I’m grateful to you, you see. I wanted to tell you.
–Raymond Carver (‘For Tess’)
A kind, wise man once said to me: ‘The main thing is that the main thing remains the main thing.’
I have thought a lot about that simple-sounding statement this week. The catalyst for this was an invitation to attend a reception at Buckingham Palace to celebrate Contemporary British Poetry on Tuesday.
My first and lasting reaction was one of great surprise. Delight, yes, and gratitude. But mostly surprise.
The roots of this tentativeness were formed in my treatment for cancer in 2006. Since then I never take anything for granted. The good news that comes my way, as well as the bad. By the same token I refuse to bring ambition into the force-field of emotion I carry around with me about my work. I am useless at entering competitions, for example.
By temperament and in practice I abjure the notion of a ‘career’ in poetry. There is a poem, and another poem, and if I am lucky and work hard, another poem after that. Then maybe a book. Then some readings. If I am lucky. Then I disappear for a bit, into silence and anonymity and hurt, by which I mean the long and painful waiting for more poems to come when there are none.
No one can see this nothing-happening going on, only me. I am nobody. I vanish.
All of this came clear to me one day towards the end of my treatment walking by a river with my friend Jean Sprackland. She corrected my misplaced aspirations. She reminded me: ‘Except we’re not ambitious, are we, Anthony, not for ourselves. It is the poems that matter. The process is all we have.’
As Anne Lamott says, I think this may have changed me. Permanently.
This all came to mind as I typed my reply to the Master of the Household. Yet I was reminded, too, of all the poets I to whom I owe a debt of gratitude on account of their kindness, great and small: Peter Carpenter, Siân Hughes, Andy Brown, Ann Gray, Maura Dooley, Jean Sprackland, Michael Laskey, Christopher Southgate, Naomi Jaffa, Rupert Loydell, Lawrence Sail, Jo Shapcott, Roger McGough, Michael Donaghy, Michael Symmons Roberts, Mandy Coe, Sue Dymoke, Ann Sansom, Peter Sansom, Hugo Williams.
And that was why I went, to say thank you.
So, pinching myself and grinning and giggling like an idiot, I chose to spend Tuesday evening saying thank you to as many people as possible. To the poets who make amazing radio programmes. To the poets whose work I love. To the poets I have known forever. To the poets I have discovered only recently. To the poets from Twitter who make life fun. To the poets who put on festivals, working in backrooms, unseen, like Sylvia Plath’s mushrooms.
To the poets who have said kind words. Especially those.
I left with one regret, that I did not thank Hugo Williams. I never quite caught up with him.
In the summer of 1986, when he was poetry editor of New Statesman, I sent him Every Poem I Had Ever Written, omitting to include a stamped addressed envelope. It should have gone straight to the bin. Instead, he wrote back to me taking two poems, an act of kindness and grace for which I will never stop being grateful. As Raymond Carver has written, I felt his acceptance was ‘casually, generously given to me. Nothing remotely approaching that moment has happened since.’
Not until Tuesday night.