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Canons To The Right

For many of the past 20 years, I have been an unpaid poetry activist (organiser, editor, anthologist), working to develop an alternative community of internationally-linked poets. Alternative to what? At any rate, the "revolution" has failed to materialise. Most poets, young and old, are so embedded in the mainstream marketing-based structures of publishing they do not either recognise any alternatives, or do not feel the need for one. The others, those restless atomised few, are either too aggressively individualised, or damaged, to form productive alliances. Herding cats, indeed.

Let us stop for a moment and ask ourselves, as a thought experiment, what the poet might wish for, might dream of - I avoid saying "in their career" - because the English tend to want to promote the idea of the modest, amateur poet (masking, sometimes, self-promoting careerism behind the scenes). Well, a poet might want, in this order: to write a good poem; to get the poem published in a good magazine; to have that poem, and others like it, collected and published by a good press; to receive some good reviews; to maybe be listed for, or win, a prize; and, either before, or after death, to be respected, or at least enjoyed, by either their peers, or poetry readers, or both. Now, all but the most hardened Dadaist would at least grant that this trajectory might accurately model the desires of most poets (I have yet to meet any who do not want to be published, or read).

These poets, who want these things, then enter into situations with other poets, and persons, to achieve these ends. However, here is where something very significant happens, which most poets do not accept. At the point where they enter into the world of publication, two roads diverge. One of those roads is marked The Canon; the other is marked Oblivion. Canons are problematic, and disputed, and there are currently at least three: Mainstream, Innovative, and Outlaw. These three canons are all represented by serious publishers of real merit. However, only a poet published by a Mainstream, large press, has any chance of avoiding "oblivion".

What is oblivion, as a literary term, and why does it matter? I am borrowing this use of oblivion loosely from Ian Hamilton - it that suggests that most poets, after death, become basically extinct - their work forks no lightning, and is lost to future readers. The poems, simply put, disappear, from the book of living verse - forgotten, unread, and worst of all, never quoted or paid homage to, in style or content, by other poets. I can give many examples of such poets, but one will do: Terrence Tiller, the 1940s British poet and BBC producer. Probably less than 20 people alive today know his work, or name. Unless his work was ever dramatically revived and championed, he will disappear, entirely.

Now, the generally-accepted position (which is basically a capitalist one) suggests that the forgotten are bad poets, the remembered are good poets. This in turn plays into the idea of the market deciding value. The problem with this position, is that it almost entirely positions evaluation into the hands of the editors for large publishers, and larger poetry imprints.

The mistake that most poets make, is that they think that, even if they publish with a small, well-meaning press, they have a chance, at perhaps winning a prize, or being reviewed in the TLS or The New York Times, say, of being "discovered". Far from it. The "tap on the shoulder" system of quiet approval and promotion, among the ranks of some contemporary-canonical poets in the US, and UK, occurs prior to publication - during, and before, the editorial process. That is, the business of criticism is often now the business of editorial approval, or rejection.

It is not quite but almost true, that to have a collection published by a small, or marginal press, in the UK (or Canada) is the same as having no book out at all - in terms of entering into a dialogue with The Living Canon of great contemporary poets and critics.

The sad truth is, almost all the ground for canonization is laid during the lifetime of the poet - as in the church, with future Saints. We do not know who the "major" poets of our time will be, exactly, but we can rest assured they are currently being published, somewhere in the Anglo-American world, by larger presses. If one looks at the mid-century greats, or even the early Moderns, they were mainly Faber, or other large-press, poets. There will always be small, pleasing surprises (the recent rediscovery of Lynette Roberts is one instance) but the for the main part, if you find yourself out while alive, your work is mainly out forever. That's a long time.

Why is this so? Well, the large presses have marketing budgets, and the clout to distribute the work to bookstores, and critics, in major cities, around the world. It really is almost as simple as that - get published by a large press, and your work will be sold and reviewed in many more places than if you are published by a small press, when it may happen you get no reviews, or very few. The tragedy, here, is that there are many good - very good - poets who fall outside the ambit of this market-driven system.

They have few options. They can a) try to enter the market system; b) oppose it; c) publish and be damned. Most choose some mix of b and c. And, they publish, and are damned - to recognition among their small group of peers, maybe. This leaves the so-called "mainstream" poets to become top dogs.

This would not be a problem, if reviews, critics, and the public recognised this state of affairs as being roughly as robust and problematic as politics, or business (where the ruthless often rise at the expense of the meek). The terrible irony - the one I often write about - is that, instead, a big lie is told. The lie is this - the best poets are published by the big presses, because they are "the best". No, they are good poets, and simply either a) "the luckiest" or b) the best-connected, or a combination of the two. In short, to become a "name" poet is perhaps as difficult as to become a "movie star". Well, not quite.

The truth is, you could try your whole life to be so published and feted, and never become so, no matter how good a writer you might be.Why does this matter? Colleagues and friends often tell me to "wait in line" or "forget it" - as if a) it was possible to queue for such canonical positioning - it isn't; and b) as if poetry was simply a hobby or bad habit, to be dropped when it becomes bad for one.

Friends, poetry is very important. I happen to think it is the greatest form of art, or close to that. I have spent more than 20 years, learning my craft, writing, studying it, teaching, sharing, promoting it. Consider my fate - not rare in this field - I am nearly as close to canonical oblivion today as the moment I was born. There are maybe 10-20 people in the world, whose opinion can change things. I go on, but find it extremely dispiriting, to see my work, and that of most of my peers, and friends, being disseminated in forms that, simply put, receive no proper respect - that have no authority, or opportunity, to reach, or move, that high severe place where judgement is made, and some poems live, and most, forever, perish.

If an alternative series of serious awards and recognitions could be established, that might help - but in the end, public opinion, and the established academic institutions (and libraries) attend to the mainstream organs of publication and review. It is hard to invent an alternative to The New York Times. Blogs cannot do this, as hard as they try. Only hundreds of very serious people, working together, could do this, and, as I observed at the beginning of this brief essay, poets, the most atomised of persons at the best of times, have not imagined their vocation as communal - because the writing of poems is so very private, so much of the time. However, so long as poets think of themselves as isolated, they will struggle towards goals of public recognition that are, simply put, impossible for them to reach. That way is madness.
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