Editorial, The Poetry Review, winter 2016, by Sarah Howe

Back in September 2016, newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic ran a light-hearted piece about a downy white cloud shaped uncannily like the head of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. Trump’s lawyer tweeted a snapshot of the distinctive formation with the caption, “In case anyone is unsure as to who will be our next #POTUS, the Lord has chosen the people’s messenger.” In the wake of first the Brexit vote and now the shock about-turn of the US election result, the art of political polling would seem to be in tatters: its number-crunching apparently no more reliable than turning to the heavens for a touch of cloud divination. People have always scanned the sky’s teeming chaos for signs of coming political conflict. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the sunsets are swollen with portents: “Fierce fiery warriors fought upon the clouds” and “drizzled blood upon the Capitol”.

I find myself on this wild and whimsical course of cloud-spotting thanks to Matthea Harvey’s Kardashian Klouds, hovering at the centre of this issue somewhere between art and visual poetry. The Kardashians crop up surprisingly often in poetry at the moment, having become the remediated cultural signifiers par excellence. Harvey’s project began with taking a Polaroid of every cloud she could find in the Kardashians’ reality-TV show. But it quickly took off into spotting visual resemblances – finding clouds in soap suds, fluffy pillows, sonograms and stage smoke – making metaphors, in short, as only poets know how.

I began to notice clouds all over the poems we had chosen for this issue. One looms in Andre Bagoo’s gnomic prose poem about a painted Trinidadian landscape – “That single cloud casting a shadow on the mountain was the reason for everything” – reminding us that the Judaeo-Christian deity was often shrouded in cloud. In Victoria Grigg’s poem, a night-time hospital window becomes the “riddling” screen of our “thoughts”: “Make unusual clouds / with it”, the speaker commands. The idea that clouds might be the visible emanation of our thoughts is familiar to anyone who’s ever found a passing bestiary in the sky’s Rorschach, seeing (like Shakespeare’s Antony) a “cloud that’s dragonish” or a “vapour sometime like a bear”. The poetic imagination has long been metaphorically bound up with clouds: the poet’s power to give to “airy nothing” a “local habitation and a name” celebrated in the speech from A Midsummer Night’s Dream that echoes at the end of Nick Laird’s essay in this issue. And in Zaffar Kunial’s meditation on home and distance, the English language itself becomes a cloud, floating in the tear-blurred ink on airmail paper: “A grey smudge on a faint blue leaf […] the cloud of English”.

This November, I found myself exchanging emails with some of our American contributors about final corrections in the days immediately following the election. My first impulse was to apologise: how trivial proofs and poems seem at such times! But then I began to realise how poems – like the ones in these pages – will be among our most necessary acts of resilience and resistance in the years to come. Don Share, the editor of Poetry magazine in the US, was asked by The Atlantic why people seemed to be turning to poems on social media in the wake of the election. Poets have a “sense for things that are in the air”, he replied. “A lot of people might think that poetry is very abstract, or that it has to do with having your head in the clouds, but poets, actually, walk on the earth. They’re grounded, feet-first, pointing forward.”

The Poetry Review also finds itself at a moment of transition. It is with great fondness and gratitude that we bid farewell to Maurice Riordan after his nearly four years as editor. Some of the poets he has published during his tenure, from Simon Armitage and Hugo Williams to Zaffar Kunial and Fran Lock, have gathered once more in this last issue. It is also a huge pleasure to welcome the Review’s incoming editor, Emily Berry, with a new poem of hers: may your horizons be clear, Emily, or at least chock full of silver linings.

Sarah Howe