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Jonathan Edwards
Publication Date: 
Thursday, November 1, 2018
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Winner of the People's Choice Award, Wales Book of the Year 2019

‘As always Edwards' writing is at once bold and sweeping whilst also managing to maintain a homely and intimate voice that feels personal​.’ – Ben Ray

Gen is a book of lions and rock stars, street parties and servants, postmen and voices. In the opening sequence’s exploration of youth and young manhood, the author sets his own Valleys upbringing against the ’50s youth of his parents and the experience of a range of pop culture icons, including Kurt Cobain and Harry Houdini. These poems give way to a sequence of monologues and character sketches, giving us the lives of crocodiles and food testers, pianists and retail park trees. Other poems place a Valleys village and the characters who live in it alongside explorations of Welsh history and prehistory, and the collection concludes with a selection of sometimes witty, sometimes heartfelt love poems.

With his characteristic humour, warmth, formal range and swaggering music, Jonathan Edwards delivers a worthy follow-up to his popular and critically-lauded debut.



Review by Jane Routh, The North

Monday, August 5, 2019

Readers who relished the good humour of Jonathan Edwards’s fast-paced and conversational writing in My Family and Other Superheroes won’t be disappointed by his second book, Gen. Its title poem is populated by ‘masters of their own devices’: ‘the young, the young’. Characters from his first book re-appear in this one and, in keeping with its theme, they’re in their youth this time. The father who was renovating a Morris Minor last time we heard is back now in 1965 crashing his car, and before that in ‘My father buying sweets, 1956’


                        ... a paper bag

full in his palm. There are years

in which the shop will go to bedsits, the bedsits

to ruin, my father’s mouth will bloom

with fillings, but now his evening stretches

deliciously ahead, and he pauses helpfully

beneath a streetlight, so we can watch him

lift one gleaming thing from the bag, unwrap it,

raise it to his lips –


We meet his mother, aged 8, with a cut on her arm. We meet his own younger self, and his teenage son, and a girl in ‘On Hearing You have Lost Your New Love’, whom he addresses with tender understanding because ‘There is a reason girl I know all this.’ As in his first book Jonathan Edwards turns his spotlight on more famous characters too, here Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who ‘At twenty-one ... needs something big to happen / to cover his bar tab’. Richard Burton is lectured by the Welsh flag on his dressing room wall in Broadway, the year before he died.

There are stylistic parallels too: My Family ... has a good pairing of poems on facing pages, one about his father, the other about his grandfather and both poems begin with the same phrase, ‘That’s him’. Gen similarly pairs two poems on facing pages, one about his father and the other about an uncle, both of them opening ‘So there he is’.

This draws attention to a frequent gesture in his writing – an exhortation to the reader to ‘look’. ‘Girl’ opens with the couplet:


So look she has those eyes the sort of eyes

of any girl look who has eyes that colour


In the first poem, ‘a gull ... / ... dips look for a chip’; the poem ‘Days of 2005’ opens ‘See that boy there look, lying in the street?’ ; ‘Days of 1995’ ends ‘And look, in her shirt pocket, there’s a packet ...’ It’s a powerful way of underlining a visual moment in the poem, while at the same time keeping us aware of the writer’s conversational voice – as do phrases like ‘So there you are’ and ‘So here they come’. I recognised a Jonathan Edwards poem in a recent Southword by its opening ‘So there he is’ which makes me wonder now at what point a distinctive characteristic in writing might start to become a mannerism.

I was interested to see how he would handle a group of poems about place, extending his range. Very well, in ‘Newport Talking,’ ventriloquising the town: ‘Rush / hour’s a pain in my chest’. There are three poems about the evacuated valley and village of Capel Ceryn flooded for a reservoir, and these evoke significant moments in detail such as the re-burial of some dead and the pupils’ last day at the school. And ‘Aberfan’? How on earth to write about this? With his usual pace and warmth, yes, but also with delicacy and immense tact.

Review by Greg Freeman, South

Friday, June 28, 2019

There is an exuberant energy about the poetry of Jonathan Edwards. His debut collection won the Costa Poetry award; talking about it soon afterwards at Wenlock poetry festival, Edwards, who is an English teacher, said that working with young people was “joyous and inspirational”, and also helped to keep him grounded.

The very good news is that the same qualities that earned him the Costa accolade – a love for family, a curiosity about other people and their oddities, and an overall air of beneficent anarchy – are present in his second collection Gen as well. There are more poems about family members, such as ‘My Mother Cuts Her Arm, 1955’ and ‘My Father Crashes a Car, 1965’, that are both dramatic and suffused with affection, while steering clear of sentimentality.

There are further poems about legendary heroes in south Wales; ‘Kurt Cobain Proposes to Courtney Love, TJs, Newport, December 1991’ and ‘Harry Houdini on Newport Bridge, May 1905’. And there are crafted poems about animals – ‘Crocodile, Giraffe, Lions Asleep’ – in which Edwards extols their qualities with sympathy and humour.

Poems concerning Welsh history such as Aberfan and about villages drowned by the need for reservoirs are composed with aching tenderness. His warmth towards humanity is displayed in ‘Couple Kissing Against the Wall of a Pub’: “Who wouldn’t look, or want / a love this fierce?” And his upbeat empathy is perhaps best encapsulated in the first two poems of the collection, ‘Sing Song Spring Song’ and ‘Gen’:

So here they come, around the corner,
              bouncing, flouncing, boho​
              beehives, tattooed, corduroy-looned,
              scumbags, skinheads, brogue-shod uni
                                                                      fools, or
              look, they’re me, they’re you, but slightly
                                                                      cooler …

The latter, title poem’s final line: “I say bow down, bow down, the young, the young.”

Was poetry ever supposed to be this much fun?

Review by Joe Caldwell

Sunday, March 17, 2019


I first became aware of the poet Jonathan Edwards through reading his poem ‘Olympic 100m Final, Seoul, 1988’, in, I think, The Interpreter’s House in around 2013.  The poem struck and stayed with me, and when Edwards’s debut collection My Family and Other Superheroes came out a year or so later I was disappointed, though I loved the book, not to find the poem included.

It was more than satisfying, then, when ‘Olympic 100m Final’ was one of the first poems my eye fell on after a buying a copy of Gen, Edwards’s second book, a few weeks ago.  It’s a terrific rendering of an iconic sporting event, but it’s also about family, nostalgia, growing up, perspective and, not least, wonder.

Such a great poem, it showcases much of what is wonderful about the book as a whole.  Edwards has a sure touch and true eye for making art of popular culture.  As well as Ben Johnson, Gen features Kurt Cobain, Harry Houdini, and ‘Writers in the Movies’ who

pound their typewriters and…

…work all night, pausing only
to make furious love
to Keira Knightley, preferably against

a wall, as bombs fall in the streets outside.

As in the first book he is engaging and evocative on the territory of memory and family history in poems like ‘My Father Buying Sweets, 1956’ and, here, in ‘House Party at Tanya’s, 1995’:

there is one moment, on this terraced street,
we can get back to, if we both try hard:

there is a moment, here, among
the broken streetlights, krooklok’d cars,
this swirling wind, this being young,
and there, a massive endless sky of stars.

Throughout the collection, demotic patter is combined with virtuoso craft.  What can you say about a sonnet like ‘On Hearing You Have Lost Your New Love’, at once bitter, tender and true?  What can you say about a gut punch like the ending of ‘Aberfan’?  Or about a title like ‘Samuel Taylor Coleridge Walking from The Queen’s Head, Gray’s Inn, to Honsby’s and Co., Cornhill, to Buy an Irish Lottery Ticket, November 1793’?

I will say this: Gen is a vibrant, brilliant book, and Edwards is one of my favourite writers.


Review by Ben Wilkinson, The Guardian

Friday, March 8, 2019

Can a poet be popular and critically acclaimed? Jonathan Edwards’s 2014 debut My Family and Other Superheroes won the Costa poetry award and the Wales Book of the Year People’s Choice award, combining comedy and a surreal touch in reimagining the familiar to winsome effect. His poems are easy-going but subtly formal, clever but accessible, and his follow-up, Gen (Seren, £9.99), won’t disappoint. Here comes everyone: Harry Houdini on Newport Bridge, Coleridge chancing a lottery ticket, Tanya’s house party with “music / pouring from the chimney”. There is something of the late Michael Donaghy about Edwards’s simpatico voice, and like Donaghy he is at his best when he leads us astray. “Reader, if you take my hand / and step outside with me now”: the poet nudges, and we follow. Touching character portraits reiterate why Edwards has won plaudits, but the acerbic edge that pervades Gen also suggests a new direction.

Review by John Freeman, The Lonely Crowd

Friday, December 14, 2018


Jonathan Edwards’s Gen carries on where My Family and Other Superheroes left off, and goes further and deeper. There are the family portraits we expect, done with humour, warmth, and new immediacy. There are interactions with popular culture, minor disasters and exuberance, realism modified by a daffy imagination. There is an infectious music on the edge of dance in ‘Sing Song Spring Song’ and the very different ‘Autumn Song’. ‘Newport Talking’ is a substantial portrait of a city with its vitality and desperation, the more touching for being funny. Here and elsewhere Edwards shows a new breadth of vision, and the ability to encompass tragedy. His poems about Aberfan and Tryweryn have the air of instant classics.


Review by Steve Whitaker, Yorkshire Times

Sunday, December 9, 2018


It would be a bloody poor heart that didn’t warm to Jonathan Edwards’ poetry. When, with My Family and Other Superheroes, he walked away with the Costa Poetry Prize in 2014, no one should have been surprised. 

If awards, in the end, are a subjective judgement on the merits of a body of work – difficult, I guess, to see the wood for the trees in a dense and fertile forest – the casting vote goes to a poet whose feel for common humanity confers a vital edge above and beyond his self-evident formal and structural skills, thematic strengths and prismatic insight.

And humour. Edwards’ brilliant realisations of past and present personal are indivisibly bound up with comedy of the sardonic and ironic type, a comedy that is borne of the situations and circumstances of uncelebrated lives. 

His family histories, the rendering of his native South Walian culture, gives parity to a love evoked in ordinariness; he is a wonderful celebrant of bonding, of cohesion, of all that home means. 

We should be grateful for it: turning his back on self-pity – he is an agent of ‘we’ rather than ‘I’ – Edwards performs the kind of ministry for the microcosm of Newport and its hinterland that E.P. Thompson did for the emergent working classes.

The result is breathtaking. Gen adds further richness to the tapestry of My Family; once again, we are able to construct a canvas of wider meaning from a catalogue of local nuances, to detect an antenna whose settings are fixed, mostly, in the human world. Privy to the perambulations of a mind whose eye responds kaleidoscopically to stimuli of colour and texture, we look outwards as Edwards’ looks outwards.

And, beyond the glorious, the gorgeous and the accidental, looking ‘outwards’ may be a foray into imagined worlds, whose object may embody a passing juvenile interest, or have been sparked by a television memory. Here, it is significant that the poet sometimes reverses the telescope of perception by, as it were, poeticising on behalf of shadowy, unsung figures who support the flimsy framework of notoriety, or observe its risibility.

Edwards’ observations are instinctively partial, whether in behalf of the grandfather who conducts his own teenage ‘entertainment’ whilst an enchained Houdini leaps off Newport Bridge, or a minder who warms his master’s seat in advance of a performance at Covent Garden. 

This last service, given uncomplainingly by a servant who is embarrassed by the pejorative blandishments of others as to his master’s weaknesses, falls away in the ironic volte face of a final, isolated line’s perfect pentameter: ‘the sound of clapping, listen, dogs my heels’. (‘Servant Minding a Seat for his Master Before a Performance of The Rivals, Covent Garden Theatre, 1775’) 

The oblation is repeated by the human guinea pig in ‘Food Tester’ whose existence is circumscribed by a sense of careful duty, using, in the first person narrator’s memorable phrase, ‘the science of my instinct’. And again, by the Welsh flag hanging in Richard Burton’s dressing room, whose anthropomorphic insight is a startlingly acute mirror to the actor’s solipsistic vacuum:

‘as he steps through the door, I flutter faintly
in the air conditioning, raise a paw,
but nothing helps. His born pretender’s breath
goes on wheezing Myself, myself, myself.’
(‘Welsh Flag on the Wall of Richard Burton’s Dressing Room, Broadway, 1983’)

If the susceptibility of this poet to celebration and homage fights mercifully shy of bathos, his natural optimism and instinct for clarity lend themselves to song. Whether a slave to loves lost, endured or in the abstract, Edwards’ poetic style is metrically, and sometimes rhythmically, musical. 

The wishful thinking of ‘On Hearing You have Lost Your New Love’ and the faux-insouciance of ‘When I’m Gone’, are measures of love which synthesise in the sensible pragmatism of ‘Girl’, whose invocation to ordinariness reminds of Larkin’s ‘Born Yesterday’. Why, the narrator asks, would a hopelessly idealised version of a human being be of relevance when the girl before him is a rhapsodic emotional muse, the ironic object, in the end, of a sonnet he would otherwise deny:

‘and there’s nothing in her to lionise,
to drive me look to sonnets or to murder,

or words to tell you what she’s really like.
Or words to say how much that bloody matters.’

That the poem ‘Song’ performs the same service for yearning as Oleta Adams’ commercial pop hit ‘Get here if you can’ did for US serviceman in the first Gulf War need not be a derogation of its qualities. Edwards’ wears a magpie’s proclivity for picking up contemporary cultural references even if subconsciously, and his invocation is characteristically absurd and ineffably, joyfully funny: ‘So come, by raft, by hovercraft, or do / a goose-fat, nose-clipped, brave or water-winged / breaststroke through the sea that’s parting me / from you’.

Edwards’ easy iambics suit the conversational style of his delivery. Where dialogue is not engaged, one sometimes hears the intrusion of extraneous voices as though the poems encouraged the vocal presence of others. The public nature of the poetics – the colour and vibrancy, the piquancy of character – yields a parallel landscape where the sheer joy of unfolding words is corollary to the shaping of a theatre of imagined voices. Dylan Thomas evoked a similar phenomenon in Under Milk Wood, and the received impression is a far from cacophonous fillip to the profoundly social aspect of Edwards’ thinking.

He is a noisy poet. Never more so than when he actively directs his readers’ attention to events on the page rather as a comedian would do with an audience, and in so doing underwrites the uncertain nature of the act of poetic creation. Reaching out to reader as co-conspirator to his narrative’s subtext, Edwards’ narrator reinforces meaning. ‘Listen’, ‘Look’, and ‘There’ are frequently deployed instructively, as if we, too, were party to the unfolding tableau.

Edwards’ very direct emotional relationship with his subjects renders temporal positioning and tense immaterial. He sees, or tries to see the world as others may have seen it, and frequently hangs his hat in the landscape of a past as if personally experienced, and in a retrospective present. 

Manifesting a preternatural skill for imagining the architectonics of place and time, his poems convince completely, as though authenticity could be distilled in a heady brew of elegiac love. The moving ‘My Mother Cuts Her Arm, 1955’ is built entirely on a solid emotional foundation. Here, Edwards’ mental camera roves over an urban terrace of postwar austerity, and picks out the detail of an accidental fall on garden railings. Illuminated in the aura of the loving father, who hacksaws every sharp edge off to prevent recurrence, the poem is a paean to paternal care, returned now, in a mother’s backward glance:

‘Sixty years, and standing in her kitchen,
she looks down now out of the bedroom window
to see her father. Now he straightens up
to speak to Mrs Morris from next door,
gesticulating with his shining hacksaw.
now the setting sun, that mid-May moment,
catches his glasses, makes him brilliant.’

This poem is one of a short series of family memory observations, each of which adds a further layer to a process of bonding. The evocative ‘My Father Buying Sweets, 1956’ expresses an imagined visit, by the father figure, to a sweet shop, and draws anticipation, juvenile pleasure and contemporary detail into one charmed circle. 

Edwards’ feel for the simple salivatory moment is astonishingly persuasive, enabling the reader to inhabit both shop and biddable imagination, and to turn a blind eye, as insouciant children do, to the dental consequences of chocolate toffees, when mouths will ‘bloom with fillings’. 

But most, the emotional weight of this well-cut slice of observation recalls Tony Harrison’s sonnet ‘Continuous’, whose remembrance of love in the simple sense of his father’s presence - cupping the young Harrison’s choc ice at the cinema – enshrines a bond. For Edwards, the best and only expression of a bond forged in a furnace of sensory connection is affectingly monosyllabic:

‘    we can watch him
lift one gleaming thing from the bag, unwrap it,
raise it to his lips –
so I can taste all the butter, cream, the sugar,
here, on the tip of my tongue.’

This is what this poet does: invites the reader to feel and to taste his expression of family cohesion through an arc of searing memory. And he is adept, too, at describing the darker shades of Welsh history in dynamic images which test, and impressively broach, the bounds of the feasible. Where Edwards can suggest mood in compelling metaphors – elsewhere, the crispness of autumn leaves is ‘deep fried’ and hanging baskets are ‘lynched’ – he finds an outlet for a more general sense of displacement and tragedy in a series of haunting poems.

The animated triptych of poems about Tryweryn, the Welsh village drowned to feed the gaping maw of Liverpool with reservoir water in 1965, is a moving homage to the voiceless whose needs are submerged by bigger interests. 

‘Cofiwch Dryweryn’ – takes a wide-eyed amphibious dive through imagined streets, whilst the harrowing ‘The Remains’ details the removal of coffins from the village cemetery to their new home on the bank of the lake. More tellingly still are the families who chose to leave their loved ones undisturbed, now forever beyond reach, ‘buried under gravel, concrete’, water.

The burial of Aberfan beneath a landslide of slag is another metaphor for the subsuming of the powerless by the powerful, the powerless with whom Edwards instinctively sides. The poet’s simple and beautiful rendering of the easy innocence of a new school day – ‘spring-limbed’ kids who ‘kick the air with joy at being them’ and make ‘slipstreams of their ties’ – is the animated racket before the oncoming, terrible silence presaged by the final quatrain. 

The counterpoint is unbearable – the poet cannot bear it. Willing the clock to stop just before Pantglas school is engulfed on the morning of 21st October, 1966, words fail Edwards’ narrator, almost as if, to shamelessly paraphrase Adorno, poetry was no longer possible in this moment of existential crisis: 

‘They settle in their chairs. The world breathes in.

And now pause there. And now, oh now, pause there.’ (‘Aberfan’)

It seems unlikely that a poet of such exuberant joie de vivre, and co-mingled sadness, will ever stagnate. If the trajectory of Gen is horizontal rather than vertical; if there is no appreciable qualitative or stylistic difference between this masterful collection and My Family, it is cause for celebration, for Gen is a triumph. 

Review by Poetry Book Society

Thursday, November 29, 2018

At the core of this collection is a musing upon the relationships between different generations. Starting from observations upon his own youth, Edwards reaches back into the lives of his parents and his grandparents from 2005 to ’65 to 1905. He conjures an episode in the eighteenth-century life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge then fast forwards two hundred years to Richard Burton’s dressing room. This is an intriguing collection, keenly focused upon the nature of people and their lives.

Review by Zoë Wells

Thursday, November 22, 2018

It’s hard to find a funny poet – it seems that the vast majority of us are doomed to sit around bemoaning the sad state of the world as it is/was/always will be. It’s even harder to find someone who can be funny without being either superficial or depressing. But somehow, despite the many ways the world has changed for the worse in the four years since My Family and Other Superheroes, Jonathan Edwards has done it: he’s got me laughing again.

It was always going to be tough following up on the success of the Costa Award winning My Family and Other Superheroes. Second Novel Syndrome is up there as one of the most common excuses for writers spending so much time scrolling through Twitter instead of, say, writing – second only to the ever present ‘writer’s block’. Turns out there’s a simple solution to both: as Edwards puts it in his opening poem, ‘get up off your arse boy and begin’ (“Sing Song Spring Song”). And with that we do – begin, that is.

The first part of Gen focuses on family. While family stories were evidently a key portion of My Family, these fresh offerings go further. Family members are presented in their youth: a grandfather as a teenager, mother and father as children stealing sweets. As he posits in the eponymous “Gen”, each of us is or has been one of those ‘youths’: ‘they’re me, they’re you, but slightly cooler”.  Sometimes they are the centre of their own stories; sometimes they’re on the edges of greater, historical moments and figures – Houdini, Kurt Cobain, the Olympics. They’re the people in the corners in photographs, looking in at history as it’s being made, knowing that ‘one day this moment, now, will be in retro’ (“Olympic 100m, Final, Seoul”). Edwards is holding up a photo-album, a home video, and pointing for us, telling us to look here, look there, see how the young have always been there. We’ve all been young, even if some of us haven’t been old yet.

Gen goes on to focus on these kinds of bystanders in the second part, though more broadly – first outside the family, then outside humanity. The anthropomorphic poems in this second part, alongside the physical structures and cities of the third part, are where Edwards’s mastery really shines through. Anthropomorphism is too often used by poets as fables, taking issues of morality head on. In Gen, animals are humanised by drawing comparisons between their lives and those of modern humans. References to marketing and USPs, boredom and jests play off of earlier references to the chrysalis and to the runts of litters. Humans and animals are tied together by the way they reflect back modern life, the way that both are presented as bystanders in the wings: ‘it’s then that I see what all this is about / the you beneath the surface, trapped inside, / the me that’s in you, trying to get out’ (“Giraffe). Anthropomorphism could come across as lazy, but Edwards writes for a modern audience, revitalising the form and breathing fresh thoughts into the practice of poetry.

While the third section is rooted in the places and common people in Wales, the fourth and final section takes a step out. No more little stories of specific instances, specific people. These last poems are broad, vaguer, with characters we’re familiar with: a girl in a coffee shop, a couple snogging against a pub, the start and stop of a new love. These are sweeter poems. Edwards’s trademark humour continues to shine through, but the background voice that’s been present throughout, the one telling us to look here and there, becomes louder. It takes the time now to tell lessons, though is willing to admit when it doesn’t know the answer. The poem “When I’m Gone” stands out particularly here. It tells a loved one not to pine when you’re gone, not to waste time over someone who’s not here anymore, but ultimately lands on a killer line that asks whether this lesson even needs to be taught. It echoes through your mind long after you’ve closed the book, more so than any of the many other stellar poems in the collection, and it’s notable that this poem is potentially the saddest. This kind of landing is only possible in the context of the wider collection: the jests are done, the jokes have been used up. Life is made of ups and downs – it stands to reason that a collection that covers lives, generations, should be too.

Individually, the poems of Gen are what we’ve come to expect from Jonathan Edwards: funny, smart, warm. A little taste of home, even for those of us who didn’t grow up in Wales, and a splash of nostalgia thrown in for good measure. But as a collection, Gen is stunning: it scopes out the hilarity of our small world and comforts us through the tragedies of it. It’s the human story told not as an epic tale but as a tale told from father to child, passing through the minds and pens of generations. It’s a comfort; a hug; a cwtch, even.

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