Thursday 1 March 2007

Generation Txt

Tom Chivers (Editor), Joe Dunthorne, Inua Ellams, Laura Forman, Abigail Oborne, James Wilkes, Emma McGordon

Waiting for Generation Txt to arrive for review was a period of great excitement for me. Every spare second I had, every idle moment, there would be a voice at the back of my mind. ‘It’s a poetry anthology! By young writers! About iPods, skinny jeans and txt spk! It’s going to be awful.’ In my more fevered times, I would sit stroking my keyboard, tracing over as many synonyms for ‘trite’ and ‘mediocre’ that I could think of. ‘Soon,’ I would coo, ‘soon I shall be able to vent my frustrations at the world on you’.

Unfortunately, within seconds of opening the book, I could tell my anticipation had been futile. First of all, it is published by ‘penned in the margins’ with an introduction written by Tom Chivers, who collaborated with me on a debate about contemporary poetry for last year’s Battle of Ideas, and who I found to be knowledgeable, passionate and level-headed about the subject. Secondly, by flicking through the pages of this slim volume, I couldn’t find the txt msg sonnet my bile had been longing for.

I had not been lied to, this was true. The selection of poems included here - by six poets all under the age of thirty - do mention iPods and biscotti and the like. The influences mentioned in each poet’s mini-biography include just as many songwriters and visual artists as they do other poets, which is normally a worrying sign. There are even funny-looking little poems written on postcards or with the words scattered across the page.

But what is striking is that these are, first and foremost, poems, written by people from disparate backgrounds who clearly know and like their poetry. There are different varieties ranging from James Wilkes’ self-conscious intellectualism and Joe Dunthorne’s more traditional structures, to Inua Ellams’ heavily-rhythmic verses and Abigail Oborne’s broken syntax. The hip, modern references serve a decorative or contextual purpose, rather than stemming from the patronising notion that the reader couldn’t understand poetry unless it’s given a relevant twist.

We must remember that, as Chivers says, these are ‘voices in development.’ The quality of the poems is not consistent, and every poet has at least one piece which strikes you as half-formed, at best. Emma McGordon in particular often spoils promising poems with a clunking couplet or inappropriate imagery: a ‘sleeping policeman blinking forty winks’ sounds good, but the image conjures up a pelican crossing, which is not the same thing. And while Oborne effectively uses s p a c e d out lettering to slow down and break up the rhythm of ‘sonnet no. 3’, did we really need two other similar examples which do very little else?

Another complaint, which can be levelled at all of the poets (with the possible exception of Wilkes) is that they seem too keen to make you laugh. Whilst there is nothing wrong with this per se - humour can be a devastatingly powerful tool - when it appears over and over again, often with limited success, you start to wonder as to its purpose. Is it that in an age of irony, spin and political cynicism it makes writers uncomfortable to be sincere, even in the utterly intimate voice of a poem? Or is that young readers can’t be expected to sit through twenty-odd lines of poetry which is supposed to speak to them, without being given something to giggle at? It is not a fair criticism to level at just these poets - 1993’s highly influential The New Poetry suffered from the same tendency, although given the calibre of poets on offer, it didn’t suffer too badly for it. Then again, perhaps I’m just finding humour in all the wrong places. I chuckled at Ellam’s footnote to one poem: ‘“Iyanga”’ is a word from a Nigerian language meaning “to show off.“‘ Well, quite.

Nonetheless, while laughing or not, what Chivers asks the reader to do is ‘engage seriously’ with young writing such as this. It is no idle demand either: none of these writers should be patted on the head for doing so well, or thanked mercilessly that they’ve decided to apply their gifts to the waning world of poetry. The poems in Generation Txt are sometimes funny and sometimes sad, some clever and some not as clever as their writers think, some good and some very poor. But even the worst examples seem guilty more of emphasising sounds and textures over the coherence and meanings of the poems as a whole, rather than a self-absorbed obsession with having their say. Ultimately, Generation Txt offers a surfeit of ideas and a lack of cohesive direction. Which is exactly what a collection of fresh young talent should do.



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See poetry-queen Shirley Dent’s Guardian Unlimited Arts Blog

Published poet, Ion Martea, defends poetry for pleasure, in a Battle in Print, Of one who must be happy: an argument for poetry in relationship to please

James Wilkes gives a response to the Battle of Ideas debate, Should Poetry Please?

Bloodaxe Books

Hear poets read their work at the online poetry archive

Listen to Radio 4’s Poetry Please and the BBC’s poetry out loud

Penned in the Margins puts on UK-wide literature events, along with resident poet and Culture Wars contributor, Tom Chivers

See also Salt Publishing

Monthly contemporary poetry at Poetry Magazine

The Poetry Society

The Poetry Book Society

The Poetry Book Foundation

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