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 models, I 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.