Monday, May 16, 2005

Had my first comment, via e-mail, from my friend Angela Topping:

As for the 'lavender bath oil comment', in some ways I agree but I don't blame Astley for jumping on the 'soul' bandwagon. After all, Daisy Goodwin's similar anthologies have done really well. I think it is a pity that poetry has to be wrapped up in some fancy 'toiletries for the soul' package just because a hopelessly secular world is searching for something to replace god with and all it can find is yoga and herbal essence. It's a commonly held belief that booksellers are wary of poetry 'because it doesn't sell', but the real reason it doesn't sell is the poverty of the advertising, and the fact not enough booksellers stock a decent selection. People need information before they know what to buy. A few poets are hyped and they sell books (for example Simon Armitage); they are good poets but not necessarily any better than the unhyped ones. Poetry books are expensive and you never see them on the 3 for 2 tables, so people don't want to take a risk. I deplore the state of the market when Bloodaxe need to adopt populist tactics to sell poetry. You notice I am not commenting on the work itself: as with most anthologies, there's good and bad within, but if a few people buy it who wouldn't normally buy poetry, and maybe get the information about which poets they might personally enjoy the work of, then it just might make up a little for the meagreness of available publicity. Of course, Astley's anthology only works if you're a Bloodaxe poet - the books are basically a shop front for Bloodaxe. Maybe we should do our own? But instead of a lavender bath oil product, make it more of a sauna/ice cold plunge pool experience?

There's a lot to agree with there; though curiously enough, it's not the populism that bothers me, but the kind of populism, and I think she's hit the nail on the head with the comment about finding something to replace God with. I think it's the fact that it's being sold as some kind of sticking-plaster for the soul, rather than for its own sake, I don't like. Poetry - if it's good enough - should be able to stand up for itself, on the merits of its language and its own ideas.

But enough of that: I had an interesting weekend. I discovered a poet I've taken no notice of before, for two reasons. One, she's a Peterloo poet, and they tend to be rather pedestrian, anecdotal and dull, frankly. Second was the name: Meg Peacocke. Stupid prejudice no doubt, but it did give a picture of a rather dowdy middle-class middle-aged lady poet who wrote about cats. Well, I give myself a slap on the wrist. She's not only better than that, but she's actually rather fine. Her latest collection - under the "more serious sounding" name of MR Peacocke (or lower-case m r peacocke as it has it on the cover) - is called Speaking of the Dead.

And yes, there is a strong vein of elegy through the poems I've read so far; but not nostalgia, which is a kind of arthritis of the soul a lot of writers suffer from. Instead, there's a concision that's almost condensare and a metaphysical depth, wrapped up in the same ordinary language that for so many poets is a limitation. The language is simple but the poems aren't. I can't quote from her yet, because I only read a few of her poems in the bookshop. But I might well go back and buy.

This, of course, brings up all kinds of issues about those old divisions between avant-garde and mainstream. There's a comment on the back by Stephen Knight to the effect that even when she's being experimental, she's still down-to-earth; but I suspect the reverse is also true.

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