Six Poets in Poetry London

Six Poets in Poetry London

Poetry London bills itself as ‘one of the very few, essential poetry magazines in English’, where ‘newer authors share pages with acclaimed contemporary poets.’ The magazine is published three times a year, contains comprehensive poetry listings, and has ‘featured new poems by such distinguished contemporary poets as Alice Oswald, Sean O’Brien, Ciaron Carson and Pauline Stainer, and reviews of work by John Burnside and Mimi Khalvati.’

Only one year is represented by the Poetry Library London’s selection, and many poems are not on line for copyright reasons. Nonetheless, with all excuses made, the obvious has to be said: work by the big names is generally dull, if not downright tiresome, and the poetry of the others, the newcomers, doesn’t usually earn its line length: i.e. it’s often spun out, prosy, and verging on the pedestrian.

Two problems seem general. One is that the poems (all except Godfrey Acker’s piece are in free verse) have little of the phonetic patterning that distinguishes verse from prose. Second is the lack of emotional charge. As any elementary writing course will emphasize, a story without a plot or emotional shaping soon becomes a pointless listing of events. Many of the poems admirably reach out into new territory, avoiding the stock response to the stock theme, but they seem to lack the poet’s gift of recreating material in the crucible of a deeper imagination. Whether the faults lie with the submissions or the selection process I don’t know, but here are a few poems, with comments, that make moderately engaging reading, and may at least give readers an idea of Poetry London’s character.

A. F. Harrold’s A Song to Food is at A.F. Harold has produced two collections of poetry, and works as a performance poet and comedian. The poem opens with:

There’s very little in the fridge, in your fridge,
and so we’re going out to eat again tonight.

And closes with:

In fact, impatient food, I’ll come to you –
look this quiet waiter’s handed me a menu.
Dear food, good food – we’ll be together soon.

The intervening 26 lines consider a lifetime of trying various menus, cooks performing their marvels in the kitchen, and the mystery of the culinary art, which is as strange and necessary as the act of writing. Otherwise, that’s it, unfortunately: the thought is as undemanding as the language employed.

Godfrey Ackers’s The Canal Road won first prize in Poetry London’s 2008, and can be read at:

Godfrey Ackers worked as an engineer in developing countries for many years, and that unusual background is apparent in his work. The poem is an elegy to shoes on native feet, a little shambling but affectionate. It starts by setting scene and theme:

We trod the murram road, my Left and I.
Beside it, where an abu ashereen
feeds water to the cracking cotton fields,
in shade beneath a prickly pear we lie.

Which are developed as we follow feet at work through another six stanzas to:

Each year he walks along this murram way;
a hundred times he puts us on to save
unthinking feet from shard and stone. I ask
‘Why shake us off whene’er he goes to pray?

The country, I imagine, is Pakistan, i.e. Muslim and Urdu speaking, and the poem itself has some of the repetitive but necessary monotony of rural work.

Michael Symmons Roberts’ Fox in a Man Suit is a short, polished, ironic piece of fancy, opening with:

Masked, gloved, brush tucked flat
against her back, faint with heat

this vixen is silent at soirées,
attentive to talk of defence, the public purse.

The fox leaves the party, reaches the woods and peels off the skin. The watching poet ends the poem with:

      I, the only witness,

take this for a resurrection (body sloughed
and after-life as fox-soul), so I watch

in awe and slow my breath until
she catches sight and howls and howls.

And of course not very well. For so accomplished a poet (a fifth collection, winner of the Whitbread Poetry Award and short-listed for the TS Eliot, Forward and Griffin Prizes) it is an extraordinary blunder to make. Sentimentality comes from pasting on feelings that don’t belong, which haven’t been earned by the content. Awe? What is the fox howling about: the falsity of such social events? The poem needs much more to make its point, but can be read at:

Steven Heighton is a novelist, and his poem Herself, Revised ( also has the leisurely pace of the prosier medium. I’ll have to quote at length because the piece is quite wordy. The opening lines:

There’s a final bedtime when the father reads
to his daughter under the half-moon lamp.
The wolf-eyed dog sits guard on the snowy
quilt at their feet – ears pricked, head upright
like a dragon on its hoard – while the daughter’s
new clock ticks on the dresser. When the father
shuts the book, neither feels in the cool sigh
cast from its pages a breath of the end –
and how can it be that this ritual
will not recur?

The rest of the long poem ponders the story at bedtime rite, and what the end of the story means, without, unfortunately, coming across any startling conclusion: life passes, stories end, memory doesn’t. The poem ends:

How does it enter, through what
rift or flaw? Maybe it doesn’t enter at all.
It was always every sentence: the end.

Marianne Boruch has six poetry collections to her credit, teaches at Purdue University, and was a Guggenheim Fellow in 2006. Her poem I am so pissed, said god, maybe can be read at:

It’s a tongue-in-cheek at our Lord’s perplexity at creation. First He invents happiness:

I am so pissed, said god, maybe
I’ll invent happiness. It was a blur at first.
But it got bigger. It sort of hovered,
wanting to land, to land –

On what would happiness land? How long before it would cancel itself out? Perhaps He should create time? Or perhaps it was something to do with summer?

The poem ends:

Maybe trees get sick
of their green and their whispering. Happiness,
said god, welcome! But stand over there,
over there, over there…

A slight, witty and enjoyable piece. Tim Liardet has published five collections, and teaches at Bath Spa University. His The Constables Call ( is written in mock solemnity:

Pity the police officers whose task it is to tell
the truth of the mysterious dying. They are pale
and gamine, they speak in unison like twins and might

be either men or women. One writes in invisible ink.
Mystery prospers, they say, when the eyes and the mouth

And so we go on, the constables peering deeper until the body takes over:

His toenails force back

their cuticles like buds and might’ve hooked him bodily
back into the world just long enough to tell us what
happened in those final hours. The toenails are like the case,

they say, dark and horny, growing beyond our reach:
they grow and they grow, they flourish like clues
and curl back into accusation.

And may not belong to the man at all:

to tell us the culprit’s identity, like Nosferatu’s
fingernails scratching a name on the air.

A strange, compelling poem, which could spawn much more in this direction.

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