If Generation Y were to write love poetry, it would sound something like Jack Underwood’s ‘Love Poem’: “The streets look like they want to be frying eggs/ on themselves. I’m thinking of you and going/ itchy from it. I keep expecting to see a nosebleed/ on the hot yellow pavement. Every thought is/ a horse fly.’ Or perhaps, if Generation Y were to write a collection of poetry, it would sound something like Underwood’s new book, entitled Happiness, and published in August by Faber & Faber. Rather than saying anything as ambitious as ‘Underwood is the voice of generation’ (oh look, now I’ve said it), Underwood and his fellow products of the 1980s Emily Berry (Dear Boy, 2013), Sam Riviere (Kim Kardashian’s Marriage, 2015), and Luke Kennard (The Migrane Hotel, 2009), seem to be forming a contemporary poetry aesthetic with a particularly millennial feel. I might tentatively claim that Generation Y is beginning to speak and its voice sounds a little like what these writers are putting into print.
For a poet writing in 2015, to be considered ‘wildly successful’ is to sell around 500 copies of a collection. That’s a tiny figure which says a huge deal about the poetry market in the UK at the moment. What’s more, if you consider the number of friends and family members who are pretty much obliged to buy these authors’ books, and contribute to this figure, the real number of people actively interested in contemporary poetry is even smaller than this number might suggest. ‘Either somebody else somewhere/ is reading this now, or no one else in the entire world is’, as Underwood pithily puts it in ‘Accidental Narratives’.
Writing from this context and remaining relevant is a difficult task, yet Happiness successfully taps into contemporary culture. In ‘Holy Sonnets X’, for instance, Underwood borrows from the student maxim of the importance of a pint of water after a night out, without sounding too ‘Skins series seven’: ‘O drunk DEATH, go home. We like our dying lives./ Have a big glass of water and think about it:/ I sleep in often. I waste my life like rain.’ In ‘You Are Definitely Coming, So Why Not Now?’, death takes the form of a grim reaper armed with an angle grinder cutting necks “like bike locks” before evaporating into the creeping “smell in the fridge”. His images are as contemporary and thrilling as the ping of a message from a match on Tinder.
Underwood has been critiqued for offering poetry with a good deal of instant gratification, of writing ‘indie house’ poetry which sounds great (really great) on first reading but fails to stick with you for even the rest of the day. Think #1 chart hit, rather than concept album that’s ‘a bit of a grower’. Yes, there are moments in Happiness that might fit this description; ‘She Loves You Like’ is a weaker piece that rests on candy sweet images, “she loves you like the delivery man’s knock”, like “parents falling asleep wherever they are”. These moments are however few and far between. In fact, much of the criticism of the collection for its pop appeal relies on lazy negative stereotypes of the millennial youth. Rather than criticising the collection for appealing to a short attention span, we might celebrate the work for accurately depicting the flighty movement of contemporary consciousness. ‘Accidental Narratives’ is a case in point. The listed series of broken images that opens the poem are jarringly disconnected and flit from scene to scene with no overriding narrative. Yes, it is uncomfortable, and like many of the pieces in the collection makes for disconcerting reading, but the collection should be praised for honestly depicting a multi-tasking, tech-savvy generation bombarded by constant interruption. Like a phone vibrating on silent, there’s a distracting background hum to the collection.
Much of the millennial generation still has a student loan, dirty dishes in the sink, and a preoccupation with the question ‘what the hell should I do with my life?’. It’s early to talk about the work produced by Generation Y because most of it hasn’t yet been produced. But this new collection by Jack Underwood, and other collections by writers in his contemporary circle, might just be a new kind of poetry which can’t (and shouldn’t) be judged by fixed and outdated principles of what makes for ‘good poetry’. It’s natural to be tentative about judging really new work, but it is safe to say that Happiness is a thrilling debut from the forefront of the millennial generation.