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The Chair in Unacknowledged Legislation

Sunday, 21 February 2010 at 17:57

Reading In Glasgow

How does a poet stand in relationship to society? What sort of social being is a poet? At the average poetry reading or festival they come in all shapes, sizes and demeanour, not usually terribly wealthy and sometimes not terribly well-dressed, this latter perhaps related to their lack of means. This individual variety in poets could indicate that in the present literary culture a poem is well and truly separate from the poet. However, so many poems and poets seem to be accompanied with ancillary personal histories and political opinions that readers or audience could be forgiven for thinking that they being given autobiographies or political tracts in verse. Apart from those poets who have been imprisoned, tortured and exiled by tyrannical states, poets become that contemporary version of the hero or heroine, the victim either of hostile external forces or internal impulses they cannot control.The landscape of the poetry in the Western world over the last half century is thronged with walking wounded versifiers. Some have attempted to keep their private lives to themselves, but such is the industry of secondary literature that a famous poet will have his or her life unearthed by the biographer. All the weaknesses, addictions, injuries and slights to others will be exposed and must affect the reading of a poem. It takes a superhuman purity of attention to the art of poetry not to at least borrow from the library a biography of a favourite poet. And it takes further strength of mind to banish the consequent knowledge from our minds, when we return to the poems after learning about the anti-Semitism of a Pound and others, the personal coldness of an Eliot, the scrounging of a Dylan Thomas, the lack of hygiene of an Auden, the ambition of a Plath, the informer activity of a Lowell, the egotism of a MacDiarmid or a Graves, the male chauvinism of a Larkin, the drinking of a MacNeice, a Bishop, a Berryman, a W.S. Graham and some of the others already mentioned. All of these flaws seem to be central to the characters of the poets and so can they be kept apart from their poetry?

Reading a poet’s biography is quite often a disheartening experience if the poet happens to have been living recently. Doctor Johnson’s Lives still remain an enthralling read if only for the Great Cham’s style. Richard Holmes on Shelley is difficult to put down and turn the light off. Martin Seymour-Smith on both Thomas Hardy and Robert Graves, on the other hand, is less than compelling. His work of Thomas Hardy seems beset by the conditional auxiliary “would have’ especially when speculating about Hardy’s sex life. His work on Graves seems to be the defence of a friend and quite hopeless on the poems. There is a useful little out-of-print paperback by JM Cohen, which I turn to if I want something intelligent on Graves’s poetry. More recently Sir Andrew Motion’s biography of Larkin is depressing and will probably be remembered chiefly for the marvellous review by Alan Bennett in the London Review of Books that it prompted. Ian Hamilton’s biography of Robert Lowell turned an edgy admiration into hearty dislike. It was character assassination pure and simple, if often wholly deserved, and has coloured my reading of Lowell’s work ever since.

What of our great contemporaries? Or more to the point who are our great contemporaries? Do they live disgracefully, espouse vile political opinions, beat their partners, abuse drugs or alcohol, change their underwear only once a month, have a different partner at every reading venue? Possibly. Probably not. More likely failings are fiddling petrol expenses whilst doing an outreach creative project for a Local Education Authority’s sixth-form catchment area, nicking lines from poems discarded from the long list in a poetry competition, puffing the work of one’s students from that Creative Writing Degree course that one teaches, writing reviews which praise a poet’s work for its “energy and imagination” (rather like Jeremy Clarkson commending a car just for having an engine and wheels), reading one’s long, deeply felt poem to the inmate in hospice and failing to notice that their heart monitor has flat-lined some time ago. I could go on, but my point is that poets’ failings are now connected more to a career in poetry than to a vocation and the poet’s often bitter sense of roads not taken and personal happiness denied. One or two poems surface indicating an irritating hypochondria or slightly outré sexual adventures, but professional footballers seem to be better at that sort of thing. Poets are drably self-obsessed. Carol Ann Duffy’s lampoon of Orpheus in “The World’s Wife” is uncomfortably accurate. My wife always seems to find something urgent to do at her mother’s when she sees me open my laptop and place my writing book beside it with a sigh of satisfaction.

What is to be done? Do English language poets as a sub-species have the character to write and endure being ignored and unrewarded? Recognition is a good thing when one is young. It indicates that a poet has a gift of words and thus a duty to practise one’s calling in the service of the language whatever one’s subsequent success and reputation. Yet in addition to the traditional awards there is now an industry; full-time university creative writing courses, placements, projects, sponsorship, a plethora of prizes, grants. Hierarchies of placemen have begun to take shape, at the academic level from Professors through Senior lecturers. Somewhere there is probably a Reader in Creative Writing. Beyond academia there are the Arts administrators. A number of poetic reputations seemed to have emerged from this bureaucratic sub-class. I won’t labour the point, but it all seems reminiscent of the Byzantine Empire. The protosebastocrators and logothetes are among us. And we all know what happened to poetry in the Byzantine Empire. Sooner or later one will have to have a diploma, a licence to practice, and no criminal record to be a poet. Poets who nurture their gift through reading, imitation, experiment and a sturdy refusal to believe the rejection slip will be a thing of the past or regarded as quaint amateur craftsmen. Eventually to become a poet will be like becoming a lawyer or a doctor: it will be an advantage to have a parent who was one and who knows somebody up at Saint Bards holding down the chair in “Unacknowledged Legislation”.

I can’t see the average poet’s character withstanding all of this. Sometimes I prowl over the creative writing ads and dream of a stipend supported by my savings for teaching nine classes a week,
preferably at a university with a decent library, and advising wannabees on their masterpieces and how to get them published. I shouldn’t. I have my cabin in the woods, a sacred space, where at night sounds drift through the trees,sounds which are not human but other. Sometimes it is almost silent. Certainly no useful biographical material can be or will be found there and certainly no application forms, reports on research or responses to customer satisfaction surveys.

Poetry Prizes: the Apotheosis of Buggins

Tuesday, 19 January 2010 at 19:05

His winter of discontent

When I had my first collection published in 1979 there were prizes for collections of poetry. I think there the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, the Hawthornden, the Alice Hunt Bartlett, the Cholomondely, the Eric Gregory Awards (was there a Whitbread?) and the Poetry Book Society had its quarterly choice with one and only one Recommendation. If you got one of these it meant something and usually you could be fairly sure that it was a sign of merit. However, I recall Ian Hamilton having a go at the poetry business in an article roundabout this time and implying that the Cholomondely might be an award for 'good and faithful servants' of poetry.

In 1978 the first National Poetry Competition of Great Britain was inaugurated,won, I believe by Michael Hulse. It was also the first example of attempted media hype; "the biggest prize for a single poem in the world" andthis attracted a rumoured 15,000 entries. I won an Eric Gregory Award in 1978 along with Ciaran Carson, Martyn Ford and Christopher Reid. Maybe there was another person, but I can’t call him or her to mind. My award wasn't so big,possibly because I made the mistake of telling the panel of judges that I could survive perfectly well without the money. I was also embarrassed by a question from John Fuller on my influences. In 1978 I could not possible say in front of all those people, "Actually your Dad's New Poems in 1968, really loosened up my diction and attitude to all sorts of things such as metre and rhyme and getting down what is passing through your mind as opposed to what you think ought to be passing through your mind." Nowadays I understand young up-and-coming poets are quite shameless about such matters and may even engage a panel with anecdotes: "and not only do X's poems really knock my socks off but that poem of X's about M/Abel on the kitchen table, that was me after a workshop and for good measure I was the kitchen table as well."

There wasn't a hoohah about the prizes. A cheque presented to winners at New Zealand House. A ruddy-faced RS Thomas was there to get the Cholomondely. (Was there only one awarded every year?), Marvin Cohen was there because it looked like a party. Christopher Reid went to do what ever Christopher Reid does at these things. I went with a pretty woman I wished to impress. Two glasses of wineand a thank you very much for the cheque and the honour and everybody home to supper or stammered declarations over another two glasses of wine.

Nowadays a prize, a prestigious literary award, is tied in to other benefits. I didn't know, until I investigated, that not only is there a shortlist (a rather long short list) but the short-listed poets get read on the media and reviewed. Thirty years ago a small group of judges got together, chose a winner and stood by their guns. There may have been collections that came close and the unlucky poets might be tipped off that they came close or better their publishers were tipped off. The PBS Choices weren't lined up for a further prize, increased sales being regarded as sufficient benefit.

And here things get murky. PBS Choices are now automatically short-listed for the Eliot Prize. Readings onthe media is determined by the fact that poems are potentially “prize-winning”,not the result of the taste of a producer. In 1979 if you wanted to be read on the radio you sent poems to George Macbeth and he usually replied “not quite”and occasionally “I’ll take that” and one’s poem or poems would be read after an introduction with Macbeth’s Winchester “arw” to the fore, and which was both critically expert and engaging. Later in the 1980’sthere was “The Living Poet” where Roberta Berke and Piers Plowright gave relatively obscure poets, such as myself, a whole half hour programme to read and talk about their work. Today one’s work is read if a committee approves;the PBS selectors and then the selectors again, bolstered with other judges,just in case they’ve made a mistake. Individual taste and judgment are smoothed out by compromise. The Macbeths and Berkes have been cast aside as eccentric,flawed in judgment, probably promoting their friends and generally abusing their ‘power.’ Even if this was true, and mostly it wasn’t, at least one had a sense that an act of judgment and taste had taken place. Anyway only very strange and ingratiating people are agreeable to a whole committee.

The committee practice dominates. The Forward Prize is exemplary of this courage of other people’s convictions. Its prizes are awarded to published work in magazines and to prizewinners in competitions such as the Bridport. When you consider that magazines such as, Magma, select in committee and that the Bridport competition short-lists for its headline judge you have a situation of committees selecting from what other committees have selected. The National Poetry Competition in which I won a prize five times between 1982 and 1989 (Iswear I didn’t enter in 1984 and 1985 due to writer’s block) has reverted to the short-listing system. I have entered most years since 1989 and haven’t won a thing. I try not to smell a large disease-bearing rodent. It seems the shortlist prepared by “experts” who whittle down some thousands to hundreds and they are passed on to the judges. Who are these experts? The last time I went into the Poetry Society, which, with its scruffy notices pinned to the wall, had the appearance of an NGO active in supporting sufferers from some obscure sociopathic disorder, I was served coffee by some fat youth whose trousers were half way down his buttocks. So when he bent over to divvy up my muffin and large expresso I was treated to something in which I could park a mountain bike. Was he one of the experts? There’s no transparency for competitors so he may well have been co-opted that year.

What’s the end result of this committee work? Poor Man’s Soup or Buggin's Choice, that good and faithful servant, something vaguely nourishing for all, disagreeable to none, where salt and pepper have been kept to a minimum so the ‘outcomes’, (and outcomes are what you get from committee work,) lack bite, lack strong feeling, perception, cater to a common denominator, and leave potential readers feeling they’re going to get more out of X Factor than they’ll ever get in any slim volume.

Give me eccentricity, unfairness, So-so’s pick-ups, give me strong preferences, give me Professor Bonkers and his Geoffrey-Hill-over-my-dead-body even it’s cosmically wrong-headed. What we need is a John Peel for poetry, strong in preferences, always looking for the new, somebody who can take the needy personae of poets with a pinch of salt,somebody who can write, somebody who gives no quarter in argument, somebody who can make one take notice of an unpopular art, not somebody who thinks poetry should be a popular art. That latter is one of the roads that has led to the current crappy state of affairs.

Next week I’ll have more brickbats (not bottles, Mr Lumsden) to throw.

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