Voice Recognition: 21 poets for the 21st century, edited by James Byrne and Clare Pollard (Bloodaxe: 2009)
Most poetry anthologies shouldn’t be assessed in terms of their ideological standpoint, but some are asking for trouble. Two decades ago, Hulse, Morley and Kennedy introduced The New Poetry with the aphorism that ‘Every age gets the literature it deserves’, setting themselves against Morrison and Motion’s Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry and defiantly praising ‘pluralism.’ Initially, the introduction spoke louder than the poems themselves.
James Byrne and Clare Pollard attempt to be similarly strident in their introduction to Voice Recognition, taking up an uneasy position in the no man’s land between blurb (‘This book arrives at a particularly important moment for poetry in Britain and Ireland, where the presence of young poets is beginning to revitalise the scene’) and manifesto (‘a literature without young voices is often one without young readers, and has little future’). Unfortunately, their finer points risk being lost amidst an odd mixture of jauntily simplistic generalisations (‘For many years… being a poet was uncool’) and unhelpful hyperbole (‘These are writers…who are capable of greatness’).
Voice Recognition presents a vision of poetry’s future that is tangled in contradictions. The editors seek ‘a healthy approach to diversity’, but celebrate the idea that ‘after years of other regions being promoted, there seems a real shift back to [London].’ They are ambivalent about the merits of the Creative Writing MA, which (in the same paragraph) enables poets ‘to improve as technicians of poems’ whilst leading to a proliferation of ‘same-sounding, low-stake, well-mannered (but going nowhere) poems.’ Many of the poets featured in Voice Recognition are products of the ‘MA conveyor-belt’ which the editors single out for criticism.
What of the poems themselves? Pollard and Byrne state that ‘all 21 poets are active readers/performers of their own poems’ and the appearance of ‘voice’ in the anthology’s title is significant: many of these poems seem crafted to be heard, not read. The dominant form is free verse (an appropriate paradox), and too many lines do their work away from the page.
Writing in Stride Magazine, David Kennedy rightly drew attention to ‘the number of voices that seem to lack confidence or to revel in an inability to communicate.’ He cites Ailbhe Darcy’s ‘He tells me I have a peculiar relationship with my city’, in which ‘my country’ is ‘a narrow, self-effacing swathe/The shape of me.’ The shape which yearns to be shapeless, the attempt to share an inability to communicate: more paradoxical knots for British poetry to unravel.
It seems far too early to predict whether any of Voice Recognition’s poets will do justice to Byrne and Pollard’s claim that all 21 ‘are capable of greatness.’ All we can be sure of is that there are some excellent poems here (Mark Leech’s ‘Snowfall in Woodland’, Ahren Warner’s wonderfully flippant ‘About suffering they were never wrong, The Old Masters’, Joe Dunthorne’s ‘Cave Dive’ are three which immediately come to mind and deserve to be quoted from extensively), and it would be disappointing if the inconsistent introduction were allowed to outshout them.