Sunday, 3 June 2007

i-Pods and Jellyfish

Simon Turner reviews Generation Txt (Penned in the Margins, 2006), 75 pp. £6.99 ISBN 978-0-9553846-1-5

Tom Chivers, who edited this anthology of six young poets, opens his introduction to the selection in combative mode with a quote from Kate Clanchy that is almost parodically idiotic: "I started writing when I was 28. I don't think people really write anything worth reading before that." Mr Chivers is clearly more forgiving than I am - he is Darth Vader to my Emperor Palpatine - as he doesn't make the obvious comment ("Yes, Kate, and some people don't write poetry worth reading even after they're 28"), letting a list of young prodigies - including Keats, Shakespeare, Wilfred Owen, Chatterton and Plath - do the talking for him.

The basis of Chivers' polemic is simple, but undeniable: that the establishment, although making some notional nods to new writers every few years or so, goes out of its way for the most part to ignore work written by younger writers. And when it does make tokenistic efforts to promote 'new' writing (witness the PoSoc New Gen poets promotional bumph from all those years back) it spectacularly misreads what 'new' actually means. Young writers do flourish, but it's on the fringes of the poetry 'scene': in the poetry slam and open mic circuits, or amongst little presses or internet operations, like Penned in the Margins, strangely enough. As such, this collections isn't doing anything monstrously ground-breaking, but what is interesting is its all-purpose quality, and the multimedia brouhaha which goes with it: not only do we have the anthology itself (more on the contents in a moment), we have the nationwide tour, a MySpace page, and an official website too. It's certainly far more real - and far more effective - as a means of conveying the work to the public than the media-saturated razzle dazzle of the approved Faber and Bloodaxe types who dominated the New and Next Gen lists; and what's more, it gives us both page and performance poetries, closing the gap between the two, which can only be a good thing.

What's most impressive, though, is the genuine (formal) diversity on display here. Joe Dunthorne, who opens the anthology, gives us sestinas and villanelles; Inua Ellams gives us great rolling hymns of poems designed for the open space of the theatre; James Wilkes has his postcards and vertical poems; Abigail Oborne has her square sonnets and fractured herky-jerky prose poems. So, what of the work itself? Dunthorne's a nice opener, with a strong line in knotty language and rhythmic solidity:

Rubens milks filth from the bib-heavy maid's basket
of fruit. No ambiguity here as the hand of a cad
with a ya-know-ya-would smirk parts the labia
of a clit-stoned fig. I'm thinking Viz.

('Rubens' paintings at the National Gallery')

Lovely, mouth-filling stuff; the reference to Viz really makes the passage, I feel. Though this quote strangely points to both Dunthorne's strengths and his weaknesses simultaneously; and whilst he's assured when employing this highly wrought idiom, his work seems more fulfilling when he tones it down a little, as in the likable poem that closes his selection, 'Taking a Photo of Workmen in Chapelfields Gardens', or the strange surrealist narrative of 'I Made a Grown Woman Cry Last Night'. One of his poems contains jellyfish, which is always a gold star in my book.

Inua Ellams' material would, I suspect, work best in performance, as on the page some of its rhetorical flourishes and alliterative effects didn't quite achieve lift off for this reader. That said, there's a lot of power and passion in these poems, and the best of his selection - 'Epic', 'Lizards and Lollypop Sticks' - achieves a cumulative force reminiscent of Ginsberg circa-'Sunflower Sutra', or the performance poetry of Saul Williams.

Arguably, Laura Forman is a more consistent poet than either Dunthorne or Ellams, but seems to take fewer risks than either. As such, though there isn't anything particularly wrong with what she's attempting, and there were some lovely moments here - the use of estate-agent speak to talk about death in 'For Sale', or the arresting opening line of 'Attention' ('You let me abseil down your forehead') - I can't honestly claim that her work particularly engaged me. I've seen material like this in any number of mainstream collections, and the more interesting material here (the aforementioned 'For Sale', for example) had the quality of workshop exercises. Forman clearly has a talent for well-wrought images - 'The sky was up early today, / Scrubbing away last night's stars / With summer soap and an old, thin cloud / For a healthy blue glow' - but I would have liked a more formal daring to go with it.

In the case of Emma McGordan, I'd like to dwell on the good (the concision of 'Punks & Patchouli', the telegraphic violence of 'Sonnet to the Soviet'), rather than the bad ('Sexy Anne's Plan', ''The System'). McGordon's only really just starting out, so her work might improve, but her work at the moment is rather undeveloped, lapsing into cliche on a regular basis, and some lines - see, for example, 'Sexy Anne would take / The circus stand / So to speak to every man / And tell them of / The Sexy Anne Plan' - are strikingly clunky.

Abigail Oborne, on the other hand, is the real deal, and if some of the poems here seem a little too eager to please, this is for the most part top-notch work. 'Suffering', in particular, is alert to how language is used and abused in everyday life, and focuses on our attempts (and failures) to talk eloquently about violence and trauma, with facts and figures from the newspapers jostling with inelegant attempts to give voice to personal tragedies:

when the tsunami
two hundred thousand people
my wife's mother

eight day's later we heard that she'd died
getting the chicken
her father dropped down dead

Oborne's blurb cites Frank O'Hara as an influence, and his 'I go here, I do this' mode of writing is inherited in 'The World' and 'Sunday Ten to Three', the second of which is one of the best things in this anthology; whilst O'Hara's New York fellow-traveller, Ted Berrigan, is a ghostly presence in Oborne's not-quite sonnets ('when I say I love you / it sounds like the flip / of a cheque book'). A-grade, and another gold star.

Jellyfish recur in James Wilkes' poems, which of course automatically puts me in a good mood, as does Wilkes' shape-shifting attitude to form. Arguably the most exciting of the poets on display here, this brief selection gives us postcard poems, permutational poems, vertical poems, collage and ecological satire. Which is a fairly good showing for a small handful of pages. Wilkes' thing seems to be the use of the page as an extra dimension in the construction of meaning; form is an element of content, and vice versa. The vertical poem, for instance ('Score for a Nocturne'), compels the reader to either read from left to right, or from top to bottom. The first method yields this first line: 'the hissing electric loops'; the second this alternative: 'the night cantata of patched mirrors passing city cinematic lighthouse swept past'. One poem contains at least two possibilities of alternative readings; there are most likely as many potential poems here as there are potential readers. 'Postcard from Rochester' similarly shatters the notion of linear reading, allowing for vertical reading, horizontal reading, circular reading, any which way. It would be very interesting to see how this work is performed on stage, as it seems dependent to a great extent upon the extra dimension of the page for its effects, but that's altogether another matter. All told, this is excellent stuff.

So, then, a mixed bag, but that's always the way with anthologies. I do, however, think that this anthology for the most part points to rude health amongst the youngsters on the poetry scene (though some of them are the same age as me, so I don't know where that leaves me...), and offers alternatives to the tedium of the current crop of mainstream not-so-bright stars. Young poets should get their hands on it, if only to give them a sense of the world beyond Picador hegemony. But the people who should really be reading - like Clanchy, perhaps - will no doubt be dismissing it out of hand before they've even scanned the cover.

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