Autumn has arrived and blown a new generation into town. Rookies abound. Less predictable, just as likely, is a flood of talent.
After Seamus Heaney died last year, I wrote about discovering a signed edition of his Selected Poems 1965–75 back in 1989 when he’d just been appointed Oxford’s latest Professor of Poetry and I’d just arrived as an undergraduate. He and his poetry are inextricably, if idiosyncratically, linked to my heightened, patchy recollections of that singular season, like a first-week friend I never sought to shake off. Looking back, many of my experiences during that runaway time were doubtless entirely generic. If I could remember more, let alone unspool the past, I don’t imagine I’d change a thing; and I still haunt secondhand bookshops.
Freshers’ week here in Cambridge has just hurled me a happy reminder of that previous find in the form of a rare copy of the Mays Anthology 1995, a paperback collection of short stories written by Oxford and Cambridge students that is still published annually. In this edition is what’s believed to be the first published story, Mirrored Box, by Zadie Smith, literary darling and alumna of King’s College. A subsequent story, Mrs Begum’s Son and the Private Tutor, was included in the Mays Anthology 1997 and the rest is history: signed to a sharp-eyed agent, her celebrated debut novel White Teeth, published in 2000, became of the defining novels of that pivotal year. Inclusion in The Mays, as it’s now known, is highly prized. When Smith guest-edited the anthology in 2001 she speculated, ‘This lot will have me out of a job.’
Like Mrs Begum’s Son and the Private Tutor, this year’s Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets, for which Smith was named runner-up in the BBC National Short Story Award, has a title that conjures an intriguing world in itself. And The Mays, too, continues to flourish. It was created in 1992 to showcase ‘the best and most exciting new writing from students’. Its concentration on excellence is, however, entirely even-handed. Though based in Cambridge, it continues to be edited by students from both Oxford and Cambridge and remains a rare creative collaboration between student writers of both short prose fiction and poetry at the two universities. In a complex and fast-moving literary world where, despite seemingly boundless digital opportunity, print publication remains an apogee of authorial aspiration, inclusion in The Mays is hard won. Guest editors have included such literary luminaries as Penelope Fitzgerald (1996), Colm Tóibín (2007) and, yes, Jarvis Cocker (2011). Submissions reached a record 1,100 in 2006 and The Mays last year launched a mentoring scheme to extend its reach.
This year’s Oxford editor, Andrew Wynn Owen, is an undergraduate at Magdalen. Following in the footsteps of previous winners including Oscar Wilde and Andrew Motion, he’s also this year’s recipient of Oxford’s prestigious Newdigate Prize for Poetry, established in 1806 (which Cambridge made speed to match with its Chancellor’s Gold Medal, established in 1813). His star is in the ascendant and though the air may seem thin, it’s not all long shadows; check out George the Poet, another literary-protegé-cum-prodigy of King’s, Cambridge. Kaleidoscopic and available as never before, poetry looks exciting now and into the future.
The 2014 Forward Prizes for Poetry were awarded last month. This month we had National Poetry Day. My half-ear routinely tuned to Radio 4’s Today programme swivelled in unfamiliar excitement to hear Alan Bennett reading Philip Larkin’s ‘I Remember, I Remember’. National Poetry Day? Twenty years young, it was conceived by publisher and philanthropist William Sieghart (St Anne’s, 1979), who followed Bennett to explain why poetry is worth learning ‘by rote’. Sieghart didn’t apologise for airing something so unfashionable — and unaccountably politicized — at such an unearthly hour, nor thump any tub particularly hard. He simply suggested, with disarming reference to the lyric quality of Liverpool FC’s anthem, that the teaching of poetry by analysis without reference to sound is ‘like teaching music by the score’.
New research has just begun here in Cambridge into the measurable, positive effects on memory and cognitive function (notably in Alzheimer’s patients) of learning poetry by heart. Pace Ed Miliband (Corpus Christi, 1989), as I listened to that Radio 4 programme early this month I couldn’t help thinking that poetry, with or without Oxbridge in its vanguard, made a much better start to my day than yet more discussion of the latest round of party conferences.
Images from Tennyson’s ‘Break, Break, Break’ © Sue Garth.