Twenty Years: Three Generations

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When the first score of ‘New Generation’ Poets was announced in 1994, a handful of not-so-innocent bystanders dismissed the entire enterprise as a publicity stunt, like calling poetry ‘the new rock’n’roll’ or even ‘the new stand-up’, (sadly, there were those who took such appellations seriously at the time, as if there could ever be any virtue in being a wallflowerish second-cousin, waiting in the shadows to be asked, charitably, or ironically, to dance). Others tried to undermine the project on more detailed, if rather shoddy grounds. Peter Forbes, for example, thought, “at first sight, the list of twenty New Generation poets is perhaps narrower than it might have been. Judged as personalities and readily tagged types, they don’t entirely live up to the journalistic clichés of the new pluralism, regionalism, and the rise of the working class voice.”

As a working-class Scot with no visible, not to mention ‘readily-tagged’ ‘personality’ to speak of, I found this both offensive and bogus and, though some of the attempts to gain traction with the publicity machine led to some cringeworthy moments, I went from initially skeptical-but-curious observer, to more or less active participant, mostly because I trusted the integrity of the judges. As one of the least ‘readily tagged’ of the twenty, I always remained a marginal presence (I did a few readings and interviews, but wasn’t invited to the infamous Vogue fashion shoot, for example); though, to be fair, this was partly because I had a full-time job in a distinctly un-lyrical field to maintain.

I have never gladly belonged to any group, (and I suspect this is not an uncommon attitude amongst poets) and I certainly did not see the first twenty NewGen poets as having very much in common artistically, (which surely was an indication of some pluralism, at least). The one thing that united us, or most of our number at least, was a passion for the art that we had chosen to practice. I am not so naïve as to suggest that we were entirely innocent of rivalry, personal disagreement or ambition, nor would I wish to seem disingenuous about what happens when one or two are gathered together but, overall, this is what impressed me most: a passion for poetry that, in many of those I encountered on the way, transcended those baser (though understandable) impulses and, while it would be unfair to single out specific individuals, I experienced many unexpected acts of kindness at that time, the memory of which stays with me, now, long after the PR campaign has been forgotten.

Now, vingt ans après, a third generation is about to be announced – and I have to confess, I am more than just curious as to who will appear on the list. NewGen 2004 drew attention to a rich and diverse mix of poets and there are many good reasons to be hopeful for 2014. Of course, there is a slight anomaly in proclaiming a new generation every ten years, but surely that also demonstrates how fertile this art is, here and now, in these islands. As it has matured NewGen has demonstrated that poetry is not now, nor has it ever needed to be, the new rock-n’roll, or anybody’s answer to stand-up; it is and always will be the old poetry, freshened and challenged by each new generation. It is, arguably, the most essential of our literary art forms, the one that, in Walter Pater’s words, most frequently comes “proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass.” As such, it need aspire to nothing other than itself.

 John Burnside


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