“I think today of those two, among the many drowned/a few yards from this sunny coast/found under the hull tightly clasped together./I wonder if coral can grow from their bones . . .” Antonella Anedda’s “Untitled” is just one of the 200 poems which have contributed to Hwaet! (Bloodaxe Books, £9.99), an anthology that celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Ledbury Poetry Festival.
Ledbury has always featured overseas poets. There are 40 in this anthology, from Africa, Asia, the Middle and Far East as well as Europe and North America. Anedda is joined by Reza Mohammadi and Azita Ghahremen, who also write about the traumas of being a refugee. Ledbury demonstrates that poetry is very much alive and well, and addressing today’s most important issues.
In its 20 years 550 poets have read there, including the festival’s lead patron, Carol Ann Duffy; Gillian Clarke, the Laureate of Wales; and Liz Lochhead and Jackie Kay, the two most recent Scottish makars (national poets). Hwaet! includes more than 80 women, such as Sarah Howe, the winner of this year’s T.S. Eliot prize.
Poetry has not been in such good shape for 20 years. We have, in Carol Ann Duffy, an outstanding Poet Laureate who not only promotes poetry ceaselessly in schools and events, and edits a stream of anthologies, but doesn’t seem to find the “official” poems a chore. Instead she makes them memorable (“The Crown”). And there are no signs that being Laureate has inhibited her own poetry, as can be seen in her latest collection, The Bees. Her poetry is humorous (‘The World’s Wife”), sensual (“Rapture”), political and personal. In the words of Coleridge, she “keeps the heart awake to Truth and Beauty”.
In those last 20 years Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney have died, as have Adrian Mitchell and Adrian Henri, the Scots Norman MacCaig and Edwin Morgan, and earlier this year, Geoffrey Hill, but there is a new generation of poets who perform as well as they write. Among them are Hannah Lowe, Kate Tempest, Hollie McNish and the Jamaican, Claudia Rankine, shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize, all of whom challenge such established male poets as Don Paterson, Paul Muldoon, James Fenton, Owen Sheers and Christopher Reid.
Sales of poetry are up: Bloodaxe sold an extraordinary 250,000 copies worldwide of the first volume of its Being Human trilogy. There are new imprints competing with the well-established Faber, Carcanet, Bloodaxe and Penguin; and more children are writing poetry in schools (Ledbury worked with almost 3,000 last year).This is, indeed, an exciting time to be a poet, and a lover of poetry. It is baffling that the media, as yet, don’t seem to have woken up to this new world.