A Limited Picture

The Best British Poetry 2011
, ed. Roddy Lumsden (9.99, Salt)

An anthology always has a purpose, and that purpose is often to promote a school of, or a notion about, poetry. Even anthologies of previous historical periods or of other cultures usually have a 'political' element, such as challenging the received view of a particular period of poetry. So what about this book? Well, inevitably, the title The Best... has to be addressed. 'The best' is a subjective term, and an ideological one. The term also has a history; the first edition of Palgrave's Golden Treasury, published in 1861, was subtitled 'the best songs and lyrical poems in the English language.' Editor Roddy Lumsden feels obliged to raise the subject of the book's title in his Introduction, saying 'Now let's deal with the "B" word'. But he brushes the subject aside without offering any substantial argument. By contrast, David Lehman, in his Foreword to The Best American Poetry 2011, begins by asking 'What makes a poem great? What standards do we use for judging poetic excellence?' and then devotes four and a half thousand words to an attempt at an answer. One suspects that Lehman's verbosity and Lumsden's dismissiveness are driven by the same anxiety. This is Lumsden on the book's title:

     The word [best] irks some people who feel that the
     subjective nature of selecting and editing a book like
     this is at odds with such an objective term as 'best'.

So far, so good. But what then is his response to this perfectly reasonable objection? Lumsden again:

     I can see [the objection], but there is no manifesto
     behind the word, no ulterior motive.

One could argue that the word itself constitutes a manifesto. But whether the motive is 'ulterior' or not, there certainly is a motive for using the word, as this description of the book, from the website of Salt Publishing, illustrates:

     An indispensable guide to UK poetry and a must-have
     purchase for anyone interested in the art from
     newcomers to the art to the most experienced
     professional and all creative writing students in the UK.

If you're trying to pitch a book at a (very large) market of 'newcomers' and 'all creative writing students in the UK' then claiming that it contains the best poetry is going to be very useful to you. But, motive or no motive, Lumsden's attempt to brush away the significance of the word 'best' is futile, as it will be the defining feature of this series, and will continue to polarise people into those who feel a glow of pride that their work has been accepted in a collection of 'the best', and those who indignantly question the concept. The same problem applies to the American anthologies, although there the inclusivity has redeemed the series to some degree; the editors range from Lyn Hejinian at one end of the spectrum to Billy Collins at the other. One test of the Salt series will be whether Lumsden is brave enough to hand over editorship of an issue to, say, Ken Edwards or Peter Philpott or Andrea Brady. We'lll see.

Anthologies separate individual poems from their context in the author's work, and encourage 'anthology poems' in the same way that competitions encourage 'competition poems'. This is particularly the case in this anthology, as it only gives us one poem from each poet. The commodification of poems by anthologies is a well-documented phenomenon, and again, Palgrave's Treasury - in which the editor 'improved' poems by adding titles to those which had none is the archetype. It's possible to see a similar process at work in this book: the contents are drawn from current UK poetry magazines, both online and print, and while most magazines have a bias, and publish poetry of a particular type, thereby putting the poems into a context, this anthology removes that context, implying that contemporary poetry is a single homogeneous entity. In reality, it isn't; there is a division between the poetry of, say, Carol Ann Duffy and that of Maggie O'Sullivan, and it's not just due to official acceptance or funding of one over the other; it's to do with the philosophies and assumptions which underlie the poetry; put simply, Duffy and O'Sullivan have different notions about what poetry is. Such divisions are intrinsic to the post-modern nature of poetry in the twenty-first century. To deny that there are 'schools' or movements in poetry, and instead to assert that it's all one, (and that the finest work will somehow rise to the top - as 'the best' tag implies) is to deny the very energies which drive much poetic production.

So much for the 'politics' of the book. What about the contents? It's difficult to review a collection of seventy poems by seventy different poets; it would seem pointless to pick out likes and dislikes. To take another tack; what would do we learn about contemporary poetry from this collection? Well, first, the standard is high. All of the poems are at least competent; clearly there are very many people who devote their lives to the art of poetry, and this is borne out by the results on show here. I wouldn't claim, of course, to like all of the poems, and there are some I'd value more than others, mainly because I'm more in sympathy with what they're trying to do. Secondly, the poets generally seem very articulate when discussing their work, judging from the 'contributors' Notes and Comments' at the back, in which each poet describes the circumstances of their poem's making. I guess both of the above are a result of the dominance of creative writing departments in which many of the poets have either studied, or taught, or both. The growth of creative writing in this country, following the lead of the US, is an interesting, and in many ways a positive development. Certainly, universities provide a base, as well as resources and funding, which allows a lot of good things to happen in poetry terms. One could also argue however, that there's less chance of the one-off, individual talent emerging, and certainly, there's no-one who fits that description in this book, with the possible exception of Alexander Hutchison.

The selection in this book is largely mainstream; there are, as Carrie Etter has pointed out, no prose poems, which is a shame considering the burgeoning interest in that form by practitioners like Ian Seed, Simon Smith, Linda Black and Etter herself. The book does include a few more radical practitioners, such as Chris McCabe, but this apparent attempt to be inclusive simply makes the selection appear more shapeless and unfocussed, but at the same time doesn't go far enough to truly represent the range of poetics currently being practiced. The anthology doesn't explicitly align itself with any poetic school, but, as Ron Silliman has pointed out in an American context, the mainstream (or School of Quietude, as Silliman styles it), is the one poetic school that pretends not to be a school. Of course, once you take into account schools or genres of poetry, the concept of 'best' becomes difficult to sustain.

Finally, to return to the 'Contributors Notes and Comments' that section of the book, mentioned above, in which poets describe the genesis of their poem; I've mentioned that these are very articulate, and I can say that I found them genuinely interesting. These notes do however, support my contention that this is a 'mainstream' anthology, as they mostly talk about the experiences and ideas that led to the poem, but tend to avoid any discussion of 'process', that its, of treating the raw material of language as a substance to be worked; a self-generative and reflexive medium (though there are one or two exceptions, most notably George Szirtes and Michael Zand).

A book which represents so many poets by a single poem is bound to replicate the faults to which anthologies in general are prone. I think the same problem exists with the American series, regardless of whether the issues are edited by a radical or a conservative. It could be argued that alighting on a poem by accident may cause a reader to find out more about a particular poet's work; but that could be done just as easily by reading the magazines and websites from which this selection is drawn, which would also put the work into context. This book contains work by number of poets I admire, some of whom I know personally. But my contention is that good poems, in themselves, do not make a good anthology. Palgrave's Golden Treasury contains some tremendous poems; the problem is the packaging and presentation which here serve to give a limited picture of what contemporary poetry is while at the same time promoting the essentially conservative ethos that generates ventures like the Forward Prize and now the projected annual event of The Best British Poetry.
       Alan Baker 2011