2012, A Day on Facebook, A Volta for the Sonnet as a Drag Queen, Adventures in Form, Chris McCabe, Facebook, George Szirtes, Hanna Silva, Hannah Silva, Hello my friend, Jackie Kay, Penned in the Margins, Rishi Dastidar, sonnet, Sophie Mayer, The Analogue Guide to Parenting, The Private Parts of Girls, Tom Chivers, Twitter
Reporting back from the Edinburgh International Book Festival, George Szirtes quotes Jackie Kay: “Why do novelists so fear the death of the novel?’ she asked. ‘Poets don’t fear the death of the poem.” This anxiety has been bubbling in the media for a while and the argument goes that the novel is disconnecting from the lives we lead.
Just look around any human activity – you’ll find us in our hoards, lurking in the shadows (to best see the screen) and worshipping our smartphones, updating our statuses, tweeting. The novel is a long form and humanity, it seems, is in love with the shortest of forms. A doorstop like Clarissa is just an offensive weapon, or furniture. We’re too busy for doorstops now. We have lives to live and tweets to graze.
The point here isn’t to knock the novel but to observe how poetry is thriving. In Adventures in Form, Tom Chivers (editor), offers a tour of the most innovative poetry being written now. It bastardizes and riffs with a multitude of forms, both past and present, demonstrating that poetry’s in rude health. In the first section, TRADITIONAL REVISED, new life is breathed into old forms. In Hanna Silva‘s Hello my friend, she makes brilliant use of the sestina, recycling spam email into something relentless and inescapable. ‘I am contacting you with something urgent, / you have always been a good friend. / I need to inform you of the following: / It is important that we remain connected. / It is important that we don’t avoid the subject. / Please switch on your TV and watch the news’. In A Volta for the Sonnet as a Drag Queen, Sophie Mayer foregrounds the artificiality of the form in the first of the two sonnets: ‘The sonnet’s a drag, and girl, it knows: sticks its / falsies, lines up its lashes. Lamé, lurex, tits / aglitter’. In The Private Parts of Girls, Mayer broke new boundaries between form and genre with her sci-fi poetry and here her language updates Shakespeare’s knowing, playful, gender-bending pyrotechnics which were, in turn, a rebooting of a form which was a bit tired and clichéd, even when he got his mitts on it. As Shakespeare had innuendo working at full stretch, not least with his name, ‘Will’, so does Mayer. ‘Again, again. Limbs aglow/akimbo / if enjambed: the stance, the torch, the blow // that’s always coming. The twist, you know it.’ After this childishness, the sonnet reaches the volta and with the paradoxical coyness of a tranny, Mayer leaves her twist hidden in a gusset. In the second sonnet all hell’s unleashed, as line breaks break words and the form is ‘mutated to meet the needs of / a poisoned world’.
Like Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain and the tons of art which proceed it, the FOUND MATERIALS section shows poetry transforming unlikely source materials into objects of wonder and strangeness. Chris McCabe works with his children’s speech in The Analogue Guide to Parenting, a poem described by Chivers as ‘very funny’. However, as the lines are endlessly repeated through the poem’s week, this humour looks more like an oral attrition which all parents will recognise. My daughter’s inflicted Shrek 2 on me enough times for me to see the existential darkness at the heart of this particular brand of inanity: ‘Why have you chewed the monkey? / Don’t push the lion in the postbox. / Careful on the pony with a full nappy. / Why have you chewed the monkey? / Don’t get jam in the ridges. / Why have you chewed the monkey?’
It was the TXTS, TWEETS, AND STATUS UPDATES section which really grabbed me. Poets and wits colonised these twenty-first century spaces instinctively and Rishi Dastidar‘s A day on Facebook is a powerful expression of modern life. The poem starts: ‘is absence of breakfast, mostly // is not thanking the Academy for anything at all // has said goodbye to his Coney Island babe // is wondering what Alistair Cooke would have made of it all’. Dastidar’s juxtaposition of ordinary and celebrity lives is an open-ended invitation for us to consider the values of our society. The final update, ‘The beast still needs feeding’ horrifies, as we wonder to what private mania this might refer. Or is the beast the social media?
Buy this anthology. Reading it feels like wandering around the next must-see gallery exhibition: sometimes you’ll spend longer staring at Chivers’ discrete, public-spirited explanations than at the works themselves. However, like every art exhibition, although some of the work will inevitably leave you cold, the discoveries (and there are many to be made here) far outweigh them. Chivers’ evidence demonstrates that poetry’s as vital, relevant and light on its feet as it ever was. A golden age is dawning.