| Oliver Comins | Octobre 2019 |
Poetry in the UK is boasting growing sales and it is significant that the poetry lists of many publishers are increasingly featuring writers who are neither male nor white and whose voices reflect the diversity of society on this small island.
Carol Ann Duffy
The first female Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, has recently completed her ten year stint as national poet of the UK. She published her first full collection in 1985 after a decade in which feminist imprints had taken attention and sales away from establishment publishers largely dominated by male editors and managers. Early in her career Duffy won the National Poetry Competition, but it was the publication of more than a book – a year of poetry collections and anthologies for adults and children plus her work as a poetry activist – that gained her the invitation to become Poet Laureate:
“Love’s time’s beggar, but even a single hour,
bright as a dropped coin, makes love rich.” (Hour)
This autumn, Alice Oswald begins a five year term as the first female Professor of Poetry to take office at the University of Oxford. She was introduced in an anthology of New Poets edited by Carol Ann Duffy in 1995 and has created a body of work of great substance and seriousness. As a classicist and a gardener, Oswald draws on the myth kitty of the ancients and the earth kitty of contemporary Britain, to weave poetry that sings of time passing and warns us to take care of the present.
“Wind steals through woods, the democratic dew
gives equal weight to everything.” (Two Voices)
Liz Berry’s Black Country won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in 2014. It is full of delightfully modulated poems that celebrate growing up in the West Midlands and use the dialect and accent of Birmingham, where she still lives. A poem of Berry’s won the Forward Prize for Best Poem in 2018, finding tribulation and riches in the shift-work of parenting:
“… I was called at once to work
in the factory of Motherhood. The owl shift,
the graveyard shift. Feedingcleaninglovingfeeding.” (The Republic of Motherhood)
Liz Berry’s subtle and thoughtful poems explore her inner and outer life. They draw strength from language that is as true to moments of tenderness as it is to times of challenge and difficulty. Another fine poem has been short-listed for this year’s Forward Prize for Best Poem:
“After he was born I wanted nothing but the wind
to hold me, the soft-mouthed breeze
coaxing my skin like the grass
from a trampled field.” (Highbury Park)
For a young poet, Jay Bernard has been a feature of the UK poetry scene for a long time. Their* pamphlet, Your sign is cuckoo, girl was published in 2008. Bernard is a writer and film maker whose sources are black, queer and urban. Poems, which would later appear in their first collection, Surge, won the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry in 2018. Jay’s poetry uses vivid language that can be clear-sighted and direct:
“I am seventeen and summer is still gold clap of hot body
and hot body. Blue sky fries the tiny sun.
I kiss myself for courage and duck into the parade.” (Pride)
Other poems move with a street-like urgency that lives on the page and breathes in Bernard’s live readings, rich with rhythm and song. Surge is a memorial for the victims of two catastrophic fires in London at New Cross in 1981 and Grenfell in 2017 and a narrative of survival in the face of destructive forces:
“And all of their ghosts are burning
above the city. Some fires burn
pink as damaged blossom.” (Chemical)
Mary Jean Chan
Mary Jean Chan grew up in Hong Kong and considers she was colonised by the English language at a time when the UK was handing the colony back to China. The histories she learned in Chinese and English have informed the her stories she has lived and written. While she travelled to the USA and settled in the UK, she also settled with her gender and her own personal cultural diversity.
“When you said Why didn’t you warn me
about cultural differences? I didn’t know
whether you meant my mother’s face all
darkened like a curtain, or the vegetables.” (Notes Towards an Understanding)
The strength of Mary Jean’s poetry lies in the precise way she captures an event or action and then amplifies its significance. She is especially strong exploring ambiguity and celebrating divergent interpretations.
“… The girl dreams that the words
sprouting like weeds from her mouth are not
weeds, but magnolias: her mother’s favourite.” (Magnolias)
We are living in a time that seems to have more than its fair share of trouble, when intolerance appears to be thriving. Could this be one reason among many why poetry is flourishing in this country? Poets like Duffy, Oswald, Berry, Bernard or Chan remind us what it means to be human. And perhaps, question our times.
Oliver Comins is a poet whose work is widely published in print and on-line. His collection, Oak Fish Island, was published in 2018 by Templar Poetry. He lives and works in West London.
The Republic of Motherhood, Chatto & Windus, 2018.
Black Country, Chatto & Windus, 2014.
Surge, Chatto & Windus, 2019.
The Red and Yellow Nothing, Ink Sweat & Tears, 2016.
Mary Jean Chan
Flèche, Faber & Faber, 2019.
a hurry of English, ignition press. 2018.
If your local bookshop doesn’t have these in stock, then they will be able to order them for you to collect within a day or two.
* Jay Bernard prefers the non-binary pronoun “their” to the binary “her” or “she”.