Pamphlet Reviews: Faber New Poets (2009)

Gillian Grafton

Faber’s New Poets scheme is the latest of wide-ranging measures by poetry presses to bring the early-career poet to prominence in the twenty-first century. And Faber’s experiment—the hothousing of four Eric Gregory winners for a year with money and a mentor of their choice—should, at least one would hope, bear fruit: after all, these four poets are backed by what some people still believe is one of the better purveyors of poetry in the UK. Undoubtedly the appearance of these slim, colour-coded volumes is heaped with expectations, the foremost of which are whether these poets actually offer anything ‘new’ and if, new or not, they are any good. The history of newness is of course complex; successions of literary avant-gardes throughout the twentieth century on some level depended on an assassination of the old in order for them to exist, or at the very least newness ought to suggest a concern with aesthetic change. There are those who reject newness as either impossible or feel that too often it is a stand-in for real artistic merit. New for the sake of newness. But those arguments seem often to smooth the path towards populist and mediocre verse. And, finally, the mere quality of youth or a generational shift—or even the fact that many won’t have heard of these poets—isn’t enough to warrant the term ‘new’. ‘New’ should not become a byword for ‘young’. All this should be fairly self-evident. But the underlying machine behind this ‘venture’ bears a moment’s attention. According to Faber, in 2009 a ‘tri-partite package’ of support and publication was offered to four poets based on the ‘the advice of ten scouts appointed by the Arts Council’. Those ‘scouts’ sent in nominations. They were reviewed by ‘a panel of experienced poets and prominent practitioners [academics] from the poetry world’. They ‘met’. They ‘adjudicate[d]’. This ritualistic selection process—reminiscent of the officious and artificial air of medieval courts and mystic cults—produced four new poets: Fiona Benson, Toby Martinez de las Rivas, Heather Phillipson and Jack Underwood. The new poets were handed over ceremoniously (one imagines) to an elder, wiser mentor for the duration of a year.

Sean O’Brien remarked in his Guardian review of these pamphlets: ‘Thankfully, none of these poets is contributing to the current plague of anecdotes; all them want more from a poem.’ In the case of Fiona Benson’s work, anecdotes abound, most of them nostalgic and wilfully momentous in the microscopic world of her own individual life: that dead bird (‘Lares’), that ‘once-off fuck in the dark’ (Landscape with Harm’), ‘that night’ verses the present’s death and loss (‘Dogrose Season’) or even just the vaguely orientalist memory of a Thailand resort: drinking ‘Singhas’, listening to the ‘cicadas’, eating ‘steaming curries laced with lemongrass’ (‘Amandara’). In each short meditation (none of Benson’s poems extend beyond a page) is the observation of something solitary and ordinary, from which the poet hopes to extract (or exhaust) meaning. Warnings against death are propped against sugary images, which the poet records not so much for herself but for some greater aesthetic or even metaphysical purpose:

I was straight off the bus in that glaze of heat,
my unwashed skin peppery with sweat,
rucksack, camera, dirt, bearing me down
to the devil. But there you were, waist-deep in saffron,
your long arms folded and every hair on them
glowing like bronze, your red hair on fire
and your dark eyes attentive, though you don’t remember,
which is why I’m writing it down…

(‘Poem for James’)

The plague of faceless pronouns isn’t limited to this poem—the ‘we’, ‘you’, ‘I’ etcetera have lives of their own and they exclude the reader from what is perhaps ultimately only a personal record that claims to be nothing more. Most of the language here disappoints with the exception of a few phrases from ‘First Wife’. There’s charm in ‘four shilling bunches of jonquils’, the image of a tomato forming a ‘small grenade’ in a palm and the half line ‘her trowel stood staked in the rhubarb’—though ‘squamous with rust’ missteps.

Heather Phillipson’s poems mix Benson’s irksome quotidian with humour via tongue-in-cheek in-jokes for the well-read performance poetry audience, as in ‘German Phenomenology Makes Me Want to Strip and Run through North London’:

Page seven—I’ve had enough of Being and Time
and of clothing. Many streakers seek quieter locations
and Marlborough Road’s unreasonably quiet tonight.
If it were winter I’d be intellectual, but it’s Tuesday
and I’d rather be outside, naked, than learned—

Later, in the poem ‘Relational Epistemology’—the title refers to the theory, contrary to traditional epistemologies, that knowledge is socially constructed—there is a clever nod again to phenomenology and structuralism, their tools of representational and experiential torture are wielded on the figure of the poet as a child, who becomes at once a befuddled victim and someone who thinks she is ‘in the know’. This ‘knowledge’ is, in turn, impossible. The only drawback to Phillipson’s too-cool lack of seriousness is that the poems’ emotional weight drops out and the linguistic techniques bare themselves, like neon, over the hard work these poems lack. Where is the risk in her sassy poem about sex on an airplane (‘The Distance between England and America’)? How does ‘Taking Breakfast Alone’ add anything to the long tradition of marvellous poems about life alone and/or being abandoned by a lover? How is it doing anything interesting or new?

Every day I might come close to death and not know it.
Halfway through a soft-boiled egg,
half full of tea, the days need something sweet.
If you were here you could pass me a Digestive, darling,
feed the cats and me.

Alas, Phillipson doesn’t get her Digestive and life in the bed-sit goes on.

There is something cheery about Jack Underwood’s poems. The voice in the poem ‘Hannah-loo’ is not unlike the boyish and talky mid-century Americans whose poems about baseball seem to build on their own dithering enthusiasm until they unravel.

Sam Lynch lent me a gypsy dollar to cut our first record
at the hollow shack off Memoir Street.
In those days, no one wore haircuts and jeans were for working men.
There was me, Nic and Joe on bass and the song was ‘Hannah-loo’.
We took our mark from country, but played it fast, on the back beat
like this—bum tappa tum tap—until we got tired.
Joe slept with one hand in buttermilk, to keep it supple, the other
for plucking, in sand, or was it dirt, or the other way around?

But this is more or less atypical of the poems in Underwood’s pamphlet. Some of the work here is more condensed—almost to the point of becoming riddle-like—and here the writing is its most skilful. ‘Migration’ loses the youthful tone found elsewhere and introduces an out-of-place dead seriousness: ‘I must break the neck of a bird / that has flown here for the winter.’ Where the poems disintegrate into prose (‘Currency’) there appears to be little attention to image or language; but in the poems ‘Wilderbeast’[sic?] and the surreal ‘How shall I say this?’ there are some felicitous phrases and judicious line breaks.

Toby Martinez de las Rivas writing is of a very different sort to the rest of these poets. On the whole, it extends beyond the (often self-absorbed) lyricism of the others and takes risks with its language and subject matter, even when addressing the personal. ‘Poem, Three Weeks After Conception’ moves expertly from image to image while prophesying a world many years into the future: ‘For you the blue coltsfoot in the allotment will be an electrical wonder.’ His work has the ability to sustain more than a single thought, and has the confidence and intellect to move through an argument. ‘The White Road’ is a beautiful example of Martinez de las Rivas’ swift imagination at work:

At the juncture of the crosshatch,
       take the white road where the white
wind blows through white leaves
       and troubles your hair like wild garlic.

Take the white road where love
       is coterminous with flesh, unsupernal,
unlifted above the vesicle of its
       own surge and rush and failing like it.

The figure of the poet looms oracular in ‘Things I Have Loved’, which is both learned and innovative:

XXVI March,
the jute-sack and the shovel, as if by magic.

My never-to-be-born daughter, of the House of Míro Quesada.

How her body bucked like a beast dragged by its neck from the holt
when I touched it as instructed.

There is real dare here, coupled by that necessary element experience—that which the young poet often lacks, where youth too often fails and confuses real poetry with mere diversionary tricks. Thankfully, Toby Martinez de las Rivas’ poems have real depth and intensity and a style that feels hard won but that is never artificial. His work is not derivative of those he admires, like Barry McSweeney and Gillian Allnut. Instead, his poetry builds on these influences, developing its own ease with complex historical allusion, considering its own metaphysical stakes in a new (i.e. different) era of uncertainty.

Moving beyond the poisoned chalice of being called ‘new’, it is worth noting that these young Faber poets are only four in a generation of promising poetic talent. Several emerging poets whose pamphlets will not have the exposure guaranteed by Faber’s scheme should not be overlooked. Some of these poets—like Jonathan Morley, Sophie Robinson and Kate Potts—are featured in Bloodaxe’s recent anthology, Voice Recognition: 21 poets for the 21st Century, which also includes Phillipson, Martinez de las Rivas and Underwood. Regardless of how these emerging poets’ voices are heard or their current visibility, only time and the quality of their work will, retrospectively, earn them the distinction of being truly new.


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