The PBS Next Generation list of "the most exciting new poets" is extraordinary in that there is nothing new about it. Every poet selected either already has an established reputation or has been a prize-winner or had a debut that's been a PBS Choice. Is this promotion primarily about taking risks on encouraging and nurturing new poetry or is it rather on the whole a desperate bid in the face of a shrinking market to bolster the careers of poets with proven track-records of achievement, an exercise more akin to hedge-fund management than to the discovery of fresh, unheard styles and voices?
I say desperate because some of the choices are a little baffling. Adam Foulds is a fine writer but he has only published one book of poetry The Broken Word (impressive as it was) and that was back in 2008; since then he's produced two novels and as far as I know no poetry by him has appeared in magazines or journals. In other words, the impression is that Foulds is now concentrating his energies on prose and indeed is invariably described as a novelist . I can't see by what stretch of the imagination Foulds could be described as a new poet "currently lighting up the scene"; but he's a successful writer, he's won awards and prizes and I'm sure Cape (part of Random House) could do with selling a few more copies of The Broken Word.
Equally, Sam Willets brought out one book in 2010, New Light for the Old Dark, which has some good poems in it but has published nothing since. Like many people, I like Mark Waldron's work: his idiosyncratic friskiness with language can appeal to admirers of both the "post-avant" and the more mainstream (though these facile definitions have inter-curdled of late, in part because of poets like Waldron.) He's had two volumes out and is a well-respected figure on the scene, looked up to by younger poets, getting towards being something of an eminence grise: but "sparky" new poet?
It's positive that there are more women than men on the list, of course, with some genuinely worthy inclusions like Heather Phillipson and the performance poet Kate Tempest (also nominated for the Mercury Prize - now that's an exciting first). And positive that a poet published by an independent press like Penned in the Margins - Melissa Lee-Houghton - should be recognised, although this is very much the anomaly among a preponderance of Faber, Carcanet and Cape authors.
I'm aware that having an existing reputation within the poetry world doesn't mean that any of these writers couldn't do with their work being further talked about, promoted and marketed. It doesn't of course mean that you're making a steady income from poetry or have in any way "made it" as a writer. Given sufficient funding it would be beneficial if more than one initiative like this could be happening, with more backing awarded to promising poets who have yet to have their first book published; but something I learnt at the Penned in the Margins discussion panel last week (part of their ten year anniversary celebrations) is that more poetry-books are being published by a greater number of publishers than ever before but in fact less copies are being sold. That's quite a bleak conundrum, isn't it?
In that kind of scenario, with smaller presses and of course online printing gathering in importance, it's clear we need to be looking beyond PBS promotions to locate where the genuinely new and exciting currents in British poetry are coming through.
Check out the Next Generation 2014 here: