Whatever you think about it, it can’t be denied that Voice Recognition, published last year by the mighty Bloodaxe, is a good thing. That such a big (in poetry terms at least) press is not only publishing but actively celebrating the work of young (in some cases 17/18-year-old) poets is welcome evidence of the recent surge in popularity of poetry. The problem, of course, is that any attempt to compile “21 of the best young poets who have yet to publish a full collection” (10) is going to be controversial. There are so many talented young writers nowadays – any cursory perusal of the average journal will prove this. Equally, there are many average writers benefitting from the explosion of credible outlets showcasing new work. Any attempt to comprehensively collect ‘the best’ of them is in a sense doomed to fail: surely there are more than 21 young poets worthy of this level of attention. Some of the risks inherent in trying to do so are well-expressed in editors James Byrne’s and Clare Pollard’s succinct, if general, introduction: they wisely sought to avoid the “MA conveyor-belt”, the poets who conform “to archetypes of academic orderliness” (12). Nonetheless, and not wanting to criticise either institution unfoundedly, there is an undeniable Foyle Young Poet/Oxbridge bias in this collection. Again, the existence of the former regardless of your feelings about it is an irrefutable positive; I merely wish to point out the correlation between the two without probing it uneducatedly.
Pollard’s and Byrne’s intentions are admirable: to transcend the “mere recounting of anecdotes or minor stagings of epiphany” (13) and find the poets who escape “’general themes’ and [address] the particularity of being alive now...21st Century voices” (14). I can’t help feeling Scrooge-like expressing my caution at such an aim. I agree with it, completely; but there is undoubtedly a danger, as there is in all academic and critical discourses, of ignoring the quality of the work in and of itself in favour of ‘big themes’, desperately seeking to define the age, (re)construct and re-present the contemporary world, ignoring the danger of losing sight of the text itself in overplaying that which supposedly tackles ‘issues’ and ‘the now’. And whilst they rightly seek writers unafraid to take risks, explore as many voices as possible, I’d point out the obvious: that risk-taking and quality are not synonymous. I’d rather read a poet’s more refined work when they’re not as fresh and shiny and young than the exploratory attempts they made reaching said refinement – unless, of course, there is beauty in the flaws. There is a pervasive urge these days to get your poems published as soon as possible, preferably before turning 35, so you can be tagged a bright new thing, an urge that is both desirable and damaging.
Anyway, with angst thankfully aside and disclaimer begrudgingly made, I will over the next few weeks delve into the collection itself and offer some thoughts on and analyses of these 21 promising poets.
Poetry in Aldeburgh 2017
7 months ago