Skip to main content

"Masters of all they survey"

There is a nice irony in the fact that the Observer has chosen to start its poetry page in its Review section with a headline that resonates with tropes of conquest - observation eliding into possession - that is, "Masters of all they survey". This page seems a wrong start, even as I am glad to see the paper taking on the responsibility for giving poetry more space in its pages.

My problem is with the trope of "mastery" itself, in relation to poetry. As Craig Raine wrote recently, in his controversial essay about Don Paterson's poetry, "The two great, natural enemies of poetry are exaggeration and euphemism." I am not sure this is always so - hyperbole is a poetic option - but exaggeration in the criticism and publication of poetry is rampant in Britain, and has lead to runaway critical inflation. It has also lead to a small, select group of mostly male poets dominating the conversation that the media is having with poetry. Sean O'Brien's recent Forward-winning collection, The Drowned Book, has on its back cover the following phrase: "The Drowned Book again shows O'Brien a master of the authortitative line ...." That seems like a lot of emphasis on mastery and control - and authority - and it is a somewhat male way of reading things, I think.

The media often says poetry is dead or dying. The media is often the one who killed Cock Robin, though. The new Observer poetry page, to return, has begun inauspiciously, if it is intending to present, to the readers of its pages - who, one would imagine, from the emphasis elsewhere, on trendy films and pop music, are otherwise geared to intelligent people in the 25-50 range - the actually-exciting truth about contemporary poetry - that it is vibrant, heterogenous, multicultural, and appeals to young and old. What, precisely, possessed the editor to allow the first page, then, to focus its observant eye on three white, male poets - one dead, one middle-aged, and one slightly older than that - Henry Reed, John Burnside and Hugo Williams?

Reed is a fine Forties poets, and I am glad to see his book is out. I very much like the work of John Burnside, especially - and spent several days with him in Montreal this spring, when we both read together at a major Canadian literary festival - so this isn't about their work, or anything personal. But how about a little balance? It might have been fun to have a poem by one of the younger, rising stars of British poetry - Luke Kennard, Daljit Nagra, Katy Evans-Bush, say - or mention of one of the many fine established women poets currently working in the UK. Instead, the page rather solemnly establishes an establishment feel (Hugo Williams is on record as actively mocking J.H. Prynne) and a feel that experimental, different, edgy, or more radical poetic efforts will not be looked at.

I could be wrong, of course, and we shall have to see how Adam Phillips navigates his way through the various channels of British poetry and poetics, now. You might think I am carping, but first impressions do count. This is why, whenever I present poetry events, or anthologies, I do seek a careful and nuanced balance of styles, and options - because I believe that the single most important fact about poetry currently is that it is not just one kind of thing - but many ways of being poetry. It is precisely this unmasterable, destablising flow and pulse that disturbs the smooth-running of the central London publisher-editors, who seek to keep a lid on things. But you cannot master poetry, anymore than you can conquer the sea with a sword.


Ms Baroque said…
Thanks, Todd. I'm doing my best to become authoritative.
Anonymous said…
I couldn't agree more. But the books editor whose name I gratefully forget - the man who had a stroke and wrote a book about it - is the worst kind of dull oxbridge man obsessed with himself and his kind and believing in the superiority of what they produce. I stopped bothering to buy the observer because I found the books and arts coverage so often boring and one-eyed in its values. And such nasty values too - an underlying dreary grinding cynicism that pops up in perky fashion like a Mr Punch puppet whenever anything starts to get interesting. Juno

Popular posts from this blog

Michael Horovitz Has Died

Michael Horovitz  was a wonderful, funny, entertaining, intelligent, generous and visionary poet and a significant part of the British poetry scene post-war. His death is sad and a true loss, but his spirit and many projects and poems will live on. 


My report will be brief this year - I am grateful to be alive. 2021 was a very tough year for a lot of people - and 2022 looks to be also very challenging. Up until December, 2021, I would have said the best of the year was keeping the Eyewear publishing company going so it could reach its 10th year (2022), and therefore keeping a small good team in work; and 100s of books in print. Personally, hiking in Northern Ireland/the North of Ireland, and doing wild swimming, and training with Al Beard, and Wimbledon, would have been summer highlights; plus great sporting events, and the English almost winning the Euros... Then, a few days before Christmas, I went into the hospital for heart failure; I have a large blood clot on my heart, and my heart was only working 17% or so. Now it is up to 22%. I am off work, and still seriously ill, on 15 or more tablets a day. My family is worried, it is a super worrying time. I am focused on recovery, doing what must be done, staying calm as possible. I


WHO CARES WHO THE NEXT JAMES BOND WILL BE WHEN WE HAVE CRAIG TODAY? i.m. Douglas Barbour who died yesterday. Been a while since I thought a poem was a pop song Instead of a Walter ppk to the heart of the superstructure, Interrogating the very concept of linguistic designer thoughts; A poet never changes their spots, just their t-shirts, the ideas At the core of a human are not easily ironed out with ironic References to transhumanism, or Mao; no, we can smell fear Of losing the bank vault to the Beagle Boys, we know when Herr Nobel really likes the boy with the bowl cut, or the red lingerie. It’s a deontological low point when Django Unchained may be A cogent argument against slavery, and history isn’t; but That’s a filmic nostalgic revenge fantasy; we have to save A planet from ourselves with only The Poetics, and conflictual Arguably biological imperatives driving cleavage between The nation-states and free-floating transnationals in the way; We know more words than we can fathom wa