REVIEW by Barrie Llewelyn


The Best British Poetry 2011

by Ed Roddy Lumsden

On my last trip to California, I went into Barnes and Noble and asked the sales assistant in the poetry section for an anthology that would give me a snapshot of American poetry now. Without hesitation he took a tome from the shelf which was, indeed, called American Poetry Now. If I would have asked for a book that selected the Best American Poetry from that year, he would have been able to sell me one of those too.

It’s an exciting thing to hold in your hands an impression of the best of something as it is right now, which is why Salt’s new series under the editorship of Roddy Lumsden is so welcome and, perhaps, overdue. The Best British Poetry 2011, though more book than tome, presents a selection of poems found in British literary magazines and Webzines between spring 2010 and spring 2011.

Lumsden more than lives up to the responsibility of his task. Labeling anything as the ‘best’ is tricky because it’s always going to be subjective and up for scrutiny. This is not necessarily a bad thing because Salt is planning to produce a Best of 2012, 2013 and so on, under various guest editors. The tradition of literary magazines that publish poetry is already strong in Britain (not least Wales, naturally) and the competition to have a poem published in the yearly ‘Best of…’ anthology is only going to provide more incentive for poets and editors to produce and publish edgy and thrilling poetry.

This first volume is that exciting. There are poems included by established poets such as Ruth Padel and Philip Gross as well as promising unknowns such as Emma Page, who is represented here by her first published poem. Equally surprising and interesting is some of the big name poets who aren’t included.

Any book of poetry is about the poems, though, and there are some cracking ones included. In Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch’s ‘Table Manners’, instructions to cutlery and table settings produce startling images and reveal layers of meaning:

Let’s have you sitting straight. Your relationship with
furniture comes first. Don’t be marooned
at the linen’s edge: etiquette’s a dialect
to help. Hold your napkin like an injured bird

then unfurl its water lily to quilt your lap.
Keep a candle to the centre of the map,
gerbera to your right, unless, that is, you’ve
anything to hide, in which case,

make it two.

George Szirtes’ ‘Some Sayings about the Snake’ does just what the title promises and as with Wynne-Rhydderch’s poem, the reader is charged with adding interpretation and experience.

The snake spells out its name in the sand.
The snake lives at the edges of life.
When the snake enters a book, the book closes.

This is more than a collection of poetry, it is a resource. Each poem is accompanied by notes about the writer, and the writer’s notes about his or her poem. Indeed the end notes are so comprehensive they take up about a quarter of the book. This, from Deryn Rees-Jones about her extracts from ‘The Songs of Elisabeth So’ is fascinating:

Who is Elisabeth So? I’m not sure. At one point… she had
assumed a whole biography, and was about to publish her first
book of poems. Now it seems she’s left, her belongings scattered
across my desk, a biro on the windowsill, a half-empty glass of wine
balanced precariously on the radiator.

In addition, each poem is accompanied by a note citing the literary magazine in which it appeared, while the book's appendix lists the various literary magazines that publish poetry.
Besides the poetry and the notes, the best thing about The Best British Poetry 2011 is that there will be another volume during 2012.


previous review: Far South
next review: The Strange Case of the Composer and his Judge


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