Talking about the New Generation

Posted by Expert Gadget Reviewer on Monday, 30 April 2007

Since I started my undergrad dissertation on the New Generation poets of 1994, I’ve been constantly aware that here are a bunch of poets too varied and diverse to comfortably and academically group under any one banner; and even less likely to conform to some singular ‘poetic manifesto’. Writing out of Thatcher’s Britain, social atomisation, cultural change and a media-oriented, capitalist society, the New Gen certainly marked the beginnings of a new type of poetry. After all, no one can predict in our society of cultural choice and internet capabilities what any poet from a given background (ethnically diverse, working class (whatever that might even mean anymore), or even Oxbridge-educated), will be influenced by, or what issues they might decide to deal with. It’s a poetry of possibility and potentiality, borne out a diverse, rapidly developing, and often confusing modern society.

Still, I definitely think there’s something that links all of the poets pulled together for the PBS’s first full-scale national PR stunt: poets as varied as Moniza Alvi, Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage, Mick Imlah, Don Paterson, and so on. Time will tell, of course, if what I reckon’s the case turns out to make up more than just a loose and relatively shaky argument. But if the essay turns out to be not as strong as I’d originally hoped, I reckon I’ve had a good enough time rereading some of the best poetry collections of the 90s. Armitage’s Zoom! and Duffy’s Mean Time instantly spring to mind of course, but then I’d forgotten just how impressive Don Paterson’s first collection, Nil Nil, is. Poems like opener ‘The Ferryman’s Arms’, ‘Heliographer’, and ‘Bedfellows’ are my personal favourites, but when re-reading and writing on ‘An Elliptical Stylus’ I began to realise it isn’t at all surprising that Paterson has gone on to become one of the representative poets of our time. Not surprising, either, that Muldoon gave the book his seal of approval, especially given his position as a sort of poetic father figure to many of the New Gen.

I’ve also been flicking through the Next Gen poets collections: mainly Jacob Polley’s and Paul Farley’s. The latter’s ‘Liverpool Disappears for a Billionth of a Second’ from Tramp in Flames has got to be one of the best poems I’ve read in a long while: I love the economy of sentiment, the measured use of language, and the magic realism combined with stark reality; almost echoes Armitage’s ‘Zoom!’, which it’s no doubt partly informed by, and developing upon. Jacob Polley’s new collection gets better with each read: I wasn’t sure at first but he manages to balance traditional lyric form with contemporary issues really impressively. And Nick Laird’s first collection is still spot-on: in ‘The Bearhug’ he’s written a poem that captures consumer disillusionment and the facades of capitalist society in a poetic voice that balances apathy with repressed anger. All of which makes me think: why isn’t any of this stuff selling? You instinctively point the finger, but I suppose we can’t really blame Waterstones. Well, not entirely. At the end of the day they have to stock what sells: after all, they’re a business, not a library. And so the chick- and lad-lit novels sit resplendent, facing outwards, shiny hardbacks on their spacious shelves, while the one or two remaining copies of Daljit Nagra’s Look We Have Coming To Dover! (they ordered almost ten in to begin with, and I was genuinely shocked to see that many), sit tucked away in their brightly covered Faber jackets. Still, maybe it’s a good thing that poetry’s a marginal literary form, giving those few of us who enjoy it a chance to experience its transformative power; opening up new perspectives and challenging our preconceptions. What was it that a certain New Gen poet called them, ‘those undecided shades […] / trapped between the promise and the cost’? Maybe, every so often, we'd all benefit from taking the price of three or four shit pints of lager and giving a new poetry collection a shot.