Versions of The North, Five Leaves Press 2013
The contemporary poetry anthology seems to be in rude good health. There are anthologies based on ‘new generations’ of poets, poets under thirty, anthologies to showcase or create a school or genre. Others, like the Forward, gather prize winners and well established poets. Still others try to counterbalance these by presenting the ‘best’ poems from small presses in any given year; many are enjoyable and some are useful, for example, in bringing new voices to the fore.
But few feel ‘necessary’, or give the impression of being able to stand the test of time. Fewer still could be given out in a pub, to be understood and enjoyed by the recipients. I suspect that Versions of The North could.
Subtitled Contemporary Yorkshire Poetry, this is an anthology from Five Leaves Press, edited by Ian Parks. Paradoxically, given its stated geographical borders, the one hundred and forty-seven pages of poems cover a huge variety of themes and gather a multiplicity of voices to celebrate and reflect upon the physical, historical, political, geographical and emotional landscapes of the north of England.
This is a generous book in more ways than one. Ian Parks defines Yorkshire Poetry in the introduction as ‘poetry written by poets with a strong connection to Yorkshire either by birth or close association.’
Major strengths are that poems by deceased poets and sit alongside work by rising stars like Helen Mort and David Tait, and that the ‘celebrated’ sit beside the ‘overlooked’ or less well known. A democratic accessibility is at the heart of this collection; I was originally going to title this review ‘A new republic of the head and heart,’ a line borrowed and adapted from a poem by Ian Parks.
But the inclusively and accessibility of this collection doesn’t mean the book isn’t full of surprise, confrontation, celebration, grief, humour and moments of astonishing beauty.
The opener is the wonderfully inventive and assured ‘Frost-Gods’ by the late Harold Massingham. Within three lines the reader is located in a landscape where there is ‘Frost-flack over these collieries.’ We are also located in language at once direct and inventive, no-nonsense and dour, exhilaratingly vivacious and, to quote the poem, ‘energied with Reverie.’ There is a self-knowing and perhaps humorously deployed line about surveying a post industrial landscape, and it might stand for much of what this book is about: ‘I look it over, warming / To that grim aura:’
Throughout the collection I encountered, and warmed to, the geography of old-mill workings and slag heaps, the ghosts of heavy industry, the echo and sometimes physical reminders of territorial and political battles, the landscapes of moors and crags as well as great cathedrals, tea shops, rivers and the sea, all described by a spectrum of distinctively individual but collectively ‘northern’ voices.
These lines from Maurice Rutherford’s ‘Outlook on Monday’ put me in mind of Les Dawson’s housewife in a pinafore, arms folded, alert and primed for gossip: ‘A neighbour swabs her doorstep / the clothesline a farcical can-can / incontinence knickers in chorus / high-kicking out of time.’ Dawson’s characters were archetypes, but they were recognisable and loveable ones, and his portrayal of stereotypes was never malicious. The same can be said of the many characters that inhabit this book.
George Kendrick finds cause to celebrate a bicycle tyre in a tree, and this highlights a key aspect of this collection, namely a lack of obscurity, an absence of the deliberately ‘clever’, the flashy or brash. Most, if not all, of the poems, are written using ‘everyday’ language, and many refuse to be tidied or clipped into neatness, but maintain the expansiveness of real speech; perhaps Les Murray’s antipodean ‘Quality of Sprawl’ has its equivalent in northern England. This anthology serves to remind the reader how richly expressive and elegant everyday English can be.
Together with explorations of the seemingly ordinary, there is much bravery in dealing with big themes. This anthology doesn’t shy away from conflict, whether it is the bitter confrontation of the miner’s strike or issues of identity, class and race. Nor is there any trace of a simple romantic view of long gone industries. Instead there is ambiguity in poems which deal with this loss, an acknowledgement that whilst these industries provided livelihoods and a sense of community, they also laid scars across the land and the lives of many of its inhabitants.
Glyn Hughes’s ‘Rock Rose’ is a celebration of the reclamation of the land by nature: ‘Hammer and Chisel, ledger and pen, / cradle and loom are rested / hewn stone is overgrown or sweetened.’ Those who were lucky enough to have known the late Ann Atkinson will be particularly moved by her poem ‘Petrifying Well,’ in which Ann seems to be expressing acknowledgement of the passing of all things.
There are far too many standout poems to mention here, but the delightful invention and controlled rage and humour of Ian Duhig is well represented by his five poems, as is the masterful control of Pat Borthwick in ‘It’s Only’, a tour de force in which she sardonically shines light on the dull waters of the Humber and uncovers a dinosaur’s scaphoid (or does she?) among the brickwork and slack on the foreshore. There is a lot of weather in this book; inevitably rain and snow, but also sunshine, notably in Jules Smith’s poem ‘The Barefoot Bride’.
Elsewhere Ann Sansom sings the hymn of a humble slug, while Paul Mills captures the power of nature on a different scale in ‘At the Lake House’: ‘Stronger than love / is stone’s connection with water. / Anchored and fluid among the peaks / they sculpt each other with force, with likeness, with nearness’. Another stand out poem is Graham Hamilton’s heartbreakingly beautiful tale of salmon and his reflection of changes in the lives of the men who fish and fished them.
I know that editor Ian Parks had to persuaded into including two of his own poems by a delegation of the anthologised poets. This comes as no surprise since self-promotion doesn’t seem to be Ian’s priority. But his own ‘Strikebreakers’ is an essential part of the picture, containing a line which conjures a state of civil war in which ‘the mounted men broke through’. In this remembrance, there is a chilling sense of the inescapable and inevitable legacy of such a bitter division and conflict. This is followed by Ed Reiss’s biblical take on un-forgiven scabs. In different ways both poems perform the difficult task of describing the detail and legacy of such battles without becoming overtly polemical.
This is not a mono-cultural anthology; Liz Cashdan, Debjani Chatterjee and Ian Duhig among others remind us of the history of migration and the variety of Yorkshire voices and experiences. But I would have liked to see a few more voices springing from differing ethnic backgrounds. Perhaps with the passage of time these voices might come to the fore. This small point aside, Ian Parks has selected and sequenced these poems to create an enduring map of a past and present Yorkshire as seen and described by several generations of its children. That he has succeeded in his ambition is testament to the sheer quality and variety of the poems.