Thursday, November 24, 2011

Minor Poetry? Attendent Lords and all that...

I doubt I shall be rushing out and buying their books any time soon, but I was interested in the review by Mark Ford of the Collected Poems of ASJ Tessimond and Bernard Spencer, both published by Bloodaxe. I was interested, not because I think that either of them are 'unjustly neglected' or even 'ripe for revival'; but because they represent what the world of poetry is largely like for a lot of practising poets.

Most of us do not get on sylabuses, do not get articles and essays written about us, do not appear in the major print publications, but simply get on with writing our poems and doing our best. We may well have politcally left-wing sympathies most of the time, but we don't get involved in writing political poetry the way some London avant-garde poets do; because we're neither so certain of our beliefs nor do we really think a poem can do much good. We have a tendency to follow our own obsessions and hope that people will follow along with us.

We send our poems out in the world and hope for the best. Sometimes, as has just happened to a friend of mine, we get our poems rejected by the big magazines, but we still persevere. Maybe we're exploring a section of the broadly innovative school of poetry, or maybe we're solidly in what has been called 'the mainstream', 'the school of quietude' or whatever (I still maintain that, like 'literary fiction', 'mainstream poetry' is a 'genre that likes to pretend it's universal') but any impact we're going to make is likely to be small. We're not 'princes', we're 'attendent lords.'

For some people, this is an uncomfortable place to be in. They really want to be 'princes': hence they make a big noise every now and then about so-and-so is poetically, politically or idealogically 'unsound.' Or that really, people should be reading us not that lot. And sometimes our complaints are fair: Carold Ann Duffy's recent 'Christmas Truce', published in the Guardian because, hey, she is the poet laureate, is dreadful and frankly unworthy of her, never mind what you think of her poetry generally. And sometimes accusations fly that are frankly unfair, as in the recent spat between Sean Bonney and Todd Swift. I don't think Todd Swift is some kind of pro-capitalist lackey, I like some of his poetry; but neither do I think him the most innovative poet on the planet. For that matter, neither am I. I like Sean Bonney's poetry too, for very different reasons: I'm less enamoured of his need for some kind of idealogical purity (I had enough of that with the Born-Again Christians; I'm not about to chuck out my own uncertainties to jump into bed with the Marxists, though I have more sympathies with them than disagreements.)

One of the things that Mark Ford talked of in his LRB review was that both the poets he reviewed were poets of uncertainty; and they were probably not as inventive and sure of themselves as the big boys of the time. There's a poem about cats by ASJ Tessimond that I've always liked: not a great poem, in fact a pretty minor one. (I like cats.) But not everyone aspires to be the next Ezra Pound; and they both had jobs and lives outside of poetry. Poetry doesn't always have to be major to give pleasure.

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