27 April, 2015Issue 28.1Literary CriticismLiteraturePoetry

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The Rules of the Aesthetic Game

Leo Mercer

Faber New Poets
Rachael Allen, Faber New Poets 9
Will Burns, Faber New Poets 10
Zaffar Kunial, Faber New Poets 11
Declan Ryan, Faber New Poets 12
Faber and Faber, 2014
£5 each
24 pages each
ISBNs: 9780571321209, 9780571321216,
9780571321223, 9780571321230

This is the first of a three-part series of reviews. The next part will suggest an alternative critical standpoint.

These four pamphlets were released late last year as part of the Faber New Poets scheme. The sense I get from fellow poets—and from the fact it received more than 850 submission—is that this is the most desirable way of getting a first pamphlet published. The expectations upon reading the pamphlets, then, can only be high: this is supposed to be the best poetry by new poets—at least within what might vaguely be termed a “Faber aesthetic.”

Each is a small collection of poems, and though each was presumably written to stand alone, they feel cohesive. Each has its own thematic and stylistic space. It is worth reading each poem on its own terms, but also in terms of the larger picture the collection creates – and then considering how these poems implicate the world beyond these poems too.

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At the centre of Will Burns’ collection is the sense of being in the middle of things, geographically and temporally. “This is the mid country”, it begins, in a lovelily quirkily lilting poem. His poems are often set between the generations. ‘Hundred Horsepower’ is about an old man who has been coming to a village every year to set up a fair, and knows people from all generations. In ‘Strawweight’, an older man “sits and waits for me to come – // to listen to his stories”, though the speaker is slightly ironic about it, expecting to “hear about a gradual decline”.

Conversation between generations raises the question of continuity and tradition. ‘Anser’ makes geese a model for thinking about “the long domesticated lineage” of traditional England (an interesting comparison to Kei Miller’s use of rubber ducks as a metaphor for the slave trade in his Forward-winning collection). There is a sense of disappointment whilst looking at the displacement of an old world, perhaps mostly in ‘Tools’:

The canvas bag
just sits there, full of tools
that are old and rusted.

Hand-turned screwdrivers
with mechanisms locked
up through lack of use.

The collection sits somewhere between acceptance and regret. It is a young poet inhabiting the voices of older generations in order to look back at the past; there is no excitement in the present, but nor is there a sure, passionate attack against it. There is only a mute, honest pain: something is being lost, something expected isn’t coming to pass, and the figures of this mid-time middle-country community don’t, for better or worse, have any active response. This is a poetry of witness; the speaker is an observer, not an enactor. Like the man in ‘Winter in this Room’, he has been quiet for years, though when he speaks, he finds “The words / come out and they are / painfully loud to his ears”.

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What comes out most strongly from Zaffar Kunial’s collection is a concern for the meaning of words, and it is a broad exploration. The words comes from a range of places: the foreign language of his father (‘Hill Speak’); his father’s broken English (‘The Word’); Wordsworth’s and Heaney’s searching for words to describe the stars (‘Placeholder’); the Midlands dialect (‘Us’); and gentle explorations of words in the haikus of ‘Empty Words’. The wide variety and origin of the words we use, choose, and sometimes explore imply our complex identities as contextualised individuals.

There is an intimate, simple tone to the poems, conversational and direct; they are very readable. But it also very self-conscious of its place in poetic history, arguing with Heaney about what Wordsworth said, inheriting Shakespeare (“I borrow the line between your lips”), realising how important Dickens was to his origins. This is perhaps boring, perhaps endearing, but it does flow into the theme of complex identities in ‘Spider Trees, Pakistan’, where the octet of the sonnet is set in the world of the English canon, and the sextet “with floods in Sindh”. The effect is an odd landscape of “English mists in subcontinental sun”; fundamentally, these are “worlds I can’t marry”. As the words he chooses are from different languages, so the narrative worlds he is part of are radically different.

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Declan Ryan’s collection is the broadest, but a few themes can be distinguished. The first is the sort-of letter, warm and intimate in tone, like Kunnial’s. They are generally addressed to an absent woman: in ‘Transmission’, to an absent lover he is now listening to a recording of; in ‘Postcard from Australia’, to her across the world. They are full of oral pleasure, like “cockatoos and rainbow lorikeets” (say it out loud!) and lovely images, like a father remembering when he was “not doughy with leisure but thin as rushes”. Many poems focus upon well known figures from history (poetic and not) and, often using found text, capture a moment in their life. Like the speaker’s own poems, ‘From Alun Lewis’ is his own letters to a girl distanced, this time, by war; and ‘Girl in Bed’, about the taxi ride in which Lowell died, to a painting of a woman. A third theme is that of salvation. In ‘Ethopia shall stretch forth her hands’, the poison-gas victim says “Save me, Joe Louis”; Alun Lewis mourns to his lover, “There is nothing that can save today, darling, / you not being here”, and ending, “Save us”, referring to the war. The final poem, extending the imagery, sees the speaker “delivered through orange groves / to you, the white church of my days”.

‘The Range’ is the longest poem in the pamphlet, and ties these themes together somewhat. It is a long letter—with stanza-length quotations of traditional song and a prayer—to his grandfather, with reference to C S Parnell, the Irish nationalist leader. I will be honest that the narrative isn’t clear to me, but the sense is strong. It begins with the speaker’s returning to his grandfather’s home (perhaps in Avondale, where Parnell is from?), and trying to make sense of a carving that he (Parnell? His grandfather?) had made in his house, saying “God save all here”. “You didn’t say from what”, the poem concludes, and the same question may be asked about the whole collection: is there a particular thing that Ryan seeks salvation from? Is he blaming Parnell’s politics, or sympathizing with it, or both? Ryan’s poems are full of absences to be filled, and soft questions to be made sense of.

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Allen’s poems have the most conscious internal division between two modes: on one side of the page is a prose-poem with the title of one of the 4-chan boards, on the other a more traditional lyric. Crudely, these might imply two worlds: one of growing up in a world of TV and the puberty of the early-internet (in Lavinia Emmett-Grey’s lovely phrase), and the other a mythical, more rural, real-world landscape. That world is split between the mythic, slightly surreal poems (‘Kingdomland’, ‘Polruan’, ‘The Slim Man’, ‘Regional Tendencies’) as well as the more suburban poems of ‘Goonhilly’, ‘Sunday’ and ‘Old Fears are Still Valid’.

The 4-chan poems use long-running breathless associative sentences, which perhaps capture some of the exasperation of chat-boards online, in a way that line-broken poetry would struggle to. Yet this technology world is not the one we see around us now: it is that of Allen’s adolescence. The technology is mostly of the 90s and early 2000s, not the 2010s: it is a world where the TV was at the centre. These poems are examination of the speaker’s past as opposed to her present; remembering finding a video of “unmarked VHSs” in her mothers’ drawer, and playing <em>The Simpsons</em> bring back childhood memories of watching TV. Yet it is the one-way TV-screen as opposed to the interactive social-media screen. It is a world where “maybe once our eyes met through a satellite or something”, but not with the faux-directness of a Skype-chat. It is strictly, then, not poetry belonging in the contemporary but, like the other pamphlets, a poetry of pasts—just remembering that there is a recent past, too.

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Each poem in each pamphlet was written individually, but then collated by its poet, whose role then becomes curator. In a poem, the shape of an individual creative consciousness is pointed to; but the edit reveals their critical consciousness. The same happens at the broader level. Here are four new pamphlets, selected from more than 850 submissions to Faber’s call. That means that over 10,000 poems from British collective poetic consciousness were seen, and then curated by Faber’s editors; the choice of these pamphlets as opposed to others allows us to infer the editorial taste of its selectors and editors.

As much as each pamphlet has its own identifiable logic, and is beautiful and self-sure in its own way, these four pamphlets share a vast amount. Set against the range of what poetry can do, these pamphlets cover a disappointingly small range. This is in small part because the “poetic consciousness” from which they are drawn will be somewhat limited (all tied together by being written in our time), but more because the editorial eyes will—consciously or not—be looking for a particular thing. Judging from the world of these four pamphlets, the attributes of the designer can be inferred. For these poems are all (or at least, almost all) past-focused, not future; expressive, not active or enactive; image-based, not music-based (with prosaic rhythms as opposed to metrical ones); reflective and slow, not humoured, or narratival, or excitable, or racy, or anything else.

As highlighted by being side by side, these pamphlets share implicit rules in an aesthetic game. This is all fine: these poets have a strong presence, a sense of coherence and balance. They offer words that are beautiful and lovely. Burns observes change regretfully, Kunial gives mild words to a complex identity, Ryan captures absences longingly, Allen remembers imaginatively. I am sure there will be times I return to this poetry, and be thankful for it. Still, the notion of a poem here is deeply narrow.

It is fine for a publishing house to have its own aesthetic. But Faber has a very strong presence, and like in life, when confronted with a strong presence, the most important questions become: what is absent? has this strong presence absorbed me to the extent of forgetting important things? By giving Faber the crown of the publishing world, their style becomes the benchmark But what is their aesthetic? Is it good for our literature? And is it good for our life?

As a reviewer of these pamphlets, I expect the poems to teach me their own terms, and then to enjoy the poems on those terms—and that has happened. Judged from their internal mechanisms, they are all good. When a poem doesn’t tick its own boxes, it’s relatively easy to notice. These four collections are clearly accomplished; they are well-crafted instantiations of a familiar aesthetic. There are, occassionally, blips, which highlight the general achievement of the rest. For example, the awful pun on broadband that the person in Burns’ ‘Transmission’ thinks: “what are the broad bands of hundreds // of shades of green? Of information.” Kunial’s ‘Butterfly Soup’ seems entirely off the mark—petty and nursery-rhymish—despite its thematic interest. But these are the exceptions that highlight the norm.

But as a (very) average reader, I have to ask myself: is this what I want to be reading? And if I am hesitant, why? Where am I sitting as a reader, and how do these poems relate to my aims. To say anything more illuminating about the poems, I must situate myself somewhat outside of their own aesthetic. Best is if I have the same aim—something like using language to create art—whilst being sufficiently distant to give an alternative method for achieving it, some sense of a style different from the norm such that the norm seems limiting and optional. A problem is only a real problem when there is a solution that’s not being taken advantage of. Until then, it’s life.

Leo Mercer is doing a Masters in Creative Writing at Kellogg College. His work is published by Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube.