Saturday, April 01, 2006


The head of UK poetry publishing house Carcanet is Michael Schmidt, professor of poetry at Glasgow University and a man with a huge knowledge of poetry. He is the author of the excellent book
  • Lives of the Poets
  • , which is a tour de force biographical history charting all major English Language poets since Chaucer. He is a poet, critic and novelist, who is known more for his critical work than the other two, which is unsurprising to anyone who has read the Lives of the Poets book, which is the best sort of its kind I have come across, by far.

    Prior to his Glasgow position he was the head of the creative writing programme at Manchester Metropolitan University for many years, and his great business rival in the poetry wars is Neil Astley, who is the head of Bloodaxe Books, which is based in Newcastle in the NE of England, and between them they have the contemporary UK poetry market more or less stitched up. Bloodaxe published two huge selling anthologies Being Alive and Staying Alive which took a lot of critical bashing by acadcemic high brows who Astley calls the Poetry Police who complain that these high selling anthologies represent a general dumbing down of poetry. For some reason they seem to think that big sellers equate to low quality, but the obvious retort is that they are just jealous because the verse they champion as being the true inheritor of TS Eliot's more intellectual modernist poetry isn't as popular.

    Last year Astley delivered the annual Stanza Lecture at Aberdeen university with a robust attack on the poetry police, and although no names were mentioned it was clear that the main object of this mauling was Schmidt. Astley said that the poetry police are basically snobs and self appointed know alls who won't face up to the facts that their opinions are not as culturally important as they would like to think.

    This year it was Schmidts turn at the podium
  • Michael Schmidt's 2006 Stanza Lecture
  • . Magus Michael basically said people need to be taught how to "read" criticism and poetry the right sort of way. Among others, he stuck the boot in on Larkin for being an alleged dunce and conjured up him and AE Houseman as being a mid century double act enforcing the dead creed of romanticism upon an unsuspecting public, rather than allowing Schmidt's favoured form of modernism unfettered access to the reading world. His argument was essentially giving the medal of honour to intellect rather than emotion in the poetry war. But the glaring subtext was about Neil Astley not being his boyfriend.

    The piece below is a satirical evaluation of his lecture, and to give you the background so you don't lose your way I must explain a few things first. Michael is now in Scotland so there are a lot of references to this, and reference also to him being in Manchester. Also he was born in Mexico, which I also allude to.

    During the lecture Schmidt made reference to how he knows when he recognises poetry, adding to the AE Houseman notion that real poetry gives you goosebumps when shaving. He added a feeling like an invisible spear going through his stomach, his stomach and throat tightening and his loins stirring when in the prescence of real poetry of an erotic kind.

    Philip Larkin is from Coventry and used to be a librarian in Leicester.

    There is also lines of poetry from Larkin, Ted Hughes and Auden, all in bold, whilst direct quotes from Shmidt are in quotation markes.

    An Ollamh is an Irish word which dates back to the celtic bardic schools which evolved out of druidic practice and they had an unbroken run up till 17C, when Cromwell came and extinquished the way of the Gael. It means an Irish Professor of poetry.

    Ard-Filidh is another Irish word and means head poet. In pre-17C Ireland a poet was a filidh or fili in the plural.


    After intellectually ingesting, what one of the more comedic voices in my personae mask bag would articulate as, Mick Schmidt's gob slop, I have swilled his chatter around the critical bucket of my mind and distilled its essential relevance into what I believe to be a salient precis of his current critical doings.

    One which details the topography where an ongoing war over the very ownership of poesy is being fought between two unequal forces. One power is an elite band, stationed in, what can be termed, the Schmidt house or stable of song, and is made up of a small but highly trained unit of crack special force poetry professionals who are all cutting edge experts in the highly complex field of quantum linguistics. This creme de le creme crew of champion thinkers claim politics of rank play second fiddle to the eternal truth of verse they joined the fight to find and foster onto a public stage for the mutual benifit of all mankind.

    The field marshal-professor heading this outfit tells us that whether you hail from Oxbridge Ollamh stock or a bog outside Barnsley is irrelevant to your prospects of entering this corps, as what counts is the poetry and criticism you create during your tour of duty at the frontline of love.

    Opposing these are a larger force of language artists who Schmidt, head man and top bottle washer directing operations from his bunker in Glasgow poetry flame HQ, claims is made up, not of committed fighters who score the verbal truth of beauty, but mere "cheer leaders," and commercial mercenaries whose hack contribution to the world of letters is a shallow dot to dot poetry of meaningless soundbite, which only serves to brainwash the public into buying a low brow literature which undermines the very fabric of civilised society.

    These mass market jigaboos are said to be completely unsuited to minister the purer gospels of the western poetry cannon, and are made up of a mass of amatuer enthusiasts unable to read in the right manner, and headed by a man, men, woman or women who Schmidt himself does not name but believes responsible for the weakening of quality and debasing of power in the holy words crucial to his dinivatory practice, where the diaphonous veil to the otherworld is lifted using such methods as tummy and throat tightening, invisible stomach spearing, eye wetting and knob stiffening; all goosebump ceremonies which take place when shaving in the bog.

    The erudite bruiser of thought cutely covers all angles by anchoring to a base quote of Cornel West which bemoans how the academy has become more like a field hospital for some of the less hardy soldiers of thought who, upon witnessing the futility of mental carnage when in the trenches, soon fall sick and shell shocked, losing the will to fight and sacrifice themselves in the battles of art, and so retreat from the front line to spend their days as non combatants in calmer conceptual arenas of the educational grove.

    This, we are told is due to a "rampant anti-intellectualism in this country, the fear of critical sensibilities, democratic sensibilities, that is deeply ensconced within the parochialism and provincialism of the very people whom we often invoke."

    With eloquent artifice Professor Mick waffles to life a lofty modern screen by Audenesque logic and its powers, where the yellow eyed hawk of an eternal Yeatsean-like poetic is projected as his bird of prayer and reason planing the erudite thermals of an aesthetic atmosphere high above, what I imagine as, the unmolested meadows of a simpler, less rarefied, more earthbound thought-scape where, in Ard-Filidh Mick’s report, AE Houseman and, to a lesser degree, Larkin, eke out the proletariat of poesy role Schmidt has them perform in his fanatsy theory.

    Glasgow’s number 1 critical druid, in keeping with West’s notion of simultaneously slagging a lack of imagination and invoking creativity, cites and chides the High Windows author and one time Leicester librarian as, both witness for and prosecutor of, Mick's modernist cause; in a Larkinesque strong but foolish type, schizophrenic register.

    By simultaneously admonishing and praising Coventry's premier bard for not fully fitting into the Schmidt vision of what and how, clever arty types should write and think in order to keep the Mexican born General's poetry clock ticking its steady tock of confused truth, the audience glimpse the hidden written lesson whose brilliantly dichotic context reveals the core secret code that enables all those willing to learn, how to correctly read Mr Mickey's submerged meaning, in such a way that they too can become expert and prolonged chatters of absolute irrelavant maxims which say nothing at all, in a star bore way that will leave family, friends and colleagues gasping with envy at your pointlessness.

    The failed Oxford scholorship boy from Bromsgrove, Alfred Edward Houseman is Micks old duffer spoilsport with a misguided but intelligent mind who; befuddled in the straightjacket of a 19C hangover, mans the currently intact sandbanks holding back the tide of progressive thought; whilst Larkin is AE's young fogey sidekick and partner in rhyme, whose intellectual legacy is cast as a finger still wedged in the dyke, upon whose bank the corporate headquarters of the cheerleaders has been built.

    The bankrupt romantic leanings of Alf and Phil are offered by Schmidts as a counterpoint he exhibits as the evidence of an esoteric light mass far outweighed by the gravitas of a poetic whose tetrad of godfathers enforce the creeds of loopy Ezra, plastic Anglo Eliot, Chester Kallman's third class degree boyfriend Wystan Hugh Auden and Sligo’s most verbal magician of the modern era, silly Willy Yeats.

    The tenor of Mick's lecture suggests that the Larkinesque Frinton folk who stood and watched the frigid wind /tousling the clouds, could easily stand in as the hinted at great unlearned the ex Bard of Manchester thinks are in need of readerly re-education and reprogramming to fully appreciate the subtleties of top drawer modern poets and critics. This is because "reading is an acquired skill" and what is on the page can be interpreted in many different ways.

    The way I read it, the newly Glaswegian shape shifter paints a shadowy catchall archetype; a sort of literate moron whose natural habitat is no doubt the rich industrial shadows or a Mr Bleaney’s room whose flowered curtains/thin and frayed, open out onto a cut price crowd of cheap suits, red kitchen-ware...electric mixers, toasters...where only salesmen come; probably based in NE England and who work in the business of spieling slick sounding patter to the special needs readers Mick wants to re-tune and who are conditioned to buy simple because their untutored ears are deaf to his rarer and ultimately more rewarding note.

    This is no Hughsean landscape with a staring angel...gazing amazed at a work/that points at him amazed; but an Audenesque altar where, in the words of the man himself An unintelligible multitude....whose logic brought them....bored officials....watched from without and neither moved nor spoke....The mass and majesty of this world....could not hope for help and no help came...

    As magus Michael explains, there was a dumbing down of criticism in the latter part of the 20C, which is a dangerous thing because it stifles the modern thinking crucial for art to contribute to the civilising process and so, by inferance, help grease the mechanics of societal peace.

    And although his prognosis is that civilisation is on the mend in the internet age, the bulk of his lecture is a warning about how the above mentioned cheerleaders who are responsible for the non-prioritising of cleverness are still engaged in active cheer, flouncing about in the literary equivalent of miniskirts, hotpants and crop tops, tempting readers who don't know their own mind to pander to the shallow meaningless sides of their being.

    Cut price predatory movers shaking a throwaway sound and dancing humanity to a future of total poetry daftness bedecked with frivolous bits of literary twaddle that aids, abets and assists the tenebrous global force of economic and educational homogenisation, which panders to unquestioned prejudice and promotes the literary equivalent of MacDonalds, KFC and Oprah.

    Michael's main want is to see imaginative thinking increase and the quality of art recognition and appraisal to be raised, by fostering reason/judgement, over taste/emotion. The self appointed minister for culture and oink free Scotland fan says that this goal is achievable if people keep their mental knife-gates sharp and open, by honing the blade of inquiry with lots of reading and writing quality poetry and criticism, in such manner which allows their minds to culturally receive the new and gauge the old in a more aesthetically truthful way than at present.

    If we imagine poetry readers as telly viewers and Mick a dictator general of all channels, he would replace Wife Swap and Celebrity Pig Farm with round the clock Arena, the South Bank Show and commission lots of new programmes by those with critically impressive astute imaginative minds, who subscribe to his galagtic outlook. By deciphering the hidden codes and following his programme we can attempt to bump up the mean level of cultural awareness and so, I assume, make our own direct contribution towards world peace and global love.

    If only they would devote time to learning how to properly listen to him telling them how to make up their own minds, then they too could hear what he does and make informed choices based on a sensible, inclusive artistic policy tolerant of all other brain spaces, as long as their thinking does not interfere with Mick's job as a world visionary in charge of running civilisation.

    It has also struck me that beneath the surface of what is being said, the pages of a more interesting, psychological debate can be read. This is the second part of a bi-annual report consisting of two conflicting halves, and details the current state of play between two publishing houses; compiled by their self made commanders in chief who have waffled a way to planetary prominence and become; in their own minds and the minds of those housed in their respective stables, two top warriors doing battle for the misty laurel beret of a nation’s poetic ideology.

    A tug of war double act between the superpower duo of poetry, driven along on a commercial undertow by two first class lingoists, wordsmiths and verbal gymnasts duelling in the circus ring of poesy; whose spoken blurb arguments are extended essay length plugs both blatherers attempt to dress up as essential validations of their deepest poetic belief.

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