What the New Generation Meant to Me
In the mid-90s in Bolton, even for a bookworm enjoying her English Lit GCSE, it was hard to know modern poetry was happening. In those pre-internet days new poetry was a rarity, and surrounded by rumour. I have dim memories, in fact, of being suspicious of the very idea of contemporary poetry in my early teens. I had gleaned from my surrounding culture of adult Daily Express readers the idea that (like contemporary art) contemporary poetry was usually a laughable hoax; a kind of confidence trick designed to make people feel stupid, when actually you could have given a heap of random words to a small child or zoo animal and typed up their rearrangements. Of course, this opinion was based on no actual poems whatsoever. In fifth form, we were shown an extract from ‘The Waste Land’, and I wasted no time in scrawling down an (I thought) pointed satire that ended ‘Shantih, shantih, / gobbledegook.’
My memories are imprecise, but somehow something shifted, because by the time I was 16 Peter Forbes had accepted some of my work for Poetry Review. I had not only decided modern poetry was amazing, I had managed – with persistence and a very generous amount of stamps from my dad – to wheedle my way to the very heart of it.
Teachers helped, certainly. The one who showed me ‘The Waste Land’, and chuckled at my parody, encouraging me even as he firmly disagreed with my reading of Eliot. Another who brought some brilliant Liz Lochhead poems into class, and sent me long, thoughtful, handwritten letters about writing I brought in. There was my discovery, on my mum’s shelves, of The Mersey Sound anthology, where I learnt that decent poetry had at least still existed in 1967. But none of these quite add up to the making of a poet, so quickly. I think the thing that really galvanised me was when I went to Manchester Library and ended up browsing the poetry magazines. There was Poetry Review and, by coincidence, it was the New Generation issue.
I couldn’t take it out. I’m not sure I could have spent more than twenty minutes reading it. But had I picked up any other issue, I might just have read a few random poems and moved on. Instead, here was something to grasp and excite me – a whole NEW GENERATION! Of poets! Youngish – there were young women even, like me. And some of them were from the North, like me. And they were anti-Thatcher and cool and wore leather jackets and talked about being influenced by bands, like me (oh, how I loved my second hand leather jacket, and my indie bands, The Verve and Blur and Pulp). At least, I think I gathered all this from the magazine – it might have been from the New Gen article one of the teachers pulled out of a newspaper for me later (The Independent? It wasn’t The Daily Express, anyway). But the idea that poetry was happening now, and I could be a part of it, certainly coalesced at that moment.
And it gave me a route-map. A way to find out about contemporary poetry. I would get a subscription to Poetry Review for my birthday. And I would start seeking out the names on the list I had copied down. Although I’m much younger, I still feel somehow that those poets of 1994 are my generation. I still have exercise books, full of poems of theirs I ordered from the library and then copied out painstakingly by hand – poems that spoke directly to me, in voices I understood. I was particularly crazy about Kathleen Jamie’s The Queen of Sheba (‘I have a demon and her name is WEE WIFEY’). The next year, I went to see Simon Armitage doing an A-level gig in Manchester and it was like going to see a rock star.
I have gone on enjoying the poets on the list for 20 years. Not to mention working with them – reading alongside them (Susan Wicks), writing with them (a radio play with W N Herbert), doing substitute-teaching for them (Glyn Maxwell), translating for them (Sarah Maguire), being given commissions by them (Carol Ann Duffy) – and crying over the loss of Michael Donaghy, who had become a friend. In many ways they shaped, and have continued to shape, the poetry landscape I move in. My younger self would be proud that I know so many of them, and would be proud too that I have a part in naming the Next Generation in 2014. We have the internet now, of course, but I still very much hope that a 15-year old somewhere is about to have their future changed.