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Books Twenty-first Century Poetry

Reviews of latest collections from Ian McMillan and Culture Matters

WHAT should poets write about this “golden age” of self-congratulation, authoritarianism, mendacity and xenophobia? What can they possibly say that will not be drowned out by the victory march of smirking fools and their cheerleaders in the national media?

Of course, some will rush for the prizes and awards still on offer and it will be interesting to see which poets can’t resist getting their hands on some of the £120 million that the British government is proposing to spend on the Festival of Great Britain and Northern Ireland next year.

No doubt, some poets will continue to play in the dressing-up box of narcissism and exhibitionism. Others will probably fall into sullen anger, despair and silence.

How poets respond over the next few years will help to determine whether the left can create and popularise the kind of alternative common sense we need to isolate the enemy.

Highly recommended, then, is Ian McMillan’s latest pamphlet That’s Not a Fishing Boat, it’s a Giraffe: Responses to Austerity (Smith/Doorstop, £5).

McMillan’s unique brand of South Yorkshire surrealism is perfectly suited to addressing the cruel absurdities of contemporary Britain. This, for example, is his description of a government spokesman announcing plans to increase the minimum wage:

“Due to extreme trading conditions the wages will not be paid monetarily but in the form of Notes to the milkman, squirrel droppings, drawings of submarines done by prisoners on Death Row, kettles... wooden clothes pegs, shoelaces, canisters of laughing gas... jigsaws of Stockport’s skyline, jars of homemade chutney, bird boxes, bowler hats and ferrules.”

And this is his hymn of praise celebrating the recent opening of a foodbank in a Norfolk primary school:

“O Tins of beans beside those little infant chairs!/O Deputy Head bringing pasta in an Aldi bag!/O Reading corner where soup is stored because everybody donates soup!/O Children with faces that belong to their grandparents!... O Tory MP standing for a photo opportunity with his donation!”

Also recommended is The Children of the Nation: An Anthology of Working People’s Poetry from Contemporary Ireland (Culture Matters, £9).

Edited by Jenny Farrell, the book has been supported financially by Unite the Union, the CWU, Forsa, Mandate and Belfast and Galway Trades Councils.

It’s a big, strong anthology, containing 131 poems, including several in Gaelic, by 67 poets. Their subjects are mostly the housing crisis, homelessness, poverty, low pay, urban decay and emigration, all set against the bitter refrain of Billy Craven’s Ireland’s Having a Boom:

“No mortgage and increasing rents/(Ireland’s Having a boom)/People living in the Park in tents/(And Ireland’s having a boom).”

There are strong contributions from Sara Boyce, Fred Johnstone, Ciaran O’Rourke, Gabriel Rosenstock, Anita Gracey, Andrew King, Paul Laughlin, Gary Allen and Rita Ann Higgins. One of the strongest poems is Patrick Bolger’s Goin Homeless:

“they’re goin homeless/it’s the latest trend/in a country on its knees/they’re goin homeless/it’s a bit like the Macarena in the 1990s/young girls, teenage mothers/skipping hand in hand/into the homeless office/their needle marks hidden/beneath their skinny jeans.”

Best of all is Kevin Higgins’s brilliant Hoodied Bridget, spoken by an invisible low-paid worker who dreams, like Brecht’s Pirate Jenny, of historical revenge:

“If you’d any sense/you’d wake screaming/every night in fear of me./By the time you do/I’ll be standing over you/and you’ll still be wondering/what’s with her smirk?/For there’s a crowd coming behind me/carrying a flag you won’t believe/you’re seeing again/until you do.”



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