Sunday, 31 July 2005

Ten Hallam Poets

Ten Hallam Poets is an anthology whose no-nonsense title says it all. There are in fact ten poets here, and they are each, in their own way, products (that gross word) of the writing programmes (MA and PhD) at Sheffield Hallam University. The introduction is by Sean O'Brien, one of the best-known poet-critics currently writing in the UK.

As is usual with such anthologies (and I am no stranger here myself) a series of market-savvy blurbs adorns the back cover, culminating in the statement by Don Paterson (a major UK poet) that this collection "represents one of the most astonishing constellations of poetic talent to have emerged in the last ten years" - which begs the question, where are all the other "astonishing constellations" if this is only one of them?

Such praise does a disservice, perhaps, since the language with which we are able to recommend good poetry is becoming increasingly inflated to the point where soon a "new dazzling voice", "that rare good thing: the real thing" or "fizzy genius" won't even be able to buy you a loaf of bread.

Helen Dunmore says the anthology "deserves the widest possible readership" which in fact is a sort of poetic truism. Most poetry - indeed any poetry these days, especially in England - deserves a readership, and I am the first to wish to imagine a possible future world where that was the widest; given the Dan Brown Hypocentre we live in, it is more likely this attractive, small book will reach an actual readership of several hundred, or thousand. This may not be wide, but it could be deep readership, which might be almost as good.

This leads to the question of creative writing "programmes". I have recently been on the MA at UEA, one of the better in the world in terms of reputation, so am not about to throw stones here. This book is worth the price simply for O'Brien's Introduction, which should, once and for all, put to rest the silly notion, widely assumed (though rarely considered) in British literary circles, that such creative writing degrees are for the birds. Roughly speaking, O'Brien reminds us that while perhaps talent, let alone genius, cannot be taught (though Plato would have said it could surely be teased out of even the lowliest boy) it can certainly be harnessed, trained and guided by an attention to craft. The Hallam programme is one of the better ones in the UK (some would say the best of course).

The ten poets selected here are good, well-read, and what's more, they do deserve to be read. Their names are: Don Barnard, Anne Stewart, Tim Turnbull, Tracey O'Rourke, James Sheard, Gabeba Baderoon, Andrea Dow, Tony Williams, Shelley Roche and Frances Leviston. They have been selected by the editors: Steven Earnshaw, E.A. Markham and O'Brien from a presumably much wider pool, so we must assume this is Hallam's cream of the crop. I confess to thinking that about 70% of the poetry presented here is as good as - but only as good as - what could be located at any excellent department of creative writing, anywhere in the USA, Canada, or UK, at the current time - that is, rather than this book being an astonishing constellation, what is astonishing is how adequate and serious and prepared almost all graduate students writing poetry in such contexts now are - certainly, such a book could easily be prepared by UEA (and should be!) with equal results.

That being said, two or three poets out of the ten stand out with such distinction as to be in fact stars in the Paterson sense. I will briefly observe two of these.

The first is Tim Turnbull, born in 1960. His writing is witty, risk-taking, and able to play with form at ease, while never abandoning his own street-wise voice. His "Chainsaw" poem, which takes the piss out of Simon Armitage's recent poem on the same theme, is a sort of contemporary version of the kind of thing that little Pope did so well - taking down other poets with only the literate weapons of words to hand.

Turnbull is very good when he's at his best, but, like many current younger (and not so young) British poets, has mistaken attitude, humour, bravery, and insouciance for top-notch achievement - as if poets like Todd Colby in the USA had never existed.

What I am saying about Turnbull is, he is very good, and will become a force to be reckoned with - especially if he avoids assuming every pop culture reference or vernacular pose he adopts is original or an expressway to Frank O'Hara Central.

The very best poet in this anthology is Frances Leviston who was born in 1982. She is without a doubt - and on the basis of the eight poems included here - in pole position to be considered the major poet of her emergent generation. Her command and vision, at such a young age, makes her a sort of Armitage or Duffy in waiting.

It is good to read her debut will soon be with Picador (Paterson's press) - and no doubt the word "astonishing" mainly relates to her being in the constellation, for she is that fine. It was likely an editorial mistake to lead with her work, since the book can never quite recover from the the reader's desire to simply keep flipping back to pages 1-10. "Losses" is as good a poem as has been written in the 21st century by someone working within the British mainstream tradition.

For the fact that Turnbull and Leviston are here, this anthology has perennial value. James Sheard and Anne Stewart, and a clutch of poems by the other contributors, are also note-worthy.

Okay - so maybe not astonishing, but, remarkable. Time to welcome ten new poets in to the unfirm firmament where writing wheels, burns and often blazes out unseen.
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