Unknown becomes known: discovering new poets, new poems

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

A key aim of our No One You Know anthology is to introduce readers to poems that are admired by the poets who have chosen them and need to be more widely known. If you like the sound of that idea and would like to read No One You Know then please visit our Unbound webpage here and pledge some funds – no matter how small - to speed this new anthology into publication. In our occasional updates, we are exploring anthologies we have enjoyed and that have had an impact on us....

It was early June 1983. The last paper of Finals was over. I went straight to the campus bookshop, bought a copy of The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry, lounged on the grass in glorious dappled sunshine outside the university library and devoured it.

Why? Because in those days English degrees – or at least the one offered at Nottingham – rarely included contemporary poets. Sylvia Plath and Philip Larkin were the only exceptions and, even then, only in the last weeks of the course. Okaythere had been poetry – plenty of The Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, far too much of The Faerie Queene and Wordsworth and, most memorably, the wonderful Louis MacNeice’s ‘Snow’, discussion of which filled an extraordinary seminar hour skilfully led by Ron Carter as snowflakes brushed across his office window. But our degree reading lists reflected the attitude that you could not hope to pass critical judgement until it was possible to survey all of a writer’s work after their death. Therefore, the poets and poems studied were pinned down, catalogued artefacts, butterflies under glass rather than living, sentient, elusive beings.

Why did I buy a poetry book? Because buying poetry has been in my blood since the first book token popped out of a birthday card. I am a huge fan of libraries, and still use them weekly, but owning a poetry book, being able to return to it to dip in, read, make new discoveries or visit old favourites whenever the fancy takes you was, and still is, an entirely different experience.

Why did I buy this book? I’d had my eye on the new Penguin anthology for months. Its cover painting, by Michael Andrews, of a balloon drifting across an empty beach, lapped by calm blue sea beckoned me with its sense of release and new territory. I promised myself I would buy it once I could give it the attention it seemed to deserve.

Why did I do this? Because finally, with exam shackles removed, I felt free to dip into the unknown once more, an unknown which was much more of my choosing. The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry, edited by Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion, is described on its back cover as ‘a brilliant new landmark in anthologies of modern poetry’. It opened a door for me to many poets whose single author collections I would go on to read or whom I would hear performing at Beeston Poets. It introduced me to poems that I would select for my personal teaching anthologies. This was where I first read Carol Rumens’ work – her defiant yet haunting explorations of a father-daughter relationship, including ‘A Poem for Chessmen’. I was intrigued by Paul Muldoon’s ‘Why Brownlee Left’ and Jeffrey Wainwright’s chilling five part ‘1815’. Craig Raine’s ‘A Martian Sends a Postcard Home’ quickly became one of my essential classroom poems for encouraging young writers to experiment with metaphor and capture the mystery of the familiar. Fleur Adcock, Douglas Dunn, Tony Harrison, Seamus Heaney and Medbh McGuckian’s poems were constantly revisited. They all offered me different things: possible new ways to write about domestic situations, pain, loss, the worlds of work and nature. Looking back, particular lines and particular poets strike me differently now:

‘…I stand almost intact,/ giddy with freedom, not with pain’ from 'The Soho Hospital for Women' by Fleur Adcock

‘My poems thicken in the desk’ from ‘Next Day Hill’ by Medbh McGuckian.

Over time, these once unknown poets and poems have become much more known to me. I would never want to be without this anthology.

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