Book Review: Oxford Poetry ’08

There are few better ways to begin a poem than with half a paragraph of untranslated Hegel. Andrew Zurcher’s (sorry: andrew zurcher‘s) ‘Lift’, which follows up this theoretical face-slap with a page or so of delicately spaced opacity, is a pretty perfect exemplar of OP08’s poetic style: neatly fragmented, formally intense – in sum, healthily avant-garde. Big-hitters Szirtes and Motion feel somewhat out of place amid all the ampersands & quick-cut linebreaks, and though the great J.H. Prynne fails to appear, a well-considered review of his latest collection makes up for it.

In fact, it’s the issue’s prose that proves the ultimate highlight. Taking on, amongst others, Ted Hughes, Shakespeare and Geoffrey Hill, the criticism is both insightful and highly polished, while the shorter fictional pieces tend towards an amusing and irreverent absurdity: one considers the London Underground as a parasite on the body of the city (‘The techniques of separating a metro from its host are innovative in their brutality …’); another presents a brilliant parody (or, at least, what I hope is a brilliant parody) of Martin Amis: ‘It was 2001, September 11th. You know, 9/11.’

If OP08 contains some decent work of the sort that is widely and wrongly castigated for pretension, it also contains some genuinely pretentious rubbish. On p. 56, the reader is treated to an ‘Email from Oxford’, presumably sent by one of the editors either to Katherine Duncan-Jones or to H.R. Woudhuysen, whose co-edited edition of Shakespeare’s poems is later reviewed. While their musings on authorship are vaguely interesting (‘Is the idea of poets collaborating unthinkable historically?’), they remain just that – musings in an email – and it is difficult to see their inclusion in an otherwise serious and professionally-produced journal as anything less than intellectual arrogance. The five-page preface with which the issue begins is similarly dull, written in an antiquated high-literary style that feels only partly parodic.

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What the editors lack in prefatory restraint they nevertheless make up for with the boldness and harmony of their selection: Oxford Poetry ’08 is, finally, both cogent and exciting, and at the special credit-crunch price of £4 certainly worth an afternoon or two.

Four stars