Questions of identity and locality come to the fore in an anthology based on a “transient” population. The years spent at university are, in the main, a geographic anomaly in the scheme of one’s life. The notion of place is deeply informed by this temporal condition – where one is coming and going, the interaction between home – the location, country and culture one comes from – and “residence” – the culture that constitutes a specific College, or the hallmarks of the university as a whole. Home might be a village in the North, or the city of London, or mid-America, or Delhi. Wherever. Each poet has his or her own sense of place. But in the environment of exchange and interaction that the university provides, these notions of identity are in flux and come into question. One potentially looks at where one comes from in a different light. This creates a dynamic that is energetic and fascinating. Cross-pollination, cultural interface, the public life and the hermetically private, the historical and the spontaneous, all meld to form a poetics that this anthology locates as the face of Cambridge and Oxford poetry.
A sense of history is a strong binding force but, as many of these poems show, the drive is as external to Oxbridge as it is generative in its terms. What is particularly noticeable is the interdisciplinary nature of the poetry – one gets the feeling that these poems are written by students with a wide variety of interests. And the selection I have made from the shortlist prepared by the student committees is intended to reflect both diversity and a common sense of purpose, a deep concern with what makes language and the mechanics of a poem work.
There is a strong awareness here of what constitutes a poetic “voice”, and a sound knowledge of both traditional and innovative verse techniques. These are poets who are able to make acute and vivid sensory observations, while being aware of literary tradition/s – often playing against them in complex and ironic ways.
One of the characteristics of this anthology as a whole is the sense of “ambivalence” that is evoked in the poems. Ambiguities are created by the poets to draw the reader (or listener) into the poetic process. At times disturbing, such as in the poem “The Varieties of Religious Experience”, the voices within the poems challenge the voice of the poets themselves. There are a number of vivid portraits painted here, such as in “Annie Owen” and “Aunt Fay’s Undoing”. There is also an ethical drive to most of the poems, especially in the darkly ironic “anti-politics” of “The Trigger”.
The range of technical devices used to qualify this dynamic between the voice of the poet and the voice of the poem is astonishing. From the pastiche in “Midnight Mass” through to the sestina form of “Colonies”, the “intertextual” spreadsheet of “Peccavi” and the verbal density of “Fending Off”. There is a strong consciousness of what constitutes the “lyrical I” and the implication of the “confessional” voice. Witness “leaving time” and the deconstructive word play of “Drinking String”. The wonderful “It is Difficult To Eat” deploys a metatextual conceit that undoes itself. It is a poem playfully examining the critical and creative processes.
Two poems that are both disturbing and carefully handled, are “Assumption” and “The Devil’s Interval”. The latter, with its elegiac beauty and determined undoing of the “romantic” gesture towards “experience”, burns with its contradictions and ambiguities. “Assumption (Detail)”, captures the tension between the physical and the spiritual:
someone must always be left,feet firmly in dust,
to watch the ascent.
These are poets who have been left to watch the ascent of language each with a different way of “voicing” their experience. The geographies are different, but the points of focus are shared.