By MICHAEL CAINES
How many ages does a poetry magazine have? Seven would surely be too pat, an Aristotelian three – youth, prime, old age – too simplistic. The longest-lived are not necessarily the best. Poetry Review, for example, since its founding in 1912, has tended to waver in the face of experimentalism. Its longest-serving editor, Galloway Kyle, kept it going through the Second World War by taking it in a patriotic, sales-boosting direction. To a younger man, Derek Stanford, it appeared to be “rather like an old folks' home for retired Georgian poets”.
Yes, some poetry magazines are born great; some achieve – but perhaps I shouldn’t be mixing my Shakespeare allusions . . . .
However many ages there are in total, Raceme is certainly in the first. Its debut issue is dated to May; three issues a year are promised. The editors, Matthew Barton and Jeremy Mulford, freely admit that they chose the botanical name “after long deliberations”, intending to lay stress on a sense of of organic diversity and community, but only too late noticed that “it could also be pronounced RaceMe, the name in fact of a motor-racing journal”. The poetry of the South West serves as a starting point rather than a parochial boundary; the website promises “sequences of poems with contextual matter by the authors”, such as, in this first issue, Alyson Hallett’s “Guadalajara Guide Book”. Barton offers a concise account of a single troublesome punctuation mark, the full stop – or should it be a “Frost-influenced” comma? – in Edward Thomas’s “Adlestrop”. Philip Lyons engages in an imaginary correspondence with a certain librarian in Hull (“Dear Philip . . . Yours, Philip”), while tribute is paid at the outset to the late Anne Cluysenaar.
More Larkin lather and another homage to Cluysenaar, by Adam Czerniawski, appear in the July-August issue of the long-established PN Review – issue 224, or volume 41, number 6, of a magazine now in its fifth decade. Since Grevel Lindop dared to suggest in a previous issue that Larkin might not be all that, the forthright responses now published together, by Neil Powell, John Lucas and Silas Gunn, might grab the reader’s attention first. There are other kinds of dialogue, however, on show: “The Hendonists” by Yvonne Green, a poem “after” Sean O’Brien’s “Novembrists”; Elaine Feinstein’s autobiographical recollection of her foreign, female “poetic mentors”; Vidyan Ravinthiran on following Auden into lexicophilia; and Philip Terry’s respinning of The Regrets by Joachim du Bellay:
I’m not going to wade through creative writing manuals,
I’ve no desire to write like Larkin . . .
In this book I’ve no intention of
Imitating those who think they will live for ever
Just because they’ve had a good review in the TLS.
I was also, for some reason, taken with Miles Burrows’s wily “Across the Road” (“I live in a street of divorcees / Most of us are left to our own devices / Though one can be heard making love to Debussy”), and the piquant lines by Tom Pickard, quoted by Patrick McGuinness, about “bloated tomes by toady poets who sit in circles blowing prizes / up each other’s arseholes with straws”.
Ravinthiran can also be found in the summer issue of Poetry London (first published as a “listings newsletter” in 1988): here his subject is Paul Muldoon’s latest collection, One Thousand Things Worth Knowing. Worth it or not, I now know that Muldoon once turned up at a conference about his work as if “to devil us, sitting at the back of the room and paralysing the speakers into sycophancy”. And I now know what a lot of poets look like: austere within, Poetry London disconcertingly covers itself in mugshots. (I hope the intention isn’t to remind the reader that poets are people, too. We all know they’re not.)
I’m not a regular reader of the magazine, but it was good to be able to flick through this copy and find back-to-back pleasures: “The Givens” by Kim Addonizio “Someone will bump into you and not apologize . . .”; “someone will tell you / she’s sorry it’s out of her hands as though everything isn’t already”) and “A Portable Joye” by Stephen Knight (“along his sleeve / The infante wipeth aye his snot”). The editorial by the magazine’s co-editor Martha Kapos will interest many, since it concerns the perennial question of funding for poetry. (Is there perhaps a poetry magazine cycle dedicated to crazes, crises and life-threatening contentions?) “Of the 664 National Portfolio Organisations that [Arts Council England] supports”, Kapos writes, “poetry represents only 2%.” ACE has made the “far-sighted” decision to train those who run Poetry London, Modern Poetry in Translation and the Poetry Translation Centre “to become fundraisers ourselves”. All the modern questions arise here, concerning “impact”, ACE’s alignment with government policy and its beneficiaries’ appetite for jumping through the bureaucratic hoops.
Lastly: The Dark Horse is celebrating its twentieth anniversary with a splendidly hefty issue, pleasingly printed in the traditional combination of black, white and red. Scottish poetry is well represented, of course, but the voices are many and varied, not least in the round-table discussion about anglophone poetry and criticism organized by Carmine Starnino, and in the poems by Helen Mort, A. E. Stallings, Dana Gioia and Anne Stevenson. Gerry Cambridge, the magazine’s editor, gets to play the part of the justice “Full of wise saws, and modern instances” in his editorial, reminiscing about the magazine’s early days (“500 copies of a slim, buff-card-covered first issue” with a “bumptious, somewhat prickly and combative tone”) and subsequent technological advances (“It was only when setting issue 8 that I realised how massively labour-saving e-mail was going to be”).
He also affirms the view that technology has helped to upset the “power structures” of contemporary poetry (“the old hegemonies seem less significant than energy, imagination and new approaches”), while railing against the “unsensual” ghastliness of “on-screen reading”. Naturally, writing on a blog, I suppose I’m meant to say that on-screen reading has its uses. Those unwilling or unable to grasp the pleasure of reading verse in print might wish to consider investing in a copy of Cambridge’s pamphlet, The Printed Snow: On typesetting poetry, with its ruminations on fonts and their symbolic resonances, gutters gone wrong and who the (exceptional) good typesetters of poetry are. I suspect there are one or two poetry magazine editors who have a lot to learn.