1. There are four pamphlets in 2014’s Faber New Poets series:
    9: Rachael Allen
    10: Will Burns
    11: Zaffar Kunial
    12: Declan Ryan

    Sixteen pages is quite a slender space in which to make your mark, but Rachael Allen gives us, in effect, two separate sequences, as her pamphlet interleaves found language/trash-culture prose poems with a set of childhood memory/Cornish landscapes. All offer quite static images; no movement is attempted, and the relationship between the two sequences isn’t clear, as they bleed at times into each other, leaving a giddy, slightly seasick, sugar-rush feeling in the mind. But she has a rich vocabulary, and in the tightest of the poems (‘Kingdomland’ and ‘Old Fears Are Still Valid’ stand out) strong, compelling imagery.

    Fish garble in the filaments of rope,
    whacking metronomic
    with their unblinking dial eyes

    (from ‘Early Harbour)

    It’s intriguing, if oddly incomplete. This is probably deliberate, and it’s good that she avoids neat conclusions; I’d like to see how it develops with more space.

    Zaffar Kunial’s collection stands out from the pile. He is soft-voiced and assured; it is quite hard to catch hold of individual lines and hold them up because the work isn’t immediately dazzling, but it’s full and rich, and repays repeated readings. He has an obvious joy in the play of words that catches the eye, whether it comes in an off-rhymed sonnet, or a compressed, rhythmic nature poem (‘Butterfly Soup’) or one of the looser meditations on the cracks and trails of language that shift back and forth between English and other languages, or unnamed dialects thereof, between Grasmere and Kashmir.

    This poem begins with the image of skate tracks on the frozen Windermere:

    To cut across the —
    of a star
    . I’ve scored that place because shadow
    first held sway. And wrongly, as light can’t cast
    dark. Next up, the star’s image would land where
    his skate passed. Then the curt Latin, at last:
    reflex. Fitting the foot.

    (from ‘Placeholder’)

    Kunial’s patient dissection here of the art of writing, though he quotes Heaney, reminds me more of Tony Harrison. It’s possible that most reviewers will note his day job (“full-time ‘Creative Writer’ for Hallmark Cards”); I wanted at first to avoid that, largely because the only poem that refers to it (‘On The Brief’) is the only weak poem in the set. But perhaps it’s unavoidable; it’s all underpinned by a careful craft and even when the rhythms are broken, they never spill, they keep a gentle lilt. ‘Spider Trees, Pakistan’ begins with a line about English mists; moves on to the floods in Sindh and ends with the lines

    …racking my brain for lines to catch how they carry
    the gravities of home. Worlds I can’t marry.

    He might be surprised how well he has.

    I’ll discuss Will Burns and Declan Ryan together. They are different from each other, and I hope I’m not doing them an injustice. Burns’s is an art that sets itself to pick something special out of the mundane: “Down/ to the angles of the earth itself, the nature/ of your work and all other men.” This is from one his strongest poems, ‘Guy’. It ends:

    To feel all that was certain cut and run
    under the folding steel,
    like garden birds that scatter
    from a bird of prey.

    Other poems, however, are less dynamic, or start with a strong image and then drift out of focus. Declan Ryan too is ploughing a curiously old-fashioned path, in a way, with narrative poems that have a clear subject and are certainly well-crafted. The heart of his collection is a powerful long poem called ‘The Range’, a bitter and claustrophobic lament for a rural Irish family. It stands well on its own, with nods to ballad form, yet always staying just the right side of kailyard pathos. A lot of poets whose work can get dragged down or bogged down in the prosaic could learn from it. In the lines “There were robins, for death, and blackbirds./ They are for resignation. You died at home,/ light as a bird, bald as a young, blind bird”, for instance, the thrice-repeated ‘bird’ could so easily be clunky, yet works with the alliteration like a hammer-blow.

    Will Burns at his best does something quite like this: he has a memorable description of black-headed gulls in a “wheeling pattern that/ left the field as bleak as bone,” but elsewhere there are lines not nearly so taut, or line-breaks that seem to dissipate the tension they were building up to little effect. Ryan is not absolutely free of such touches, but at his best, he reaches higher. See for instance the line almost at the end of ‘The Range’, “I could not live where the young leave before the old” in which the half-rhyme of ‘live’ and ‘leave’ seems to invite you to switch the words around. The two related meanings flicker together, and it sets the poem up for the punch in its final line. Similar alliterations and short lines lend a stately glow to his closing poem ‘Trinity Hospital’ too:

    Just after rain,
    sunlight stood between us
    like a whitewashed wall
    [I] will be delivered through orange groves
    to you, the white church of my days.

    Geoff Sawers
    Geoff Sawers (b.1966) is a poet, historian and lettering artist. He learnt Welsh in the pubs of Swansea and consequently can be understood only by a handful of sympathetic listeners

    faber pamphlets 2014

    The four pamphlets are published by Faber, £5 each.
    9: Rachael Allen
    10: Will Burns
    11: Zaffar Kunial
    12: Declan Ryan

    (to read previous Magma blog reviews, please click on the ‘reviews’ tag immediately below)

  2. Call for submissions – Magma 56: Clothes

    Written by Julia Bird at 8:30 am

    In the introduction to her anthology of clothes poems Out of Fashion (Faber, 2004), Carol Ann Duffy wrote ‘[these poems] examine, in their different ways, how we dress or undress, how we cover up or reveal, and how clothes, fashion and jewellery are both a necessary and luxurious, a practical and sensual, a liberating and repressing part of our lives. I hope that the anthology forms an entertaining dialogue between the two arts of poetry and fashion’.This push and pull between cover up and revelation, necessity and luxury is what we’d like to see in your clothes poems for Magma 56, whether you’re writing about dress uniforms or haute couture, morning suits or suits of armour. Tell us about your little black dresses and your lucky pants, your wedding dresses and your weeding gloves and we’ll send the best of your poems down the catwalk of Magma 56.

    Give us a twirl. Non-clothes poems also welcome.

  3. A short piece on the short poem

    Written by Karen McCarthy Woolf at 9:03 am

    I am going to start this article with a statistic. No poem under 10 lines has won the National Poetry Competition since (online) records began in 1978! The website shows winning poems only prior to 2000, but between 2001-2010 you can see all the shortlisted poems and only a handful of them were under 14 lines and none under 10 lines. The shortest is Frank Ortega’s eleven line poem Searching for An Affordable Crossbow which was commended in 2009.

    I use the National as an example, as they keep very comprehensive records online, but this trend bears out. Mslexia shows the last seven years with no short poem winners, while the Cardiff International Poetry Competition offers the exception in 2001-2 with Joan Newmann’s commended Carrageen Mousse and the Boy from Nepal which surely must have been a contender for the title alone.