Review reviewed

by Wayne Carvosso

In the ninety-odd years of its existence, Poetry Review has rarely been the most important or dynamic of British poetry magazines, but it's often been the most visible. As the organ of the Poetry Society it's the official face of poetry in this country. When anything vaguely poetical happens, the press and TV pester the Laureate first, but next in line for comment is the editor of Poetry Review. And now there's not only been a change of editors, but a fairly thoroughgoing relaunch. In the little world of British poetry, this is something that deserves analysis.

The outgoing editor was Peter Forbes, an obviously well-meaning if unspectacular chap, who has seen the magazine through the nineties, consistently championing his well-meaning if unspectacular New Generation group. Now he's bowed out, to be replaced by a pair, David Herd and Robert Potts, who have announced their intention to make a difference.

The first thing you spot is that the mag looks better. Out goes the biblical double-columning. In comes a new typeface, a smarter grade of paper, and some attractive colour illustrations that don't seem to have much to do with the poetry. You sense that the magazine could be making quite a dent in the Poetry Society's annual subsidy from the taxpayer (£163,000 this year, according to the Arts Council's annual review, available online at

The next thing you notice is that their ambitions are high. There are striking innovations: an essay by a poet on a general theme ("Happiness"), a poet's eye view of a current art exhibition. More important, there is space given to major modern poets who are out of the humdrum mainstream. Geoffrey Hill is represented by two classy if typical sections from a new book. Lee Harwood is there. John Ashbery flies an obscure flag for America. Well, I can't warm to him personally, but the inclusion shows that the editors mean business.

They have also made sure that the very acme of British modernism is included, if not in person, then at least in review. I mean the modernist's modernist, the undisputed king of difficulty, Jeremy Prynne. There's an honest review of his latest pamphlets, which echoes the opinion most of us have about Prynne's poetry - stunning phrases, but whole verse paragraphs we can't begin to fathom. The critic stops short of admitting the basic truth, though, which is that reading a Prynne poem can be like trying to watch television whilst some malign hyperactive child is in charge of the remote control.

Some inclusions are less happy. The Australian poet John Tranter is clearly regarded as the star of this show. He is allowed space for three poems (only Ashbery equals this count), is reviewed fulsomely, and is given twelve whole pages for a comic strip that recycles the old Biff joke of having tough guys spout critical clichés at each other. Well, Australian poetry is fashionable at the moment, but all this leaves Tranter looking rather over-exposed. His diction is slack; in a weak imitation of Baudelaire's "L'Invitation au Voyage" Tranter calls the sky a "patchwork canopy". I mean, cliché or what?His ear for rhythm is poor as well. Try saying these lines aloud:
"luckily the harbour's full of fishing boats
to distract me from further gloomy insights"
There's just something about these lines - the combination of the picture-postcard view, the clunky rhythm, the self-congratulation at having "insights"... It's all quite irresistibly naff.

Past the big names that the editors are clearly proud of roping in, the poetry choices are less certain. There's an Alison Brackenbury piece of her usual very high quality, but there are terrible mistakes as well. What on earth are the poems by Clive Wilmer doing in a serious magazine? There's a whimsy-pimsy list of pretty words called "The Days", and a really poor short poem about Jeffrey Archer. Do they think they're being daringly satirical, shooting blanks at this obvious target, referring naughtily to his doings in Shepherd's Market, and using the word "fragrant", because it always gets a giggle on piss-poor Radio 4 topical comedy programmes? Inclusion of stuff like this casts serious doubt on the editors' capacity to recognise good work.

Among the essays, there are substantial appraisals of Edwin Morgan and Elizabeth Bishop, and reminders of less-fashionable poets such as Wole Soyinka and Sidney Keyes. There's a strong article on Heaney's prose, and a review by Andrew Duncan of Keith Tuma's anthology that gave what I most enjoy in critical writing - an intelligent piece that I disagreed with, but thoroughly enjoyed arguing against.

Some other reviews put the boot into the right places - Tom Paulin's too-easy attacks on the easy target of Eliot's anti-Semitism, for example. (As reviewer Stephen Burt excellently comments: "To the question what did Eliot know that we do not?, Paulin's encyclopaedic self-consciousness offers no answer.")

Unfortunately, the editors' big bright ideas work less well. They've commissioned a general essay on Happiness by Ian Sansom and a poet's review of the Matisse/Picasso exhibition. These must have seemed good ideas when they were commissioned - happiness and paintings are subjects on which poets often like to write. Unfortunately, the results are the most self-conscious kind of "poetic prose". The Sansom piece especially is a waffling piece of self-indulgence that sprawls on about why he left higher education. I've read it twice and have not seen the point of it yet. Can anyone enlighten me?

So it's a mixture. The overall ambition is there, and it looks good - but with poetry it's always the details that matter. Well, maybe in the next issue...


If you want to say anything to Wayne Carvosso, he'd be delighted to hear from you.

Wayne Carvosso is perhaps best known for the manifesto he contributed to the first issue of Snakeskin, and for his lines on the award of a Nobel Prize to Seamus Heaney.