Voice Recognition: 21 Poets for the 21st Century
edited by James Byrne and Clare Pollard
(168pp, £9.95, Bloodaxe Books, 2009)

Anthologies of British mainstream poetry have tended to generate considerable controversy. This is because they are not really concerned with poetry per se but with poetry as a mirror of the nation and its moral life. The convergence of nation, morality and poetry dates from Robert Conquest's New Lines (1956). Conquest argued that the anthology's nine poets represented 'a genuine and healthy poetry of the new period' and 'a new and healthy general standpoint'. His narrative of recovery from recent sickness was reinforced by references to 'corruption', 'debilitating theory' and 'a condition' and by dismissals of poetry dominated by 'the Id', 'unconscious commands', 'sentimentalism', 'unpleasant exhibitionism' and 'sentimentality'. These generalised terms stood in for any detailed aesthetic argument because, as Conquest was forced to admit, the New Lines poets shared 'little more than a negative determination to avoid bad principles'. At the same time, the poetry's 'empirical...attitude' was 'a part of the general intellectual ambience (in so far as that is not blind or retrogressive) of our time.' 'Ambience' is another generalised word that echoes Conquest's use of 'atmosphere' (3 times), 'moods' and 'mood'. The implication is that if you have to ask for clearer definitions then you are part of the problem.

Conquest's introduction established some important aspects of mainstream poetry anthologies. First, there is a dismissal of the recent past and a hailing of the present as a site of changes, shifts, trends or emergent groupings. Second, there is the editor presenting a generalised account of insider knowledge. Finally, this generalisation removes the burden of having to justify the selection as a unified whole. This pattern was largely reproduced in subsequent anthologies but with greater focus on history and politics. For The New Poetry
(1962), Alvarez redefined the restraint of Conquest's poets as 'the gentility principle' and demanded that poets wake up to history and engage with 'the forces of disintegration'. Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion's The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry (1982) dismissed 'The implication of The New Poetry that a correlation necessarily exists between gravity of subject and quality of achievement'. They argued that poetry hadn't developed in that direction and offered Seamus Heaney as their exemplary poet: someone whose work derived from 'The Movement virtues of common sense, craftsmanship, and explication' but had developed into oblique, refracting fiction-making. And just as Conquest had buttressed his argument with a lengthy quotation from Coleridge, so Morrison and Motion did the same with Keats.

The 1993 Bloodaxe anthology I co-edited with Michael Hulse and David Morley originally had the working title of Eighties/Nineties
but ended up borrowing Alvarez's title to justify its argument for significant change. The introduction was a naively-pluralist, pro-postmodernist, anti-Thatcher polemic which offered rather over-determined arguments about the extent to which the poetry it collected challenged the age. One other notable feature of these anthologies is the contracting or expanding movement they enact: Conquest (9 poets), Alvarez (28 poets), Morrison/Motion (20 poets), Hulse/Kennedy/Morley (55 poets). It's clear that the Conquest and Morrison/Motion anthologies reflect periods of cultural and political isolationism, conservatism, and cynicism about or exhaustion with ideas of community and the collective. Alvarez's anthology is very much of the 'Sixties while the Hulse/Kennedy/Morley New Poetry's celebration of diversity was a rejection of Thatcherism's anti-society which, with hindsight, looks increasingly like a cover for the impossibility of drawing any meaningful sketch of the contemporary scene. 

This, then, is the cultural history into which Voice Recognition
, the latest anthology to shout 'tomorrow belongs to us', seeks to write itself. And this writing into history is quite self-conscious as James Byrne and Clare Pollard invoke Alvarez's anthology and its 'excellent introduction' to argue that 'Technique is not enough. Talent must be fuelled by the experience of a life outside of the poems.' So it's down with the 'mere recounting of anecdotes or minor stagings of epiphany' and 'make way' for poetry that benefits from 'the creative stimuli that can be found through travel, translation or through a broad appreciation of visual art' and 'a wide appreciation of the 'confessional' American poets'. There are, however, some important surface differences. Previous anthologies have often found themselves arguing for shifts that are already over. This was true of Morrison/Motion and the Bloodaxe New Poetry. Voice Recognition describes a recognisable contemporary scene. Unlike its predecessors, Voice Recognition doesn't have a title that refers to poetry. And this is reflected in the poetry world that the introduction sketches, a world that is predominantly performance-driven. It's also reflected in a sentence that would have been impossible to write a few years ago: Jay Bernard 'is a DJ for the Poetry Society and podcasts regularly.'

Voice Recognition
is full of strange sentences. Here's another from the 'Acknowledgements': 'thanks to [...] faculty from many universities who provided recommendations'. This reflects the fact that none of poets have published a full-length collection and that many of them have undertaken some form of graduate studies. But at the same time, the editors can't decide what they think about creative writing and the academy. They tell us that 'Almost every university going seems to have a poetry course, which is frequently backed by renowned faculty.' This is another strange sentence which is typical of the introduction's style. Byrne and Pollard combine the enthusiastic 'must see' tone of listings mags with a kind of semi-skilled academic discourse. The result is that meaning is produced by a kind of random pointing. The first half of the sentence sounds a note of exhaustion that seems to promise disapproval, and yet the second half suddenly swerves into a kind of awkward reverence. And what does 'backed' mean? 'Supported by' as in 'approved of' or 'backed up' as in 'underpinned'? Similarly, the poets in Voice Recognition 'have range, dare and vitality'. But you can't 'have dare' just as Alvarez was clearly asking for something more profound than life experience.

To return to creative writing and the academy, Byrne and Pollard tell us that MAs in creative writing 'can encourage conformities of style' and 'many of the same-sounding, low-stake, well-mannered (but going nowhere) poems we read whilst putting together this anthology were from poets who had recently come along the MA conveyor-belt.' As a consequence, 'we've tried to avoid any poets who conform to archetypes of academic orderliness (though many of our poets have benefited a great deal from graduate study)'. The idea that British MA programmes are collectively teaching a latter-day version of the well-made poem is bizarre. (My experience is that most creative writing students want to write fantasy fiction anyway.) But one suspects that this is Voice
Recognition's own version of attacking the recent past as many MAs are overseen or taught by poets who came to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s. As David Cameron remarked to Tony Blair in his first House of Commons speech as Tory leader (07.12.05), 'you were the future once'.

Tony Blair and David Cameron are not as remote from this anthology as one might think. A group of poets whose reference points are an anthology that is nearly 50 years old, Rilke, Pound and American confessional poets and whose work represents (incredibly) 'after years of other regions being prominent, [...] a real shift back to the capital' has an odd sense of poetry, history, politics and just about everything else. What they have, in fact, is a gap, and it is a gap they share despite Voice Recognition
representing three distinct generations: b.1988-1991, b.1984-6, and b.1977-1982. This gap is the result of having grown up through the Blair era. Margaret Thatcher's infamous assertion that 'there is no such thing as society, only individual men and women and their families' was rewritten by New Labour in a variety of ways. One version might be, say, 'there is no such thing as ideology, only things that work and things that don't' or 'there is no such thing as the United Kingdom, only individual nations and their diversity'. But to deny society or ideology or nation is to remove any way of defining the self and the result is that your only reference point is yourself and your convictions. This explains the feeling throughout the introduction of the editors struggling to define their poets against anything. Indeed, the 'recognition' in the anthology's title is highly significant because previous mainstream anthologies clearly were matters of definition. The cultural moment that James Byrne and Clare Pollard describe is, in contrast, dehistoricized, depoliticized, and, to coin a word, de-literate. Or, as Ahren Warner puts it in 'Epistle', 'there are no signs of our times'. The present is unreadable without a sense of the very recent past and this is why voters will believe in New Toryism and elect David Cameron as the next Prime Minister.

What does this mean for the poetry? I've already suggested that the emphasis on 'voice' might tell us something about the poetry and there is a lot of work here that probably sounds great in a reading or on a podcast and that, in the editors' words, has benefitted from 'an increased awareness of how to deliver a poem to an audience'. This also means that there is a lot of largely formless free verse that lacks any inevitability on the page. But what's most surprising in the context of a generation-defining anthology is the number of voices here that seem to lack confidence or to revel in an inability to communicate. In Heather Phillipson's 'Crossing the Col d'Aubisque', the speaker 'could say a lot about a lot of things' but would 'rather hear the stereo' and finds that 'The Smiths are in synch / with what I don't express'. Similarly, in Jack Underwood's 'Bonnie 'Prince' Billy', the eponymous singer not the poet 'sings how ugly and complex / I have become.' Ailbhe Darcy's 'He tells me I have a peculiar relationship with my city' describes 'my country' as 'a narrow, self-effacing swathe, / the shape of me'. The speaker of Jay Bernard's '109' tells us 'I don't know if I can talk' and the mother in Emily Berry's 'The Mother's Tale' 'won't share a drop of emotion'. All this has the curious effect of suggesting that the mainstay of mainstream poetry, the personal lyric, is largely inoperative. And what this leaves are
, pace Byrne and Pollard, large quantities of anecdote and minor epiphany. 

In contrast, the few poets who seem genuinely interested in doing something with form, language and voice--Siddartha Bose, Mark Leech, Toby Martinez de las Rivas, Sophie Robinson and Ahren Warner--catch the reader's attention with an often quite pronounced sense of provisionality and unpredictability. The opening of Sophie Robinson's 'unspeakable' is a good example: 'Your name swallows my lips & / the backward downward rage of all / girls knocking through me'. But so too is Mark Leech's 'Snowfall in Woodland' with its opening 'There's a curve that promises' and its repeated 'I turn my head towards'. These poets have visibly and audibly thought about what is involved in the act of reading and how different types of text produce different reading styles. These poets seem to have thought about the fact that readers bring their own fantasies to bear upon whatever they read and, consequently, their poems repay re-reading because there's much less sense of them colluding with the usual readers of poetry. Crucially, the work of these poets converges with what the mainstream dismisses as avant garde or experimental poetry.

It would be pleasant to think that this was an encouraging sign but five out twenty-one is a small number and it would be wrong to overburden these poets with hopes or fears for the future. And, as we have seen, anthologies with a relatively small number of poets tend to reflect exhaustion, a coming conservatism, or a combination of both. The poetry collected in Voice Recognition
seems largely unaware of and unconcerned with what has dominated British mainstream poetry since about 1950: anxieties about class, region, gender and race. James Byrne and Clare Pollard are the first anthology editors to show no interest in poetry as a mirror of the nation. In this, of course, they only reflect the attitudes of their chosen poets. But it makes Voice Recognition an early monument to a post-national poetry. The editors and their poets have removed one of poetry's principle claims for recognition: its ability to offer unique insights into the relationships between private and public and between self and nation that define us all.

     © David Kennedy 2009