2005 StAnza Lecture
Bile, Guile and Dangerous to Poetry
The UK's leading anthologist speaks his mind on poetry today
Most poetry in
Britain today is published for poets and academics, not for readers. Bloodaxe
editor Neil Astley believes he has found a huge new audience for contemporary
poetry at the same time as the poetry establishment has become narrow-minded,
male-dominated and Anglocentric. Poetry publishing and reviewing is policed
by a clique of academics who rail against 'populism', 'democratisation',
'marketing' and 'dumbing down' but (ab)use these terms to censor poetry
they dislike - including much poetry by women and ethnic minority writers
- in support of a damaging academic agenda. Astley argues that their attacks
on anyone who addresses a broader readership or promotes emerging talents
may threaten the survival of poetry. Incestuously fawning to their poet
and academic peers instead of serving readers, the poetry police have
become so out of touch with the grassroots readership that they should
is the text of the 2005 StAnza Lecture, given by Neil Astley at StAnza,
Scotland's Poetry Festival, at Parliament Hall, St Andrews, on 18 March
1. LIES AND GUYS
The zoologist Steve
Jones has told of how, in researching one of his popular science books,
he often found himself in 'terra incognita, surrounded by unfamiliar
beasts': 'I had wandered unthinking on to the territory of the Arts Faculty,
a dangerous place for any scientist. In that generous land, opinion is
sacred while facts are, if not free, then on a far longer leash than we
are used to. Confident statements by one author are denied with equal
certainty by another.' (Guardian, 30 August 2003)
In this paper I hope
to demonstrate that many of the facts touted by certain poetry critics
are outright lies, and that many of their confidently asserted opinions
are wilful misrepresentations. Their cynical language of spin and sophistry,
of bile and guile, is symptomatic of a deeper problem. There is a huge
gulf between the men who review contemporary poetry in the newspapers
and cultural journals in Britain, and the majority of the people who actually
read it; between the poetry insiders who do so much damage to poetry and
the readers at grassroots level who are passionately interested in many
kinds of poetry which too many of the critics aren't capable of appreciating.
Readers don't have
access to the diverse range of poetry being written, not just in Britain,
but from around in the world, because much of the poetry establishment
- including many publishers and reviewers - has become narrowly based,
male-dominated, white Anglocentric and skewed by factions and vested interests.
Too often, poetry editors think of themselves and their poet friends as
the only arbiters of taste, only publishing writers they think people
ought to read and depriving readers of other kinds of poetry which
many people would find more rewarding. Publishers and writers who address
a broader readership are attacked by elitist critics for 'dumbing down'
but receive overwhelming support from readers as well as from the more
2. GANGS AND BULLIES
poetry establishment is completely out of touch with the readership of
poetry at grassroots level, and if they aren't responsive to that audience,
they will lose it completely. I don't often find myself agreeing with
A.N. Wilson but he seems spot on with this remark: 'Today's English poets
are huddled behind a stockade composed of the public's indifference and
their own self-importance' (Daily Telegraph, 24 January 2005).
Nor is this a peculiarly
English or British phenomenon: it seems to go with the nature of the all-too-familiar
beast, Homo poeticus. This is Billy Collins, writing in the New
York Times: 'One of the ridiculous aspects of being a poet is the
huge gulf between how seriously we take ourselves and
how generally we are ignored by everybody else' (23 February 2003).
And this is Les Murray:
'Poetry has been captured by a class which prohibits the positive. They
see themselves as in perpetual rebellion against society, and it's a rather
sour, radical rebellion. I don't buy it, particularly as it practises
heavy bullying and manipulation of fashion against people' (New
Zealand Herald, 12 May 2003).
And as Peter Forbes
noted in one of his last Poetry Review editorials: 'Poetry, ostensibly
a liberal art, is actually one of the strongest remaining bastions of
pre-literate tribalism. Gangs form as readily as in any deprived ghetto
and the patterns of bonding rituals, territorial marking, hysterical crowd
behaviour, collective log-rolling and hatchet-work, are worth the attention
of the anthropologists' (90 no.4, Winter 2000/01). That takes us back
into Steve Jones territory.
Because of all the
mud-slinging and literary critical control freakery, the controlling factor
in what bookshops now offer readers is not literary quality but market
forces. But unlike our indignant poetry critics, I don't believe that
marketing is an evil force to be resisted, but rather something
to be developed creatively in the interests of taking poetry to a broader
3. POETRY POLICE ACADEMY
When the organisers
of StAnza invited me to address the subject of Britain's divided poetry
culture, I was delighted by this indication that more and more people
seem to share my concern at the state of much of Britain's poetry publishing
and reviewing. And it seems especially appropriate that I
should give this address in St Andrews because the poetry festivals -
especially StAnza, Aldeburgh and Ledbury - are far more interested in
introducing readers in Britain to the fullest possible range of contemporary
poetry than most of the national press reviewers. Their commitment is
by the many of the small presses and poetry magazines, but their
readership is limited by their size and resources.
By contrast, much
of the rest of the poetry world seems almost hell-bent on self-destruction,
indulging not just all those self-important poets but emotionally challenged
academic critics with blunt critical axes to grind instead of serving
readers and writers. The poets themselves refer to these
humourless critics as the poetry police. I called them poetry's new spin
doctors in the preface to Bloodaxe's 25th birthday anthology, Poems
of the Year (2003), and my intentionally provocative comments were
picked up by press as well as by the poetry police themselves.
Their response was,
on the cover of Poetry Review [93 No 3, Autumn 2003], a photograph
of Blair's one-time spin doctor Alastair Campbell* appearing there without
explanation because the poetry police like to show they are clever and
this was them being ironic or Postmodern. But the members of the Poetry
Society and other readers of Poetry Review not in on the "joke"
must have thought that editors Robert Potts and David Herd had found themselves
a new sharp-tongued, snappily dressed role model in Alastair Campbell.
This little fracas also caught the attention of StAnza's director Brian
Johnstone and the festival's illustrious management committee, who thought
it might be fun to see some English fur flying in your Parliament Hall.
I didn't name those English spin doctors in that earlier polemic, and
StAnza wants them named and shamed. So here goes.
of cover not reproduced here for copyright reasons. StAnza
The spin doctors
I was attacking - or poetry police, call them what you like - are a small
but influential group of male writers, mostly Oxbridge-educated poets
based at various English universities or part of London's literary set,
and these men have taken over much of the poetry review space in key papers
and journals, including the Guardian, Michael Schmidt's PN Review,
and Poetry Review under Robert Potts and David Herd. Some of them
also work on the TLS [Times Literary Supplement] or write
for the LRB [London Review of Books].
I'm not the only
person who has criticised the behaviour of these chaps. When Sarah Wardle
dared to suggest, in an Observer review (28 November 2004), that
Potts and Herd had 'alienated many readers and writers at the expense
of wooing a readership of theorists', Michael Schmidt rounded on her in
a stern PN Review editorial (31 no.2, November-December 2004),
delivering a second attack in two months on my anthology Being Alive
as well as a defence of Poetry Review's two 'innovative editors',
as he called them.
4. GOING TO POTTS
Several of poetry's
spin doctors first flexed their critical muscles in poetry magazines such
as Thumbscrew and Metre, but the rest of the specialist
magazines are thankfully free of their pernicious influence. However,
Robert Potts's most effective platform in national terms has not
been Poetry Review but his opinionated poetry reviews in the Guardian.
The Guardian's Saturday Review, edited by Claire Armitstead,
has been a wonderfully inclusive weekly books paper since its inception,
publishing well-informed articles on writers and sizeable reviews of all
kinds of books, especially contemporary fiction, but its poetry pages
have not been so blessed, being edited by Giles Foden.
Where the rest of
the Review, like the paper, has been inclusive and democratic,
the poetry pages have read like an insidious attack on the Guardian's
editorial principles and values, not just because Potts and other critics
have been attacking any poetry book which has a chance of reaching a
wide readership outside the poetry elite, but because the review coverage
of poetry books in the Guardian has been almost wilfully narrow,
as if Giles Foden and his reviewers were intent on pretending that little
poetry was being published in Britain which wasn't by white male poets.
This in an otherwise excellent book review supplement whose editor has
been willing to give Foden space for a full-page in-depth review of a
new poetry book nearly every week.
Giles Foden is proud
to be seen as elitist if that means upholding literary standards. Reviewing
the London Review of Books in the Guardian (30 October 2004),
he quoted with approval Andrew O'Hagan's attack on the "Goodwinisation"
of poetry: 'These are tough times for elitists
climate, the "democratisation" of poetry is just another phoney
enterprise, like Open Government, a sop to that element in the national
atmosphere which says inclusion is everything.' But it all depends upon
whose standards you are upholding. If democratisation is phoney, he has
my agreement, but who's calling it phoney?... The poetry police, because
it challenges their critical authority, and opens up the readership for
all kinds of poetry they disapprove of. They especially dislike any poetry
expressing spiritual wisdom or emotional truth. That kind of elitist opposition
to democratisation in publishing sits very oddly in a democratic newspaper
like the Guardian.
I hadn't realised
quite how narrow the Guardian's coverage had been until I went
through a pile of over 70 Reviews collected over a two-year period
from 2003 up to last weekend. Even I found the statistics shocking. After
putting to one side side [I shall come back to them later: ss14, para
2] Robert Potts's annual round-ups of numerous poetry books machine-gunned
in one page-long blast of venom, I turned to the rest of my sample pile
where I counted full-length reviews of 66 other new poetry books, but
only 10 of those were by women writers.
Those 66 books were
reviewed by 38 different critics, but only four of those were women, and
they reviewed only five books between them, including an anthology of
modern Scottish women poets and two Russian titles covered by a specialist.
Not a single one of the poetry books reviewed was by a non-white poet.
Obscure avantgardists published by tiny presses had been covered, but
nothing at all from Peepal Tree Press, Britain's leading publisher of
Caribbean, Black British and South Asian writing, this in a period when
Peepal Tree had produced Selected Poems editions by Faustin Charles and
Cyril Dabydeen, hardly unknown names. Nothing from Canongate's Payback
imprint either. Over the same period the poetry magazines were reviewing
books by several leading non-white poets, including Yusef Komunyakaa's
Scandalise my Name from Picador, Linton Kwesi Johnson in Penguin
Classics, Rita Dove's latest collection from Norton and E.A. Markham's
from Anvil, as well as Bloodaxe editions by Imtiaz Dharker, Choman Hardi
and Jack Mapanje.
5. [This section removed for legal reasons]
6. SELLING OUT POETRY
The poetry police
may not be a well organised constabulary, but they certainly seem capable
of co-ordinating their attacks. In the same week last autumn I received
the latest issues of Poetry Review (94 no.3, Autumn 2004) and PN
Review (31 no.1, September- October 2004). In the first I was firmly
told, along with Daisy Goodwin, that 'There is a difference between selling
poetry and selling it out.' This was the last line of an editorial by
Robert Potts and David Herd. In the second, PN Review and Carcanet editor
Michael Schmidt told me I was 'less an editor than a lightning rod or
a wind-sock', and his telling-off ended with the terse warning: 'There
are readerships and there are markets. There is selling poetry and selling
poetry out.' Their phrasing is so close as to appear almost cosy, an impression
strengthened when you look at Carcanet's latest acquisitions: David Herd,
Peter McDonald and Tim Kendall. (David Herd's new Carcanet book is called
Mandelson! Mandelson!) And they tell me there isn't a poetry mafia.
Being a wind-sock
presumably means being listening to readers: being responsive to readers
as well as to writers. If I pick up a growing interest amongst readers
in a certain poet - Mary Oliver or Alden Nowlan for example - that's me
being a wind-sock. If I then decide to publish a poet admired by readers,
that's me not having any ideas of my own. I prefer to think it's yet another
case of Bloodaxe giving the readers a say in what's published. In the
poetry world, readers are almost always ignored, and I think it's important
that they should have a voice. Their voices are certainly
reflected in how Bloodaxe responds to their interests, and I think the
programming of StAnza and the main poetry festivals is also responsive
in a similar way: if it wasn't, you wouldn't have filled the Parliament
Hall today, nor would all those other events in St Andrews you've been
attending have been so popular.
Both of those snooty
editorials display confused and proprietorial notions about the nature
of readership, a point I will develop later in this talk. Schmidt, Potts
and Herd all believe that readers should respond to the critical consensus
they are helping to foster, but that so-called consensus is a convenient
fiction which serves their interests. As I see it, marketing can be a
means to offer readers greater choice. I'm not selling poetry out, I'm
serving readers. I'm not betraying poetry, I'm challenging the betrayers.
7. PEER PRESSURE
The nature of that
fiction of consensus was exposed in the Poetry Book Society's recent report,
Growing the Market for Poetry: A Review (February 2003), a paper
which received scant attention in the cultural press because the poetry
police - and others who want to keep things as they are - would not agree
with its findings, which included: 'The "value" of much poetry
published is measured against critical response and approbation by a peer
group rather than on sales or the response of the general reader. The
role of poets in creating "taste" and apportioning "value"
creates a distorted picture of the importance of poetry and of the importance
of particular poets, particularly for an uninformed general readership
or the retail sector.'
In crude terms what
this means is: 'We, the cognoscenti, the boys in the club, decide
which poets and what kinds of poetry you lot should read, and since we
do most of the reviewing and the publishing, we'll make sure that those
poets and those books are the ones that get into the bookshops, and we'll
ignore or castigate the rest.'
Hence over three-quarters
of the poetry collections published in Britain are by men, despite the
fact that the readership of contemporary poetry is over two-thirds female.
Numerous women poets are either unpublished or their small press titles
are unavailable in most bookshops. And unlike in America, a tiny
fraction of the poetry books published are by non-white poets, and those
books rarely receive any review coverage in the press, and none at all
in the democratic Guardian.
Because of this mismatch
between publication and readership, very few people want to read many
of the few poetry collections which do get into the shops - especially
the more esoteric kind reviewed enthusiastically by Robert Potts and like-minded
critics - so the booksellers think no one's interested in contemporary
poetry, and they make further cutbacks in the already diminishing range
of contemporary poetry on their shelves.
8. MR PLOD THE POLICEMAN
Another barrier confronting
readers is reviewers' plodding prose, and Potts and his clique aren't
the only reviewers at fault here. In my opinion - and I emphasise the
distinction between opinion and, for instance, statistical facts
- too many poetry reviews in national newspapers are written by poets
or critics who don't review the books for the reader of the newspaper
but discuss their content in minute and acutely critical detail in terms
which are only comprehensible or of interest to academics or other poets.
They use the same critical language and terms of reference when reviewing
for a newspaper as for a specialist poetry magazine, weaving strings of
quotations broken up by slashes into a text-linked commentary which means
nothing to anyone who hasn't already read the book. Many of these reviews
read like potted academic essays. Even dedicated poetry readers find them
difficult to follow. Positive reviews written in this inappropriate critical
jargon don't encourage potential readers to seek out the books, they put
There have been numerous
examples of this in recent issues of the Guardian, including Robert
Potts on Stuart Calton (27 November 2004), and Charles Bainbridge on John
James (16 October 2004) and Adam Schwartzman (23 November 2004). An intelligent
reader with some interest in poetry can read such pieces understanding
the language used and following the syntax but finish them none the wiser
as to what's been said. They don't fire up the reader's interest in the
poetry because neither the reviewer's prose nor the quoted excerpts make
much sense. Nothing about these reviews encourages the general reader
to a further engagement with the poetry being discussed. Fine to publish
such pieces in PN Review or Poetry Review where the academics
can pore over them, but it seems perverse to discuss poetry in such a
fashion in a newspaper read by hundreds of thousands of people. Newspaper
readers are offered illuminating and lively reviews of new fiction, biography,
non-fiction and all the other kinds of books, but with poetry they get
this offputting, leaden critical prose, giving the false impression that
contemporary poetry is just as dull and incomprehensible. That knowledgable
reviewers can write about poetry books without any sense of addressing
the readership of a newspaper is another example of how poetry insiders
have become completely cut off from the grassroots poetry readership.
Another comment from
that Poetry Book Society report: 'Despite an increasing number of one-off
poetry books that achieve popularity (particularly anthologies) most poetry
publishing fails to take any account of the motivation of the general
reader, fails to accommodate the demands of booksellers, and fails to
communicate the pleasure of the experience of reading good poetry, relying
instead on notions of "value" and "importance" generated
by a small group of poets, editors and critics.'
9. DAMAGED GOODS
The reason why I
feel I must 'speak my mind' on this subject - as the StAnza programme
puts it - is that as a poetry editor with 30 years' experience in the
field, and as a publisher with a close understanding of poetry publishing,
distribution and readership, I see at first hand the damage being inflicted
by the poetry police as well as by others in the poetry establishment.
I travel the country talking to all kinds of readers at festivals and
regular poetry venues. I have access to publishing and bookselling statistics.
I know what bookshops are selling, what readers and buying and what kinds
of poetry people want to read.
And I don't blame
bookshops for not stocking those books which very few people actually
want to read. When Robert Potts laments in the Guardian (6 December
2003) that 'sadly, major bookshops are not stocking poetry in adequate
quantities', he seems to me to be blaming booksellers for a situation
which he and his fellow elitists have helped bring about. What does 'adequate
quantities' mean for the bookseller? Presumably filling the shelves with
books recommended by Potts, many of which, in my opinion, most poetry
readers won't want to buy (or won't be able to afford). The poets and
their publishers have been outraged by the recent reductions made by the
bookshops to their poetry stocks: their high art was being spurned by
the philistines. But in effect the people doing the spurning were
not the bookshops - they were just the middle men - it was the
readers who had lost interest. The only way to reverse that process is
to promote many different kinds of poetry to as wide a readership as possible.
What I try to do
as an editor and publisher is to be responsive both to writers and to
readers, and then work with my colleagues to try to help bookshops serve
the poetry readership. Unlike the poetry police, I don't shoot my mouth
off with a partial or non-existent knowledge of the facts; I don't distort
the facts to fit my opinions; and I don't make statements which are outright
10. REACHING OUT
What they call "dumbing
down" I call reaching out. That was the concept behind my anthology
Staying Alive, which didn't just reach a broader readership, it
introduced thousands of new readers to contemporary poetry. It also brought
many readers back to poetry, people who hadn't read poetry for years because
it hadn't held their interest. But for existing poetry readers, what Staying
Alive and its sequel Being Alive also offer is a much wider
and more international range of contemporary poems than will be found
in most other anthologies, including work by poets even the keenest and
most knowledgeable readers will - I hope - be surprised to discover. The
two books are what I call "bridge" anthologies, designed to
make their readers want to read more work by the poets they feature. The
poetry police dispute that, because they either can't believe it, or don't
want to. Disingenuously, they claim that it is disingenuous to assert
that such anthologies bring new readers to poetry. In my view, they are
wrong. These anthologies, along with other books they disapprove of, have
been giving an enormous boost to the readership of poetry in Britain and
Ireland. Not only do I know this from everyone I meet around the country,
but I receive letters virtually every day from ordinary readers telling
My own introduction
to contemporary poetry happened in a similar way. I was reading Yeats,
Eliot and Frost at school in the 60s, and then one day my English teacher
came in with a copy of Penguin's Mersey Sound anthology and read
us the work of the Liverpool Poets. That woke us up. The first poetry
book I bought was The Mersey Sound, and then I sought out individual
volumes by Roger McGough, Adrian Henri and Brian Patten. Then I read George
MacBeth's Longman anthology Poetry 1900-1965 (as it was then titled),
which had pictures of the poets, short introductions to each and notes
on the poems. That sent me off in search of books by Auden, R.S. Thomas
and others. That's how good anthologies work.
11. FAN MAIL
When I first had
the idea for Staying Alive, I had no thoughts then of a second
anthology, a sequel, but I also had no idea that the book would be championed
so enthusiastically that readers would want a companion anthology. Staying
Alive, as I've said, attracted fan mail. Over two years after
the book first appeared, I'm still receiving letters, postcards and e-mails
expressing people's appreciation, messages of support and thanks, all
saying how much Staying Alive had helped or stimulated them and
fired up their interest in poetry, and also how it has led them to seek
out books by many of the poets whose work they loved. And they want more
books like it. The list of poets named by readers as new discoveries and
favourites is not one which the poetry police would approve of, which
perhaps accounts for their bullish refusal to believe facts, for it includes
poets such as Billy Collins, Brendan Kennelly, Galway Kinnell, Alden Nowlan,
Sharon Olds and Mary Oliver. The new readers also love the work of Milosz,
Neruda and Szymborska, further deviations from the Anglocentric diet too
often served up by Britain's poetry publishers.
12. BITCHY ACOLYTES
and Being Alive aren't the only books to have had a vicious truncheoning
from poetry's puritans. Any writer or book perceived as threatening their
critical policing of contemporary poetry gets the same treatment. They
don't like popular anthologies - especially Daisy Goodwin's - and they
don't like poets whose work reaches a broad readership, who are usually
scorned as 'sentimental'. Poets with a light touch receive a heavy-handed
misreading, so Billy Collins is 'whimsical' but at the same time 'a very
shrewd writer of popular poems', according to Jeremy Noel-Tod in the Guardian
(12 April 2003), 'popular' being a term of abuse in their perverse critical
Collins also somehow
manages to 'sugar the searching honesty' of other poets such as Frank
O'Hara, according to Noel-Tod. It is unclear by what process this sugaring
of O'Hara's honesty occurs in someone else's poetry, but O'Hara is something
of a favourite aunt for his bitchy acolytes in the poetry police. They
edit him, they publish him, they jealously guard his reputation, they
even imitate his style in their own poetry. One wonders what the
tonally acute New York poet would have made of his tone deaf Oxbridge
Another example of
the tone deaf approach came in a high-handed mauling given to Michael
Longley on Peter McDonald's Tower Poetry website (August 2004): 'Snow
Water,' the anonymous Oxford reviewer declared, 'is all significance,
sentimentality and self-concern... Longley is enjoying himself too much
here although there is a comedy in place names - as Edwin Morgan, an altogether
lesser poet, recognised long ago - which tells against the poem.' One
poem is even written off as 'camp', but 'not all the poems in Snow
Water are failures, and Longley half-knows he is being silly.'
With women writers the usual police tactic is apparently either to use
offhand dismissal (so Anne Stevenson's poetry is 'bad writing'), or simply
to ignore their publications - if the women writers don't get reviewed,
the readers won't get to hear about them. Every one of the numerous attacks
on popular poets and anthologies I've read in the press over the past
five years has been by a male critic.
While they will deny it, you have to remember that all the anthologies
the poetry police berate contain a high proportion of poetry by women.
Attacking the poetry in these books en masse may cloak a covert assault
on contemporary poetry by women.
'For years now' Britain's own Kate Clanchy, they claim, (anonymous review,
Tower Poetry, July 2004) 'has demonstrated just how comfortably
she resides within the established pigeonhole of pre-packaged "women's
writing", setting up shop quite industriously and then playing her
cards in the safest way possible.' Accused of 'a cheap flirtation with
non-Eurocentric culture', she was 'someone who doesn't really care what
she's actually saying'. Her poem 'Not Art' 'rescues itself from total
vacuity through a statement of easy affirmation typical of self-help books
(and Oprah's). Another poem was said to be 'worth citing if only for the
encased moment of self-confession to the vanity and vacancy of Clanchy's
entire poetic enterprise'. Her 'essentially careless poetry' is 'simply
The following paragraph
bears comparison with some of Robert Potts's lofty pronouncements explaining
how only educated readers can fully appreciate the finest poetry: 'All
the flaws in Clanchy's "craft" multiply beneath her consistently
patronising tone, and it is clear that "babbling like Falstaff when
he died" is not designed to impress anyone with an atom of literary
intelligence, but instead meant to fool people in the popular market who
don't know any better - and this is condescension of the worst kind. And
yet this a dubious ambition for the volume, as the patience of any sensible
reader is tested throughout.'
The anonymous reviewer
then tells us that Kate Clanchy's work is in decline: 'This downward trajectory
between her first two volumes was noticed by Paul Groves in his review
for Thumbscrew (15, Spring 2000), a journal Clanchy both wrote
for and appeared in, so at least we know she was warned about the dangers
of drivel before the genesis of Newborn... More must be said by
honest critics. This is unlikely: Newborn is probably in for some
very flattering reviews in high places that will fool no educated reader,
but further facilitate the author's career.'
That comment I quoted
earlier on Anne Stevenson - in Poetry Review (92 no.4, Winter 2002/03)
was another stimulus for Being Alive. In that review Jeremy Noel-Tod
wrote: 'Anne Stevenson's is the most venerable reputation on display,
but on this showing it is not clear why. Hearing with My Fingers,
from its title onwards, contains more bad writing than good... Another
[poem] seems ready made for inclusion in the inevitable sequel to Bloodaxe's
Staying Alive anthology... a maudlin monologue given to a woman
with a wasting disease'. My sequel certainly wasn't inevitable
when he made that comment in 2002; it was the reader response to Staying
Alive which made the book inevitable, but it was also a positive response
to the negativity of our poetry police.
Women poets appear
to be marginalised by some publishers as well as by the reviewers. Michael
Schmidt was quoted in Poetry London as saying this about Carcanet's
publication of women poets: 'Although only 25-28% of our list consists
of women writers, they probably account for about 60% of our contemporary
poetry sales. Poets such as Elizabeth Jennings and Sophie Hannah have
out-sold, apart from Les Murray and Edwin Morgan, almost all our other
authors quite considerably.' So by his own admission, if Carcanet published
more women writers, they would serve more readers.
I believe that the
reason why this male bias - which is historical in its origins - has survived
for as long as it has is because the poetry editors are somehow immune
from criticism. Either they started and run their own poetry lists, as
I did and Michael Schmidt did, or their poetry list exists for the prestige
of a trade publisher. The poetry editor publishes just the work which
he believes is seriously important and few people question the wider picture,
what happens across publishing when that bias exists in each house.
Imagine a fiction
editor or a record producer going to his boss and saying, here's my list
of new titles for next season, all of which have been selected purely
on merit, but I'm afraid only 15% of them are by women artists. And the
boss responds: but two-thirds of our audience is female, why should we
not give them more books/records by women. And the editor or producer
answers (as I've heard one leading poetry editor respond): none of the
other women are any good. In any other area, this kind of arrogance would
not only be unacceptable but suicidal in business terms.
But because most
poetry is published for an elite, the elitism involved in what is selected
goes unchecked. No one is expecting these books to sell more than a few
hundred copies. No one says: why don't we publish two-thirds women, or
even fifty percent women, and see how the picture changes.
14. ANALYSE THIS
Robert Potts and
other poetry police officers continually use - or misuse - the word "therapeutic"
as a simplistic term of abuse directed at the kind of poetry found in
books like Staying Alive and Being Alive, poetry which engages
with people and what people do and think and feel and fear in their lives.
A wilful misunderstanding, surely, amongst workers in metaphor. But this
kind of poetry doesn't actually offer simple solace or poetic
medication, it opens up the senses, it disturbs, questions and challenges.
These poems make the reader less settled yet more whole, more alert to
the world, more alive, more in touch with being human. Many of these poems
offer people spiritual wisdom in a spiritually bankrupt age.
In 2003, Potts devoted
a whole Guardian Christmas round-up ('Death by a thousand anthologies,
6 December 2003) to trashing virtually every poetry anthology published
that year which had any chance of reaching a wide readership. Even Faber's
anti-war anthology 101 Poems Against War - the response of two
committed editors, Paul Keegan and Matthew Hollis, to everyone's anxieties
in the run-up to the Iraq War - was said to be 'hurriedly' and 'some said,
opportunistically' produced. Other 'very depressing' offerings included
We Have Come Through, Peter Forbes's anthology for people suffering
from depression and trauma published by Bloodaxe with Survivors' Poetry.
Potts believes that
such books are 'damaging to the art of poetry' and has claimed in defence
of his elitist position that 'a conservative aesthetic prevails in which
white middle-class Britons are served up "accessible" and "relevant"
poetry - i.e. recognisable representations of their own domestic vantage'.
That's his objection to books which attempt to open up contemporary poetry
to more readers. I prefer Paul Muldoon's analysis: 'The point of poetry
is to be acutely discomforting, to prod and provoke, to poke us
in the eye, to punch us in the nose, to knock us off our feet, to take
our breath away' (Princeton University Library Chronicle, Spring
Potts would no doubt
agree with Muldoon's comment applied to books and poets he favours, but
not to those he dislikes. I believe that Muldoon's description applies
especially to Staying Alive and Being Alive, which include
many breathtaking poems by all kinds of writers from many different countries,
classes, cultural backgrounds and literary traditions. These take the
reader by surprise because the voice, style, stance or angle of approach
are often quite different from what's expected. But Potts dismisses poetry
which engages with people's lives as 'therapeutic'. This is not just simplistic,
His editing of Poetry
Review with David Herd was based on this assertion: 'We think of poetry
as an art, in a critical relation to society and capitalism; we don't
see it as a hobby or a therapeutic device.' Another Potts review, this
time covering bereavement anthologies, was headlined 'Concentration, not
consolation' (24 April 2004). He and his cohorts either don't understand
that everyone reads poetry in different ways for different reasons, or
they don't believe that any kind of reading other than what they prescribe
has any aesthetic or cultural value. This is Potts in that Guardian
review: 'Where a market does exist, of course, is precisely in the popular
rather than the cultivated taste: poetry for people who don't know much
about poetry, and will inevitably be less discriminating... it gratifies
them but does not challenge them. It looks good on the coffee table.'
If someone is drawn
to reading poetry because of personal anxieties, or depression, or alienation,
or bereavement what's wrong with that? Anyone can surely read poetry for
emotional reasons as well as for intellectual stimulation, or they may
want to broaden their minds or to experience the joys of an ancient cultural
art form for its own sake. Once poems are written and published, they
belong to the readers, not to Poetry High Command, and they can read them
any way they like. Potts confuses aesthetics with ethics, his own reading
being somehow morally superior to that of anyone who has not had his privileged
education. Thus anyone who enjoys reading poetry without his level of
intellectual discrimination is a 'casual reader' who lacks 'cultivated
taste'. Even a love poems anthology is suspect in Potts's analysis: people
in love aren't reading Shakespeare's sonnets for the right reason. He
conveniently forgets why and how poetry is written. The original impulse
of a poem involves an emotional response, whether to love or bereavement,
anxiety or alienation... or whatever human experience is evoked.
Potts's notion of
minorities is only understandable in the light of the Guardian's
own coverage of poetry books. He writes in that same Guardian review:
'Identity-politics anthologies (women's writing or black writing, for
instance), attempt to counter self-perpetuating canons in which minority
voices have been excluded and continue to do so.' I've never thought of
women as minority voices, but as I've already demonstrated, they are certainly
treated as such by the Guardian's poetry reviewing fraternity,
and nowhere is black writing more excluded than from the Guardian's
15. SERIOUS TROUBLE
on the poetry of J.H. Prynne are even more revealing. Prynne's poems -
published, incidentally, by Bloodaxe - 'will not be to the taste (or benefit)
of the casual reader, but represent a formidable contribution to the most
ambitious and challenging literary traditions; a hazardous and absorbing
investment for any reader hungering to be more serious' (Guardian,
1 January 2005). I don't disagree with Potts's characterisation of Prynne's
work; where I part company is over his high-handed high-table reference
to 'the casual reader' and his notion that anyone reads poetry 'to be
more serious' as opposed to engaging with serious poetry for its own sake.
Potts, McDonald and
others in the poetry police have caricatured what I have said about difficulty
in poetry, failing to accept that my editorial strategy has always been
to publish a wide range of poetry of high literary quality, but latterly
also including some themed anthologies of less difficult work appealing
especially to new readers, with the clear intention that those readers
will go on to read more books not just by the writers featured in the
anthologies but all kinds of other poets.
If I followed the
instructions of the poetry police and filled these anthologies with the
work of John Ashbery, Jorie Graham, Geoffrey Hill, et al, they would not
reach that broader readership. David Kennedy branded Staying Alive
as 'anti-modernist' because it excludes David Jones's 'complexly layered
commentaries on imperialism' (PN Review), along with poems by other
writers which readers not already well versed in poetry would find incomprehensible.
It seems to have escaped police attention, but I did in fact include poems
by Jorie Graham and Geoffrey Hill in Staying Alive, and other poets
featured in the two anthologies include Basil Bunting, Roy Fisher, W.S.
Graham, Ezra Pound, Peter Reading and Wallace Stevens.
Yet virtually every
poetry police attack on these anthologies uses the expression 'dumbing
down'. These books would only be examples of 'dumbing down' if one accepts
that they contain a high proportion of poems of inferior literary quality.
The poetry police believe that. I don't, and nor do most readers. The
point about the selection of poems for these anthologies is that every
poem is a powerful poem which stands alone and speaks to the reader as
a human being. It is not there to be representative in literary historical
terms, nor as an example of cleverness or style (though it may also be
that) which speaks to the egos of the cognoscenti. But to judge
from the phrasing of their reviews, they seem more aggrieved by the packaging
and marketing of these books than they are by their content.
16. DAMAGING CLAIMS
Robert Potts has
continually asserted that anthologies are damaging to poetry. In the Guardian
he claimed that 'Far from leading readers towards individual collections,
the anthology market increasingly becomes sufficient in itself for booksellers
and then for readers' (24 April 2004). No evidence is given for this and
it is quite simply untrue.
In a Poetry Review
editorial (94 no.3, Autumn 2004) attacking Daisy Goodwin's anthologies
and mine, Potts and Herd assert: 'We are told that it is snobbish and
elitist to criticise such books: we are told that anthologies create new
readers. The argument is disingenuous. Nothing about these books encourages
the general reader to a further engagement with poetry, as sales figures
will reflect. And it is perfectly proper for critics to point out the
editors' errors and lapses. (Neil Astley's angry response to a few bad
reviews for Staying Alive never engaged with their actual criticism:
that his prose was wretched, his manner anti-intellectual, and some of
his selections terrible. He simply accused their authors of being a "bogus
cult" intent on spoiling people's fun.'
'Nothing about these
books encourages the general reader to a further engagement with poetry,
as sales figures will reflect.'... Sales figures do not reflect
that, certainly not in the case of individual collections by Bloodaxe
authors featured in Staying Alive - which we have tracked using
a variety of marketing techniques - nor in the case of all the other poets
who've told me that people have come up to them at readings and said they
first came across their poetry in Staying Alive. The Staying
Alive postbag also contradicts their claim: all those letters I've
received from ordinary readers saying how much the anthology had helped
introduce them to a wide range of poets whose books they had gone on to
This fallacious claim
was also contradicted by all the people who wrote to Poetry Review
in protest, none of whose letters were published in the following issue,
which featured instead a valedictory note of self-congratulation in which
Potts and Herd asserted their sense of the purpose of Poetry Review:
'as the national magazine, it should reflect and be hospitable to, the
nation's poetry'. Amongst the correspondents whose letters weren't thought
worthy of publication were two tireless workers who, in my opinion, have
done far more than Potts and Herd to promote interest in poetry at grassroots
level, Adrian Johnson from Birmingham and Cathy Grindrod from Nottingham,
who documented the many ways in which these anthologies had indeed encouraged
readers in their areas both to buy more poetry books and to borrow more
poetry collections from libraries.
Adrian Johnson at
Arts Council England has been the driving force behind a partnership between
public librarians from the West Midlands with Faber, Picador and Bloodaxe,
which helped inform the thinking that led to Bloodaxe's broad readership
initiative. He wrote: 'Robert Potts and David Herd don't appear to get
out much and seem to have no high regard for facts about poetry book sales.
Put briefly poetry anthologies actually do attract new readers to stretching
and difficult poetry - sometimes even "easy" poetry as well.
Bloodaxe, Harper Collins and BBC Books have certainly discovered that
readers like issue- and theme-based collections of poetry and that maybe
they don't want to hunt out a book purely because it is writing in poetic
Cathy Grindrod introduced
herself to the Poetry Review editors as someone who has 'worked
every day for the past five years in Literature Development, running projects,
organising poetry festivals, teaching poetry workshops and courses to
readers and writers of all levels and specialising in developing people's
awareness of and engagement with poetry'. Having discussed the editorial
with poetry students, readers and poets in her area, she itemised all
the ways in which the Daisy Goodwin and Bloodaxe anthologies had led people
to read more poetry books, so that 'the very opposite of what you claim
According to Cathy
Grindrod, as far as readers in Nottingham are concerned, 'the general
consensus of opinion is that the introductions, pointers and notes in
anthologies such as Staying Alive which you deem anti-intellectual
are in fact helpful and all-inclusive, and encourage people to want to
continue'. And the same sentiment has been expressed in numerous letters
and messages I've received from readers. The commentaries I've included
in these and other anthologies are pieces of literary journalism - certainly
not LitCrit - merely summaries written in plain language in a straightforward
style aimed at the general reader, but Potts and his cronies have used
them as ammunition for attacks on the editor's 'critical prose' which
they castigate not only as 'wretched' but also 'condescending' and 'patronising',
with David Kennedy asking in PN Review 'how low Astley is aiming
with this kind of commentary; or even if it is to be taking seriously'.
To judge from our postbag, the readers themselves don't feel patronised.
As I hope this lecture will show, it is the poetry police themselves who
are patronising and misinforming the readers.
17. COP OUTS
Another of their
tactics is to attack attempts to popularise modern poetry as patronising.
Not everyone is interested in poetry, they argue, so it is patronising
to offer it to them. Let them read the great poets of the past and forget
the rest, if that's their inclination. Thus Peter McDonald in Thumbscrew
(20-21, 2002): 'Everyone has a perfect right not to read poetry... Certainly,
any intelligent or enthusiastic reader who is determined to read no poetry
at all is missing out on possible enjoyment; but to assert that he or
she ought to head straight for contemporary poetry is transparently
patronising, as well as mistaken.'
Who says it's patronising?
Not the readers. Who says it's mistaken? Certainly not all those readers
who have had their interest in poetry revived by reading contemporary
poetry - because they could relate to it more easily - and who have then
gone back to the classics, rediscovering a love of great poetry which
bad teaching had killed off in their youth.
Robert Potts uses
a similar cop-out argument: 'Of the poetry sold in this country, 96% is
by dead authors, we were told this year, as if we should be alarmed...
It's hard to worry that the excellent work of the past continues to be
valued today; for which contemporary poetry would one exchange the collected
poems of Yeats, for example?' This is a bogus argument. It is not a matter
of exchanging Yeats for any contemporary poet, but rather of showing readers
that the traditions of British and Irish poetry have been extended and
developed by all the poets who have followed Yeats, and that the work
of poets from their own lifetime might enlarge their appreciation of poetry
as a whole.
And if only 4% of
the poetry books read in this country are by living writers, isn't that
other 96% of poetry readers a huge potential audience for today's poets
to address and for publishers to serve? I don't believe it is patronising
to offer choice to more readers. It would be complacent to ignore them.
And if a poetry publisher receives public funding, as Bloodaxe does, it
would be misuse of that funding only to produce books for the existing
contemporary poetry readership and not to make concerted attempts to take
poetry to a broader audience and to be responsive to the interests and
diversity of that readership.
It's not only the
poetry police who don't recognise the existence of a wider potential audience
for modern poetry. I've spoken to many poets who believe that poetry will
always be a minority interest, and they are only interested in writing
for that small, dedicated readership because they believe that no one
else wants or should need to read their poetry.
Thirsk has said that poetry 'should be included in everyone's portfolio
of cultural interests' along with theatre, novels, music, film and so
on. If the poetry police don't wreck initiatives devised to attract more
readers to poetry, then poetry could be, if not the new rock 'n' roll,
then maybe the new Tate. Tate Poetry. Just think of how the bookshops
would respond to a growing readership for poetry. Instead of cutting back
on their poetry stocks, they'd be giving poetry much more space, not just
for popular anthologies but for well-packaged individual collections.
One of the many bogus
arguments presented by the poetry police relates to access and excellence.
They even manage to cite Arts Minister Tessa Jowell's paper Government
and the Value of Culture (DCMS, May 2004) in support of their elitist
position. In a Poetry Review editorial, 'Government and the Value
of Poetry' (94 no.2, Summer 2004), Potts and Herd claim that 'Jowell's
essay has to do with arts funding, and it is good to think that, in future,
funding for poetry initiatives will be linked to "access to excellence"
not "accessibility".' Yet the Arts Council used the same criteria
in supporting initiatives and projects Potts and Herd disapprove of, from
Next Generation Poets to Bloodaxe's promotional campaigns for Staying
Alive and Being Alive. As far as the Arts Council is concerned,
both Bloodaxe and the Poetry Book Society are giving wider access to work
of literary excellence, whereas Potts and Herd would use the cliché
"dumbing down" to describe the same poetry initiatives.
They are equally
selective in what they quote from Tessa Jowell's paper. She also wrote
that 'One of the wonderful things about great art is that true lovers
of it never want to keep it to themselves - they want all the world to
know. There is nothing selfish or exclusive in their enthusiasm, nor does
wider appreciation weaken the force of the art. The argument for public
subsidy accordingly rests above all on the desire that all, not just a
minority, should have access to the thrill of engagement with great art.'
By that argument,
shouldn't Poetry Review lose its subsidy as a magazine reshaped
by Potts and Herd to appeal not just to a minority but to a minority of
poetry readers? Fortunately the clock has run out on them. Their three-year
tenure of Poetry Review is about to expire, and readers can look
forward to seeing a new inclusive Poetry Review edited from this
summer by Fiona Sampson.
18. ONE MAN'S POISON
world is clearly as perilous as Steve Jones's Arts Faculty terra incognita,
fraught with similar dangers for unwary readers and writers. A fact is
often no more than a strongly asserted or prominently published opinion.
A lie is an opinion repeatedly so often that people begin to believe it,
including, perhaps, the writer. So-called definitive anthologies are partial
and sometimes distorted maps of the territory made by writers from one
or other faction.
is a term given to opinions shared by a tiny minority of men who wield
power in poetry publishing, academia or literary journalism, most of whom
who are totally out of touch with the grassroots readership of poetry.
In that respect they are quite like politicians, the various
factions being as different in character and in their support base as
New Labour, the Tories, the Lib Dems and the Scottish Nationalists. And,
of course, one man's critical consensus is another man's poison:
'If what seems to
one person as new and trendy appears thirty years out of date and a weary
rehash to another, there is a problem in communicating,' writes Andrew
Duncan in his impassioned defence of post-war British avantgarde poetry,
The Failure of Conservatism in Modern British Poetry (Salt, 2003).
But that observation could just as easily have been made - rather more
snappily no doubt - by one of mainstream poetry's rotweiler critics, such
as Sean O'Brien or Don Paterson, who regard most avantgarde poetry as
a rehash of Modernism gone off the boil, as out of date in their analysis
as their own formally inventive poetry would be in Andrew Duncan's. As
far as the Postmoderns are concerned, the Cambridge poet J.H. Prynne is
the presiding deity of modern British poetry, but for O'Brien and Paterson,
Prynne is the avantgarde Anti-Christ.
In his 2004 T.S.
Eliot Lecture, 'The Dark Art of Poetry', Don Paterson identifies the Postmodernists'
fatal error as 'thinking that theory and practice form a continuum'. He
voices the antagonism of many fellow poets when he berates most of the
Postmoderns as a 'chorus of articulate but fundamentally talentless poet-commentators'.
Where Duncan sees the mainstream as a spent force - banal and conservative
- Paterson views the generation of poets included in his and Charles Simic's
New British Poetry (Graywolf Press, 2004) - an introduction anthology
for American readers - as 'part of a long evolution... engaged in an open,
complex and ongoing dialogue with the whole of English lyric tradition'.
It takes an outsider
to identify common ground: Sandra M. Gilbert, writing in Poetry
(184 no.3, June/July 2004), questions what she sees as Paterson's positing
of an English tradition separate from North American poetry: 'Isn't the
tradition itself a set of multiple traditions?' she wrote. 'And aren't
these traditions, together, traditions that share in and derive from the
riches of the English language?'
19. CULTURAL DIVERSITY
But it is not only
British, Irish and American poetry which flourish alongside one another.
The whole of contemporary English-language poetry is a set of multiple
interconnected traditions, embracing not just Modernism, Postmodernism
and mainstream, but also the more culturally diverse oral-based and literary
traditions of African American, Black British, Caribbean and South Asian
poetry, with poetry in translation a parallel source of nourishment for
poets and readers alike.
However, that diversity
is not reflected in the books produced by Britain's poetry publishers.
And as far as the broadsheet literary editors and reviewers are concerned,
writers of colour might just as well be invisible, because when they do
manage to get their poetry published, whether with specialist presses
or mainstream imprints, they are almost without exception totally ignored.
Little encouragement there for the more responsive poetry publishers.
Commenting in the
Guardian Weekend magazine (5 June 2004) on the judging of last
year's Next Generation Poets promotion, Simon Armitage had this to say:
'One conversation I don't mind leaking concerned the lack of black and
Asian poets to choose from. At the beginning of the 21st century, how
can this be the case? That question has to be put to the editors of the
poetry lists, because I can't believe that such writers aren't submitting
manuscripts to established poetry publishers. Editors need to recalibrate.
They need to widen their aesthetic tastes. By the time it gets to our
bit - the reading and judging of a shedload of books by predominantly
white poets - it's too late.'
Yet what happens
when such books are published, but readers don't hear about them
because they aren't reviewed in the national press? It is not only the
publishers who need to recalibrate, it's also the reviewers, but more
importantly, it's up to the books editors responsible for poetry coverage
in the press to make sure that books by Black and Asian poets are reviewed.
And it's not as though there are a shortage of well-informed reviewers
with specialist knowledge of the traditions these poets are writing out
of. Stewart Brown, Debjani Chatterjee, David Dabydeen, Fred D'Aguiar,
Sudeep Sen, Imtiaz Dharker, Tabish Khair, E.A. Markham, Sushella Nasta
and Jerry Pinto, to name just a few, would offer a wide range of informed
One editor who seems
to be in need of what Armitage calls 'recalibration' would appear to be
Michael Schmidt, who has characterised Carcanet's publishing philosophy
as follows: 'We do not tailor our selection or commissioning of books
to perceived market demands or in response to demographics.' In other
words, it doesn't matter what the readers want. What they will get is
what the editor wants to give them, even if this means acting against
his imprint's own commercial interests, as well as ignoring the cultural
diversity of the country whose Arts Council subsidises his publishing.
The divided, oppositional
nature of poetry politics was clearly demonstrated by the critical response
to Keith Tuma's Anthology of Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry,
published by Oxford University Press in New York for American consumption
in 2001. Tuma's map of the territory is almost as fanciful as Mandeville's
Travels, dotted with unfamiliar beasts in the form of obscure avantgardists
most readers and poets in Britain and Ireland have never heard of, let
alone read, which makes one question how such a book can be useful to
its intended readership, American college students wanting a picture of
British and Irish poetry since Yeats and Hardy.
Tuma's book is a
wishful fiction - an academic's anthology of our poetry as he would like
it to be rather than as it is - yet it wouldn't be so perverse an undertaking
if he hadn't also managed to omit - from an anthology of 127 poets - some
of the most significant figures in modern British and Irish poetry, such
as Simon Armitage, David Constantine, Douglas Dunn, Paul Durcan, James
Fenton, Brendan Kennelly, Michael Longley, Edwin Morgan, Tom Paulin, Peter
Porter, Ken Smith, Anne Stevenson and R.S. Thomas, as well as - no surprise
there - Sean O'Brien and Don Paterson. (Tuma's map is even more skewed
than Michael Schmidt's Harvill Book of Twentieth-Century Poetry in
English, which omits not only Dunn, Durcan, Kennelly, Longley, O'Brien,
Paterson, Paulin, Porter, Ken Smith and Anne Stevenson, but also Siegfried
While Tuma's anthology
is thankfully only available in the States, Poetry Review's editor
Peter Forbes nevertheless commissioned an appropriate review (91 no.2,
Summer 2001) from Sean O'Brien, who must have believed he'd sent the American
academic packing with one of his rotweiler demolition jobs beginning with
the assertion: 'Poetry is too important to be left to zealots.' Which
begs the question: when does a critic become a zealot? Answer: when he
plays for the other team. But bring in new management, in the shape of
Robert Potts and David Herd, and the opposition can score an unlikely
equaliser. One of their first moves as the new editors of Poetry Review
was to commission a second review of Tuma's bizarre anthology, this time
from Andrew Duncan (92 no.2, Summer 2002). No reference was made to the
magazine's earlier, less commendatory review of the same book, as if O'Brien,
like Trotsky, had been airbrushed from the picture.
21. PUNISHING OFFENDERS
Intolerance of other
opinions, it seems to me, is one of the distinguishing features of current
poetry journalism. Robert Potts's poetry police will weigh in with their
critical truncheons to bash any writer or editor who fails to conform
with their critical line, but unlike most other writers - who are used
to taking the bad with the good - they have to take further corrective
action against anyone who disagrees with them or to defend one of their
This may involve
a counter-attack (using a Guardian review or Poetry Review
editorial), a pincer movement (the London Review of Books will
bring on a literary heavyweight like Andrew O'Hagan if Daisy Goodwin has
been sighted with another anthology, and the Guardian will reprint
that kind of thing), snipers (the TLS is good at that, especially
James Campbell), repeated broadsides (Michael Schmidt and David Kennedy
will savage the same book twice), or a must-have-the-last-word contribution
to a letters column (Kathleen Jamie wasn't allowed to get away with criticising
a Robert Potts review in the Guardian, with Jeremy Noel-Tod weighing
in a week later with an embarrassingly silly letter which completely misrepresented
If you dare to express
a contrary opinion on the radio, in print or in a letter to Poetry
Review, you can expect your e-mail box to be jammed with tediously
long messages from Robert Potts demanding that you justify and back up
every point you've made with evidence, and saying why you are wrong or
misguided, and he is right. And he will subject everything you say in
response to minute critical analysis to draw attention to what he believes
are the flaws in your argument as well as the infelicities of your prose.
22. CRIMES AGAINST POETRY
Many poets can be
fickle creatures. They want their work to reach a wider readership but
their hackles are raised immediately they are confronted by the beast
they know as Marketing. Not understanding this creature - which actually
serves their interests - their hostility throws them into confusion.
Thus according to
Steven Waling, Staying Alive 'was an anthology that could have
been great if it wasn't being sold as a kind of lavender bath oil for
the brain (i.e. this poetry does you good)', which is a bit like saying
that Pride and Prejudice would have been a great novel if it hadn't
been adapted for television. For Rupert Loydell, Staying Alive
was 'a cynical exercise in marketing' and my introduction was 'bullshit',
while Peter McDonald called it 'definitively dreadful' and 'a smart advertising
pitch', and Tim Kendall berated Bloodaxe for 'promoting poetry as fashion
statement'. Mark Ford reserved much of his vitriol for the fact that the
book 'comes handsomely endorsed not only by the poet laureate but by a
mindboggling selection of famous people... who testify to its "sustaining
and life-affirming" powers as if it were some new age medicine or
his attack on Kate Clanchy's Newborn, a collection of poems about
motherhood, Peter McDonald or his Tower Poetry clone was incensed by Picador's
packaging of a book whose content has a clear appeal to a broad readership:
'Newborn demonstrates that Clanchy is quite comfortable with her
cul-de-sac. This motive is evident in the presentation of the text itself:
the glossy image on the cover resembling a stylish cosmetics advertisement
(and muting the baby's head in favour of the mother's hand), the nauseating
back cover blurb from film star Emma Thompson, and the glamorously wistful
photo of Kate herself all give the game away - it's not about the poetry,
it's about the lifestyle.'
last remark echoes the Potts/Herd description in Poetry Review
(94 No.3, Autumn 2004) of Daisy Goodwin's latest anthology, Poems to
Last a Lifetime, suggesting to me that Potts himself may be the anonymous
Tower Poetry hatchet-man. 'From the promise of its title to the lifestyle-porn
of its jacket design,' Potts writes, this time of Daisy's book, not Kate's:
'It is less a book than an accessory.'
How a bright and
well-designed cover for a popular poetry anthology can be 'lifestyle-porn'
is beyond my comprehension. Look inside the cover and what does the reader
discover?... poems by Shakespeare, Wordworth, Blake, Keats, Yeats and
all the greats alongside some fine contemporary poems, many by writers
Potts clearly dislikes. But if the thinking of poetry's Witchfinder-General
were applied to law, Daisy Goodwin would be tried for the crime of turning
literature into 'lifestyle pornography'. The fact that hundreds of thousands
of readers actually like her books - and wouldn't otherwise be
reading poetry, let alone modern poetry - would of course be inadmissable
as evidence in her defence. Daisy would be burnt at the stake outside
the offices of the Times Literary Supplement.
autumn Picador published three books aimed at a popular readership, one
of which was Peter Forbes's love poems anthology, All the Poems You
Need to Say I Do. Writing in the London Review of Books (4
November 2004), Andrew O'Hagan called this 'a scrofulous little collection
targeted at people who think poetry comes into its own at funerals, or,
in this case, weddings... There's hardly a bad poem in Forbes' anthology
- that's not the point. These books are full of excellent poems which
suffer only by being corralled together under a nauseating rubric. Forbes
has exercised taste and judgement in the matter of his choices, but what
cultural movement, or commercial hunger, is being serviced by the publication
of such sky-blue and touchy-feely anthologies of variously thoughtful
poetry with their invariably thoughtless introductions?'
The answer to O'Hagan's
question is that the movement concerned is a group of dedicated poetry
publishers who believe that broadening the poetry readership in Britain
is a cultural necessity without which even the specialist readership for
poetry will disappear as poetry lists shrink and poetry presses collapse.
These books aren't
aimed at the elitists who review them, they are aimed at the general reader
who sees nothing wrong with poetry books being packaged like magazines
or novels. And the readers not only like them as books, they are encouraged
by them to read other books of contemporary poetry. O'Hagan even admits
that there's nothing wrong with the poems included in such anthologies,
it's the marketing which incenses him. But these books are not
packaged to appeal to Andrew O'Hagan and other cognoscenti who write for
the LRB and the TLS.
The bookshops derive
94% of their income from a quarter of their stock. In accountancy terms,
three-quarters of their stock is a waste of capital taking up valuable
shelf space. That includes all the poetry. Instead of railing against
the massive reductions made by the bookshops in their stocking of poetry
- the common cry of poets, publishers, reviewers and readers - a more
appropriate response might be gratitude that they have seen fit to stock
any poetry at all.
have to work with what we've got. That means accepting that the bookshops
will only stock poetry books if they sell enough copies, and it is up
to the publishers to develop imaginative and creative ways of broadening
the appeal of contemporary poetry, so that more people will want to buy
and read books of poetry. And we use marketing to do that.
marketing responsive to the booktrade conditions of the 21st century,
poetry will all but disappear from the bookshops. If publishers want the
work they value to be available to readers in the future, they have to
package and promote the books in a way that projects the appeal of that
poetry to as wide a readership as possible.
Yet for many people
in the poetry world, Marketing is a dirty word. As Michael Hofmann put
it, 'Promotion violates the innocence and defencelessness of poetry' (Times,
4 October 1997). That misunderstanding expressed in numerous reviews and
in opposition to initiatives designed to broaden the audience for poetry
- continually undermines much of the work being done to safeguard and
strengthen the place of poetry in our culture.
put this in perspective in an article in Magma, in which he noted
in reviews of recent anthologies 'a large dose of disgust that so much
poetry was being "marketed" (that is, made available) to a general
public. Surely the general public could not read it properly? Poetry,
thus defended, looked to be the private property of a handful of clever
young men who wrote such reviews.'
Marketing is not
a 'betrayal of poetry', as more than one of these reviewers has called
it, it is simply the means by which poetry is made available to readers.
Novelists don't complain about having their books marketed, nor do biographers
or popular science writers, or any other writers as far as I'm aware.
It is only the poets who complain about the same commercial methods being
used to sell their books to readers.
Left only to market
forces, the poetry books which sell best will be those which have been
packaged to appeal to a wide readership and whose content is relevant
to that readership. If we don't like what we see in the bookshops - that
is, we don¹t like the books which the readers are buying - it is
the poetry publishers and editors to commission and market other books
which they believe should have a stronger appeal in more effective ways.
If they don't like
the Daisy Goodwin approach, they need to develop their own creative marketing
initiatives focused on the work they value, just as Bloodaxe, Faber and
Picador have done in their different ways. But they also have to be responsive
to readers. If a poetry editor believes that he knows better than the
poetry readers, that kind of arrogance and complacency will bring about
the demise of his poetry list, either through failing sales or through
reduced funding in the case of arts-subsidised poetry presses.
John O'Donoghue attacks
the marketing of poetry in the latest issue of PN Review (162,
31 no.4, March-April 2005): 'All these rather crass promotions lend poetry
the status of a dying language, which its guardians have sought to revive
via spin, marketing and publicity stunts - the very discourses which poetry
should be resisting'. This must be a strange notion for non-poets: resisting
the marketing of your books. Most poets want their work to reach a wider
readership, but not, apparently, if that means that the publishers have
to encourage the bookshops to stock them.
This kind of intellectual
muddle-headedness about the marketing of poetry is particularly prevalent
in the ranks of the poetry police. At a time when poetry is losing so
much ground in the bookshops, it is clearly de rigueur (a favourite
police expression) to trash any publisher who uses imaginative marketing
to take contemporary poetry to a broader readership. But perhaps this
is less a case of the poet shooting himself in the foot than trying to
ensure that if his own poetry isn't being read, then neither should anyone
24. NOVEL APPROACHES
endorsements" used by Bloodaxe on Staying Alive and Being
Alive were scorned by the poetry police, but they were vital to the
success of the two books. John Berger, Jane Campion, Mia Farrow, Van Morrison,
Philip Pullman, Meryl Streep and all the others who wanted to help us
are not just famous people, they are avid readers and passionate advocates
of poetry. Their comments helped us reach thousands of people who are
interested in fiction, film, theatre, music and other arts but until recently
hadn't been sufficiently engaged by contemporary poetry. We
included their quotes with sample poems from the books in brochures sent
in the case of Staying Alive to a quarter of a million people,
using a variety of mailing lists, from Granta to Tate Modern. And
because we had those endorsements, the bookshops were willing to put in
big orders, and to stack up copies on the display tables with the latest
In his introduction
to New British Poetry (Graywolf Press, 2004), Don Paterson makes
a curious observation: 'But to have made, in the course of our numerous
awareness-raising campaigns, no direct appeal to the serious-fiction-reading,
theatre-going, art-movie-viewing public - i.e., one already receptive
to some level of difficulty or complexity in the art they enjoyed - was
surely a grievous error.' That is surely a description of the almost-textbook
marketing initiative Bloodaxe carried out in conceiving, promoting and
selling Staying Alive and Being Alive, and we have proved
beyond doubt that the cultural constituency Paterson wishes to reach is
responsive to modern poetry.
wants to have his cake and eat it: in his 2004 T.S. Eliot Lecture, he
attacks those he calls 'the populists, who have made the fatal error of
thinking that feeling and practice form a continuum. They infantalise
our art: chicken soup anthologies full of lousy poems.' This is presumably
aimed at Daisy Goodwin and me, but not, for some reason, the editors of
Picador's anthologies, including himself, because the poems we select
can be 'lousy' but not those appearing under his imprimatur.
Paterson also believes
that the way to achieve 'access' for readers is to 'remove all the mediators',
'those self-appointed popularisers' [presumably that's me and Daisy again]
'who, by insisting on nothing but dumb sense' [dumb as in "dumbing
down"] 'have alienated poetry's natural intelligent and literate
constituency' [himself, O'Brien and the poetry police?] 'by infantalising
our [my emphasis] art; and on the other, those exegetes' [this
must be Potts, the poetry police again along with the avantgardists] 'in
whose adolescent, retentive self-interest it is to keep poetry as mysterious
as possible, that they might project nothing into it but their own wholly
novel and ingenious interpretations.' In other words, get rid of the anthologies
and the reviewers he disapproves of, and all will be hunky-dory. Or not.
Poets write poetry.
Publishers sell it. Readers buy the books and read them. Poetry doesn't
sell purely on merit, especially in the current commercial climate. It
has to be marketed to reach its potential readership. While a poet may
not write for other readers, it's the readership which justifies
And yes, publishing
is a business, and marketing is its operating tool. Writing in this week's
Bookseller (11 March 2005), Faber's chief executive Stephen Page
describes a new marketing initiative Faber has set up with other independent
trade publishers, ending with a comment on writers and readers: 'It is
for them that the impulse to publish exists for these independent publishers.
Some may think this is a sentimental line, but this is true. Sure, we
have shareholders but they share our authentic desire to make a business
out of publishing what we care about and finding the widest possible readership
for it... It is work we relish, and at Faber it is a natural extension
of our sense of purpose as a culturally oriented business.'
and editors actively promote a wide and fully representative range
of contemporary poetry books, the readership of poetry in Britain will
disintegrate. Robert Potts believes that critics have a duty to point
out editors' errors and lapses - as he sees them of course.
I think it's time
the critics, reviewers and poetry editors were subjected to a more intelligent
kind of scrutiny, and if they are failing the readership, they should
be sacked. Or their funding should be cut in the case of the subsidised
presses. The readers deserve better, and so do the poets.
25. MOVE OVER DINOSAURS
One of the really
positive experiences I've had at StAnza has been listening to the younger
poetry enthusiasts. Many of you feel excluded from the poetry world, because
it is so narrowly based and doesn't reflect your own interests. This talk
may have added further discouragement, but at least it should show that
you aren't alone in how you feel. All readers and writers - not just you
- are outsiders because the whole poetry readership is ignored or patronised.
I believe that there's
room in our poetry culture for new initiatives from new readers and writers
as well as from the excluded or marginalised voices - and not just room,
but a need for new and progressive initiatives. New magazines,
presses and websites can find an audience for work which is responsive
to readers and to the cultural diversity of Britain.
'the magazine for women who write' - has certainly shown that. So have
poetry magazines which have reinvented themselves to reflect the variety
and breadth of contemporary poetry, such as Poetry London and The
Rialto. In what seems like a very short time - but actually ten years
- Magma has become one of Britain's liveliest and most independently-minded
poetry magazines. The next one to watch will be The Wolf, which
has a young editorial team who aren't afraid to ruffle a few feathers.
Alone amongst the
specialist presses, Peepal Tree has been given substantially increased
Arts Council funding, because its programme makes available the kind of
work by Black British, Caribbean and South Asian writers which is ignored
not just by mainstream publishers but by other arts-subsidised presses.
If the unresponsive
dinosaurs in the poetry establishment don't change their ways, falling
sales or subscriptions as well as reduced funding will precipitate or
accelerate their demise. This process of disintegration is already happening.
This is at a time when more imaginative people - editors, publishers,
festival organisers, poetry promoters, literature development workers
and others - have been responding to the growing interest in poetry
at grassroots level. But as the dinosaurs collapse, there will be many
new opportunities for new enterprises, and I'm convinced that because
the current situation is so bad in many quarters, the Arts Councils and
other funding bodies will want to support newcomers and new voices who
want to promote poetry by all kinds of writers to all kinds of readers.
Copyright © Neil Astley 2005