Anthologising is, assuredly, a contentious art, not just a little like canon forming, despite numerous protestations. The mere act of including someone and leaving others out, with its corollary to granting book publication, seems nonetheless indispensable. We need to try to get a better flavour of the times, to put worthy contributions within the same pages of a collaborative volume, just to digest and try to sample what has been going on. In contrast to the Bloodaxe Staying Aliveseries, which began in 2002, Carcanet’s New Poetries has just reached its eighth volume, having commenced in 1994, with by the standards of the series more contributors, some 24, than usual this time out. A slight bias is doubtless inevitable in that we find here Carcanet authors as well as Manchester associations. Nonetheless the range of poetries is highly diverse.
Aside from the high calibre of the various poets, presentation wise each gets to say something over a page or two about their attitude to poetics, and this in itself makes for fascinating reading. The order of presentation is, if you like, random, which I would definitely say is to the good, – I get very tired of presentation alphabetically – and there are no author photos, which again is probably advantageous in directing the reader to the text, rather than wondering too much about what the writer is as a person. This is assuredly both more in depth and if you will serious than the Bloodaxe anthologies, but more importantly is not focused on the single poem.
Which poets might appeal is almost certainly down to personal preference; some have been already generously lauded, others are relatively unrecognised. Schmidt and McAuliffe are somewhat dismissive of attempts at labelling or categorising even. As the introduction states, ‘Particularism would be our philosophy…It entails a resistance to theories and “schools”…To say more would risk a limiting definition’ (pviii). This view certainly has its merits, but I would maintain that in the course of time some sort of filtering by subject tag or name association becomes pretty much inevitable. If our editors think this gives their writers some breathing space for now perhaps that should not be berated.
In terms of overriding themes or methods, I’d say most of the poets here do not adopt strict formalisms; but there is certainly quite a lot of objectification going on; a certain inhospitability to introspection might be noted. The poets seem more grounded than airy; there may be more nods to ecopoetry, rather than high flown verbal display or game playing.
To be a little hopelessly partial, three poems I particularly liked here were Colm Toibin’s ‘Curves’ (p337), Joe Carrick-Varty ’54 Questions for the Man who Sold a Shotgun to My Father’ (p109) and Benjamin Nehammer ‘Things as they Must Be’ (p139). Also Isobel Williams’ Catullus renderings work very well as a set; Christine Roseeta Walker’s poems are vividly evocative of her native Negril, Jamaica. Nehammer’s poem concludes,-
you struck against your sense of things
as they must be, as they are
bound to be in the very end,
when the trees will stand in bloom,
when a figure you have met and forgotten
will return and demand what he is owed. (end p139)
Well and one might also insist that the subject is owed something besides, but Nehammer’s phrasing is very fluid, precise and exact. That ‘sense of things’ most here would regard out in the world rather than in interior states.
This then is a quite persuasive rendering of the view on present poetics from Carcanet, and as such no doubt does what it meant to accomplish which is to display, map out and sample what is going on in contemporary poetry. One need hardly add that there are many woman poets and poets of ethnicity here, also. Whether anything of major consequence has been omitted is another issue, and let’s say there are no Instagram poets here, for instance. But what we get is a very fulsome, variously enticing and accomplished slice of the poetic milieu.
Clark Allison 15th May 2021