Penguin Modern Poets – Books 1 and 2

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Reviewed by Karen Langley

As you might well have gathered from my piece in the Bookbuzz section, Penguin has relaunched their iconic Modern Poets series; the first collections is now available, with the second to follow soon,  and they make stimulating reading.

Volume One, entitled ‘If I’m Afraid We Can’t Win’, features work from three women poets: Emily Berry, Anne Carson and Sophie Collins. Unlike the original volumes, the new versions give brief biographical information at the start of the book: Carson is Canadian and the other two poets are British.

What struck me initially about this collection was the wonderful variety of structure on display. The poets here are experimenting with form; no traditional iambic pentameters, not even blank verse. The poems can take any shape the poets wish them to, as long as they communicate, stretching the boundaries of what might normally be considered poetry and that makes this book exhilarating to read. The line between poetic prose and poetry is a fine line, and it’s often crossed here, which is really rather marvellous.

As for subject matter, again that’s varied. Berry looks deeply at relationships, from those with partners to the complex mother-daughter and sister-sister interfaces; Carson too deals with human interaction but also pulls in wider cultural associations (John Cage, Beckett) – her one-line poem quoted below made me laugh out loud!

Short Talk on Gertrude Stein About 9.30 p.m.

How curious. I had no idea! Today has ended.

As for Collins, her poems touch upon the state of modern womanhood and draw on religious imagery, becoming almost short short stories in places. Her writing is allusive, and there are many references to Russia, suggesting she’s spent time there although I’m not sure whether she particularly enjoyed it, as one poem ends with the bald statement “Russia is the pits”! Nevertheless, all three writers provide fascinating, lyrical and thought-provoking works which at some points challenge the reader but never leave her bored!

Volume 2 bears the title here ‘Controlled Explosions’, and the poets are Michael Robbins, Patricia Lockwood and Timothy Thornton. The first two are American, the latter British, and once again the styles are bracingly varied.

Robbins’ verse is fascinating; often choosing traditional forms, he plays with myriad cultural references, from Jay-Z through Edward Snowden to Bill Gates, splitting out plenty of bile on the way. Popular culture is an obvious source here, with Robbins employing wordplay galore, particularly in works like ‘Not Fade Away’, where he produces a litany of dead rock stars. If I had to use an analogy, I’d liken his work to a modern version of the Beat poets – which is a compliment!

Lockwood’s work is very different; often prose-like in form, her narratives are surreal and strange taking on subjects like Nessie and poetry factories. However, a standout is a bitter, clever and important poem ‘Rape Joke’, which is chilling but essential reading.

Last but not least Timothy Thornton; his work is possibly the most experimental in the two books, encompassing prose fragments, photographs, black squares of varying sizes and notes. The works are unusual and memorable, taking in maps of dreams, ghosts and voicemails and a meditation on the linguistic issues around talking about Anthony Head’s head (yes, really!). These are intriguing, if occasionally difficult, pieces and as Thornton is a musician I suspected that the sound of the words was just as important to him as their meaning.

Penguin really has pushed the boat out with these two poetry collections. All the poets are new to me and are currently working, which makes a wonderful change from stuffy anthologies of long-gone authors. Importantly, they’re writers that may not be picked up by the mainstream or casual reader, and so producing a popular edition like this will hopefully bring their work to a wider audience. There’s innovative, stimulating, explorative writing here, drawing on all kinds of emotions and sensations and you reach the end of the books exhilarated and invigorated. If you’re willing to explore modern poetry and have your mind opened to new ways of saying and seeing things, then these books are definitely for you.

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and doesn’t read as much poetry as she should.

Read Karen’s article about the relaunch of this series in the BookBuzz section here.

Penguin Modern Poets 1 – Emily Berry, Anne Carson, Sophie Collins (Penguin, 2016). 978-0141982694, 103pp, paperback.

Penguin Modern Poets 2 – Michael Robbins, Patricia Lockwood, Timothy Thornton (Penguin, 2016). 978-0141983943, 109pp, paperback.

BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate links: Volume 1. Volume 2.

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