a great anthology, full of good things, and despondent as the collective sense of poetry-in-the-dear-world is here, it is still a gift, still an erotic, political and elegiac garland, and communicates, affectionately, even if only through radio, telephone, telegram, darling old book.

[1] Kathryn Gutzwiller, ‘The Poetics of Editing in Meleager's Garland’, Transactions of the American Philological Association vol. 127 (1997), pp. 169-200.

[2] ‘The Youth Tactic’, Fortnightly Review, 27 April 2013 -

Adam Piette is co-editor of Blackbox Manifold, teaches at the University of Sheffield, and is the author of Remembering and the Sound of Words, Imagination at War, and The Literary Cold War, 1945 to Vietnam.