When poets disappear

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Some of my favourite poetry books of all time are anthologies.

Not the headline selections everybody has (and has to have) –The New Poetry, Emergency Kit, The Poetry of Survival (though these are great)– but the obscure ones I have no memory of buying and which I cannot get rid of. The Poetry Book Society Anthology 1986-87 (edited by Jonathan Barker; Hutchinson, 1986), anyone? The Gregory Poems 1985-1986: The Best of Young British Poets (edited by K.W. Gransden and Howard Sergeant; Penguin, 1987)?

The former has poems by James Berry, Carol Ann Duffy and Ian McMillan. And Larkin. And Dick Davis and B.C. Leale. The Gregory book has poems by Graham Mort, Adam Thorpe and Deborah Randall (including the still amazing ‘Ballygrand Widow’). You will also find Pippa Little in there, plus Alison Ainley and Mark Hutchinson.

Two of my very favourites are Poetry Introduction 6 (Faber and Faber, 1985) and Poetry Introduction 7 (Faber and Faber, 1986). If you want to know where the careers of Stephen Knight and Bernard O’Donoghue (6), David Morley, Paul Munden and Matthew Francis (7) began, this is where you need to look.

Typing that last sentence has made me realise how deeply inimical the notion of a poet having a ‘career’ is to me. Surely, in the best sense, we are all amateurs, doing our best with out ferocious and various talents. The guarantees of  fame and money are close to nil, as some of the names above and your reaction to them will testify. As Peter Sansom says, you don’t go into poetry to own a Porsche. (And yet, to oppose the notion that poets do have careers is to appear a Luddite, hostile to the notion of progression, development and reputation, of being rewarded with the investment these things take so long to build).

Reading the Faber Poetry Introduction series is to come face to face with the reality that whatever promise individual poets are seen to display early in their ‘careers’ this is not always borne to full fruition over the passage of time, even if we do not measure ourselves on the Porsche-index. I wonder why this is so? It is tempting to ascribe this to variations in talent and hard work, but also of course completely useless as these are unquantifiable. Being human, social and flawed, other factors influencing the ‘progress’ (or lack of it) in a poet’s career also come into play, for example, geography; the capacity for friendship and networking; and good old luck (which, it occurs to me, may be another way of describing the other two).

At this point it may be worth pointing out the difference between progress in a poet’s career and progressing as a writer of poems. Is it possible to have the former without the latter? Given we are all lividly talented and hard-working why don’t out careers develop at the same rate? I’ve always liked what Ted Hughes has to say about this in his Foreword to Sandy Brownjohn’s book of writing ideas for teachers What Rhymes With Secret? (Hodder, 1982): ‘The progress of any writer is marked by those moments when he manages to outwit his own inner police system.’ Who judges this, and by what criteria, is another matter.

In a sense Gerard Manley Hopkins, who I wrote about two weeks ago, was an extreme example of a poet who demonstrated advanced poetic progression which nevertheless had zero impact on his career as a poet. You could say he was brilliant at outwitting the police, but hopeless at using the freedom it afforded him. I can’t imagine poets in this connected age settling for the same equation. What is the point of writing ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ if no one is going to read it? On the other hand, I wonder what a writing group would have made of it…

Fingering these slim volumes I pondered about this in the wake of the publishing house Salt’s decision this week to no longer publish single-author collections of poetry. Leaving aside debates about funding and business modelsI could not help speculating what would happen to the talented poets, now without a home, from Salt’s list. I call some of them friends. There are humans involved here. That it is a ‘great shame’ (Andrew Motion) seems an understatement.

It seems sacrilege to say this, but I also question whether this kind of squandering of talent has not always been with us?

Let’s look again at the roll call of names in Poetry Introduction 6: Susannah Amoore, Shirley Bell, Simon Curtis, Alan Dewar, Stephen Knight, Sarah Lawson, R.A. Maitre, Bernard O’Donoghue: they should all be household names by now, shouldn’t they? Isn’t that the premise of such books? This is not to justify the slow emergence and even disappearance of some of these voices, but to point out that career-paths in poetry are as non-linear as everyone else’s. Nor is this the argument that cream always rises to the top. Leaving our personal tastes to one side, it doesn’t (the Hopkins example shows us that) and can be subject to factors other than talent: health, family, resilience and of course good old luck (again).

This is not about talent, ‘developing an audience’, or even poems (is it?). This is about a system which seems to have waste ‘inscribed in its egg’, to borrow Ted Hughes’s phrase. Is it sustainable? I have just spent a week Googling the name of Susannah Amoore, whose poems I love and would like to read more of. But for a picture book for children she seems to have completely disappeared. This is indeed ‘a great shame’, but it has been one for nearly thirty years, since Amoore’s delicate-domestic poems last came to light. I don’t know what the answer is.

This is one reason I hold on to, and still look for, slim poetry anthologies no one has heard of.

Lifesaving Poems

13 comments

  1. cliffyates

    Thanks for posting this Anthony. I’ve thought about this a lot and I agree that there are two things: the way you develop as a poet, and the amount of ‘fame’ you achieve. And these often bear no relation whatsoever. There are so many really fine poets who are almost off the radar, and ‘famous’ ones whose work, well… It’s not always true of course: Hughes, for example. It strikes me that the most important thing is that which got me writing in the first place: that sense of excitement, and sheer fun. The joy of writing. That’s what it’s all about. And our Fiesta’s doing pretty well. Anthologies: Penguin Modern Poets 19: Ashbery, Harwood & Raworth – wouldn’t be without it. And Postmodern American Poetry edited by Paul Hoover – fabulous.

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    • Anthony Wilson

      Hi Cliff
      Great to hear from you. I like the ‘off the radar’ metaphor. Absolutely know what you mean. It was interesting to see you mention Hughes. In some ways I think he is off the radar at the moment, or as Lawrence Sail said to me the other day He feels very dead. Of course he will go on forever etc, but it’s odd isn’t it how even with the Really Famous there can almost be a hiatus at times in how much people speak of and value them… I’m delghted to see you have a Selected out with SD -is this going to be a book as well as an ebook? And what’s the best way of buying Bike, Rain? Not sure what Fiesta is referring to though…I am assuming it is not the festival of football at Villa Park.
      As ever with best wishes and all power to you
      Anthony

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  2. Pingback: Anthony Wilson and the disappearing poets. | PLUNDER AND SALVAGE
  3. socialbridge

    Anthony, I know that this post is about why poets disappear but, for me, what jumped from it was the extent to which some relatively obscure anthologies can give us great insight into the early poems of some poets we come to love, or maybe only get a chance to love that once.
    I often find that I like the early works of writers of all descriptions better than their later ones. There’s that rawness in the early works that somehow can get over-polished with fame and. dare I mention it, fortune.

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    • Anthony Wilson

      Hi Jean thanks so much for commenting again on my posts. I tend to agree with you, I think there is an energy and rawness in the early work of a lot of poets which is not seen in the later, polished work…I once saw Liz Lochhead say exactly the same at a debate in Aldeburgh, viz the early work of Heaney and Muldoon, preferring their earlier work much more. In this sense all poets disappear. We disappear from the work and people we once were and achieved. The poet I am today is too cautious to write my early poems, and the poet I was then does not have the range I have now (such as it is). I’m delighted by your insights as ever. Thank you Anthony

      http://www.anthonywilsonpoetry.com

      You can order Love for Now on Amazon here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Love-Now-Anthony-Wilson/dp/1907605355

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  4. Shirley Bell

    How strange to see my name mentioned in your post When Poets Disappear!
    I feel a bit like a light switch; I was very much on as a poet and then just as completely off again. ‘Career paths in poetry are as non-linear as everyone else’s’ is the best explanation I can steal. Though I often think my career is more aptly described as a headlong dash.
    When Poetry Introduction 6 came out I was writing frantically while working on admin for the nursery my husband and I have run since 1977; he was Head of Science at a local school and we had three small children. Life was hectic. Then abruptly I stopped writing poetry. I felt that I had technical ability, yet had nothing to say. It felt hollow to write for the sake of writing.
    I was still a published writer, but I was writing and illustrating non-fiction gardening books, and doing the photography with my husband. We have had a plant nursery for years and the books that were commissioned grew (sorry!) out of this.
    Last year suddenly I had the time and space to think about writing again – and to wonder what sort of creative writer I might be after all these years. To find out, I started an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln and the switch is back on! In term 2, as part of the course, we each had to publish an individual pamphlet, and also put it up as an e-book on scribd.com, so my collection of poems and artwork behind the glass appeared in April this year online and it is now on Amazon (through Lulu).
    So, just possibly, a little bit of me is beginning to reappear. I hope so. I am definitely enjoying finding out!

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    • Anthony Wilson

      Dear Jo
      thank you so much for getting in touch. It’s great to read your story and to hear the human decisions behind a writing life. I’ll be honest with you, I had thought the line in your biog notes about living on a cactus farm in Lincolnshire was made up, as Les Murray says somewhere, to sound exotic. But that’s it, isn’t it, we’re all exotic-sounding to each other, when in reality we just get on with what we are doing. In my frenzy of Googling I had been onto Lulu to check out your book before I wrote my piece. I am so glad you persevered! The more I think about it, the more I think persevering is all any of us can do. It certainly is not about fame or money, as I have said. I am deely grateful to have made contact with you all these years later, on of those ‘arrived’ gods now a real human person. Writing can do that. I’m grateful.
      Yours with thanks and best wishes
      Anthony

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  5. shirleybellwriting

    Ha Anthony! I did do a double take! Actually, I think I would quite like to be a Jo instead of a Shirley!
    Anyway, thanks for replying.
    Yes genuinely I have lived most of my adult life amongst the South Lincs fenland working on our cactus and succulent nursery – and it has been very, very far from exotic. When I was first writing people sometimes asked me why I did not write about cacti…
    Mmm, I was never sure if I had vanished or was waiting for something to happen to start me up again.
    I sound very lazy, like a lizard on a rock, yet I suppose all the time experiences were piling up until I had to deal with them or suffocate under them, and somehow I had to give myself permission, too.
    The MA has provided me with time and space to read and think, and it has also forced me to write. I’ve loved mixing with other writers again, and pillaging (and still pillaging) as much information as possible from our tutors Michael Blackburn and Phil Redpath. I have also fallen in love with Lulu, which is a good site for a control freak like me, and I am now compiling out first student anthology there, the shamelessly titled, The Black Path 1 – out in June!
    Thanks again, Shirley

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    • Anthony Wilson

      Hi Shirley
      Forgive my brain-dead response yesterday.
      I am so pleased you made it out the other side of choosing not to write for a bit.
      It sounds like Michael and Phil have met you exactly where you were and given you every encouragement and resource that you needed.
      I am looking forward to going on Lulu and sampling the results.
      I may even use it for some (leftover) poems I have not done anything with…
      And I am kind of relieved to find the cactus farm was not a myth.
      As ever with best wishes and thanks so much again for commenting
      Anthony

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  6. Pingback: Guest post: ‘On Disappearing’ by Anthony Wilson | Worple Press

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