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Thursday, 11 September 2008

Friendship and Poetry

The relationship between friendship and poetry is rarely openly remarked upon, or studied, and yet, it is perhaps the single strongest force acting upon the development, and distribution, of published works of poetry, since 1800. Without small groups of friends, often acting in sympathetic concert, as mentors, co-editors, sponsors, and allies, both Romanticism and Modernism would not have generated the works they did (one thinks of Wordsworth-Coleridge, or Eliot-Pound). The friendship between Thomas and Frost was seminal for them both. Again, in the 30s, there was Auden, and his group.

Or, in the 50s, and beyond, The New York School. Or, Lowell and Bishop. Or, in the 60s and 70s, Heaney and Mahon and Longley. Or, the current friendships among the Language poets. Still, such friendships are something of a taboo subject. It was therefore surprising to read the recent article by Chris Hamilton-Emery, poet and publisher, in the latest (2009) version of The Writer's Handbook, where he recommends to emerging poets that one of the best ways to have a book published is to befriend an established poet-publisher, perhaps by studying with them.

I found this a breathtaking suggestion. The problem with openly advocating such a strategy is that it begins to entrench what is, unless carefully handled, either nepotism, or an apprentice-system. The problem with the idea that one essentially only publishes one's friends is that, bluntly, it rules out the possibility of dispassionately publishing one's enemies - or those one is merely indifferent to. And yet, exactly just such cold-blooded, disinterested editing and criticism is badly needed now, in Britain and beyond, where most poetry reviews are either puff pieces by friends, or hatchet jobs by enemies. Given that perhaps six or seven men (and they are mostly men) decide who gets published by a big British press (a life-changing decision, for readers and for poets), few active, younger poets dare speak their mind, openly - lest they incur the editorial wrath of the gods.

This sort of friendship = publication equation, now out in the open, and in print, is chilling. What are poets to do who, for whatever reason, are shy, not particularly social, or maybe isolated, due to health, work, or geography? How does a good poet interest a publisher-editor-poet? The answer should be, by work alone. Poets will always be friends (and, alas, foes). But we need critics, and editors, and publishers, able to see beyond their current crop of students and friends, who are willing to publish simply the best work, regardless of how they feel, personally, about the writer. Of course, in prose, the matter is different - because novelists can bring in money, one can be an odious wretch and still be supported - but, since poetry is so often a labour of love - it is, therefore, those one loves, one publishes.

Still, Emery is not idealistic - his advice, on his Salt website, to poets - is more like Machiavelli than anything. Here he is on being "a player":

The world of poetry is not filled with gentle suffering creatures (to call upon Eliot). It is not fair, just, or particularly caring. It can be supportive, but it is not a self help group. It is not a world based upon power sharing. In fact, the world of poetry can be a bear pit, and like any industry it is competitive and has moments of confrontation and even dirty tricks. Be prepared to take some knocks along the way.

My problem with this sort of real-politik writing is that, substitute "poetry" for "politics" and it might as well be Dick Cheney writing. Poetry is not (despite the Salt model) an "industry". Publishing may be - but then again, that's only one way of looking at it. I happen to believe that poetry should be far more "caring" about its practitioners - and that an ethics of publishing and editing is, if not desirable, at least possible. If it can be posited, it should be considered. Emery seems to relish the Darwinian bearpit.

Here he is on knowing "who's who":

However, the more experience the poet has of knowing who’s who, of knowing whom to call upon to further their career as a writer, is very often a key to commercial success.

Furthering their career... it's all so Sinatra swagger.

The truth is, since neither the marketplace, nor the general public, nor even most intelligent creative people, care enough about new poetry to buy and read it in any great numbers, poetry is left in the hands of poets, and those who want to control poets (throw their weight around). In any real "business" - to borrow Emery's analogy - competition would be so fierce that mediocre bullies would be tossed out, and far more rigorous discipline, and scrutiny, would be applied. The swaggering few who like to run the poetry business as a business are playing with Monopoly money.

Poetry, since it is an art, needs to be handled with care, and without all this City Boy guff. Bottom line: the best poets should be published. Now, here is the hard part, friends: what do anyone of us (really) mean by "the best"? That's the debate worth having. In public. Bravely.
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