Poetry, Bureaucracy and Conspiracy

Alan Baker (Vol 54 No 2), obsessed by 'the arts bureaucracy and its critical apparatus of patronage', writes of what amounts to an establishment conspiracy to do down the avant-garde and to promote 'a conservative mix of post-movement, post-Larkin verse'. That's not how it feels to us formalists, some of whom could paper a wall with rejection slips. Being 'frequently and repeatedly refused Arts Council grant-aid' doesn't necessarily prove that one has been blacklisted for lack of conformity. Other possibilities are honest differences of taste or the luck of the draw or even (God forbid) the possibility that the poems were not quite as good as the poet and his friends thought they were.

Mr Baker makes frequent use of the word 'conservative' and this, along with references to 'a new generation of young, often working-class writers' and 'the fallacy of male creative supremacy' suggests that the aesthetic polarisation matches a political one. It ain't necessarily so. Larkin may have been a bit of a crypto-fascist but Ezra Pound, listed by Mr Baker among the radical school's forbears, was the real thing.

Among others listed, Gertrude Stein was a rich dilettante of more influence than talent. William Carlos Williams, although a genuine poet, inspired too much banality by too many E J Thribbs, and his notebook-jottings about red wheelbarrows and pears in the fridge are the most over-quoted lines of the last few decades. Some of Barry McSweeney's poetry could have benefited from critical pruning. J H Prynne, my first college tutor, is a man of intimidating intelligence. I have his collected poems in my bookshelves and have made several attempts to get to grips with them. After writing the previous sentence I got it out again and tried to read one at random. The words were alive, twisting and turning in their own space, but the meaning came and went intermittently.

Fitting poets into schools and marking them up or down accordingly is easier than judging each on its merits. A poem is the least objective of things. It exists first while it's being written and again when reincarnated with each fresh reading. It is a different creature for each reader and perhaps for each reading by the same reader. Ultimately there are no rules, only the test of whether something works or not. Few poems work all the way through. Some stylistic features have been found to work often enough to be worth keeping in a handy toolrack, but nothing is guaranteed. Poetry is approached best with humility and tolerance and at the same time a beady eye for hype, spin, sleight, swagger and special pleading.

© Brian Fewster,
Poetry Nottingham 54/3, 2000

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