I was a precocious twenty-four-year-old, the youngest poet attending the second iteration of a writing group which met at The Lamb pub in Bloomsbury. Reeling off the names of those who regularly turned up underlines quite how green – and out of place – I was at the time. Hugo Williams, Michael Donaghy and Maurice Riordan were the senior members of the group, in terms of publication. But even the middle ranks included names such as Greta Stoddart, Paul Farley, Sarah Wardle, John Stammers and Roddy Lumsden. The junior rank was really just me.
My poetry wasn’t too hot but I did know my stuff, if not quite to the degree that I thought I did. Still, if you can’t be cocky when you’re a young poet, when can you be? My presence at The Lamb was gently tolerated, I suppose, because if nothing else I could offer some informed commentary to the poets I sat alongside.
At some point, word spread that a young critic might be in the making. Laurie Smith, Magma’s co-founder and original reviews editor, asked me to write something on Robert Crawford’s collection Spirit Machines. I kicked off my very first review by paraphrasing the criticism of T.S. Eliot – “Scottish poetry was, as Eliot once snickered, not up to much after the likes of Henryson and Dunbar, barring the not entirely helpful detour of Burns…” – so the cockiness was present and correct. Yet my poetry career did not quite work out the way Eliot’s did.
I reviewed regularly for Magma in the early years, for just about every issue. Then I stopped writing poetry, a long story in itself. I still wanted to keep my hand in, however, and so at least once a year I have written something for Magma ever since (I also co-edited Magma 43 – exactly ten years ago! – with David Boll). I’ve lost count of how many reviews, let alone poetry collections, I have under my belt. But the review I have written for Magma 75 will mark twenty years of my writing for this magazine.
It’s time then to hang up my holsters. Twenty years is a suitable milestone. I am writing poetry again, as it happens, while also finding myself stretching to longer essays on certain poets that fascinate me. It’s also time to shift up the pews and let new reviewers cut their teeth in Magma. The magazine has been exemplary in encouraging space for the commendable aims of the Ledbury Emerging Critics Programme, for instance. I am sure my berth at the magazine will be gainfully occupied by a young poet and I wish my successor(s) all the best.
When I look back at my two decades of writing for Magma, a few observations strike me. This blog is my chance to get them down before I go.
Firstly, most poetry magazines live or die on the quality of their prose. Magma has always been a good read in that regard. In this, the editor is key. Much praise must be given to both Laurie Smith and his successor as reviews editor, Rob A. Mackenzie. When I started out, Laurie was a fabulous editor: rigorous, imaginative in his commissioning, and protective of his writers. I learnt an awful lot from him (Rob’s a great guy too).
Secondly, when I look back at all the books I have reviewed, the collections that stuck with me – bar one, which I shall come to – were all written by women. Jizzen by Kathleen Jamie (my second review for Magma); The School of Night by Anne Rouse; Incarnation by Clare Pollard. Three collections I’d still recommend to anyone. The biggest change I have seen in poetry over the last twenty years is a welcome rise in the profile and publication of women poets.
The other memorable collection I haven’t mentioned happens to be the subject of my personal favourite among all my Magma reviews. I wrote about Floods by Maurice Riordan, who knew me when I was the lamb of The Lamb, in 2001. I am still proud of that piece and what I managed to say about Maurice’s project. Luckily enough, the review is online, so you can judge for yourself whether I had something worth hearing back in those Bloomsbury evenings at the turn of the millennium.
Finally, I want to say that poetry criticism matters. Good poetry criticism matters most but bad poetry criticism matters too, because it can set things awry, cause real distress, and do damage to the already marginalised culture that all poets share (even Simon Armitage). At a time when some poets seem to conduct their critical work on Twitter, and the pile-on has replaced the colloquium, I want to assert the importance of an open mind and a sense of history, a reliance on evidence – not prejudice – and the value in seeking to understand what a poet is trying to do and why certain choices are made on the page. You may not like it, you may want to decry it, but you have to understand it first. As T.S. Eliot wrote, the function of criticism is “the elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste”. Neither of these things are achieved through disingenuous posturing or inciting the hate and condemnation of others.
So my first words for Magma paraphrased Eliot and my last words quote from him directly. No snickering either. It is definitely time for me to say my farewells.
Andrew Neilson’s poems, reviews and essays have appeared in a number of places, including The Dark Horse, The Hopkins Review, The Poetry Review, the Scottish Poetry Library’s Best Scottish Poems 2017, Stand, and…Magma