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Aberystwyth University

This special issue of ABC is an attempt to re-emphasise the importance of contemporary poetry, in its broadest sense, in a world that seems more than ever troubled, apprehensive and suffering pain and persecution. Given the pervasive reach of world news-media, we will know all about the latest atrocities and financial disasters, wherever they may have happened, before we are even out of bed in the morning. Poets themselves sometimes think that poetry is powerless to affect events and attitudes in the world. W. H. Auden, for instance, maintains in his elegy to W. B. Yeats that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’, and that it necessarily exists far away from all the action and has meaning ‘only in the valley of its making’. Yet in ‘1st September 1939’ he proclaims that ‘All I have is a voice/ To undo the folded lie’. This  seems to claim a considerable power for poetry, especially when he goes on to specify that by ‘the lie’ he means both the self-deceiving lie of the average citizen, which makes it possible to carry on as normal in the face of impending disaster, and the ‘lie of authority’ which colludes with and encourages that self-deception. To raise such matters is to strike a sombre note, but in this morning’s paper (along with all the gloom) I read a review of a Faber anthology of poetry (edited by William Sieghart) called Winning Words: Inspiring Poems for Everyday Life. Perhaps the most striking thing about this anthology is that it is published by Faber, rather than some exploitative vanity press. The poem ‘Happiness’ which is printed alongside the review, is, surprisingly, by Raymond Carver. It is a cheering, if not exactly inspiring, poem about two boys delivering morning papers in the dawn light, spotted through the kitchen window as the writer brews the first coffee of the day.

This issue of ABC features American and British poets, which takes care of the A and the B, but the C (for Canadian) is not represented, and I will acknowledge the omission by quoting Fred Wah, who is Canadian-born (in 1939) of mixed Chinese/Swedish parentage, and the current Parliamentary Poet Laureate of Canada. He is the fifth poet to hold this office, which is held for a two-year term, and he was appointed to it in December 2011. Information about him, and samples of his work, can be found at Canadian Poetry Online ( The lines I wanted to quote proclaim a kind of trans-national identity – he says ‘My Borders are Altitude/ and silent’, a great and beautiful aspiration, but in ‘Untitled 2’ he recalls a moment in childhood when his father was ‘hurt/ing at the table’, ‘very/ far down inside’. And why was his father hurting? The poem goes on to explain:

because I can't stand the ginger

in the beef and greens

he cooked for us tonight

He recalls this moment because he has just seen the same look on the faces of his children, (or grandchildren) and felt the same deep down hurt his father felt. On the practical level, when we break the silence and come down from altitude, borders determine what herbs and spices we are brought up to like in our food, and a host of other differences, which we can either enjoy as differences, or brood on resentfully and obsessively until they end in the shocking events we hear about while barely awake on an ordinary weekday morning.

‘Poetry’ is understood in this issue in the broadest terms: Ovidiu Matiu’s interview with L. Lamar Wilson is a fascinating exchange with a young American poet who relates his poetry primarily to deeply-held convictions, particularly to the formative convictions which are the direct product of our upbringing. Somehow, these convictions will remain foundational to our being, even when we no longer believe in what we were taught to revere, and do not practice the way of life we were taught to follow. By contrast, christopher oscar pea, who is also American, is primarily a writer of plays, but Adriana Neagu’s revealing interview with him turns up the moment when a friend asked him whether he is a playwright or a writer, as if these are mutually exclusive categories, and he frequently asks himself whether or not he is a poet. Reading his play however long the night, in this issue, makes it clear that he is certainly a poet, and I note that the dramatic lines even have the look of poetry on the page, not to mention the characteristic compression of image, motif and enigma which we find in the best poetry. Tiffany Atkinson is a young British poet, highly distinctive in voice and subject matter, and of increasing reputation. The surreal, border-crossing experience of flying is vividly evoked in the first of her three poems, ‘The hands of flight attendants’, and every poem of hers seems to concern a ‘crossing’ of some kind. David E. Thomas is a poet of my own generation, long-time resident of Missoula, Montana, and a man who, in his time, has worked in railroad gangs and on big construction projects across the USA. He writes in a relaxed style, with memorable denotations of the everyday, viewed from an angle which is always slightly oblique. Matthew Jarvis’s article about the poet Ruth Bidgood (‘A poet in the heart of Wales’ as his title memorably calls her) gives an overview of the career of another person whose whole life has been dedicated to poetry, even though she only began writing it when she was forty. Like Thomas, she too is a poet of place, as all poets are to a great extent. But such poets register both the place and the borders, and always exist in and across both. Finally, my own piece ‘Concrete Canticles’ explores another hinterland – that between poetry and the visual, trying to classify the different ways in which poems embody a visual or shape element, so that they demand to be looked at as well as read. In my poetry classes I often start by asking students to look at the poem before they read it. I ask them to do this for two minutes – it always feels like a long time – and then we talk about what they have seen. The resulting conversations are often strange, amusing, surprising, and revealing. I hope the material in this issue on contemporary poetry will seem that way to its readers.



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