Reviews & Essays
The Poetry Industry
Ofrare yakl, rare yak-
Door May-view2• Door. May view?3 'Son,
lay my Tina.4 Son! Lay my Tina.' Yin-
Y ang.5 Gone.6 (Repeat last line).
Commentary. This exquisite fragment survives from what was probably a much longer series of 'poetic exchanges' (T. S. Eliot) conceived in a dialogue form. Here, with an almost unbearably poignant economy the poet describes his own sexual initiation and loss of innocence as patronistic systems collide with his own developing sense of self and calling.
- A fragmentary glimpse of the exotic (undiscovered land of sexuality) as imagined in the form of a distant beast. The yak was famed for its sexual appetite and mystique.
- The vision is seen as if through an open doorway in early summer. Compare the use of May-morning imagery in another tale of sexual struggle, Chaucer's "The Knight's Tale".
- The door which offers is closed to the poet as if by a full-stop. The use of 'expressive punctuation' throughout this series is highly remarkable. 'May view' is turned into a question by the young poet setting himself against the establishment. The answer is inevitable, as he knows but cannot say.
- At this moment of high drama, the father interjects, and repeats his command more forcefully. The father's awareness of his son's reluctance to comply is usefully discussed in Lewisohn, Fax or Fantasy, University of Chicago, 1992. Note the highly significant Christological echoes here in the play on 'son' and a love-sacrifice. 'Tina' (shortened form of Christina) is presumably the name of a serving woman. Ezra Pound is probably mistaken in his reading of this line in which he relates 'Tina' to the old Frisian tena (fence), to suggest a sense of enclosure, possibly related to the idea of vagina dentata (cf. the 'tines' of a fork or harrow).
- The poet responds with a bald statement of cosmic equation. The sexes must (and will) remain perfectly balanced despite the father's efforts at social coercion. 'Yinyang' carries suggestions furthermore of a latent homosexual preference in the poet by referring to the idea that every individual carries both masculine and feminine principles within him/herself. It could also intimate the more relaxed attitude of 'Win some, lose some', which is developed later in the series (657-718).
- The vision (or memory?) vanishes at this moment of ambivalence, typical of the poet's work. 'The repeated final line resonates long after reading as if rung, like a bell.' (Macaulay).
'Much as we would like ... ' * Bernard 0' Donoghue
Most people's encounters with poetry editors are attempts to persuade them to accept their offerings, and the power of editors is absolute. However, it is comforting to reflect that, even if their powers are absolute, their freedoms are not. It would be a brave editor who would respond to Eliot or Yeats with the usual brush-offs: 'much as I like these poems, I think they lack some quality that would make us want to publish. I hope you are not too disheartened by this response and that you will continue to send us your work for consideration'; or it is hard to imagine The Tower being greeted with 'we think there is a book here potentially, but it's not quite there yet.'
Eliot's experience with "Little Gidding", the fourth part of the Four Quartets, was very different from what mortals feel. Eliot, of course, was his own editor at Faber, but throughout the production of the Quartets he was being urged to produce the next poem from "Burnt Norton" onwards by his friend John Hayward, described by Helen Gardner as the self-appointed "Keeper of the Eliot Archive". Hayward's advice with "East Coker" and "Little Gidding" bespeaks more goodwill than critical depth; his task was to keep the lines coming. It is notorious, for example, that the Elizabethan passage in "East Coker" was seriously misread by its strongest enthusiasts.
Of course the most eminent writers can encounter early struggles. When the young James Joyce sent his wordy eight-page prototype for "A Portrait of the Artist" to W. K. Magee ('John Eglinton') for publication in the magazine Dana, Magee declined it with, in his own words, 'the timid observation that I did not care to publish what was to myself incomprehensible.' If this high-minded criterion were universally applied, many admired works would never have seen the light of day. It may be that Joyce had a grudging respect for Magee's judgement, aggrieved as he was at the time: though Magee/Eglinton's voice is 'carping' in Ulysses, he comes out better than most of the pompous literary namedroppers in the "Scylla and Charybdis" chapter.
To compare very great things with very small, I remember with enduring, sobering embarrassment my most devastating refusal. I submitted to many editors in my early days a short article on "Infidels as self-confessed villains in medieval literature". It did the rounds for a year or so, receiving rejections of varying tactfulness. There was a most gracious letter from the Finnish editor of Neuphilogische Mitteilungen who wrote: 'we think this is a splendid and striking article, and in normal circumstances we would publish it without hesitation. However, recent budget cuts of up to 50% ... ' (etc.) In stark contrast was a faded photocopy from the German journal Anglia, which said: 'The editor is unable to publish your article. You will appreciate that time constraints make it impossible for him to explain himself in detail to every contributor.'
But even that didn't stop me. What did was a courteous letter from Virginia Brown, the editor of Mediaeval Studies published by the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies in Canada. She said: 'we would have liked to publish your article. However, I am sorry to say that both our readers advise us not to, and for the same reason: that, while they felt the point it made was interesting, they also felt it was fairly well known.'(My italics). That put an end to the infidels' career. Of course all these editors varied only in manner; the substance was the same in all cases, and I have no doubt they were right. But editors are not always right, with the best will in the world. William Blake's epigram applies to them, as to all mortals:
Nor is it possible to thought A greater than itself to know.
Editors will naturally choose what they can understand and see the point of. Moreover, poetry editors are usually poets themselves and will naturally be impressed by poetry in direct proportion to its resemblance to their own work. I say this not so much to question the authority or good will of editors as to bring comfort to the great majority of poets whose work is rejected all the time. When I was an editor of Oxford Poetry I rarely felt much confidence in my opinions. Luckily I operated in tandem with Nick Jenkins, an editor who did have strong views and excellent judgement (significantly he did not write poetry himself and thus felt less compromised by comparisons, I think). He once passed on to me an envelope containing the usual batch of three or four. On the back the sender had decently written his familiar but not greatly admired name. Nick had pencilled for my benefit on the envelope: 'sad that old X cooks his goose by putting his name on the envelope.'
In practice nobody is likely to be published before they are already known. It is a mystery therefore how anyone gets launched. Seamus Heaney says that when he received a letter from Charles Monteith, the poetry editor of Faber, asking him to send a collection of poems for consideration, it was like 'getting a letter from God Almighty.' (I'm not sure that it wasn't.) I had been having the odd poem published for several years before I first had anything published without some ulterior explanation: friend or friend of friend. I still remember the occasion: it was a poem called "Bittern", published in the Honest Ulsterman, for reasons that I still can't account for.
So what steps can the novice take to counter this state of affairs? Here are a few suggestions:
- In the covering letter with the batch of three or four, you must sound as if you expect to be published, while at the same time sounding both modest and sane. This ideal is quite a small target. People who infringe this rule with success (Fiona Pitt-Kethley is the most impressive example) are few and far between. How many poets could you name who have appeared naked on television and still gone on being published?
- Don't send poems to the obvious outlet for their particular genre. For example don't send left-wing poems to the New Statesman. Try the Telegraph.
- In fact don't send political poems anywhere. Editors are extremely chary of them, mostly because of the Blake principle above: they are often not sure what they are letting themselves in for. Irony is a problem here. What, for example, are the chances of a "Villanelle to Mrs Thatcher" being straight?
- There are some serious issues. If you are Irish (and, as my friend Tadhg Foley once said, 'we are all Irish in the sight of God'), it is tricky deciding whether you are better off, and likelier to be published in Ireland or England. You are liable to fall into the gap remarked by Terry Eagleton in his "Ballad of Willie Yeats":
Oh pity the case of the mystical wit:
In England a Gael and in Ireland a Brit!
Actually, to be fair to all parties, Irish writers go down well in England. The Whitbread poetry shortlist in 1991 comprised four Irish writers and one Hungarian; one poet, when commiserated on his absence from it on Kaleidoscope, said: 'I don't think I was eligible. I am English.' So, if you want to be published in England, either be Irish or pretend to be.
On second thoughts, there probably aren't any serious issues here. Publication is very much a matter of luck or reputation. Somehow you must convince editors that it is in their interest to publish you: that publishing you will make them more impressive people. Because the fact is that they don't 'much-as-they-would-like' to publish you. What they would really like to do is just publish themselves all the time. They can't, of course; it would look a bit off. So your job is to convince them that publishing you will enhance their editorial standing without threatening their poetic reputation. Be good, but don't be too good. But that is harder than to be modest and confident and sane at the same time. The truth is, to be a published poet is not a sane person's aspiration.
The Sycamore Press 1968-1993 John Fuller
After the birth of our third daughter my wife was given by an imaginative friend not a bowl of grapes but a book of types. Fired by an old editorializing urge never properly satisfied, and with happy memories of the inky parts of the graduate bibliography course, I rushed out and bought an old Arab clamshell press for £20. It cost rather more to have the broken treadle welded and the whole thing shipped to our garage. Even more to set ourselves up with new Stephenson Blake type and cases, re-cover the rollers, and so on, but we were soon printing. The Arab had formerly produced cricket scores for distribution in the Parks, and was never meant for more than cards or posters. Nonetheless we cheerfully set about publishing a 36pp booklet imposed in quarto and sewn by hand into a two-colour cover. The typography, the inking and impression, the sewing, the distribution and the discovered errors all became the occasion for obsession or alarm. No worries about the contents, of course, whose composition I had encouraged and felt deserved immediate circulation: it was the Newdigate Prize Poem for 1968 on the set subject of the opening of Japan in the 1850s. It was called Our Western Furniture, and was James Fenton's first publication.
Simultaneously with the Fenton we started a series of broadsheets (actually sheets of foolscap quarto folded to a triptych) which would each contain a clutch of new poems and sell for 6d (2.5p). The idea was to promote the work of unknown poets by bribing subscribers with offerings from quite famous ones. You paid up, and were sent not only Thom Gunn but Glyn Hughes, not only Philip Larkin but Peter Scupham, not only Peter Porter but David Lehman.
The idea still seems to me a good one, but I am forced at this point to confront the perennial dashed hopes of small presses. In general, during the lifetime of a press nobody really wants to buy its titles. No one has heard of its authors except the author's friends. And if you publish a famous name, then no one quite believes you or loses your address even if they get to hear of you in the first place. For example, there wasn't exactly a rush to buy copies of W. H. Auden's 1937 ballad Sue, which even now has been printed nowhere other than as Sycamore Broadsheet 23. And who wanted the poems of Alan Hollinghurst when I first published them? I do get orders now that he's famous, but they're probably all from investing bibliophiles (and almost certainly they believe Confidential Chats with Boys to be as racy as The Swimming Pool Library). We published 200 copies of Our Western Furniture at 5s (25p) a copy, and perhaps thanks to a dramatized reading on the Third Programme (itself a result of my sending producer George MacBeth a copy that proved to be miscollated and therefore that amusing thing, an instant rarity) we did sell out after two years. Now a copy of Our Western Furniture has been spotted in a bookseller's catalogue at £300. However, an edition the following year of 400 copies of Norman Bryson's The Swimmer and other poems has never sold out (I have plenty of copies a quarter of a century later) probably because its student author became a distinguished art historian and not a distinguished poet. My single important piece of advice to would-be small publishers is therefore: whatever you want to print, and whatever your technology, do make sure that you are ready to give a lot of time to publicity and distribution. I never was, and it was a mistake. Once the finished booklet was in my hands (and the poet's 25 complimentaries in his or hers) I was happy. Fatal.
I have many stories of technical mishaps and weird experiments (making paper, trying to print linocuts, finding ways to publish music, and so on), but in these pages I must obviously stick to the publishing of poetry. I suppose my immediate role model was Oscar Mellor's Fantasy Press, one of whose very last publications, Oxford Poetry (1960), I had edited. Oscar had the distinction of publishing Gunn, Amis, Larkin, Jennings and others in the fifties: I admired both his taste and his chaste typography. If I had had the time and energy I would have tried to publish more of the new poets of the seventies and eighties. As it is, I am proud to have acted as booklet-midwife to the emerging James Fenton, Mick Imlah, Bernard O'Donoghue, Alan Hollinghurst, Mark Wormald, Gerard Woodward and others (including members of the John Florio Society of Magdalen, who helped with the production of three collections of their work during the eighties). Setting type by hand is laborious, and it was never more than a weekend activity, a booklet taking almost a year to produce. Type-setting sometimes seemed to be little more than an excuse for gossipy lunches; getting an edition sewn and guillotined often needed the bribery of stiff vodkatinis.
My haphazard technical skills must have irritated my poets. No proofs, of course, since once I was inked up I couldn't bear to stop. If the author could be around to correct the text during machining, so much the better: stiffer vodkatinis were in order. (I never had a good enough bribe for the dismal process of distributing type.) Sometimes terrible things happened, as on the occasion when I ran out of the letter f while setting a particularly clotted double-spread of Mick Imlah' s poem about Quasimodo (a loquacious dramatic monologue: the completed forms seemed to weigh about as much as a small car). My simple solution (at least, it seemed simple to me) was to ask him to rewrite the poem here and there, losing two or three fs. I now marvel that he was willing to do so, turning 'foul as water' to 'pale as water' and so on. On the other hand, I can't imagine what the alternative would have been. We couldn't wait for weeks while I ordered more type. Nor could I be bothered to reprint a whole impression of a Fenton broadsheet when I got the title wrong (the actual title!).
The letterpress printer with dirty fingers scouring his empty f box, getting a locked knee from treadling and callouses from sewing, is closely and wonderfully in touch with his craft, even if he is as lazy as I was. The same goes for the hypnosis of composing: you remember the line as you set it, you remember it back-to-front and upside-down, you jolly well curse it when you find you haven't minded your ps and qs (though with me it always seemed to be ns and hs) and you find you remember it as you distribute it. You do rather have to like a poem to do all that. I love them all, and am still haunted by them in ways that I am never haunted by poems I have simply read.