Poetic first-aid for a dislocated world

Ruth Padel applauds a classic anthology for the Nineties Emergency Kit: Poems for Strange Times edited by Jo Shapcott and Matthew Sweeney, Faber, pounds 9.99
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Emergency Kit is an important, original anthology with a unique premise. Remember a Kit Kat advertisement a while ago? You're behind prison- bars of Kit Kat, two snapped off by someone "making a break". That's all you see. Its strategy - a story semi-disclosed by visual detail, wit based on punning - is this book's dynamic. The editors, cutting-edge poets in this area themselves, have chosen 222 English poems by 157 wildly various poets from all over the world, plus a data-base of Irish and British poets who began publishing in the late Eighties and Nineties.

The editors' principle is generosity (not always paramount in poetry circles) towards work superficially very different from their own - which, unforgivably, they leave out. They focus on a "territory of strangeness". I'd call it a dynamic of surprise, running through the work like dark wire. Some poets mine it direct, others tap into it rarely, but its presence salts the rest of their work. Seriously playful, but not clever for the sake of it, these poems take what Frost called "a fresh look and fresh listen." They won't touch rhetoric. Like the Kit Kat ad, they go for the unspelt-out, for irony, risk, humour, and diamond clarity. Revelation through concrete detail, no seductive petals of abstraction.

Many use film-technique, tracking, cutting, frame-shift, or assume an in-your-face intimacy with readers. "Bear with me," murmurs Michael Donaghy. "You don't understand a word I'm saying, do you"? asks Carol Ann Duffy.

Such territory is where these poems see authenticity today. They suspect you do too. Shopping, driving, reading (or writing) newspapers, watching TV, you take for granted that imaginative bounce which is the essence of these poems.

For precursors, the editors looked to the Fifties, especially the US galaxy: Sexton, Plath, Frost, Hecht, Lowell, Berryman, Roethke, Ginsberg, Bishop. But the master-presence is Kafka. Everything turns on his "surrealism of the everyday". The cover design is "by Franz Kafka" (someone had fun at Faber): his drawing of a hangman-figure reeling before an easel, partially occupying the empty canvas.

The touchstone is Charles Simic, American poet from ex-Yugoslavia: master of the dark, spare and wry, with tragedy a heartbeat away. Simic has the epigraph, and the most poems. Also crucial is Eilean ni Chuilleanain ("I want to lie awake, listening to cream crawling to the top of the jug"). Adepts of surprise, both use parable to destabilise metaphor. "Crawling cream"? Imagery, or what?

Traditionally, metaphor sautes itself out of the world, while parable has a different go at reality. But the Internet has decommissioned Eng Lit distinctions and magic realism undermined metaphor in prose. When reality is virtual, image (as you discussed it at school) is obsolete. Or the only thing. Hence the title, Emergency Kit.

As U.A. Fanthorpe confides, "Surviving is keeping your eyes open". When everything you see disorientates (the condition of surrealism), all you can do is articulate the strangeness. The title poem invokes surreal survival "among a laughing tribe", via a laughter-box "whose button I press /to outlaugh them." These poems are ways of seeing when seeing changes, something to clutch as we free-fall from "This strange century /With its slaughter of the innocents /Its flight to the moon".

A key poem is Edwin Morgan's "Video Box". Someone does a jigsaw representing the sea (reality's most shifting physical thing) on TV: our talismanic artefact, that illusion-that-seems-truth. When he's finished, the ocean turns real a moment. But only on screen.

There are no separate sections. Subjects swim in and out like fish on a screen-saver. Food, death. Animals, childhood. Sex, moonlanding. Anything that makes life worth thinking, as seen on TV. The poets' poems are separated, snuggling up to other people's so you see new linkings. Frost before Muldoon shows Muldoon's debt to Frost, but also something in Frost you hadn't twigged before. Juxtapositions are mischievous or tragic: Redgrove's "Visible Baby" ("heart like two squirrels, one scarlet, one purple") followed by Meehan's "Child Burial".

Bunting has the last word: Who says it's poetry anyhow?

My ten year old

Can do it and rhyme...

Nasty little words, nasty long words,

It's unhealthy,

I want to wash when I meet a poet...

Go and find work.

Which is exactly what poets imagine unbewildered, economically-viable writers think of them. Emergency Kit offers articulations of strangeness to the bewildered, to help with a disorienting world.