Monday, July 04, 2011

Too Dangerous for the Gals

This blog comment was too 'off topic' and declined publication on the blogs of Katy Evans Bush, Carrie Etter, Jane Holland and Rob McKenzie, during the earliest round in the current Poetry Society War, two weeks ago. Carriet Etter wrote a blog asking for information about what had been happening at the PS, and welcomed anonymous comments. This was due to many poets being too fearful to write honestly under their real name because of the perceived 'power' Fiona Sampson wields as editor of the Poetry Review. The post was eventually removed by Etter and can no longer be linked to.


I just hope that there’s someone on the inside with the talent and sagacity of Peter Barry, remembering this theatre in the Poetry Wars, who will record and publish it in all its comedic glory.

It’s amusing that ‘serious’ poets converse endlessly in the ‘debate’ about defending basic freedoms and human dignity in any number of places around the world with which we have no personal connection whatsoever; calling for this, that, or the other right of human dignity to be upheld, exhibiting real commitment in the abstract to our cause of humanitarian democracy – a la the Arab spring, women’s rights etc; yet when it comes to speaking about a middle-class university graduate who lives in rural Wales, who is, if we are to believe Anonymous, trying to make a power-grab for herself on a poetry magazine in safest England; the poets are all too fearful to speak, for fear of causing upset and offence, or docking our chances of ‘success’.

I blame this situation on the state-subisidized contemporary po-biz project that, in the absence of a recognized course of poetic apprenticeship and study, is founded and predicated solely on the idea of (what one anonymous poster said on the now removed Etter blog) ‘flattery and yet more flattery’ – in the form of a prize culture being the sole measure of poetic ‘success’.

In a shrinking literate realm of instantaneous publication, mass electronic communication and the strategic social networkizing of poetry; the first, and increasingly most important validation of a ‘successful’ poet, is not a question of existing as one in our own self-esteem, but rather, how many other ‘successful’ poets are, for want of a better word, ‘freinds’ willing to approve of our efforts in print, place us on the pages they publish and, if it is in their gift, recognize our talent with the prizes we crave and that seem the sole and central benchmark of poetical ‘success’ in, what Sampson referred to in her issue two Horizon podcast as, the Poetry Village.

As Robert Graves stated when delivering his opening Clark Lecture, The Crowning Privilegein 1954 at Cambridge University:

Unlike stockbrokers, soldiers, sailors, doctors, lawyers, and parsons, English poets do not form a closely integrated guild. A poet may put up his brass plate, so to speak, without the tedious preliminaries of attending a university, reading the required books and satisfying examiners. Also, a poet, being responsible to no General Council, and acknowledging no personal superior, can never be unfrocked, cashiered, disbarred, struck off the register, hammered on ‘Change, or flogged round the fleet, if he is judged guilty of unpoetic conduct. The only limits legally set on his activities are the acts relating to libel, pornography, treason, and the endangerment of public order. And if he earns the scorn of his colleagues, what effective sanctions can they take against him? None at all.

Graves goes on to state that poets owe fealty to none but their muse: ‘the desire to deserve well of the Muse, their divine patroness, from whom they receive their unwritten commissions, to whom they eat their solitary dinners, who confers her silent benediction on them, to whom they swear their secret Hippocratic oath, to whose moods they are as attentive as the stockbroker is to his market.’

He refers to a twelve year poetic apprenticeship undertook in the earliest British (Brythonic) bardic culture, and how: the arch-ollamh ranked in dignity next to the queen and acted as a vizier; his profession was endowed, his person was sacrosanct, and a gift for killing by satire made him the terror of the warrior class and even of the king.

Nowadays it seems, the fochloc beginners setting out on their word-weaving career, have lost touch and severed connection with the idea of existing as a poet first and foremost within our own self-esteem, by adhering to a twelve year term of training. The default route to the highest reach of ollamh-dom in England, and one which Sampson herself took, is to win-win-win; beginning with a Newdigate at Oxford (for best undergraduate poem) and then, jumping through a series of well-defined hoops: Gregory, Forward First, this prize, that prize etc, until ‘success’ arrives via an unchanging, well-trod path that leads to a small citadel of Letters within which repose the trophies and laurels of a small, select few who’ve all been awarding prizes to one another and consolidating our positions on the pages of the magazines the poetry prizes qualify us to edit.

The fact a majority of anti-Sampson posters who commened on Etter’s blog did so anonymously, is evidence suggesting this model is alive and well.


Where are the poets like Graves, who care not a jot who they provoke, offend, or whose sensibilities or toes are trod upon as they learn the trade of poetry? The ‘serious’ poets seem serious only in their desire to ‘win’ a prize, our primary validation of poetic authenticity yielding not from within our imagination and intellect, but from without. Not on the say so of our own instinct affirming itself on the page in the poems we write, but by the approval of those whose credentials are a list of prizes that are more favors being returned, a la Sampson, Paterson and O’Brien; at the heart of this holy alliance no one has the courage to speak of as themself.

Desmond Swords