David Morley on a brave anthology of new poetry edited with electric panache
Is this the friendliest contemporary poetry anthology ever? From the kick-off, poetry tumbles across every page (including the title pages, biographical notes, end-papers), messing with expectation and cultural mores. The introduction is an "I do this, I do that" prose poem (Frank O'Hara's "Personism manifesto" reimagined for the Facebook generation). The Anthology itself becomes a third-person character with its own voice and mannerisms. It even cracks Star Trek jokes: "So, fame-hungry poets or mainstream publishers would be like the Ferengi. JH Prynne would be a sort of Vulcan. Or maybe Data."
Dear World attempts to disarm the reader by being so artlessly unlike other recent round-ups of younger poets: "This is as good an anthology of good poetry being written by as varied a group of poets and poetries as The Editor could have compiled currently and in the given time and for the money paid." Anything phoney is dismissed as "Spam". "Old editors" are chided for asking "for too much certainty". Yet this is all right and good in its way because all is poetically provisional. Dear World is a book laying itself bare and free of cultural advantage. I know no more honest a description of its editorial methods for selecting the poets: they branch out like tributaries of association.
In the same way we use rhythm and pattern to shape a poem, so editor and poet Nathan Hamilton has, with electric panache, reinvented the anthology as a form of sequencing. In design and content, Dear World reads, looks and sounds like a long poem. But to what degree is this delicious cake just eating itself? Are new poets simply reading new poets? Is it that this generation does not feel it is a life choice to go experimental or mainstream, that in fact there is an intermingling of possible strategies and a fresh sense of ease about the possibilities of poetry? Or is it actually on the side of experimentalism, process over product, but letting its "realist" friends come to the party? Plus ça change if that is the case, because this coexistence has been going on in Britain since the beginning of modernism. It may even co-exist within the same poet. Think of Roy Fisher, Geoffrey Hill, Selima Hill, Peter Reading Denise Riley and Charles Tomlinson.
Charm has limits. Editorial selection is an artistic and critical act. We might disavow the old systems by which poetry is measured, but in choosing to "publish well" we simply set up another reckoning. Is it disingenuous to state that "the UK Poetry Establishment needs restructuring" when this anthology is its latest extension? What of the good, new poets who are not included? For all its play and artless artfulness, The Anthology might prove an unwitting tyrant.
As to the poets who made it into Dear World, there are predictable highs, plateaux and crescendi. And amid the cacophony there are striking individual poems and selections from the likes of Emily Berry, Ben Borek, James Byrne, Tom Chivers, Elizabeth Guthrie, Toby Martinez de las Rivas, Emily Hasler, Oli Hazzard, Holly Hopkins, Sarah Howe, Luke Kennard, Frances Leviston, Éireann Lorsung, Michael McKimm, Kei Miller, Sam Riviere and Jack Underwood. These poets simply stand out because they write most like themselves and their poems are the least like so many other poems. Exemplary among them is Sandeep Parmar, whose extended ghazal "Against Chaos" is a lesson in the lineated locations of feeling:
Love could not have sent you, in this shroud of song,
to wield against death your hollow flute, tuned to chaos.
Whatever the Ancients said, matter holds the world
to its bargain of hard frost. But life soon forgets chaos.
He who has not strode the full length of age, has counted
then lost count of days that swallow, like fever, dark chaos.
And you, strange company, in the backseat of childhood
propped on the raft of memory like some god of chaos.
But what caught me by surprise, and made me convert to the bite and bustle of Dear World was the editorial courage to embrace poetic sequences. They lend a magical quality to the book, and its length allowed them to unroll. This is an act of grace. Longer poems were given space to breathe, and they achieve intense realisation in the hands of Patrick Coyle ("Alphabetes" is a sensation) and Jo Crot (the exquisite "from Poetsplain"); but also in the expertly challenging sequences by SJ Fowler, Jim Goar, Meirion Jordan, Chris McCabe, Keston Sutherland, Simon Turner, Ahren Warner and Steve Willey.
Dear World does well by these cumulative, unfolding, cloud-formations of sound and language. It is friendly to poetry's inherent difficulties and demands. Which, to my mind, makes it the bravest anthology of poetry of the past few years.
• David Morley's Enchantment is published by Carcanet.