5 Poets in the Poetry Review

5 Poets in the Poetry Review

The Poetry Review is the journal of the Poetry Society, the representative of the poetry establishment in England. The Society was founded in 1909 and today has nearly 4,000 members worldwide. Like all such charitable organizations, the Society is much involved in education, readings, competitions, and of course the promotion of poets and poetry in England. The Review is published in paper form quarterly, and the website also provides free pdf downloads of a small number of the featured poems, from which I have made these selections. The printed journal no doubt gives their authors’ biographies and credits.

As far one can tell from the selections, PR poems are accomplished, undemonstrative and carefully crafted in a free verse fashion. That conservatism is not necessarily a criticism: indeed what’s praiseworthy is the ‘honesty’ of the pieces, their reluctance to gain more emotional charge from the lines than the facts warrant: no literary echoes, therefore, or obscure references, heavy symbolism or portentous generalities. But equally there is no wider relevance, and nothing that might upset home counties sensibities. The poems always make sense, in all their sections, and that sense could be called the intelligent outlooks promoted by the middle class mainstream media. If a metaphor is wanted, then ‘cold water’ might be best: the images are clear, logically linked and uncoloured by deeper considerations.

Ant by Robert Hooke is typical ( http://www.poetrysociety.org.uk/lib/tmp/cmsfiles/File/review/1034/1034%20web%20Francis.pdf) It starts with a simple picture, exactly observed:

All afternoon a reddish trickle
out of the roots of the beech
and across the lawn,
a sort of rust that shines and dances.

Then comes a close-up in their natural habitat, and reactions to their being fixed in glue or dunked in brandy:

I let it soak an hour, then dried it,
observed the spherical head,
the hairlike feelers,
the grinning vice of its sideways jaw,
the coppery armour plate
with its scattered spines.

Anatomically precise.  The ant dries out and sets off again:

Some draught stirred it then. It rose to all
its feet, and set off across
the rough miles of desk.

Ruby Robinson’s Undress is similar ( http://www.poetrysociety.org.uk/lib/tmp/cmsfiles/File/review/1033/1033%20Robinson.pdf) though the undressing refers to an ash tree losing its leaves, at least for most of the poem. Then comes a reference to animals hibernating:

Small mammals are hibernating
in pellets of warm air under ground. But,
in spite of the cold, this ash tree does not shy
from shrugging off its coat, sloping its nude
shoulders to the night.

And finally to its human observer:

So, you said, undo,
unbutton, unclasp, slowly remove. Let down your
hair, breathe out. Stand stark in this room until
we remember how not to feel the chill.

Only then does the poem flap its wings a little:

Stand at the window, lift your arms right up
like a tree. Yes – like that. Watch leaves drop.

That small world, closely observed, is again found in Sam Willetts’ The Bemusement Arcade, to be found at: http://www.poetrysociety.org.uk/lib/tmp/cmsfiles/File/review/1032/1032Willetts.pdf It starts with:

A dream of the “Penny Falls”: a heap of days
as pennies, life’s small change, and a mechanical
shelf nudging them untiringly towards the drop –
but so slightly, you know they’ll hardly fall.

Proceeds to a flashback, to conclude:

The thing’s rigged, or I’ve been dreaming –
the heap of little days much smaller now,
but my pockets nearly empty, and no-one here,
and the sea so high and dark outside.

Perhaps rather thin and undemanding, as is Mara Bergman’s imagined reminiscence of Lower East Side (
http://www.poetrysociety.org.uk/lib/tmp/cmsfiles/File/review/1031/Bergman%201031.pdf) The Tailor’s Three Sons

Nights I can’t sleep, I think about the tailor’s
three sons and how twelve people lived and worked
in a three-room apartment meant for four when
the Lower East Side was the most crowded place
on the planet.

This is prose, as is the poem generally throughout its description of their activities. Nor, unfortunately, does the concluding section come any more alive than the school essay:

I think of the sons because when night came
at last, and the whirr of machines had flown out the window,
the clock’s ticking rocking like a lullaby, they would
lay down their heads side by side on the sofa,
rest their throbbing feet on wooden chairs and lie, suspended,
to sleep the sleep of the young and the exhausted,
dreaming their immigrant dreams in thin air.

We venture a little further into social comment with Patience Agbabi’s The Doll’s House at:

The opening quotation sets the theme:

The source of the wealth that built Harewood is historical fact. There is nothing
anyone can do to change the past, however appalling or regrettable that past
might be. What we can do, however, what we must do, is engage with that
legacy and in so doing stand a chance of having a positive effect on the future.
– David Lascelles

Which is as far as the author is prepared to go. We have precise description:

This is my world, the world of haute cuisine:
high frosted ceilings, modelled on high art,
reflected in each carpet’s rich design;
each bed, each armchair listed à la carte.

And then a retreat into whimsy:

Come, fellow connoisseur of taste, let’s start
below stairs, where you’ll blacken your sweet tooth,

Ending with:

This rust key
unlocks the passage to my tiny room,
stick-cabin, sound-proofed with a symphony
of cinnamon; shrine to olfactory
where I withdraw to paint in cordon bleu,
shape, recreate this house; in miniature.

Finally, with Miranda Yates’ Chocolates for Colonel Gaddafi (
http://www.poetrysociety.org.uk/lib/tmp/cmsfiles/File/review/1031/Yates%201031.pdf) we enter into world events, but again in so muted, so circumspect and limited a fashion that the political dimension is entirely lost. Gaddafi’s role in Africa, his close association with Nelson Mandela, his controversial terrorist activities, his lavish welfare programmes for Libya, the illegal regime change engineered by the western powers, and the present state of the country? Nothing like that. We have the BBC reportage that gives us local colour in place of understanding. The poem opens with:

Parents dance through the school doors bearing late marks,
Gaddafi is dead and they can hardly part from their yawning children.

After this comes a close-up of the school and its students, who seem as bored as we become with the poem:

Abdul-Malik from Year 1 sleeps against a wall during tidy up time,
two dinner ladies hug in the middle of Juniors’ packed lunches.

Do the children sense history in the making?

The children leap at them like dogs who can smell a change in authority.

But only to write the matter off with clichés:

For the billionaire with the underground lair and golden gun –
fingers panning through gilt wrappers spread across the staffroom table.
For the Bedouin warrior, the mad dog of the desert –
a humble tin drum now empty, good for nothing but raffle tickets.

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