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14 October 2016 @ 03:16 pm
Review of New Boots and Pantisocracies; eds W N Herbert and Andy Jackson, pub. Smokestack Books 2016  


Another anthology. This is an edited version of a website of the same name, a collection of poems which came into being because of the 2015 general election. The swing to the right, against the predictions of opinion polls, surprised most poets, who, like nearly everyone else, live in an online bubble where we come across few world-views that do not mirror our own. Two poets, the editors of this anthology, decided to publish a poem a day for 100 days in response to the election (it turned into 138 days, but poets aren't usually big on maths). Some were commissioned from poets the editors knew or knew of, others came from open submission. Disclosure: I have a poem in it myself but am taking my usual stance that one poem doesn't disqualify me from reviewing a whole anthology.

It might be argued that commissioning poems from the editors' own online acquaintance would produce homogeneity of views, but apparently the open submissions were no less homogenous (as I know was the case in a later project on poems about Brexit: not a single pro-Brexit poem was submitted). Why there should be this political consensus among poets is a puzzle many have raised. If one accepts that the role of poets in society, rather than to be unacknowledged legislators, is to be gadflies, it seems natural that they should be anti-whatever government is in power, and indeed anti-establishment. But that doesn't wholly explain the leftist consensus. Either right-wing poets, these days, don't exist, or they don't write about politics, or if they do, they avoid projects like this. The introduction, if I've understood it correctly, suggests that right-wingers, being more pragmatic, may not bother with the lyric form as a way of influencing or persuading others, ie for political purposes, because its reach is too small. I'm not sure about this, but then neither am I sure I have the hang of its argument elsewhere, eg "By dividing the work according to the four ministries […] in Nineteen Eighty-Four, we are not just having a dig at the attitudes of the political class […] but also indicating that the opinions expressed in these pages are not without their own ideologies". I don't really see how the second follows from the first (though I thought the idea of the four sections quite a witty way to organise the book) and overall the intro reminds me of an old North Wales man's reply when asked his opinion of the sermons preached by his local vicar, the poet R S Thomas. He said, "He do pitch the hay too high in the crach", meaning the sermons went over his head. Some of this intro's hay is out of my reach, too.

If the poems are largely homogenous in their political stance, they are, thankfully, not at all so in their technique. They range from overtly polemical to very oblique, from free verse to complicated and elaborate forms (both classical and invented), from contemporary to historical parallel, from persona to personal. Some of the form poems particularly impressed me, because the technique turned out, in this instance, to be a way of making the reader think more carefully about the words and their import. I would cite as outstanding Hannah Lowe's use of bold type to create a poem-within-a-poem in "The Garden Is Not For Everyone", Ian McMillan's similar use of italicised unspoken thought in "News From't Northern Province" and Paul McGrane's variant villanelle "The Government" – I seldom warm to villanelles, but this is a perfect example of how to turn the form's repetition and inevitability to account, stressing over and over the unpalatable fact that "somebody voted for the government". There are many other forms represented: sonnets, ballads, ghazal, terza rima, sestina. I'm still trying to work out why Ben Wilkinson, in his lively sestina "Building a Brighter, More Secure Future" chose the indefinite article "a" as one of his keywords. He must have had some purpose in deliberately choosing so weak a word in so strong a place, but so far I'm not getting it; more reading needed…

Another technique that worked very well in some of these poems was mythologizing, which gives a universality and timelessness to what might otherwise be bounded by its own particular time and place. Jon Stone's "Incentivampire" is a splendid, memorable example, as is Tony Williams's terza rima "The Promised Land" (another happy marriage of form and theme, a form and journey both potentially without an end).

I don't think all these poems can have been written specifically for the project, or during the hundred days; some must have been to hand already and simply fitted the brief. For instance, Steve Ely's "Inyenzi", one of the most powerful poems I've read in recent years, was in his pamphlet Werewolf (Calder Valley Poetry, 2016, reviewed here) and though the timing would allow for it to have been written for this project, it seems so integral to the pamphlet, so much part of its pattern, that I can't believe it evolved outside it. Not that this matters, because his transfer of the rhetoric used in Rwanda, to dehumanise the Tutsi and justify their killing, to a persona in this country speaking of what's sometimes called the underclass is chilling, masterly and fits the brief perfectly.

Nevertheless
they seemed to find each other attractive
mating continually and without compunction,
Even the juveniles were fertile

There are some poems that seem more tangential to the theme than this. In some cases, like Josephine Dickinson's "Go Not, Gentle", they are less a reaction to a specific event than a way of seeing the world, but still capable of being seen as a response to the theme. It's also possible that many poets preferred to approach the theme in an oblique way rather than risk being overtly polemical. There were a few poems that made me feel preached at, and correspondingly resentful, but not many. Overall, it's an anthology with much energy and passion, as is natural with political poetry, but also with more nuance and subtlety than might have been expected.