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Thursday, 13 September 2007

The Separate Ways

In an exchange of comments yesterday, at Eyewear, David Wheatley and I discussed the nature of poetry and reviewing. It wasn't a comprehensive discussion, of course, but it did yield a very significant statement from Wheatley, who is, after all, one of the best of this generation of Irish poets. He wrote: " [....] I don’t see poetry as a community of ‘shared goals’, because I don’t have your goals or anyone else’s, I only have my own. The only ways in poetry are separate ways."

I think this is, and fair play to him, one of the most lucid expressions yet, of this kind of perspective, or opinion, about the nature of poetry. It's revealing, and also useful.

And I don't think he's entirely wrong, either. But, there's a confusion of terms here, which I'd like to help clear up.

"The only ways in poetry are separate ways" may be a credo, or ars poetica, or some kind of lone-wolf private self-description, and is, for many poets - simply because poetry is an isolated and isolating craft, in so many ways, and, also, because, unlike, say, film, or theatre, it does not comfortably or impressively lend itself to successful collaboration, at the level of the work-process itself. When I write poetry alone I prefer to be by myself might be another way of putting it. And that's true, up to a point. Very few poets have composed lines of worth, on bridges or elsewhere, while having a busy conversation with someone else.

Still, I think Eliot was probably, more or less, correct in observing the way each poet's writing is linked to that of the overall tradition that has come before. Some would demarcate that tradition, so that it ends at the ungrateful dead, others at the far more crowded mackerel seas of the ungrateful living throng of fellow poets (some poets have admitted they don't much like reading much contemporary verse), but in either case, one hardly writes alone, or separated from, the voices of Dickinson, ot Yeats, or Larkin, or Bernstein in one's head. How the poet shakes those voices off, or transforms them, within, their head, is the private work, but it has a complicity with the public, historic canon that she knows so well.

But that isn't the point I really want to make.

I don't care what kind of poems David Wheatley writes. Or any poet writes. The critic's job is also to suggest that there may be other ways, sure, but surely not to guide-dog poets to some inevitable spot on the map. So, in that sense, let him go his separate way.

What isn't the case is that poetry - as a community of fellow practitioners - need be so isolated, or atomised. Though the act of composition is a singular one, that need not mean that poets cannot gather together, in common cause, or even in a union, to establish some common goals, interests, even practices - not least of which might be an ethics (poets have long resisted a Hippocratic-like oath, which may be why doctors are more universally respected as a group). All I am saying is (not give peace a chance, but that too) poetry is needlessly divided and even divisive in Britain, and some form of commonality could be established, to bridge wider disparities, and work to establishing practical goals, relating to reviews, funding, and even, down the road, pensions and health issues. Actors - hardly at one time seen as practical or even ego-free agents - banded together in Hollywood, and Canada, and created fraternities, such as Actra, which protect aging and weaker members of the trade. Canada has its League of Canadian Poets which - before you mock the name, consider - disburses hundreds of thousands of dollars to poets annually. These are not Stalinist groups that mandate the how or what to write, but can assist.

I am sometimes very sad these days - the death of many friends and family members in 2005 and 2006 knocked me for a loop, and I also badly miss home - and so perhaps I am more sensitive to how isolated and challenging the role of the poet can be, in today's Western, capitalist society. I think having communities that support and encourage would be a welcome model for the British poetry (publishing) establishment - currently, it seems more based on a Darwinian model, where poets are seen as competing against each other, for prizes, funding, readings and book deals.

This has come about because, since the New Generation project, poetry has been projected to the media as being part of a marketplace - so that certain "star" poets are treated as if their work was somehow actually better than others, because it was better known. I still meet many otherwise intelligent poetry readers who believe that if a book is published by, for example, Faber, it means the poet is actually a better poet. Was Wallace Stevens a better poet before or after Faber published him, I ask? Harmonium was just as magnificent in manuscript. But, in the UK, as elsewhere, publishing confers a distinction that is also a fiction: poetry is not what is "published" - it is what is created by - the poet. This is why, in a nutshell, there is a marked bias against orally performed (non-transcribed) and digitally inscribed poetry - because the system here has yet to decide how to confer distinction to non-published work.

So long as the Poetry Publisher - and not The Poet - is in the ascendant in Britain, there will be a need for poets to guard their own interests. Further, there is much need for a new generation of fair, balanced, scrupulous younger poet-critics, who will fearlessly review books by even major figures. Too many of the major mainstream figures are untouched because either their friends review them, or "smaller" poets fear incurring their wrath. At any rate, as I mentioned in my earlier post, too many poetry reviews in the UK are either of the friend-on-friend kind, or the pit bull kind. Surely, there is room for a distanced, nuanced approach, which is neither too friendly, or vicious for viciousnesses sake.
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