With the announcement of the Poetry Book Society's Next Generation 2014 promotion impending - a PR exercise that follows on from the New Generation of '94 and the Next Gen of 2004, aimed at introducing a mildly skeptical but smart reading public to some of the new British poets worth reading and listening to, and generally doing good by raising contemporary poetry's profile - the inevitable wave of minor back-biting and upset is already doubtless gathering a little inconsequential pace. Namely, among those who fear they/their pals won't be included in what they've ostensibly decided is the definitive Who's Who of contemporary British poetry just now.
The Next Generation 2014 won't be that, of course - but then the blinkered conceitedness of the 'snubbed' poet can be a terrible and amusing thing. We're only human, after all.
What, I think, we can hope for is that the promotion, run by the estimable Poetry Book Society of T.S. Eliot's conception, will bring a host of new readers to some very good poetry, and help to promote the work of some really grand new poets, younger and older - age being a frankly meaningless criteria, and props to the PBS for recognising that after the New Generation of '94.
So here's to the Next Generation 2014, and all who sail on her. The included poets will all have published a first full collection in the past 10 years (from 1 May 2004 to 30 April 2014), and I for one look forward to seeing 'em in our papers, on our tellys and radios, and reading up and down the country. Catch 'em if you can.
Meantime, here's some choice quotes and food-for-thought from a piece Don Paterson - himself a poet who took part in the inaugural NewGen promo of '94 - scribbled in 2001, seven years on, and which appeared at the time in The Poetry Review.
Shortly after the New Generation promotion hit the beach, I received a phonecall from Michael Donaghy.
"Hey Don - I've had this guy on the phone looking for you".
"Yeah. He got my number from the Poetry Society and then asked if I could put you on ... he just assumed we were all living in one big house. Y'know. Like the Monkees."
While it would be churlish to deny that the NewGen publicity helped some of us a whole lot, many of us also spent years getting it in the neck for something that didn't actually happen. NewGen consisted of a few photocalls, an appearance on TV and two or three gigs. That was it. For whatever reason, though, the stakes are now perceived to be worth fighting for in a way they weren't before NewGen. (They aren't, never have been, and by and large are as low as ever. Blessedly - despite everyone's best and worst efforts - poetry continues to be its own reward; this will guarantee its amateur status among the arts. Though you would never think so, given the number of younger poets that now talk of their "career". Writing poetry? A career?) This has afforded the jealous and the thwarted a far clearer sense of project than their jealously and thwartedness entitled them to ten years ago.
NewGen was one of the more visible manifestations of a general trend - a trend which mired us deeper in a lot of bad things: the cult of the individual voice, the cult of youth, the silly dogma of "show not tell" (fine advice for beginners, but an insane line for an experienced practitioner to tow), and worst of all, the provincialism of the contemporary. I recently sat in a room listening to a certain eminent litterateuse enquire of the air why anyone, in 2001, for God's sake, would want to write like Louis MacNeice. Well, y'know. If you have to ask.
After NewGen, reviewing got much worse. I've been back and had a look. It was always terrible, but far too many reviews now seem to fall into one of two categories: elegant vituperation and semiliterate praise. Writers such as John Kinsella - as eloquent in their advocacy as their criticism, and alive to the whole spectrum of the art - are depressingly thin on the ground. The kind of review that shits from a great height on a book is almost invariably - you have to make exceptions - written out of a snivelling insecurity, regardless of its apparent swagger ... I know, because I wrote a ton of them. Artificially pumped full of the confidence I thought I was supposed to feel - but somehow didn't - as a NewGen poet, I came on like a young gunslinger, and wrote reviews that were pointlessly cruel, and disgracefully ad hominem. I only quit when one review provoked a well-orchestrated series of death-threats from friends of my victim. You have to realise when you're crap at something.)
I quite agree that the NewGen were a bit too homogenous a group. Iain Sinclair dismissed the lot of us as "pod people", and I concede at least half the point. The poets he collected in his Conductors of Chaos were just from another pod - however infinitely various they may feel themselves to be - but some deserved, and have never received, proper attention. Exactly the same goes for performance poets. A whole lot of useful cross-pollination could have taken place that didn't. Denise Riley and Jean Breeze on the same stand: why the hell not? In retrospect, I think Carol Ann Duffy was quite right to exempt herself from the promotion; none of the rest of us did, simply because we couldn't afford to.
The best thing to come out of NewGen was the chance for poets at the opposite ends of the country to meet up and talk to each other; the friendships made resulted in several of us having a profound influence on one another's work. All this makes it a crying shame that there weren't far more poets involved. NewGen also kickstarted a much more professional approach to the marketing of poetry, which it badly needed.
Kingsely Amis once dreamt up a brilliant advertising campaign for alcohol, along the lines of: Drink Beer. It Makes You Drunk. It works, because the selling point also happens to be an intrinsic property of the thing you're advertising. If you have to go looking for it - Beer Makes You Look Sexy, Beer Brings You Closer to God - you should really be selling something different, like lingerie or religion. Anyway here's my slogan: Read Poetry. It's Really Quite Hard. This will appeal immediately to the target audience (aye, the literate classes: why does that always sound like a heresy?) who will be thoroughly intrigued, and then - as we all know - deeply rewarded for the investment poetry will ask of them. It also has the merit of throwing the emphasis back on the poem, where perhaps it should have been in the first place.
National Poetry Day. I forget the year. I receive a call - in my capacity as a NewGen poet, I assume, since the caller thinks I am Michael Donaghy - asking me to appear on Newsnight. The researcher suggests that I might want to talk about how poetry has been trivialised by the media. I laboriously put my case. "Yeah!" she exclaims. "Just the sort of thing we're looking for. Now, if we send a cab over at half past five, do you think you might put these thoughts into verse?" I looked at my watch: it was half-past four. I will spare you my response.
excerpts from Don Paterson's 'The Legacy of NewGen', published in The Poetry Review, 2001.