|In the ninety-odd
years of its existence, Poetry Review has rarely been
the most important or dynamic of British poetry
magazines, but it's often been the most visible. As
the organ of the Poetry Society it's the official
face of poetry in this country. When anything vaguely
poetical happens, the press and TV pester the
Laureate first, but next in line for comment is the
editor of Poetry Review. And now there's not only
been a change of editors, but a fairly thoroughgoing
relaunch. In the little world of British poetry, this
is something that deserves analysis.
The outgoing editor was Peter Forbes, an obviously
well-meaning if unspectacular chap, who has seen the
magazine through the nineties, consistently
championing his well-meaning if unspectacular New
Generation group. Now he's bowed out, to be replaced
by a pair, David Herd and Robert Potts, who have
announced their intention to make a difference.
The first thing you spot is that the mag looks
better. Out goes the biblical double-columning. In
comes a new typeface, a smarter grade of paper, and
some attractive colour illustrations that don't seem
to have much to do with the poetry. You sense that
the magazine could be making quite a dent in the
Poetry Society's annual subsidy from the taxpayer
(£163,000 this year, according to the Arts Council's
annual review, available online at http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/annualreview2001/).
The next thing you notice is that their ambitions are
high. There are striking innovations: an essay by a
poet on a general theme ("Happiness"), a
poet's eye view of a current art exhibition. More
important, there is space given to major modern poets
who are out of the humdrum mainstream. Geoffrey Hill
is represented by two classy if typical sections from
a new book. Lee Harwood is there. John Ashbery flies
an obscure flag for America. Well, I can't warm to
him personally, but the inclusion shows that the
editors mean business.
They have also made sure that the very acme of
British modernism is included, if not in person, then
at least in review. I mean the modernist's modernist,
the undisputed king of difficulty, Jeremy Prynne.
There's an honest review of his latest pamphlets,
which echoes the opinion most of us have about
Prynne's poetry - stunning phrases, but whole verse
paragraphs we can't begin to fathom. The critic stops
short of admitting the basic truth, though, which is
that reading a Prynne poem can be like trying to
watch television whilst some malign hyperactive child
is in charge of the remote control.
Some inclusions are less happy. The Australian poet
John Tranter is clearly regarded as the star of this
show. He is allowed space for three poems (only
Ashbery equals this count), is reviewed fulsomely,
and is given twelve whole pages for a comic strip
that recycles the old Biff joke of having tough guys
spout critical clichés at each other. Well,
Australian poetry is fashionable at the moment, but
all this leaves Tranter looking rather over-exposed.
His diction is slack; in a weak imitation of
Baudelaire's "L'Invitation au Voyage"
Tranter calls the sky a "patchwork canopy".
I mean, cliché or what?His ear for rhythm is poor as
well. Try saying these lines aloud:
"luckily the harbour's full of fishing boats
to distract me from further gloomy insights"
There's just something about these lines - the
combination of the picture-postcard view, the clunky
rhythm, the self-congratulation at having
"insights"... It's all quite irresistibly
Past the big names that the editors are clearly proud
of roping in, the poetry choices are less certain.
There's an Alison Brackenbury piece of her usual very
high quality, but there are terrible mistakes as
well. What on earth are the poems by Clive Wilmer
doing in a serious magazine? There's a whimsy-pimsy
list of pretty words called "The Days", and
a really poor short poem about Jeffrey Archer. Do
they think they're being daringly satirical, shooting
blanks at this obvious target, referring naughtily to
his doings in Shepherd's Market, and using the word
"fragrant", because it always gets a giggle
on piss-poor Radio 4 topical comedy programmes?
Inclusion of stuff like this casts serious doubt on
the editors' capacity to recognise good work.
Among the essays, there are substantial appraisals of
Edwin Morgan and Elizabeth Bishop, and reminders of
less-fashionable poets such as Wole Soyinka and
Sidney Keyes. There's a strong article on Heaney's
prose, and a review by Andrew Duncan of Keith Tuma's
anthology that gave what I most enjoy in critical
writing - an intelligent piece that I disagreed with,
but thoroughly enjoyed arguing against.
Some other reviews put the boot into the right places
- Tom Paulin's too-easy attacks on the easy target of
Eliot's anti-Semitism, for example. (As reviewer
Stephen Burt excellently comments: "To the
question what did Eliot know that we do
not?, Paulin's encyclopaedic
self-consciousness offers no answer.")
Unfortunately, the editors' big bright ideas work
less well. They've commissioned a general essay on
Happiness by Ian Sansom and a poet's review of the
Matisse/Picasso exhibition. These must have seemed
good ideas when they were commissioned - happiness
and paintings are subjects on which poets often like
to write. Unfortunately, the results are the most
self-conscious kind of "poetic prose". The
Sansom piece especially is a waffling piece of
self-indulgence that sprawls on about why he left
higher education. I've read it twice and have not
seen the point of it yet. Can anyone enlighten me?
So it's a mixture. The overall ambition is there, and
it looks good - but with poetry it's always the
details that matter. Well, maybe in the next issue...