By ANTHONY HOWELL.
ON SUNDAY NIGHT I had a dream. I was in some way involved in the management of the T. S. Eliot Prize. The Royal Festival Hall was packed for the Shortlist Readings, and The Poetry Book Society had managed to secure additional sponsorship from Marks & Spencer. Enthusiastically, Marks & Spencer had offered to hand out to each member of the audience a free gift, namely a pack of him and her underwear (one pair of underpants for him, one for her). But just as the reading was about to start, a member of our team, who had opened her own gift pack, had discovered that the female pair had a major design flaw, something to do with the cut. They were plainly and simply unwearable. What was to be done? I tossed fretfully as the dawn filtered through the curtains. The dream gave me no peace, and gradually evolved into semi-conscious musing. It had been the case, I realised, that I had actually been at The Festival Hall the evening before, for precisely this event, albeit as a member of the audience, and in no way involved in getting the show on the road. Marks & Spencer were not its co-sponsors.
Back in 2003, feeling in all probability a little left out, I conducted a survey of The Poetry Book Society. Back then, no magazine had the least interest in publishing my “findings”, but now my dream prompts me to dredge it up. When I take a fresh glance at essays written earlier, it often strikes me that I come over as a little meaner and more ornery than is my true, fairly equable nature. But it seems to me an entertaining document, since it takes sideswipes at other luminaries of its time, and raises certain issues concerning The Society and its choices, so I offer it for you now:
THE POETRY BOOK SOCIETY HAS been up and running for about fifty years. Every quarter it makes one publication its choice, recommends four others, gives two more special commendations and also recommends a translation. What a Utopian vision is thus offered of the previous half-century! One thousand, six hundred titles of significance. I don’t think the Society began by singling out so many for praise in its initial quarters. The list the P.B.S. provides for the period only cites 1000 titles. Nevertheless, compared to the meagre dozen or so of poets who remain unforgotten from the nineteenth century, the latter half of the twentieth century appears to have been a period of unbridled genius. That is extraordinary enough. Even more extraordinary is the fact that of these, by the end of 2002 at least, 127 had been published by Faber and 111 had been published by Bloodaxe. The editorial acumen possessed by Faber is perhaps to be expected, if we allow that the ghost of T.S. Eliot may still influence judgement in that noble house, rather than revolve in the grave (Eliot was a modern and expert at collage after all). Bloodaxe’s feat, though, beggars belief, since the firm has been going for less than half the period under discussion. But then, Bloodaxe plays Pooh-Bah to Faber’s Mikado — in that it publishes everything else, it seems, including Maura Dooley, the Society’s chairperson. O.U.P. comes third, in these stakes, with 98 titles, which would surely have been a far higher score had they continued to publish verse. Carcanet gets a meagre 74, and then it’s downhill most of the way: Chatto and Secker in the forties, Cape 27, Hutchinson 17, Anvil and Routledge 16 each, Deutsch 13, MacMillan and Dolmen 11. Every other firm scores less than 10 (Arc, for instance, a consistent publisher of good poetry, with no more than 4), while some 41 publishers have only been selected once. These low achievers include Enitharmon, Slow Dancer and Menard, all of whom would appear to have made a significant contribution to poetry publishing in the U.K.
A quarterly bulletin gives the selector’s reasons for their choices, which is better than the current fad for bestowing prizes without comment. The poets also get to make a statement, and a useful list of other new books is now included. But it’s difficult to dismiss the feeling that certain publishers are out of favour. Neither Waywiser’s nor Reality Street’s publications have ever been chosen, though the latter’s editor Ken Edwards assures me that until recently he regularly submitted titles to the Society. However he thought that it was often difficult for small firms to supply even a completed manuscript so far in advance — let alone proofs. Contenders for this year’s summer choice were required to submit by November last year. I pointed out to him that this did not seem to constitute a problem since Martha Kapos has been chosen for this summer’s special commendation (giving Enitharmon a second title at last), though the firm could only provide me with a duplicated typescript containing four of her interesting poems. Other small firms worry about the markdown asked by the society for their stock of the books which have been chosen and wonder how they would ever make a profit if a title were to be taken up.
Of the 21 selectors graciously elected to exercise their judgement for the Society over the last ten years, either for the choices and recommendations or for the translation, five are themselves published by O.U.P., four by Faber, two, maybe three, by Bloodaxe, two by Carcanet, two by Chatto, one by Cape and one by Seren, while the publishers of several others are difficult to trace. Still, that gives the lion’s share of the power of choosing titles to the four firms whose titles top the list of those chosen. One may note these statistics with some bemusement, especially when one finds oneself shielding the eyes from the glare of certain omissions. Foreign poets writing in English are eligible, provided they are published in the Britain. Billy Collins, an American poet destined for ephemerality, is the Spring Choice. Yet John Ashbery has never been recommended, who is, on the international stage, surely as important as Les Murray, who has been chosen seven times. Then J. H. Prynne has never been selected — an indigenous poet of recognised stature — though he may well have refrained from submitting his work. F.T. Prince has never been selected, nor William Empson, nor Charles Madge nor Veronica Forrest-Thompson, nor Liz Lochhead (though she has been a selector), nor Lee Harwood, nor Tom Raworth — all significant poets. The quietist David Jacobs has not been chosen. Nor has the P.B.S. ever honoured Ronald Duncan, Kenneth Koch or Clark Coolidge, for these American innovators, who work with open forms, language games and verbal opacity, have never secured a British publisher. Benjamin Zepaniah, the brilliant manipulator of West Indian argot, is also absent from the list.
THIS IS NOT to say that avant-garde poets are inevitably barred from the hall of fame. The excellent Peter Didsbury has been recommended twice. He is published by Bloodaxe, as is Kathleen Jamie, another P.B.S. approved innovator. Mark Ford’s Soft Sift was a recommendation. He is published by Faber. R.F. Langley’s Collected Poems was recommended. He is published by Carcanet. It might be inferred from this that if one is avant-garde one would do well to avoid small presses, however, Eva Salzman has a book out from Wrecking Ball Press: it shares the summer’s special commendation with Martha Kapos and comes with a long puff by Peter Porter on the back cover. Porter has been singled out by the Society ten times — and one should not overlook the fact that two of Salzman’s previous books have also received recommendations — one published by Bloodaxe, the other by O.U.P.. Once the Society gets a taste for according you the bays, it’s difficult for it to stop doing so. Poets on a roll include: Peter Reading 11 times; Porter, Heaney and Tomlinson 10 times each; Redgrove, Fuller, Dunne and Enright 8 times each, and then there are a host of fours to sevens. It is with these high scorers that the big firms push up the numbers. Another factor is that the bigger firms publish more volumes of verse per quarter than the smaller firms, but he ratios don’t tally here. Even when the volume of publications is taken into account, the four Goliaths appear to secure a disproportionate number of choices and recommendations.
Despite the exceptions cited, and there must be a few more of these than have been mentioned, there’s a similarity about much of the work receiving these accolades. But heck, it’s only a book society. Its officers probably feel obliged to reflect the tastes of the members. These tastes boil down to a generic poem written in a style which might be termed standard modernism. One is reminded of the first half of the first century AD, when a turgid stream of standard classicism followed in the wake of Virgil. It took some time before poets mustered up the courage to flout the approved formula — Ovid and Juvenal by their choice of positively dubious subject matter, Statius by extemporization and a species of exaggeration that came to be identified as mannerism. Standard modernism is inevitably well-crafted and generally expresses decent thoughts, though these may on occasion border on the risqué. Since the death of Auberon Waugh, there’s not much left of the feud that used to incite defenders of rhyme and scansion, on the one hand, and proponents of free-verse on the other; so most P.B.S. verse is more or less free, more or less scanned. The abrupt shifts promoted by Eliot and Pound have been smoothed over. The use of repetition has been abandoned — which renders Henry Reed unfashionable and also means that Ifigenija Simonovic’s intensely moving Striking Root has been disregarded, despite a forward by Maura Dooley. Auden and MacNeice are the models par excellence, with refrains removed. Standard modernism worships economy. Sitwell is out. Way out! You won’t find a series of adjectives anywhere, nor a pair of tautological verbs. Nothing must be for effect.
IN THE SIXTIES, the Beats, under the command of Alan Ginsberg, mounted an assault on standard modernism, an assault distinguished by a more open poetry, the use of cadences, rant and a performative ethos. Concrete poetry also reared its typographic head, along with sound poetry. These initiatives were largely ignored by the establishment which the P.B.S. has always represented. Nevertheless, they accrued followers and remain strong currents in the contemporary scene. In the seventies, the poets of the New York school looked back in abstraction to the writings of Gertrude Stein, and for a while there was a debate between those who demanded some adherence to narrative and those who wanted to liberate poetry from too strict a sense of sense and engage in the materiality of the language, the pleasure of the text. A spirit akin to this inspired poets in Cambridge, who differed somewhat from the Americans in that a grain of sense or the shadow of a meaning might provide them with a starting point. A turf war raged for a while, here and in the States, but editors knew where to look when they needed the services of a traditionalist. James Fenton, twice singled out for praise by the P.B.S., was brought in like some out-of-town hitman by The New York Times to gun down Ashbery’s meanderings. Today the two camps simply have nothing to do with each other. There is no dialectic to quicken our engagement.
THE GENERIC POEM hovering over the P.B.S. and its choices is the sort that regularly emerges from creative writing workshops: middle of the road, narrative, with a dash of surrealism thrown in; and the subject matter is nice — innocuous even — because this is formalist stuff, and formalists pride themselves on being able to perform wonders with bowls of fruit and set up subjects that are the poetic equivalent of a rather staid life-class. The poets chosen are nice too. They often come from Ireland, Wales or Scotland, because we have to be fair and they use such a pithy vocabulary in those far flung quarters. A smattering of Gaelic gets you a long way these days. Poetry is a respectable, educative game. No one can afford to be mad, bad or dangerous to know. That leaves the contemporary Rochester out in the cold. At a reading I attended long ago, a youngish Andrew Motion mentioned that he had just visited Amsterdam for the first time and that he had, as doubtless we all had, on our own first visit, gone straight to the house of Anne Frank. Well! It’s edifying to know that there are poets around with sentiments like that. But what about sentiments which are not so fine? Martial has some decent paedophile epigrams, and Browning promulgates a notion of poetry that engages the reader in a complicity with evil. Discussing James Hogg’s justified sinner, André Gide evinces an interest in the slow exposition of something possibly flattering in the progressive acquaintance with the Prince of Darkness. Yet all too often an immoralist work of art or literature will be attacked for perpetrating its content and is thus unlikely to be selected by the Poetry Book Society.
Immoralism has had a greater impact on visual art than it has had on poetry. Artists like Jake and Dinos Chapman have developed a theme touched on by the critic Janet Kardon, who makes this observation about David Salle’s paintings in a catalogue: “Catherine Millet has called Salle a fallen viewer, and I agree. To the idea of art making one feel better — one of the most offensive of art education’s constructs — is counterposed a set of images that almost can be interpreted as a string of curses.” In poetry, no one caters for the fallen reader.
What makes the established British poetry scene so dull is its lack of generosity. Growth only occurs in the arts when some tenet is jettisoned; rendering the innovator vulnerable, since failure to adhere to the tenet can be cited as evidence of incompetence. Poetry has become an increasingly institutionalised affair dominated by jobbery because of an unwillingness to acknowledge the gains to be derived from the poem which may have rendered itself susceptible to standard criticism for the sake of pursuing some intriguing hypothesis. The result is that our elect, our chosen ones, our prize-winners, represent too narrow a band of endeavour. They are, very largely, of a type. There is more diversity in the visual arts. When curators at the Hayward Gallery start to put together The British Art Show, a five-yearly survey of recent developments, they take pains to choose selectors from different ends of the spectrum. Thus, in any final exhibition, Chris Offili’s dung paintings may get an airing, along with Michael Craig-Martin’s minimalism and Paula Rego’s figurative canvases. The P.B.S. equivalent would be a British Art Show featuring exclusively Paula Rego, Lucian Freud, Euan Uglow and Harry Holland. All figurative artists. Anthologies have not done much to remedy this situation. The standard modernists put out anthologies full of standard modernists, while the l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e poets put out anthologies full of language.
JOHN ASHBERY ONCE suggested to me that there were three types of anthology one should never agree to be in: gay, women’s or black. Categorisation defeats the purpose of any anthology. The P.B.S. cannot, and probably would not, claim to represent the full spectrum of poetry. We need some apparatus that does, however; one capable of including Les Murray, Liz Lochhead and Lavinia Greenlaw alongside Wendy Mulford, Chris Cheek and Benjamin Zepaniah. All too often, poets make bad selectors because they tend to select lesser lights in their own sphere of illumination. A good critic knows that rather than plumping for a specific school one should seek out extremists in a diversity of directions.
The elan vital of poetry flows in times such as ours through subversive channels, and, like the sacred river it is, it flows to a sunless sea. Milton’s Lucifer should provide us with our muse, not the silver-tongued rabbit of Watership Down, fascinating only to those about to be gassed in their burrow. Education is all too often perceived as the business of lulling people into feeling that all is right with their world. Any opinion at variance with this is a minority one, and meanwhile the notion that art should make one feel better progresses apace and generates bizarre programmes such as Essential Poems to Fall in Love with — a title whose lame ending on a conjunction betrays the naivety of an initiative launched at the beginning of this year on BBC 2.
HERE DAISY GOODWIN, who would make an adequate Mrs Alan Partridge, presides over a bevy of luvvies as they read poems which make her tingle all over; poems tricked out in the vibrant pinks and hairy golds of commercials. For Goodwin, verse is as homely as a formica work-top. The stultifying domesticity of the show seems aimed at a female audience of the Hello variety. As for the poets, most of the males are dead, and of the living only Roger McGough retains the conviction to read his own poetry. Meanwhile the distaff side offers cute extended metaphors where the men either flash their indicators or migrate to single-sexed preserves. The presenter sacrifices her offspring to the camera as if it were her talent, while feeding the viewer a poetic baby-food that goes down with laxative immediacy. Marvell’s To his Coy Mistress offers the sole sour note — and it’s a refreshing one. For the most part, form is a trite method of stitching together content that is reassuringly toothless but drools feeling – since empathy will solve everything and if we are touched we are true. Don’t you believe it. I have the sense that content represents the new battlefield. For the serious poet, or one with any biting flippancy, it is time to write pieces for anorexics maliciously advising them that they are wise to avoid nourishment.
Goodwin must blithely be hoping to get through to the public. Attempts to appeal to this wider audience always appear well-intentioned, but they disregard the nature of an audience. Football has a sizable following, of course, but each member of that following is an aficionado of the game. Match of the Day holds its audience because it offers an authentic experience and expert comment. Literary programmes fail, not because they are too esoteric but because they are just not intellectual enough. The French programme Apostrophe succeeded in appealing to a large number of viewers because it introduced genuine debate into the culture and delivered it in a provocative atmosphere while not being afraid to raise hackles. This rebarbative attitude caused controversy in literary circles, and attracted philosophers and students of the humanities to the programme. It stimulated argument in cafes and common rooms.
The British bardic landscape is a plain inhabited by a small number of ostriches, one with its head in the sand over here, another over there, and another in the middle distance. If we want to ignite a more general interest in poetry we need to accept that language is the finest tool there is for expressing disagreement. Our divergences should be aired. Let’s hear Hugo Williams express his loathing for abstract texts in the presence of Ken Edwards. What would Douglas Dunne’s reaction be to a performance by Brian Patten? How would Wendy Cope come to terms with Jamie McKendrick or Geoffrey Hill? Some poetic Jerry Springer could preside, or Clive James. Prospects such as these make for hilarity as well as for profundity of thought. The trouble, though, is that the jokes are both too bald and at the same time too knowing. They cater only to the standard readership, the existing one, such as it is, for verse. But imagine Hans Magnus Enzensburger arguing for commitment while a poet of the calibre of the late Joseph Ceravolo, for instance, laid out the case for an essential engagement in the materiality of language. Issues would be raised that effect most thinking people today, since the road into any change in social structure may need to be engineered through the physics of what could be hard-wired into our modes of expression.
HOW HAVE THINGS changed? Or have they? Skipping all the years in between, where is The Poetry Book Society now, and has it altered in any way? Let’s assess this through a consideration of the current T. S. Eliot Prize reading, that the Society sponsored without the aid of M & S.
The ten poets short-listed were Pascale Petit (Seren), John Burnside (Vintage), Fiona Benson (Vintage), Louise Glück (Carcanet), Hugo Williams (Faber), Ruth Padel (Vintage), Kevin Powers (Sceptre), David Harsent (Faber), Arundhathi Subramaniam (Bloodaxe) and Michael Longley (Vintage). So the publishers are the usual big-hitters – with the exception of Seren, which is rapidly improving its hits, and increasing its scope now beyond the Welsh marches by publishing the likes of Kathryn Maris, Sheenagh Pugh and Mir Mahfuz Ali. They were judged by Helen Dunmore (Bloodaxe), Sean Borodale (Jonathan Cape) and Fiona Sampson (Chatto). All the judges have won numerous prizes (National Poetry Competition, T. S. Eliot prize shortlist, Costa Poetry Award, Forward Prize etc), and this holds true of those reading on Sunday at The Royal Festival Hall.
Tiny on the huge stage, before a packed auditorium which must have seated at least 2500 poetry lovers, the poets read for eight minutes each, their work genially introduced by Ian MacMillan. Their faces were blown up on large screen hoisted up above them. Because the stage was backlit with a red wash, its tint was bouncing up off the polished concert platform – which rendered features somewhat indistinct (it would have been hard to lip-read).
Pascale Petit read a poem about her father eating a song-bird which had a fine ferocity about it, the poems that Hugo Williams has been writing about kidney dialysis (included in his short-listed collection I Knew the Bride) balance an exquisite sense of awful pain with an equally honed lyric intensity and Kevin Powers can write tellingly of major events – having served with the US army in Mosul and Tal Afar. I was disconcerted by Fiona Benson reading a poem about her fears for the life of her daughter, imagining the dreadful things that might have happened to her, but this disturbed me because I have lost a daughter to cot-death and I did not know where to put my feelings in relation to Fiona’s imaginings. Louise Glück cracked the one good joke of the evening (in a poem read by her publisher Michael Schmidt), and there was colourful description in Arundhathi Subramaniam’s poem about an Indian train journey (where a fellow passenger asked for her mobile number before the journey had even started). I also enjoyed the cultural differences explored in her poem about a personal god. Michael Longley had some very quotable lines:
Choughs flock high above their acrobatic
Cliff face and call to you antiquated
Expletives pshaw pshaw pshaw…
Will your pee be pink in heaven?
BUT STILL AND all, narrative and content remained (as I predicted) unquestioned. These are all interesting poets, yes, but there is a lack of breadth that still dogs the selection process, I think as a direct result of prize-winners apotheosising into judges. In the end it all begins to feel samey. There are far too many “of”s – usually attached to death, love, or something equally gloomy, and so the poems not only feel samey, they feel doomy. Again and again we were urged to confront the death of a loved one or our own death. Surely there is more to poetry than a maudlin sense of nostalgia for those no longer with us?
The linguistic innovations explored by the poets included on the Reality Street list or that of Allardyce, Barnett are still not given an airing. None of the Cambridge poets such as J. H. Prynne or Peter Riley are here. There is nothing particularly sexy. It would be nice to see Fiona Pitt-Kethley get onto this short-list. Innovators of the calibre of Mark Waldron or Colette Inez are not likely to win the Costa prize, so they don’t get onto the first rung of the ladder. There are no beats, there’s no Michael Horovitz, no one representing the New York School or its followers. Rochester is not to be given a look in. If imagined as an equivalent visual art exhibition, it would still be that uniformly figurative show imagined earlier: politically appropriate, later than middle-aged and reassuringly educative. There are no mavericks, and yet, if poetry’s duty is to avoid the cliché, surely it is mavericks we need?
The winner was David Harsent. Marks & Spencer bring it on.
Anthony Howell, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement. He is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice.