Tuesday Poem: Penguin Modern Poets

In the sixties and seventies I was reading these.

They were stylishly monochrome, in-your-face contemporary, the poets they featured white-skinned, and very, very masculine.  Penguin Modern Poets were overwhelmingly male. Only a couple of women made it - Elizabeth Jennings being one of them. This was quite a difficult role model for a young teenage girl who wanted to be a poet.  But recently Penguin have decided to re-visit the brand and this time things are very different.

Not only are the new Penguin Modern Poets very colourful, but they are also ethnically diverse.  And they are as female as their predecessors were male dominated.  In the twenty-tens, this is what contemporary poetry looks like.

I'm thoroughly enjoying the little snapshots of a poet's work, particularly poets I hadn't read much before.  Malika Booker (of Grenadian and Guayanese descent) was new to me.  I loved her poem 'How Our Bodies Did This Unfamiliar Thing', which gives a voice to all those women who took the places of men in the war and were subsequently sent back to the kitchen sink. My mother became a land-girl, and one of her relatives became a welder in the shipyard.

"We women stand in our men shoes, our bodies
doing this unfamiliar thing.  Hands that scrubbed
clothes in wash basins, wrung pillowcases, hung white
flannel sheets on long clothes lines, pinning and clipping,
how now those hands have become cranes, each hand
a link in a chain, joining steel feathers, building birds
of prey.  It was the world turned inside out. . . ."

My 15 year old step-granddaughter picked up the collection while she was staying with me and laughed aloud at Sharon Olds' poem 'The Pope's Penis'.

'It hangs deep in his robes, a delicate
clapper at the center of a bell.'

Was it even possible to write about this stuff, she wanted to know?  But why not?  Men have written odes to women's breasts, in or out of their clothes, for hundreds of years.

Warsan Shire, of Somali-British descent, was a poet I had only read in snippets on the internet, aware that she was being ignored by the 'establishment' publications (most of them still edited by men) and that her words were used by high profile figures like Beyonce.  Her poem 'Home', about refugees, is one of the most powerful I've ever read. The Penguin collection contains a prose-poetry sequence that pre-figures 'Home'. This is an excerpt:-

'I hear them say, go home, I hear them say, fucking immigrants,
fucking refugees.  Are they really this arrogant?  Do they not
know that stability is like a lover with a sweet mouth upon
your body one second and the next you are a tremor lying on
the floor covered in rubble and old currency waiting for its
return.  All I can say is, I was once like you, the apathy, the pity,
the ungrateful placement, and now my home is the mouth of a
shark, now my home is the barrel of a gun.  I'll see you on the
other side."

At a poetry reading recently a very well-published male poet suggested that it was not legitimate for people, particularly women, to write about personal experience.  I simply couldn't believe what I was hearing, or the academic argument that supported his statement.  If we can't write about personal experience, what can we write about? It is the closest, most powerful, truth we own.  If you don't want to hear women's voices, then don't buy this series!  But if, like me, it is as welcome as clean, fresh water, then please do - you won't be disappointed.  Oh, and there are men in some of them!

Penguin New Modern Poets 1. Michael Robbins, Patricia Lockwood, Timothy Thornton
Penguin New Modern Poets 2. Emily Berry, Anne Carson, Sophie Collins
Penguin New Modern Poets 3. Malika Booker, Sharon Olds, Warsan Shire



  1. I am disappointed that a (nominally) learned man should say that of those who represent half of human experience. He should ponder who brought him into the world.Powerful stuff, Kathleen - thank you.

    1. It was said at Pascale Petit's reading. Very sad.


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