Tess Somervell reviews The Salt Book of Younger Poets

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An anthology which claims to showcase the poetry of a generation, rather than poetry of a particular theme or genre, ought to show diversity. Therefore the sense of consistency within The Salt Book of Younger Poets is a double-edged sword; it ought to, and does, give a coherent sense of a new generation of poets, but, as co-editor Eloise Stonborough puts it in her introduction, “a conspiracy theorist will always find evidence of collusion” when editors have selected poets they have come across in their own circles. One does not have to be a conspiracy theorist to recognise that this collection showcases the talents of a certain Russell Group-educated (and often Tower Poetry Summer School-educated) cross-section of a generation. Yet that cross-section is a significant and powerful one when it comes to who will “dominate UK poetry in years to come”, and the insight given into this group of writers by The Salt Book of Younger Poets is both valuable, as an introduction to future big names and an indication of trends in the most contemporary poetry, and enjoyable, as an anthology of intelligent and energetic writing.

Stonborough points out that the Russell Group emphasis in the anthology is a welcome sign that “poetry is still attracting bright young minds”. There is not a poem among the three or four by each of the fifty poets in this anthology which is not in some way intelligent; dominant, however, is a specific type of intelligence, an intellectual self-indulgence of an almost metaphysical character. The grand abstract concept is less the order of the day than the local image stretched to its figurative limit, a brief moment teased out to fill a poem.

                                            ... The idea was simple to grasp:

the cake, the fork, their proximate places at the table. And easy,
to clutch its delicate bodiless limb, lever it against the outside

edge of his index finger, to jig the light upon its joint with his
large thumb. He takes it to the cake, its scalpel finger investigates

the sponge.

(‘Cake Fork’, Emily Hasler.)

Like many of the poets featured in this anthology, Hasler “investigates”, and in sometimes torturous detail (which is by no means a bad thing), but any conclusion, or one might say sense of justification for this level of investigation, is absorbed into the investigation itself: “Already he fails to imagine // this instrument before he was shown to it”. The subjective, and furthermore the sensual, experience is everything, and rather seems required to counter-balance or justify any abstraction than vice versa. The ‘figurative limit’ to which many of these poems aspire is set not by a definitive pre-ordained tenor, as in the metaphysical poets, but by the vehicle itself, “the absolute sweetness of material.” (‘Plate’, Martha Sprackland.)

The obvious danger is that material itself could have no limit, that a cake-fork, a plate, a maggot, a moment of awkwardness on a date or any of the other varied subjects which feature in this anthology, could potentially fill a book with the sensations or images they give rise to in such receptive and perceptive minds as those of these young poets. A different kind of intelligence is required to rescue the poetry from looseness; the “immediate consciousness”, in Henri Bergson’s words, must be “brought together and amalgamated with the intellect”. Occasionally in this anthology there is the sense that a figure is introduced purely because the poet liked the sound of it, without any reference to the organising principle which is the meaning of the poem as a whole, and the result can be disjointed lines of disparate images held together only by their tenuous connection to that original object or moment. There are several stock images which recur throughout the anthology, most obviously birds and bones, which for every intelligent usage are deployed elsewhere as something like this generation’s equivalent of the eighteenth century’s compound epithet, a flag to indicate that ‘this is poetry’.

At its best, however, the figurative verve so characteristic of this generation is coupled with intellectual restraint to produce pieces of astonishing virtuosity, such as John Clegg’s brief and powerful ‘Antler’:

now ossified utterly—
only the swerve
and feint of its grip
like a magnified nerve

to mark it organic.
It twists like a thought—
a petrified thicket
which broke in the rut.

Here the relishing of pure sound comes at no sacrifice of the sense. The antler is transformed from a nerve to a thought to a thicket with risky rapidity, but the figurative swerve and feint is not only held in poise by the thread of a consistent idea but in this case actually mirrors that idea, which is the play between the static and the mobile. This kind of controlled movement between tenor and vehicle, concrete and abstract is what informs the strongest poetry in The Salt Book of Younger Poets, such as Jack Belloli’s ‘Yurt’ or Charlotte Runcie’s ‘Staying In’. If control is not what is expected from younger poets, this anthology will contain many instances of pleasant surprise.

Thankfully none of the fifty featured poets conform to what is probably the most ubiquitous stereotype of young poets; as noted above, it is intellectual self-indulgence which some might be accused of, rather than narcissistic emotional outpouring. The intellectual energy is counter-balanced by emotional reticence; Judgement Day itself comes “with a banal clunk” (‘New Translation’, Dai George). It is a state in which

The question is no longer that of living, but how
to keep lost comforts purring through the static

of a time (and we count it minute by minute) that offers
little more than the hum of libraries

(‘Chaos’, Eloise Stonborough).

And it is frustration at this state which constitutes the main emotional thrust of the anthology: “One learns / almost to hate the world, so fine, so closed.” (‘2nd June 1916’, Dan Barrow) This sense of the world being “closed” persists in many of the poems. Rachael Allen who opens the anthology and Jack Underwood towards the end express comparable sentiments: “everyone around us has taken / everything to talk about, so that suddenly, after / years, we have nothing left to say” (‘Impotence’, Rachael Allen); “These days there’s little left to call.” (‘And What Do You Do?’, Jack Underwood.) Perhaps it is the sense of having “nothing left to say” which leads so many of these young poets to latch on to the most particular objects and the briefest moments, to find something unsaid in the details of the world, and then to defamiliarise those objects and moments through metaphor and sometimes simply elision, the deliberate cultivation of mystery. The effect is reminiscent of magic realism, as eyes weep vodka or “people transform into beautiful petit fours” (‘Squalor’, Charlotte Geater).

Clearly these poets do have something left to say. This generation’s strength lies in its ability to produce the most surprising figures: “the sun was the face of the man / in the American Gothic painting” (from ‘In my dreams you walk dripping from a sea journey on the highway across America’, Andrew McMillan), a whale is “heaps of / Unskimmed stones” (from ‘Whalefall’, Harriet Moore). Not only linguistically but epistemologically they are what Shelley called “vitally metaphorical”, and their abilities to perceive “the before unapprehended relations of things” stands them in good stead for the future. These potential relations are infinite, so there is no reason not to suppose that these poets will continue to find new things to say, and will only mature further in terms of their expression and formal control. Perhaps their confidence will also grow in dealing with abstract philosophical questions, since they are so proficient already with physical stuff and matter. Whilst distinctive voices are already audible (which is quite an accomplishment in such a small space), it is also to be hoped that, with larger collections of their own, these poets will develop and be able to showcase their more individual characters, and it will be possible to say with more assurance what are the differences and likenesses across this generation. Some of these poets, such as Helen Mort and Inua Ellams have already started to make waves in British contemporary poetry, and undoubtedly many more of Salt’s Younger Poets will do the same before too long.

Edited by Roddy Lumsden and Eloise Stonborough, The Salt Book of Younger Poets, Salt Publishing, 2011. £10.99.   978-1-907773-10-5
© Tess Somervell, 2012

The views expressed by contributors to the reviews section of Poetry Matters are not those of Tower Poetry, or of Christ Church, Oxford