Today the wannabe poet progresses like the academic, the civil servant, the manager, up a series of marked steps to become a member of the fraternity and sorority of Published Poets. The obedience such an ascent requires can be at odds with the very principles of the art. It is an art of speculation not in the old sense but entirely in the new, speculating on the prize, the publisher, the public -- poetry has become as keen to embrace the main chance as the basest prose.
The above is from Michael Schmidt’s lecture ‘What, How Well, Why?’ given at the StAnza festival in Scotland this March. Schmidt, the founder of Carcanet and Professor of Poetry at Glasgow University argues for a critical culture that’s open and receptive as well as rigorous: ‘If we want our poets to develop and grow without pollarding, trellising, pruning, grafting, we need a diverse and vigorous culture of reception.....’ The kind of insularity that routinely dismisses Modernism and post-Modernism ends up privileging the literal and the banal. Down with the poetry cheerleaders, Schmidt argues, poets need ‘to demand a little less solidarity, a little less local backslapping, more debate and engagement, at the same time giving the reader less of a condescending embrace.’
One of the points Michael Schmidt makes is that Britain is ‘a nation of countless poets and a strictly limited number of poetry readers’. However much we might like to delude ourselves (and we do, we do) that is pretty much the situation in this part of the world. The Cat Flap knows many excellent poets who sell three books a year, of which two to circulating libraries. One acquaintance recently produced his annual royalty statement, lamenting: ‘I seem to have sold minus three books last year. How is this possible?’ It is, of course, entirely possible. You think you have sold those three books and all your boats have come in, and then the bookseller returns the things and you’re back in the red again, quashed entirely.
How many readers does a poet need, in any case? Need for what?, you might think. To be considered a viable entity, to be eligible for an IDA grant or a VAT rating or an Aosdána nomination or a productivity audit by the Muses? It’s a question that vexes August Kleinzahler in a recent review in the LRB of The Long and the Short of It: Poems 1955-2005 by Roy Fisher. He begins by quoting John Ash in 1979: ‘In a better world, he would be as widely known and highly praised as Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney.’ And then continues: ‘This would be a very strange world, and not necessarily a better one. Fisher has never aspired to the sort of readership that Heaney and Hughes enjoy; it’s not clear he has aspired to much of a readership at all.’ Indeed, Kleinzahler makes it sound as if Fisher went out his way to repel all boarders: ‘Astringent in tone, the voice denuded of personality and with all the warmth of a lens, exploratory, restless, difficult: it is poetry almost entirely without charm.’
This begs all kinds of questions: what exactly is charm in poetry and why should we necessarily think it a good thing? Do we have to have the comforting print of a ‘personality’, preferably a ‘warm’ one, before we can investigate a poet’s work? Kleinzahler goes on to consider Fisher’s poetry in some depth, but we’re left feeling that Fisher really should have tried to come a little closer to the reader, should have withheld himself a little less – which would have made him a much different and probably a less interesting poet. But isn’t the consideration of audience a distraction from the main business of writing poetry? Doesn’t the audience come after the event rather than before or during it? It seems to this reader that a lot of poets get the order wrong and write as if the audience were already filing into the room, wanting to be comforted, reassured, ready to applaud at the appropriate cues. Which is what Schmidt is saying too as he writes of the obedience that often attends the successful poetry career. Healthier, maybe, to write for the Unreader, the Absent Reader, than the eager face in the front row. Perhaps we should end with a charmless, reader-repelling Fisher poem:
3rd November 1976
Maybe twenty of us in the late afternoon
are still in discussion. We’re talking
about the Arts Council of Great Britain
and its beliefs about itself. We’re baffled.
We’re in a hired pale clubroom
high over the County Cricket Ground
and we’re a set of darkening heads,
turning and talking and hanging down;
beyond the plate glass, in another system, silent,
the green pitch rears up, all colour,
and differently processed. Across it in olive overalls
three performance artists persistently move
with rakes and rods. The cold sky steepens.
Twilight catches the flats rising out of the trees.
One of our number is abducted
into the picture. A sculptor innocent of bureaucracy
raises his fine head to speak out;
and the window and its world frame him.
He is made clear.