Jeremy Noel-Tod on the modern poetry career
This week, Partisan is pleased to feature an exclusive excerpt from Jeremy Noel-Tod's new book The Whitsun Wedding Video: A Journey into Modern British Poetry, published this month by Rack Press.
THERE IS LITTLE money to be made in modern poetry. Its spin-offs, though, sometimes earn millions. In 1981, the musical Cats – based on T. S. Eliot’s verses for children, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939) – opened in London and went on to run for eighteen years on Broadway. Some of the profits came back to Eliot’s employers, Faber and Faber, helping them to continue as an independent publisher with one of the most prestigious poetry lists in the world. As well as Eliot, Faber’s poets include the bestselling names of W.H. Auden, Wendy Cope, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, Sylvia Plath, Ezra Pound, and Derek Walcott.
The poet-publisher Eliot saw his own situation clearly. "As things are," he sighed during a lecture in 1933,
and as fundamentally they must always be, poetry is not a career, but a mug’s game. No honest poet can ever quite feel sure of the permanent value of what he has written: he may have wasted his time and messed up his life for nothing.
By "mess[ing] up his life," Eliot perhaps had in mind his own decision, as a young Harvard philosophy student, to marry, settle in England, and live by his wits – the "penny world I bought / To eat," as he put it in his 1920 poem, "A Cooking Egg."
Poetry is only one letter away from poverty, as several of the most original British poets of the twentieth century – Basil Bunting, W. S. Graham, Lynette Roberts – knew first-hand. W.H. Auden, their more prosperous contemporary, commented in 1962 that
The poet cannot understand the function of money in modern society because for him there is no relation between subjective value and market value; he may be paid ten pounds for a poem which he believes is very good and took him months to write, and a hundred pounds for a piece of journalism which costs him but a day’s work.
Poets who write book reviews in Britain today might think Auden’s figures – which would now be approximately £200 for a poem and £2000 for a day’s journalism – generous. One of the most successful poets in the country, Simon Armitage, recently managed to publish the same poem in four different places: Stand magazine, the New Statesman, the 2014 Forward Prize anthology, and his own selected poems. It was also broadcast twice on the Radio 4 programme Poetry Please, and will appear again in a new collection next year.
Few of Armitage’s contemporaries could achieve such a feat of freelance stone-skimming. Yet the net profit probably didn’t amount to more than a week or two’s wages. Appropriately enough, the poem is a nightmarish description of Poundland, the budget shop to be found on every British high street, with its bright aisles of barely veiled economic exploitation ("The blood-stained employee of the month, / sobbing on a woolsack of fun-fur rugs").
Other poets have found ways of adapting to the low but lucrative standards of advertisement verse. In 2011, a campaign for the gastro-pub chain Vintage Inns commissioned Sir Andrew Motion, the former Poet Laureate, to provide lines for a promotional postcard. The poem ended with a quatrain that might have been written by a Victorian clergyman musing on the divine plan of the universe: "All around us worlds of trouble / turn and tremble as they please. / We are rich in the fulfilment / of our vintage life at ease."
Motion also judged a Facebook competition to write a collective poem beginning with the line "The muted brilliance of autumn leaves." The results confirmed that the general public’s notion of poetry is still a dish served rare in the John Keats Steak House. And why not? To read or write a lyric poem is a liberating experience, one rightly associated with leisure. In Keats’s own words: "We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us – and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand into its breeches pocket."
In the pocket of the poet’s breeches, of course, is a bribe, but not one you are supposed to mention. As the poet and critic Sam Riviere has written:
Poetry has become used to positioning itself as an ‘anti-commercial’ mode of culture, a somehow economically untainted art form. Poetry casts itself as almost the opposite of advertising, its ‘good twin,’ and exhibits nothing but distaste for the tactics of branding or commodification given a good deal of attention by most other contemporary art forms.
Yet the copywriter’s basic ingredients – emotion, wordplay, imagery – are poetic: no doubt a number of unhappy careers in verse have been averted by an advertising executive’s salary. One agency recently had the canny idea of employing Pam Ayres, Britain’s bestselling poet, to bring her brand of good-humoured doggerel to the animated story of a flying potato. Ayres’ homely, old-fashioned persona and reassuringly rural West Country accent helped to disguise the fact that the product (a pre-baked baked potato) would once have horrified the frugal British cook.
Less inspired was the person who in 2013 unwittingly put the respected Welsh poet and clergyman R.S. Thomas on a packet of "Hand Cooked English Crisps." Thomas’s hangdog glare had been selected from a photo archive to front a facetious competition offering "A Fleeting Look of Contempt or £25,000." It was quickly pointed out that Thomas, a fierce nationalist – who once contemplated with relish the ruins of an English stately home, "the Welsh / [. . .] picknicking among the ruins / on their Corona and potato crisps" ("Plas Difancoll") – would have been mortified by such a fate.
The dignity of intellectual independence is something that the uncommercial career of poetry still offers the serious-minded. Last year, Frances Leviston wrote about having turned down invitations to compose a poem for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and take part in the Poetry Book Society’s 2014 "Next Generation" promotion. "Poets," Leviston observed, "especially younger poets, often face such demands of obligation and temptations of endorsement." It is, she continued, a relief to realize "that one need not be appointed to one’s own life: that no sanctioning government, no official position, is required for the business of taking oneself seriously, in whatever sense seems right." Unlike the speaker of her cryptic poem "Emblem," who has "a honeybee pinned to my thumb," Leviston excuses herself from the defensive embrace of decorum and tradition:
O memory of form,
spending your sting in defence of the realm,
what medals you’ve become!
Such a position might also result in a turning-out of one’s pockets, as a way of showing what poetry usually keeps hidden. This is how Sam Riviere approached the start of his own career as a "Faber New Poet," in his first full collection, 81 Austerities (2012). "Crisis Poem," which opens the book, begins:
In 3 years I have been awarded
£48,000 by various funding bodies
councils and publishing houses
for my contributions to the art
and I would like to acknowledge
the initiatives put in place
by the government and the rigorous
assessment criteria under which
my work has thrived since 2008
Riviere’s ironic recitation of the bland managerial language of the arts announced an assured new voice, and the book went on to win the 2012 Forward Prize for the Best First Collection – or, to give it its full title, The Felix Dennis Prize for the Best First Collection.
Dennis, who died in 2014, had a career that was the outrageous inverse of every other contemporary poet. Having made a fortune as a publisher of computer magazines, he began in later life to promote his verse with a series of extravagant reading tours called ‘Did I Mention the Free Wine?’ Audiences were promised "an evening of fine French wine and poetry." Along the way, he managed to obtain endorsements from a number of celebrities, including Paul McCartney and Stephen Fry, for verse that might have been written by my imaginary Victorian clergyman in racier mood ("Lady, lady do not weep – / What is gone is gone. Now sleep / Turn your pillow, dry your tears, / Count thy sheep and not thy years," "To a Beautiful Lady of a Certain Age").
Riviere’s earnings as a young poet were increased by £5,000 from Felix Dennis’s fortune. Dennis left most of the rest – a reported £500 million – to the forest that he planted in Warwickshire: a poetic act that will outlast all his others.
JEREMY NOEL-TOD is the editor of The Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry (2013). This article is excerpted from The Whitsun Wedding Video: A Journey into Modern British Poetry, published this month by Rack Press.
WHAT TO READ NEXT: "For various reasons I haven’t sought out or taken advantage of the many opportunities Canada has to offer for writers to be around other writers. I mostly just write, and I put manuscripts in envelopes..."