Monday, 3 September 2012

A Decade of the Wolf

   The craze for anthologies in recent years has often seemed a market-lead phenomenon pandering to readers' increasingly short attention-spans and reluctance to explore the work 
of untested poets for themselves. Equally, publishers faced with dwindling book-sales are eager to provide user-friendly samplers of their catalogue by rubberstamping compilations that may well shift more units than individual poets' volumes. This is not to suggest that all recent anthologies have been poor, just that their very preponderance has perhaps lead to a dilution of impact, a lack of original or defining character.

   Historically, however, the anthology was seen more as an act of criticism, a carefully-weighed contribution to the taste-making criteria of its specific moment. I've often thought that an instructive overview of post-War British poetry could be mapped from a diachronic survey of some of the major anthologies (and their introductions) from the 50s to the present, each not only signposting a new tendency in poetic practise but also setting out the terms of its (eventual) acceptance. Such a survey might delineate the fluctuating dynamics of poetry's internal politics and as such go some way to sketching out a diagram of how the suspect canons of 'major' and 'minor' poetry have been shaped in this country.

     Between Robert Conquest's New Lines(1956) - which ushered in the Movement - and Al Alvarez's The New Poetry (1963) there is a clear reactive arc; from the Hughes-Plath-Lowell-Berryman poetic of Alvarez (I'm loathe to call it "confessionalist") to Michael Horovitz's Children of Albion (1969), a flared-trousered gathering of underground and performance poets, a more complex development could be traced. Horovitz's "counterculture" anthology was published by Penguin, and it's telling that the following year they offset it with Edward Lucie-Smith's excellent British Poetry Since 1945, a much more rounded and intellectually-robust conspectus which proved influential by finding its way onto the A-Level English syllabus. Roddy Lumsden mentions his indebtedness to this book in his Intro to Identity Parade, and likewise it gave me my first brush with contemporary poetry: I've always loved Lucie-Smith's little blurbs on each poet, full of lines I've baffled over for years such as (of Geoffrey Hill) "a kind of Rilkean symbolist struggling in an unfavourable literary climate".

    A more partisan construction returned with Morrison and Motion's 1982 Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry, a rearguard action apparently sealing the mainstream victory in the "poetry wars" of the 70's. The Carcanet collection of Cambridge school and other avant garde poets, A Various Art (edited by Crozier and Longville), which appeared in 1986 but which included a good deal of work from the 70s, somewhat pulled the carpet from under the previous book's feet by revealing the depth and vigour of a wealth of different writers operating outside the strictures of mainstream publishing.

    Which brings us neatly on to The Wolf: A Decade (Poems 2002-2012),James Byrne's new accumulation of poems which originally appeared in the ground-breaking magazine he's so deftly edited throughout this period. It seems to me an anthology of the earlier kind, a selectional act of criticism representing both a summation of The Wolf's not inconsiderable contribution to the gradual widening of our reading-tastes and a powerful sonar for hidden undercurrents and sunken treasures well outside the range of most poetry-editor's purview. If a further role of a good anthology is to make hitherto-unsuspected linkages where none had seemed apparent, The Wolf: A Decade does an admirable job of joining up the dots between poetries from a remarkable diversity of cultures and traditions, justifying Byrne's suggestion that "this is one of the most international poetry anthologies ever to be published in England".

    The inclusion of a tranche of Hope Mirrlees' proto-Modernist tour de force 'Paris' (we can no longer call it 'lost') signals the genuinely revisionist trajectory of Byrne's project, tracing a ley-line from there through to later American mavericks such as Eshleman, Simic, Bidart, Kleinzahler, Anne Carson and CD Wright (not to omit the great English maverick Peter Redgrove) but equally unearthing a similar edgy intensity in a host of poems in well-turned translation, from Arabic, Burmese and East European sources, and by major figures such as Adonis, Bei Dao and Tomas Saluman. A third strand, notionally emerging out of a shrewd marrying of the other two ( Modernist and xenoglot), is the plethora of interesting younger English poets Byrne has been able to pick out and push forward, names like James Womack, Jonathan Morley and Toby Martinez.

    The anthology scarcely puts a foot wrong in terms of quality, though a few personal favourites stand out. Womack's version of Mayakovsky's 'Brooklyn Bridge' captures the vim and dash of the Russian Futurist like nothing else I've read and has both a classic opening ("Hey, Coolidge!/Nice bridge!") and ending ("Brooklyn Bridge -/Fuck me!") Valzhyna Mort's 'Sylt I' manages to be both touchingly evocative and woozily disturbing, like its last lines "So the bird sits on the ocean patiently/and feels it kick slightly now and then." And 'Diorama' by Adam Day, which I remember vividly from the magazine, still blows me away with its radically-unsuspected jump-cuts and eerily beautiful sense of dissolution: " and outside,/ the honeysuckle like a pattern of bloods/repeating itself/neurotically around a fence."



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  2. I like to read too! Thanks for your comment