ode to youth and beauty

In the run up to National Poetry Day, Dominic Cavendish asks: what does it take to be a poet these days?
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there's a story doing the rounds in poetry circles. A group of English literature students from Oxford arrive at the offices of Carcanet, the small Manchester publishing house. They meet its director, Michael Schmidt, and are shown round. He introduces them to one of his youngest protegees, 24-year-old Sophie Hannah. They engage her in a discussion about writing but she soon stops them. "I'm not interested in talking about poetry," she says. "Frankly, I'd rather go to the pub and get drunk."

Once, budding poets sat and wept by the banks of the Cam and Cherwell, now they are more than likely to head up North to seek their fortunes. Once versifiers discussed ars poetica in cloistered cliques, now they'd rather chat over a pint.

Sitting in the Manchester Library, where she does admin and surreptitiously writes verse, Hannah confesses that she is, in fact, only too happy to talk about poetry, even the process of becoming a poet. "Yeah," she says, recalling the time she sent off her poems while at Manchester University. "A couple of people suggested it and I thought, seeing as how I'm writing them anyway, I might as well try and get published. When magazines took them I thought, yeah, I'll have a bit more of this."

Her laidback savvy has paid off. Her first collection, The Hero and the Girl Next Door (Bloodaxe pounds 6.95) is now into its third print run. She has been hailed as the new Wendy Cope (Cope sold 40,000 copies of her first collection), so Hannah is not complaining. And she has been included in the 1996 Forward Prize Anthology, which attempts to cut a swathe through the dense jungle of new verse and provide a definitive sample.

Hannah narrowly missed being shortlisted for the Forward Best First Collection prize - a handy pounds 5,000 - which is announced, in a Booker-esque flourish, on National Poetry Day, this Thursday. This year's list has been hailed as something of a phenomenon. Most of those on it are women, and young: Deryn Rees-Jones, a teacher, from Liverpool (27), Maggie Hannan, unemployed, from Hull (33) and Gwyneth Lewis, a BBC producer from Cardiff (35). Justin Quinn, also a teacher, from Dublin is 27.

The Forward Prize contenders come hot on the heels of the New Generation Poets, last year's much-hyped flag-bearers for contemporary British poetry. The marketing campaign concentrated on 20 poets, many of whom were described as "young" even though they were pushing 40. The aim was to expunge the traditional image of the fusty poet, alone and troubled by rats in the wainscot, and replace it with a more streetwise soul. To which end, the poets appeared on TV, read on Radio One and posed in fashion shoots for Vogue. One, Mick Imlah, could even be seen on the sides of London buses modelling clothes for Gap. The leading lights - Simon Armitage, Don Paterson and Glyn Maxwell - had different styles, but were linked by age (early thirties) and a laddish aura. All were good performers. Poetry was dubbed "the new rock 'n' roll".

Michael Schmidt believes the New Generation crowded out the middle and older generations, and placed a new emphasis on youth. "There's a huge premium attached to being a young poet. The critical culture has collapsed and been replaced by a fast-food one. Of course, you never know how old people are when they submit work but you're relieved when you find out they're not geriatric."

The post-New Generation poets accept that a certain amount of hype is now standard. "What I objected to was talking about poetry and rock 'n' roll as though they were the same thing," says Maggie Hannan, who, like Paterson, left school at 16. "There are times when contemporary poetry will fit into an upbeat market and times when it won't." Nevertheless, she and the others are in an enviable position. The promotion boosted sales and whetted the public's appetite for new voices. Recent Bloodaxe signings like Hannah and Lewis are being urged to get on the road.

"People want to see poets in the flesh," McAllister says. "There are lots of gigs and venues and festivals. There is a thriving performance circuit." Peter Forbes, editor of Poetry Review, admits poets can endanger their careers by not appearing in public. "A good poet like David Sutton does not sell well because he refuses to do readings. Poets like Simon Armitage have an advantage because they are young and have the energy to tour." Just the fact of being seen alive, once a faux-pas as far as poets were concerned, is returning to favour. "There is a sense of 'Get it while it's hot'," adds McAllister. "One of the advantages today's poets have over Keats is that Keats is dead."

But can today's poets even jokingly be compared to the "greats"? Won't they be exposed as all soundbite and no stanza? "There are plenty of poets who make a big splash and then vanish without trace," says the poet and critic Sean O'Brien. "That said, there is a lot of talent around at the moment."

Quinn, who along with Hannan and Lewis employs tight metre and rhyme schemes, is a back-to-basics craftsman. "Free verse has become a banal reflex. A lot of poets imagine that it reflects the fragmentation of the social world or something. In fact, it is just sloppy writing." Sophie Hannah, for whom rhyming "comes naturally" is even more scathing. "A lot of modern poetry isn't interesting, doesn't sound good, and you can't understand it."

The desire to play off time-honoured forms against contemporary themes is, Sean O'Brien notes, one of the distinguishing characteristics of the new poetry. "It's a case of writing strictly and thinking freely. The younger generation has been touched by the freedoms of the Beat poets, but they're not hippies. They're intellectually rigorous."

All respond to the modern world. "There shouldn't be a conflict between being cerebral and accessible," says Deryn Rees-Jones, who takes tap-dance classes in her spare time. "I can read critical theory and still enjoy soaps - so can a lot of people." In The Memory Tray (Seren pounds 6.95), she explores identity courtesy of Jurassic Park and Cilla Black. Likewise Maggie Hannan's Liar Jones (Bloodaxe pounds 6.95) boasts witty accounts of "the limits of selfhood" including one about Issei Sagawa, Japanese cannibal- turned-TV personality. Exhaust pipes fume in Justin Quinn's The 'O'o'a'a' Bird (Carcanet, pounds 7.95), and faxes become metaphors in Gwyneth Lewis's Parables and Faxes (Bloodaxe pounds 6.95).

With their apparent preference for the small-scale and witty, is this generation of poets apolitical? Justin Quinn, who does attempt a rhetorical, public voice, believes this is true of most: "It's a lack of interest rather than a lack of knowledge - typical of Generation X."

Rees-Jones recalls with horror the day she was asked to write a poem "about Sarajevo" but Hannah, who specialises in deceptively light verse, refuses to apologise for it. "I find it much easier writing about, say, unfair things that have happened to friends than about national politics." Anyone seeking eco-friendliness will be disappointed by her revelation that she is "obsessed with cars - they're magical: motorway service stations, multi-storey car- parks, engines." She hopes to qualify as a driving instructor.

All share a scepticism about poetry as a quasi-divine gift. "That's all nonsense," Hannan declares. "Most contemporary poets are interested in expressing their voice, not looking to have any kind of authority."

But there is one eye-catching young poet who hopes to disprove WH Auden's dictum that "Poetry makes nothing happen". Adam Schwartzman is a 22- year-old South African student at Oxford University. He has been snapped up by Carcanet. His first collection, The Good Life, The Dirty Life (pounds 8.95) chronicles life and love at the end of apartheid.

"He is enormously talented," says Michael Schmidt. "He also happens to be very young, and - it has to be said - not bad-looking."

THE END OF LOVE by Sophie Hannah

The end of love should be a big event.

It should involve the hiring of a hall.

Why the hell not? It happens to us all.

Why should it pass without acknowledgement?

Suits should be dry-cleaned, invitations sent.

Whatever form it takes - a tiff, a brawl -

The end of love should be a big event.

It should involve the hiring of a hall.

Better than the unquestioning descent

Into the trap of silence, than the crawl

From visible to hidden, door to wall.

Get the announcement made, the money spent.

The end of love should be a big event.

It should involve the hiring of a hall.