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Friday, 27 April 2012

Pluralism versus Selectivity

Buried beneath the chalk-dry tone of this William Wootten article in the TLS, there's fighting talk. Wootten compares Alvarez' The New Poetry to the recent Identity Parade and Salt Book of Younger Poets (both edited by Roddy Lumsden) and finds "a colossal failure of nerve" in Lumsden's choice to pack out both books with a broad spread of poets, rather than choose a dozen or so and make the case for them being the front-runners of their generation. The problem with such plurality, he seems to be saying, is that the reader is left with an overcrowded buffet to choose from, with far too much on offer for any sensible debate to begin. The success of poetry in the 1960s, when the Alvarez anthology was published, was partly, he writes, due to "the fostering of strong and discriminating tastes and dispositions ... It was they who gave reasons why contemporary poetry might actually matter."

A few remarks on that argument. First of all, the metaphor of the man walking down the middle of the road comes to mind. Identity Parade in particular, alongside The Best British Poetry 2011 (also Lumsden-edited) has more than once been lambasted for having included the wrong poets and passed over others whose inclusion in any generational anthology should be a given. Wootten need not be worried that Lumsden's tastes don't offend anyone, or that he fails to be selective.

Moreover, a representative sample has to be representative. The size of the sample in relation to the population matters. If an editor or publisher is to in any way carry off the claim that their book is a generational anthology, even tentatively, it has to convince its readers that it covers a fair bit of the ground.

I don't think this is actually possible with British poetry today, except by means of the mega-anthology. Sure, you could select your 20 or so luminaries and write a fiercely combative introduction that puts them at the centre of everything that's happening, but no sensible person would waste time entertaining the thought that you were right. They might read your book, and they might even say you've articulated your views forcefully, but unless there were some reason they were in your thrall, and in your thrall alone, they would then re-subject themselves to the vast arena of poetry beyond your wagon-circle and never find themselves thinking: "But how would I refute x's case for those 20?"

Wootten's romanticised 'moment' where "contemporary poetry and its values were treated as a singular artistic arena whose various styles and champions could be debated, intelligently and passionately if not always in ways capable of clear resolution" certainly sounds attractive. But is that what we'd get if publishers started putting out anthologies defined by their editors' deeply entrenched positions? I really, really doubt it. We aren't anywhere near ready for it. For there to be healthy debate, there has to be a well of common understanding, a shared sense of the starting point and of the stakes. We don't have that. We have such a spectrum of expertise, individualism and ignorance when it comes to poetry that you're more likely to have a conversation where neither of you has heard of the poets the other wants to namecheck than one where two champions of disparate styles can cross swords. And I mean 'we' here both in the sense of the general public and literary types, both of whom I know equally well (ie. not very well at all).

Maybe if I put it like this then: Wootten is asking for work to commence on the penthouse while Lumsden is still embroiled in the effort of firming the foundations. We need to draw everyone together on the same footing before we can have the grand debates. In some sense, yes, that is a backwards step for poetic culture, but only because the poetic culture of the past was at all times dominated by the upper echelons of society. Wootten is living in a sort of a dream world where a wild and boisterous declaration of poetic/editorial intent can stir or boil the blood of the average reader, rather than merely carry the faint whiff of trying too hard.

The article also includes the oft-used phrase "competent but unexceptional poets", which is usually a shorthand for a general complaint that there aren't enough poets on high pedestals, who can be seen for miles around. No one's ever made a great case for why we need these pedestalled poets, and no one has, to my knowledge, made a strong case for any poet of the modern era deserving this position, and that's why we are where we are now. But I don't entirely dislike where we are now.

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