Tower Poets celebrates five years of Tower Poetry, an organisation aimed at
encouraging young poets, so inevitably some of the poems here feel tentative,
the individual voice not yet fully developed.
Anna Lewis writes quiet, understated poems that deal with history, and
contain some lovely images: the books in a chained library as 'leathery
felons', and a weary verger feeling 'the weight of God, the whole great bulk
/ of stone slung around his shoulders, like / the train of a young and solemn
bride.' Her line breaks, though, as here, sometimes feel awkward and stilted,
the poems too careful to let the words flow and sing.
Frances Leviston, in comparison, is bold and rhythmical. She's able to use
hugely long lines, as in 'The unthinkable', without losing the rhythm, and
her line breaks are controlled
to great effect, as in the wonderfully-titled 'I resolve to live chastely'
with its final resonating words, 'What is it / for, my skin, if not this
pelting, streaming world?' where you know that the quirky, perfect line break
is fully intended.
Helen Mort, in her opening poem 'The ageing of Harry Houdini' has some great
images for the ageing skin: 'it is only like the slow / softening of
oranges'; then it's crepe paper which Houdini will 'prise open' in order to
'sidle back ten years.' The poem seems to fizzle out in the last stanza,
though, as do a couple of others - there are lots of good things here, but
some of Mort's poems perhaps need to be more robustly made.
Olivia Cole's 'Breaking the ice' describes perfectly that early part of a
relationship ('an awkwardness that makes / every crunched word loud'), which
will one day be replaced by an easiness reflected in the altered form of the
second stanza, but 'this first stop start / glitter' can never be recaptured.
Elsewhere, Cole's wit and cleverness can eclipse what's tender and personal
in her poems, so that the self-consciously titled 'A writer's dairy', for
example, only seems to come alive when the poet, revisiting an old street,
says 'I don't know what it is I'm grieving for / or why I feel should be
finding out / who lives here now.' There's an honesty here that can get lost
beneath the shiny poetic surface.
One of Tim Laing-Smith's poems has a line in the fifth stanza, 'Eventually,
this happens', and that 'eventually' seems accurate: it's only here that the
poem really gets going. Similarly with 'Hastings / Typhoon Clock' which, as
its alternative titles indicate, begins as a poem about childhood holidays
before finally getting round to the clock. The final poem has some nicely
observed details about birds (magpies' calls 'like shaken matchboxes') but
again these poems seem too careful and modulated, without a strong sense of
Caroline Bird found her voice very young: not yet twenty, she already has a
collection published by Carcanet. The poems here show two sides to her
poetry. One is a strange, almost manic jumble of unsettling images ('I
replaced my legs with charcoal'; 'Sorry for strutting down your road with a
plague-ridden cart / piling up the bodies before they were dead').
Conversely, Cole can control these images and languages to great effect, as
in the 'Trouble came to the turnip', with its fairytale-like lines ('I put my
love inside a fish') and balladish repetitions. And her final poem 'Bread'
seems almost a cry from the heart for simplicity ('I wish only to need
bread'), for the one single image that can flow through a poem like this and
bind it beautifully.
Matthew Sperling's poems are accompanied by copious notes, which go part way
to explaining his poems - 'a young curioso
trying to become a virtuoso in as many
abnormal tongues as he can ply'. Sperling does have what he calls 'an
unhealthy interest' in language, such that some of his poems are like the
museum cabinets he describes, full of anything and everything, where 'Nothing
/ is apropos'. There's a certain youthful energy to this, a feeling of the
whole world being interesting, even a 'presentably quatrained gap-year
travelogue', but poetry has what Sperling disparagingly calls 'cordons' for
This anthology's an interesting taster of the work of some young poets, but
better to spend £2.50 on Frances Levison's pamphlet from Mews Press, and
watch out for the others in magazines and first collections as their voices
To call an anthology The Review of Contemporary Poetry is somewhat misleading: 'Review' implies a literary journal,
which this isn't, and if the publishers mean to imply an overview of
contemporary poetry, it's not that either. What it is, is an anthology in aid
of the Stroke Association, which mixes poetry from the entrants to the Stroke
News Poetry Competition (some but not all of it on the subject of strokes)
with new work from twenty or so established poets (Motion, Burnside, Stainer,
O'Brien et al.)
It would be good to be able to say that the poems were seamlessly mixed,
those from the published and the unpublished forming a coherent anthology.
Unfortunately this isn't the case. Most of the competition poems are fairly
mediocre, often lacking any sense of rhythm or form, and using unmemorable
abstract language. There are one or two exceptions: Beryl Fenton, in a Highly
Commended poem, uses a striking concrete image - 'Her speech, like muddled
rubber bands, / was riddles, after her stroke' - and Christine Philp's
'Stroke Haiku', though awkwardly made, is perceptive: 'Stroke sounds so
gentle / when first heard, but be sure, it // grips with iron hands.' Also memorable is Mark Halliday's
'Waiting Room', which captures the feeling of tension, and ends with the
image of a boy flying a kite, closing the poem on an unforced note of hope.
On the whole, though, it's the poems by established poets which shine out of
this collection, like Moniza Alvi's fantasy about a camel being brought to
live in an English suburb: 'A number of residents / have not wished for /a
black or brown person /as a neighbour. // And now they have a camel...' or
Penelope Shuttle's similarly themed 'Master Town' with its 'upright nutmeg
light', where 'the sea comes along / to muss the orchards'. There's also
Jacob Polley's exquisite four-line 'After Rain', and Brian Patten's rich,
exuberant 'Feeling a bit hungry, the poet decides to write a poem -' which
becomes a metaphor for writing and imagination, beginning with 'Look what
I've found in my pockets! / In one pocket I've found / Honey bees and hives,
and yellow pollen, / I've found the eggs of humming birds/ And salt from the
It's hard to envisage this book being bought as the 'Review of Contemporary
Poetry' it claims to be; however, as a fundraiser it's a commendable idea. By
buying it, you benefit the Stroke Association by £10, and in exchange get a
good few interesting new poems.
Elizabeth Burns 2005