A poetic approach to life in the North

Ian McMillan
Ian McMillan
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Verse could be a positive challenge to those whose views of Yorkshire are somewhat blinkered, as Ian McMillan suggests.

Yorkshire Post readers, particularly those of the Culture section, will know that The North is a nuanced and subtle entity, and that the White Rose County is the most nuanced and subtle of them all. Unfortunate outsiders don’t often hold this eminently sensible view, however. They look at Yorkshire through grim-coloured spectacles; they understand it as a collage of brass band music, flat cap wearing chaps and looming pitheads.

A useful present for these blinkered people would be Ian Parks’s excellent new anthology of contemporary Yorkshire poetry, Versions of the North. Ian knows that Yorkshire’s got a vital and exciting poetry scene, and has had for many years; so this collection celebrates and annotates that scene with a selection of older and younger writers.

As Ian Parks points out in his introduction, the last substantial collection of this kind was the late great Vernon Scannell’s Contemporary Yorkshire Poetry which came out in 1984 and this is a worthy successor.

The collection often nods to Ted Hughes, the great Mount Rushmore Head that looms over all Yorkshire poetry; in Barry Tebb’s Hughes’ Voice in my Head he writes “As soon as we crossed into Yorkshire,/Hughes’ voice assailed me, unmistakeable/Gravel and honey, A raw celebration of rain/like a tattered lacework window”. Some of the writers reference Hughes in the same way that a writer in Norfolk has to reference flatness; in other words, he’s part of the landscape.

In Pauline Kirk’s Urban Foxes “His shadow crosses/the street, a Pictish invader/colonising daylight” – it could be a fox or it could be Ted. Ann Atkinson looks hard at a petrifying well, and Hughes is glancing over her shoulder: “The air here’s full of spray and limey mist/that saturates the fiddleheads of bracken,/settles on a nest to turn three eggs to stone.”

The other influence on many of the poets here is politics, I reckon, because 
this place has been shaped 
by our oppositional nature. Steve Ely’s poem Arthur Scargill is a coalfield rhapsody, with variations: “…beasts of burden,/their lives lived out in the rhythm/of the Coal Board’s seasons; days and afters/Henry Halls, neets reg.”

In Julian Turner’s superb Care the word is examined and left wanting: “Care/is full of rusty pools where the seep of oil has turned/the pit floor to a rainbow sump; machines abandoned, dropped by the men who worked the seams bare/and died, their toil as unremembered as the earth…”

The younger poets in the anthology have learned from the older ones and are creating a New Yorkshire that’s very much their own. Helen Mort writes of the now demolished Tinsley Towers “They prop themselves up/against the sky; two shift workers/taking a breather, letting their smoke/uncoil above the terraces”.

Perhaps the true glories of this collection, though, are the older writers who have informed so much of what is being written in the county today.

Poets who are beginning to be forgotten like Harold Massingham, George Kendrick, Pete Morgan, Mabel Ferrett and Stanley Cook are celebrated here and can be seen as the architects of 2013’s landscape of Yorkshire writing.

George Kendrick’s Bicycle Tyre in a Tall Tree is a delicate poem about looking, about that place where Art and 
Life collide: “But I would 
say/a bicycle tyre in a tall tree/has real poise, for there the birds will sing/and 
all the buds break into geometry./What a good 
throw that was.”

All the poems in this book are worth reading and they make me excited about the future of poetry round here. We’re nuanced and subtle, tha knows!

Extra facts and suggestions

Five Leaves Press is a flourishing small publisher based in Nottinghamshire; they include poetry, fiction and memoir and they’re well worth checking out: www.fiveleaves.co.uk

The poet Graham Kendrick featured on BBC Television many years ago in a long-forgotten series called My Show, where people got to make their own show. Hence the name!

Harold Massingham went to the same school as Ted Hughes.

Turn to the contributors’ notes at the back of the book because they’re very informative and they’ll give you loads of ideas for books to read.