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In Their Own Words: Contemporary Poets on Their Poetry
Helen Ivory and George Szirtes, eds.
In Their Own Words is a celebration of the variousness of contemporary poets living and writing in the UK today. 56 poets talk about their own poetic voices and their work. Essential reading for anybody who cares about poetry.
A backstage peek behind the poetry of some of the best contemporary UK writers. Edited by T.S. Eliot prize winner George Szirtes and Helen Ivory — two of the UK’s most respected poets and teachers.

In Their Own Words is an examination of the voices writing in the UK today – the book addresses multiculturalism, page and stage, and LBG issues, as well as traditional ‘page’ poetry.

This book is not retrospective, it is a representation of the poetry world as a living, breathing developing thing.

Readers will get an insight into the many ways the poetic voice can develop – it’s a behind the scenes look at the poetics of the poetry.

There is nothing currently available quite like it. 
This book’s fifty-six contributors were asked to write on any aspect of their process. Most had something to say on the appeal of language or sound, discussed a recent poem or project, and offered some words of advice. Many contributors open with a potted history. Yet, as Peter Scupham says, ‘The poet is formed by these things, but is not made a poet by them’ (p.216). The emphasis on the ‘life’ does seem to invite a Sunday supplement readership, but in terms of diversity and particularity I do not wish to deny the power of a writer’s background. Carol Rumens seems aware of this dilemma as she discusses the free-for-all that poetry has become:

[Today] most poets are self-taught... Some democratisation was over-due but what if democratisation means a fairer distribution of ignorance?... A poet who does not know his [sic] past may repeat it, writing the poem that has already been written and declaring it to be avant-garde (p226).

This is apparent in some of the essays that only skim the surface of reflecting upon process.

The poetry free-for-all and assumed open readership might result in ‘something for everyone’ or please nobody. If the book was aimed at poet-tutors like me, I found it bitty. If it was aimed at students then consider the following advantages and disadvantages.

Over half the contributors make use of complete poems, extracts of poems in draft form, or other poets’ poetry. These essays could be used to show students how to incorporate quotation whilst exploring a discussion of personal process. With a word limit of 500 to 1500 words the essays match the length of that ubiquitous assignment the Creative Writing ‘critical commentary’, which might be useful.

Be aware, however, that some essays read as ‘poems of poetics’ (Kona McPhee, Deryn Rees-Jones); a few simply list extended points; and one is an overt list (Michael Symmons Roberts). As models for an undergraduate essay those ones might not suit module marking criteria! Yet, by diverting from the ‘what brought me to poetry/here’s one I made earlier’ approach, they do the subject greater justice by covertly admitting that the task-in-hand is too expansive for 1,500 words.

Another method of organizing the essays might have been through Symmons Roberts’ list – his twelve conflicts with which a poet wrestles. One conflict named is the conflict between truth and fiction, which is expanded upon by Martin Figura, who opens thus: ‘In 1966 when I was nine my father killed my mother and 40 years later (the recommended time, I believe) I wrote poems about it’ (p164). His essay is illustrated with photographs and he discusses the unreliability of memory, arguing for fictionalization in poetry: ‘This imprecision can, counter-intuitively, help when writing about our past’ (p167). His essay will be helpful in a life- writing module I am teaching next year, but might also suit an exploration of ekphrasis. Here some ‘potted history’ is valuable, but only because it leads into a thorough argument about process and the decisions available in our writing practice. The essay moves through the personal to the theoretical.

Vikki Feaver explores the autobiographical too, via an account of the making of one poem. Feaver wonders if her experience of vocal cord paralysis and a peripheral neuropathy might have a psychological cause. In the light of my own research into representations of disability in literature, the essay made me uneasy, so often do writers look to use or interpret illness or disability as metaphor or psychology. But even as the reader is roused for debate, another poet comes along with a different subject.

This is where the 56-strong anthology format weakens the text as a learning experience. It is a tasting menu and not a full meal. There is little sense of a debate that deepens. There are even contradictions that are not flagged or explored. Read Tim Wells on endings: ‘My work towards a poem often starts with a punchline... The punch needn’t be a joke but could be an insight, an observation or even a soft kiss... hopefully [it] also resonates with the reader’ (p125). Esther Morgan acknowledges she used to do this too: ‘looking back I can see those early poems still strive for a resonant ending... Clunk click, Like a safety belt... I found myself able to second guess where a poem would end up’. But now she declares ‘my attempts to resist it [resolution] have been at the heart of the evolution of my own poems in recent years’ (p235). Contradictions in approach may co-exist, of course, but of greater concern to me is that a student might miss being challenged by these interesting, opposing views as the essays are 104 pages apart.

Twenty-seven of the anthology’s contributors are women and one of the editors is female, which compares favourably with predecessors. Several write in English as a second language. The anthology succeeds on its own terms as ‘a celebration of the variousness [sic] of contemporary poets living and writing in Britain and Ireland today’. But is it ‘essential reading for anybody who cares about poetry’? No. The introduction concludes that the book might ‘form the core of further discussion.’ Perhaps.

Cath Nichols

Additional Information:
Mon 15 Oct 2012
Issue Number:
ISBN: 9781907773211
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