The Experience Itself

The Allotment, edited by Andy Brown
[219pp, 10.00, Stride Publications]

This new, chunky Stride anthology, subtitled 'new lyric poets', is a strangely heterogenous garnering: sprouts nestle next to onions, shining aubergines next to muddy turnips, marrows... you get the motif, I'm sure. It's a confusing read, not clarified by Andy Brown's preface, more of which later. Experimental stuff by Luke Kennard and Kit Lambert, lists and ambitious prosy sequences are succeeded by the formality of Linda Rose Parkes and Jane Routh, whose 'The River Pilot's Wife' is one of the most moving poems.

What frail travelling coincidence gathers these voices apart from taste and chance? The back cover suggests they borrow 'from Romanticism as much as from Postmodernism', yet Brown's preface seems not to want to allow admission to all varieties of poetic voice. In particular, he has it in for Larkin, citing Robert Sheppard's use of 'The Whitsun Weddings' as the archetypal 'empirical lyric': a solitary observer approaches a person or experience, is deflected or withdraws with a slight resultant change of attitude. This is, he asserts, the pattern for much post-war poetry and it is not good enough; neither is Larkin's famous attempt to explain why he writes much use, expressed as it is in language. It is the gap between language and experience which Brown finds interesting. All well and good but hasn't this been explored before by (amongst others) e.e.cummings, W.S.Graham, Seamus Heaney... not to mention the Romantic programme for writing in the ordinary words of ordinary mankind? This is not new, surely?

What does Brown provide instead of this old-fashioned Larkinian pose? Well, take the title poem, by Abi Curtis. A lovingly detailed description of walking round allotments is punctuated by the heavy authorial voice, directing the reader where to find truth or knowledge, concluding with the injunction 'look close... this is where you'll learn'. Is this closely directed narrative really preferable to Larkin's well-known poems which fragment or swerve away from authorial commitment or didacticism? 'The Whitsun Weddings', to take a typical example, concludes with the famous image of rain sent beyond the sight of the reader, somewhere becoming rain, indicating fertility further down the line, as it were, of the marriages in question. Larkin includes himself out; he doesn't modify his view any further as a result of the loving description of that particular day; instead he hints that the true complexities of the experience are beyond him. The poet is surprised, as is the reader:isn't this a form of scrupulous honesty? Brown claims he wants 'sincerity' in this anthology rather than a 'didactic thrust', but poems such as 'The Allotment' seem, on the contrary,  extremely prescriptive.

Others included here, such as Frances Thompson, produce frankly old-fashioned anecdotal poems such as 'Grace'[father praying before meals] or Anouk Mishti's 'I Look' [genealogy and cultural shifts on the internet], but likeable as these poems are, let's not pretend they are doing anything dazzling or experimental not attempted by Larkin. In fact, let's not forget the experimental side to Larkin's work: 'Days', the terrifying 'Aubade' - if feathers really are to be ruffled, why not tackle the obscurity of Hill and Muldoon, or the cliched northernisms in Hughes and Armitage? If sacred cows really are to be challenged, why not risk real offence, rather than using Larkin yet again?

Enough, enough. 'This is not a manifesto', Brown concludes, having nearly sketched out exactly that. Pleasing single pieces include Rose Flint's sensuous 'Domestic Goddess', Sophie Mayer's 'Blue Love', Linda Rose Parkes' 'Single Frame': all are successful, fairly traditional pieces based on character, experience and setting - they could be stigmatised as Duffy-lite, Plath-influenced, even anecdotal Hughes respectively. Anne Stevenson's comment about poetry's 'ungovernable need to exist' is quoted on the back cover - a comment not many miles away from Larkin's 'my prime responsibility is to the experience itself', which Brown has damned in the introduction. This is an interesting collection of early material from most of these writers, badly served by the misleading rhetoric of the introduction.

          M. C. Caseley 2006