Category Archives: BLOG

Jottings about anything (but mostly poetry)

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.

A Year in (Not) Publishing

Like more people than you would imagine, I once had a whole spreadsheet keeping track of the poems I had written, the outlets I had submitted them to, and the results. I rarely look at it now. I have not published many poems recently, either. Partly this is just life. Letting go of a poem – researching magazines and preparing submissions, writing cover letters – takes a lot of time and concentration.

The digital world, and the amount of opportunities out there, creates the impression that getting a poem published is easier than it is. That ever-growing number of opportunities is at least partly a function of magazines being able to find their own audiences and more people having the tools to put platforms together in the first place. The benefit for writers and readers, no longer reliant on a narrow set of outlets, are huge. The effect on how we think about our own work is more ambiguous.

On the one hand, it’s too easy to get unrealistic expectations about how much anyone can or should be publishing. On the other, rejection (the most likely outcome, when even small magazines can only publish a tiny percentage of what they receive) only feeds a desire for more rejection. Comparisons with social media are hard to ignore: for every tweet you put out which gets no likes you want to do another. For every poem which got rejected, I would submit another elsewhere.

I have got a great deal out of writing this blog this year. The feedback is as immediate as social media, and more fulfilling. There is always a chance someone will read it, so it never feels pointless. I write about whatever I want, however I want: that anyone is listening at all is a luxury!

Yet having had a month or so away from blogging, I can see how my relationship with blogging might have some things in common with submitting poetry to magazines, or using social media: that feeling that I need to just keep publishing; that fear of rejection, which only feeds the desire to publish more.

Is there a solution? Jonathan Davidson suggests we broaden our understanding of what sharing poetry entails to include different kinds of reading, and to reach more non-poets – for instance, out loud, or at special occasions. I agree. Davidson is mainly talking about collections, but the insight can be extended to individual poems too. Why should the default ‘end point’ be publication in a magazine?

For most people I know, poetry is a marginal art, so it’s a fair assumption that by placing a poem in a magazine you will have a greater chance of finding an appreciative reader than sharing it with someone you know. But the end result of this way of thinking isn’t just a self-fulfilling prophecy which keeps poetry on the margins: it has implications for our idea of what a poem even is.

There are ways of rethinking how we share poetry among regular writers, too. I suspect a lot of writers engage with poetry groups and workshops, at least in part, as steps towards publication. But there is no reason why they have to be. I attended a regular poetry evening when I was at uni. None of the poems I wrote then will ever see the light of day, but I have rarely felt so much like I knew why I was writing.

My own solution over the last few years has been to try to publish less poetry, and more writing about poetry. I can see this wouldn’t appeal to everyone. It may end up with me not publishing any of my own poetry at all. But I’ve also found that I appreciate poetry – writing it and reading it – more, not less.

Two Types of Pessimism

Thomas Hardy’s comprehensively if not especially catchily titled collection Late Lyrics and Earlier with Many Other Verses includes an introduction by the author framed as an ‘Apology’ against the charges of ‘pessimism’ which dogged him his whole career.

In the piece Hardy protests that ‘what is today [this was just over a century ago, in 1922] alleged to be “pessimism” is in truth only questionings in the exploration of reality, and is the first step towards the soul’s betterment, and the body’s also.’ If way to better there be, he quotes from one of his own poems, ‘In Tenebris’, it exacts a full look at the worst.

Hardy is a profoundly pessimistic writer, sometimes to the point of perversity. Awful things happen in the books: there is one scene in Jude the Obscure that made me cry on the train. There is a lingering air of melodrama in ‘Late Lyrics’, too, where the characters (most of the poems are ballad-like stories) are forever betraying each other or encountering misfortune of some kind. He is never shy to point out that bad things happen to good people. 

In Hardy’s day, the charge of pessimism went hand in hand with censure, particularly over the way he challenged Victorian sexual morality and religion. Hardy’s universe does not appear to have a Christian God or any more abstract sense of benevolence.

What is interesting about the ‘Apology’ is that Hardy does not say simply that ‘what is alleged to be “pessimism”’ is simply how the world is or appears to him – which is what his most famous acolyte Philip Larkin did whenever he was accused of a similar attitude.1 It could be that Hardy felt that gambit was unnecessary: he was describing Victorian rural life as he witnessed it, with all its attendant cruelties.

Instead, Hardy takes his critics on their own turf and defends his perspective as useful – even positive. ‘Pain to all… tongued or dumb [i.e. to humans or animals],’ he writes, ‘shall be kept down to a minimum by lovingkindness operating through scientific knowledge, and activated by the modicum of freewill conjecturally possessed by organic life when the mighty necessitating forces – unconscious or other… happen to be in equilibrium, which may or may not be often.’

If this is hope it is incredibly qualified and not a little obscure. But despite the forbidding grandeur of phrases like ‘mighty necessitating forces’ there is a recognisable, positive philosophy here in which compassion is linked to finding and applying rational solutions to moral and social problems.

In a reissue of his first collection, The North Ship, Philip Larkin says that, shortly after those poems were published he threw off the influence of W. B. Yeats’s symbolism in favour of Hardy’s more plain style, paving the way for the ‘mature’ Larkin voice of The Less Deceived and The Whitsun Weddings.

Critics have largely gone along with this story, though some suggest Yeats’s influence might have been stronger, and continued longer, than Larkin let on. But you don’t, I think, admire a writer to the extent of identifying yourself with them, as Larkin did with Hardy, without also engaging with their broader vision. Which makes the differences in their ‘pessimism’ particularly telling.  

Two key themes that Larkin and Hardy have in common is their attentiveness to suffering and their tendency to attack the sexual morality of their day. Hardy’s ‘Apology’ makes him out to be in some ways a good Victorian liberal, holding out for ways of alleviating human misery and for a time when people can love according to their true selves, even if this rarely happens for the characters in his work.

For Larkin, on the other hand, suffering and sexual privation – for him, the two were usually associated with one another – were not problems to be resolved but states which offered insight into the true nature of life, and which became the starting point of his own poems. Larkin takes Hardy’s so-called pessimism (which Hardy claims is only a qualified hope for others) and turns it into something both more personal and more intractable – almost a kind of mysticism.

1 See for example the remarkable interview with John Haffenden, subsequently published in Viewpoints: poets in conversation with John Haffenden (Faber, 1981) and Further Requirements (Faber, 2001). Haffenden presses Larkin on this point several times.

NB the cover picture is a detail of an 1983 etching of Thomas Hardy by William Strang (National Gallery of Scotland)