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21st century poetry Winning hearts and minds beats a corporate gong any day

21st century poetry with Andy Croft

HAVE you ever noticed how the word “poet” is increasingly accompanied by the automatic prefix “award-winning”?

National Poetry Day — when a panel of award-winning poets give an award to an award-winning poet — is no longer a celebration of poetry but of the PR machinery of corporate publishers.

As poet and publisher Michael Schmidt has argued: “Poetry prizes are now the vehicle of literary reception. Control the prizes and you control the culture of reception.”

Four books just out by poets who are too original and too radical ever to be “award-winning” are well worth checking out, starting with Welsh poet Mike Jenkins’s Bring the Rising Home! (Culture Matters/Manifesto Press, £9), a strong and vivid collaboration with the painter Gustavius Payne.

Poems and paintings are paired to compose bleak snapshots of contemporary Welsh life and some of the poems are in Welsh as well as in English. Football, Friday nights, bankers, beggars, Aberfan and those “singers of the empire,” whose version of Welsh culture is like a ‘”giant leek preserved in formaldehyde” are all here.

There are some great individual poems, notably We Want it Back! The Rising — about the 1831 Merthyr Rising, when the Red Flag was raised for the first time — Fuckall t Lose (“If yew int got nothing/there’s fuckall t lose/an ev’rythin’ to gain”) and the brilliant Outa Jail (“least I gotta job washin cars,/better ’an-alas one/in-a juice factree/all overtime, no breaks an unions,/treated like bloody sheep.”)

Ruth Valentine’s A Grenfell Alphabet (£5 available from the author, is a remarkable long poem about the fire, a sequence of 24 verses, one for each floor of the tower.

Sold in aid of the Grenfell Tower Fund, it is not directly about the dead or the survivors, but about the everyday objects they left behind — dresses in wardrobes, photographs, keys, nursery-rhymes, memories, unwatched TV programmes, unwritten letters, unanswered questions.

Each verse is built around a letter of the alphabet, starting with the “’araway alphabets” of some of the residents, via birthday cards, cuckoo-clocks, dishes, eggs, forget-me-nots, gifts and hats, ending on the top floor with:

“X the unknown number of the victims./Y the question nobody wants to answer./Z for the zero which is Grenfell Tower/now, its missing windows and scorched stairs/zero the objects that can still be salvaged,/zero the rooms it would be safe to enter.”

SJ Litherland’s seventh collection Composition in White (Smokestack, £7.99) is a secret book of England, cricket and Morris dancing, Brummie aunts and Bohemian artists and the long shadow of the war years.

At the start of her ninth decade, she traces the red threads running through her long life, back to a Warwickshire childhood spent in country lanes and air raid shelters, and, before that, the ghosts of the Levellers and Diggers, the 1848 “Springtime of the Nations,” the Cabaret Voltaire and the 1917 Revolution:

“We burnt our boats in a bonfire of the vanities, no rules/allowed. Our ridiculous hats, our quixotic gestures,/lived on the same street, on the Spiegelgasse./We opened a gallery & Lenin moved under cover/in his closed train to St Petersburg, the revolution/bursting the banks of the Neva; he was never so free,/nothing was accomplished and nothing marred,/our songs were in his back pocket like bombs.”

When Julie Egdell went to work in St Petersburg a few years ago, she discovered that she is the spitting image of the Russian version of Alice — not Tenniel’s blonde schoolgirl but the dark-haired Alisa of Soviet illustrated children’s stories, sarcastic and cruel and very Russian.

Her first book, Alice in Winterland (Smokestack, £7.95) is the story of a strange and subversive wonderland. It’s a book about life in post-Soviet Russia, mad hatters, tears and temptations. It is also a story of exile, heartbreak, loneliness and longing, about falling down a cultural and linguistic rabbit hole:

“In wonderland/I am a stranger./I drink tea/from china cups/in tiny apartments/shared by big families,/without choices./In wonderland/snowflakes/are innocence./Dust and dirt/homeless and limbless/vanish in the snow… the long winter grips.”


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