Author Archives: Jem Wikeley

Shepherds at the gate

The journey to getting poetry published is hard enough as it is that to suggest there might be some benefit to having your work turned down may sound perverse. Increasingly, though, I feel as grateful to the editors who say no as I do to those who say yes.

That thought was initially prompted by something I read the other day and now can’t remember, but I was reminded of it by two recent blogs in which poets offer sideways looks at the poetry-publishing-machine. In Beyond Submissions, Naush Sabah questions just how much store poets should put in the validation of an acceptance from an editor they know little about. Some poems might be best shared by other means, without all the hassle and anxiety. Or not shared at all: it’s not an exact comparison, but think of the number of sketches a painter produces before the final picture.

In (Avoiding) Poetic Ecological Collapse, meanwhile, Jonathan Davidson suggests that a constant rush for publication may not only be unsustainable for our own writing but a distraction from all the other ways of engaging with words which the art needs to flourish. What happens when we see ourselves as custodians of the ‘commonwealth of poetry’, rather than toilers in our own private furlongs?

Writers sometimes see editors as gatekeepers and it is easy to see why. Rejections feel like being held back: if only they would let us through into the green pastures of publication! (You can blame Jonathan for the pastoral metaphors). But editors – and, increasingly, arts administrators, competition judges, mentors and funding bodies – also decide when to let the poet through, and in what form, and this inevitably shapes where they go next. Less gatekeepers, more shepherds. It is a big responsibility.

Sometimes I think it is a responsibility we don’t talk about enough. I have come across several books in the last few years – highly-acclaimed first or second collections from prestigious publishers – where I couldn’t understand why the editor hadn’t encouraged the poet to slim the collection down, or even wait until they had a stronger set of poems to work with. Perhaps they already had.

I doubt anyone reading this is going to feel sorry for poets sitting on the shelves in Waterstones (perhaps we should). My point is only that the rush to publication doesn’t even serve those who might appear to be benefiting from it. Few things are more important than affirmation, especially early on, but perhaps as important is being able to explore avenues you don’t end up going all the way down. Who knows what some writers might have gone on to if they had stayed in their chrysalises a little longer.1

There is an awkward tension here with the fact that so many poets (more and more, it seems to me) are also editors themselves. That DIY attitude goes back long before the internet. It is why poetry is so exciting and it helps keep it open. And the best editors, of course, take their pastoral responsibilities very seriously indeed. But magazines and small presses all need a steady stream of material to maintain their profile. And if we’re not editing, then we’re running workshops, or mentoring, and the end point of these schemes is often, implicity or explicitly, to speed up a poet’s ‘arrival’.

More and more of us, in short, are invested in saying ‘yes’, when the answer the poet really needs might be ‘later’. And yes, I’m aware of what a hostage to fortune that is…


1 I’m afraid I ran out of ovine metaphors.

Detail from ‘Strayed Sheep’ (also known as ‘Our English Coasts’) by William Holman Hunt, 1852.

The Quiet Part Loud

As far as I know Mark Antony Owen’s project iamb is one of a kind: an online journal which exclusively publishes poets reading their work. I was really glad to have three poems featured in the most recent edition. iamb was inspired by the Poetry Archive, but works like a magazine of new poetry. If I was the Poetry Archive (which is also a brilliant resource) I would be knocking on Mark’s door for help.

I think I have always had a funny relationship with the spoken word. I don’t, I tell myself, enjoy live readings: I’ve been writing poetry for over a decade and I can count the number I’ve been involved in on my fingers. The idea of an open mic, let alone a poetry ‘slam’, fills me with something like dread. Dread and, if I’m honest, a little distrust. There is a particular kind of poetry, written for performance, which has such a direct design on the listener that I’m suspicious of it. Perhaps too suspicious.

Poetry, after all, is impossible to detach from performance, on the page or off it. Perhaps what matters most is the environment in which the reading takes place. In poetry slams, which were popular when I was at university (I don’t know if they still are) the goal is to elicit the biggest immediate response. Hence pieces get written to manipulate the audience. But all art is a kind of manipulation. The question, surely is how provoke a reaction without treating your readers (or listeners) with contempt.

For me, reading poetry aloud rasies another occaisionally sensitive subject: memorability, whether it is increasingly rare in contemporary poetry (I think, on balance, it is), and whether that is something we should regret (I think we should). A common figure of fun for poets is the non-poetry reader who asks why the stuff doesn’t rhyme like the good old days. If only they knew better! Even mentioning rhyme is probably proof (so the exagerrated version of the argument goes) the person doesn’t understand what poetry’s about. We don’t have to worry about people like that.

But if you think of ‘rhyme’ as simply a word that stands, for the irregular reader, for every trick that makes a poem tick as a machine, then don’t they have a point? Memorability isn’t everything, and what I find memorable might not be what you find memorable. I don’t believe memorability is the same thing as form, either. Some of the most memorable poems break all the rules. All the same, I find it hard not to believe that a lack of interest in lodging lines into their readers heads from the very people who you might expect to care is one of the things that has contributed to poetry’s marginality over the years.

One of the most enjoyable part of the process with iamb was choosing the poems to include. Mark, very generously, gives you free reign. I found that invitation a powerful one. Suddenly the question wasn’t which were my ‘best’ poems – but which were the ones I most wanted to read. In doing so certain things came to the fore, none of which should really be a surprise – rhythm, rhyme and repetition (not just repetition within lines but across the poem).

I also took it as an opportunity to include an unpublished squib, ‘The Vandals Remove the Ark of the Covenant’, which (wrongly, perhaps) I hadn’t even thought of sending anywhere before, because it is a sort of so-called nonsense poem. Nonsense verse of course demands to be read aloud. A lot of my favourite poetry is nonsene verse – Edward Lear, Stevie Smith, Spike Milligan…

We live in a text-based world. When I read a book of poems it is usually in silence. But my interest in poetry has always had something to do with songs, with prayers, plays and children’s ryhmes. At some point those pleasures were sublimated almost entirely onto the page, but I don’t think, for me, the page makes much sense without them.


New poem: ‘The Sign Says Hungerford’

The first poetry competition I ever entered was a local one. Test Valley Borough Council had just re-opened a bridge along the canal path north of Romsey, or just a bit of path, perhaps a bench (it was a long time ago) and wanted poems from local residents to mark the occaision.

I was a teenager. I had, I suspect, been writing poems for a while, but I had – or believed I had, which amounts to the same thing – no outlet for them other than songs for our garage band, and even then I knew lyrics were something different. Why not, I thought. So I sent in a surreal, morbid little poem called ‘Why Birds Fly Into Windows’. (I still think it is one of my better poems). The organisers sent me back a handwritten note saying how much they had liked it, and that I ought to carry on writing – but it wasn’t right for the occaision.

My first thought was if they had liked it so much then they should have given it a prize! Wasn’t the best poem the best poem? My second thought was that they were worried my poem – which, after all, mentioned death – was too dark. They wanted something fluffy and nice instead. I was being censored! My third thought, thankfully, was gratitude – gratitude that someone – anyone – had read and liked it. Thankfully that’s also the thought that’s stayed with me.

Which is all a very long-winded way of saying getting the Hampshire Prize at the Winchester Poetry Festival last week was a very lovely surprise. More than anything it was a great afternoon – brilliant poems – including a genuinely disturbing overall winner from Luke Palmer (nothing fluffy here), brilliantly compered by Jo Bell – who had some wise words about prizes and about poems generally (don’t be afraid of short ones), brilliantly run by the team, and with an impressive show of local support, including from local businesses (thank you to Warren and Sons for my very fancy pen). You can get the anthology here – my poem, ‘The Sign Says Hugerford’, is here.

Because of the rail strikes, most of the speakers were projected up on a huge screen: there was something oddly effective – and affecting – about being read to from someone’s home, but I want to put a special word in for Nia and Vicci, who were the only to other poets to make it in person and brave the microphone. And for David Day, for his poem ‘John Clare Makes Headway in the Snow’.

When I was growing up a little further down the M3, the poetry world felt like a very distant thing. So it means a great deal to be recognised as a Hampshire-based poet, which I feel like I can now always say I am, wherever I might happen to be.

‘Born Yesterday’: Philip Larkin at 100

The 100th anniversary of the poet Philip Larkin’s birth took place earlier this week. Larkin is an important poet for me, yet I still somehow manage to underestimate the hold he has on the public imagination. If you mention poetry in this country to someone who doesn’t read it, they might still mention Larkin back. They might even quote him. The recent furore over the GCSE syllabus must have helped generate coverage but the BBC have also commissioned a lot of features (from poets, which is nice). The Philip Larkin Society and Larkin100 team has been incredibly busy.

It helps that Larkin makes such good material. He is present, tangible, in a way many writers aren’t. When we think about Larkin’s character we usually mean his attitudes, but the novelistic observations he’s so often praised for – a ring of water on a sheet of music or ‘an uncle shouting smut’ – are also deployed to paint memorable mini-self-portraits: the famous bicycle clips in ‘Church Going’ or the narrator in ‘Dockery and Sons’ who eats ‘an awful pie’ as they change trains. Then there’s the technology: for a famously reclusive man there is a fair amount of footage and recordings. This, I think, is not a coincidence. Larkin was probably the first generation for which making primetime features about poets was an option (possibly the last).

Another reason – perhaps the main reason – why Larkin feels ‘present’ today is the conversation that’s grown up around his actual character. As a result of the casual racism, sexism and classism revealed by Andrew Motion’s biography and the private letters, as well as the way women are represented in the poems themselves, even the most appreciative discussions of the poems now begin with a kind of ritual throat clearing – the point at which the author indicates that, obviously, they don’t share Larkin’s opinions. I understand why. I do it myself. Some of them indefensible.

But I increasingly think the urge to disassociate the man from the poems leads to some strange places. Every now and then I read one of Larkin’s advocates arguing for a clear division between the man and the work: the man was a rotter, but the work expresses (in the words of one TLS writer) ‘universal truths’. Or you have the late Clive James, possibly Larkin’s loudest cheerleader, who spoke of the way he ‘went narrow to go deep’, avoiding social issues in order to plumb the depths of human nature.

This isn’t my Larkin. For me, the poetry has always contained a sustained, consistent criticism of post-war society – its obsession with youth and beauty, its endless consumerism, its failed promises of freedom – all of which is contrasted with the realities of aging and increasing social isolation. There is a kind of willful turning away from so much else that was going on in the published poems, and a grim reactionariness to the man, especially later in life (there’s the throat clearing again). This is where critics who see Larkin as a poet of post-imperial self-pity have a point. But to cast Larkin’s poetry as fuzzy nostalgia, or to defend it on the grounds of its unique insight into universal ‘human nature’ is to miss the point: Larkin wrote about limits – and his approach to limits clearly had something to do with who he was and the times he lived in.

Personally, that particular sensibility – the concern with limits – has never felt like something from a bygone age, despite the period fittings. In the first episode of Simon Armitage’s ‘Larkin Revisited‘, a series of a series of short clips in which the poet laureate takes Larkin’s poems ‘for a spin’ to see how they bear up now, Armitage reads the poem ‘Born Yesterday’ with a group of dance students in Liverpool. Written for Sally Amis, daughter of Larkin’s friend Kingsley, the poem declines to wish the baby will be ‘beautiful’ or ‘a spring of innoncence and love’. Instead, Larkin wishes ‘what none of the others would’:

May you be ordinary;
Have, like other women,
An average of talents:
Not ugly, not good-looking,
Nothing uncustomary
To pull you off your balance,
That, unworkable itself,
Stops all the rest from working.
In fact, may you be dull —
If that is what a skilled,
Vigilant, flexible,
Unemphasised, enthralled
Catching of happiness is called

Implicitly, the students we hear from recognise this as a response to their own world of socially conditioned, unreal expectations. If you read Larkin’s poems, and especially the letters, you see how deeply he felt this pressure himself – instead of the calm, collected resistance of the poem there is an obsession with failure, of looking back on opportunities not taken, of believing he should be living some other kind of life than the one he is. The titles of some of the uncollected pomes tell their own story: ‘Failure’, ‘Success Story’, ‘At thirty-one, when some are rich’… ‘Born Yesterday’ is, to use a cliché – ‘hard won’. It is a form of resistance.

One thing I like about ‘Larkin Revisted’ is that Armitage doesn’t ignore the poems’ more troubling elements, the ones right there in the text. One of the students picks up on a phrase Larkin uses earlier in the poem that, for some, shows his other side – the patronising sexist:

They will all wish you that,
And should it prove possible,
Well, you’re a lucky girl.

Armitage discusses that phrase, ‘lucky girl’, with the poet Sinéad Morrissey, whose poem ‘On Balance’ is a riposte to Larkin’s (though as others have pointed out it takes some poetic license with the original). Morrissey suggests that Larkin would not have written the same poem about a boy, and I think this is true. Larkin, Morrissey’s poem argues, rarely mentions women, and when he does it is only to comment on what they look like or what they can’t do. It’s true, too, that this is how women often feature – although I’d question ‘rarely’. If I had to guess I would say there are more women in Larkin’s poems than men, and I think this is one of the more interesting things about them.

What makes Larkin’s poetry so well-loved is that alongside the neat stanzas, memorable phrases and occasional flight into mystic vision, it is rooted in life as it was lived. Not just what it looked like, but what it felt like. For Morrissey, by addressing itself to a baby girl ‘Born Yesterday’ imposes limits on its subject and by implication on women generally. For Armitage, and many of the students, its value lies precisely in the way the poem embraces limitation as a defence against a culture whose promises are neither true nor kind, and often flat-out manipulation. These aren’t historical questions, but they’re not universal, timeless ones either. They are about how we live now.


Which Yet Survive: Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’

Percy Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ is not exactly a neglected poem. It was an option in my GCSE anthology fifteen years ago. For all I know, it still is. It’s tempting to approach the poem as a kind of relic, like those ‘two vast and trunkless legs of stone’ standing in the desert, a monument that won’t really speak to us. But Ozymandias does, quite literally, speak. Reading the poem again after several years away from it (and, more recently, several months of looking around ancient ruins) the first thing that struck me was the number of different voices involved. The poem is a kind of Russian doll, reported speech enclosed within reported speech enclosed within reported speech.

And it all happens very quickly: first the narrator, then the traveller, then Ozymandias on the plinth. It’s not just the grand sweep of history: two words into the second line, someone new is already speaking. Do you pause at ‘said’, or carry straight on? It makes the poem surprisingly difficult to read: you can’t recite it ponderously like some people imagine this kind of poem demands. It’s pure text. The play of tone and phrase within the sheer square block of the poem and its metre give ‘Ozymandias’ a kind of glassy, artificial quality, like the sort of stone you might make a statue out of.

That’s one reason, I think, why it hasn’t really aged. Another is that there are few obviously poetic words (‘visage’). The rhymes are almost entirely perfect monosyllables, with notable exceptions in despair and appear (Oliver Tearle talks about the whole rhyme scheme here) and the final pair, decay and away, where the open vowels suggest the stretch of the ‘lone and level’ sands.

‘Ozymandias’ is usually described as a poem about hubris. The inevitable decay of empire and the arrogance of power were constant preoccupations in nineteenth century Britain. At the time, the charge hit close to home (it still should). The poem was written in competition with Horace Smith, whose own version describes a hunter making their way through the ruins of a future London. Ozymandias asks us to ‘look upon his works’ and despair. Only, there’s nothing there. So we despair even more.

So far so familiar. Yet, at least within the world of the poem, Ozymandias’ works do survive. His words do. So, through the words, do his achievements. Here we are talking about them. That’s the thing about words, words etched in stone especially. It is why ruins have such a hold on the imagination: they persist. Ruins speak directly, too, from the writing on huge public monumnets to private gravestones or roadside waymarkers. More words are written today than ever, but it’s still possible the future will remember these people more than it will remember us.

On this reading, then, the poem isn’t entitely critical of Ozymandias’ ambition to be remembered. The opposite in fact. The King of King’s shattered visage is only ‘half sunk’, both dead and buried and, through the sculptor’s skill in manipulating ‘lifeless things’, curiously and terrifyingly alive. His ‘sneer of cold command’ lives on. The enjambment between lines six and seven only reinforces this.

Artist and king are complicit. Through one’s creation and the other’s power they both make their mark on the future. Perhaps that ‘sneer’ is Shelley’s, the author of this ‘collosal wreck’, still in command after all these years – the ‘lone and level sands’ only the dead white space around the deathless words.