Who Runs Poetry?

Who Runs Poetry?

I began this blog with a resolve not to criticize the poetry establishment, and that resolution is now going out of the window. The first provocation was a review of Seamus Heaney’s collection, District and Circle by the British Poet Laureate Andrew Motion. {1} A Nobel prize-winner’s latest collection has to be recognized, and that task for a near neighbour falls to the Poet Laureate, who accurately documents Heaney’s characteristics: preoccupation with Ireland, with the extraordinary implicated in the ordinary, and his sympathy with modern anxieties. The article comments on the writer’s contemporary responsibilities, quoting odd lines and a five-line section of the title poem, which doesn’t look encouraging but can’t be assessed out of context. The only complete poem presented is this, whose copyright I probably infringe (owners let me know) by reproducing here:

Birch Grove
by Seamus Heaney

At the back of a garden, in earshot of river water,

In a corner walled off like the baths or bake-house
Of an unroofed abbey or broken-floored Roman villa,
They have planted their birch grove. Planted it recently only,
But already each morning it puts forth in the sun
Like their own long grown-up selves, the white of the bark
As suffused and cool as the white of the satin nightdress
She bends and straightens up in, pouring tea,
Sitting across from where he dandles a sandal
On his big time-keeping foot, as bare as an abbot’s.
Red brick and slate, plum tree and apple retain
Their credibility, a CD of Bach is making the rounds
Of the common or garden air. Above them a jet trail
Tapers and waves like a willow wand or a taper.
“If art teaches us anything,” he says, trumping life
With a quote, “it’s that the human condition is private.

Some obvious comments, in case this blog seems ill-timed when tributes are being paid to a generous writer whose work was enjoyed by millions:

1. Do we want to hear about a couple who have planted a birch grove and sit there, listening to Bach, watching  jet trails in the sky, and thinking about previous inhabitants of the place? Only if there is some connection between these matters, and that connection is worth brooding on. Here there is no connection, as the last two lines tell us, pretentiously dressed up in an Oscar Wilde quotation.

2. Is the material handled adequately? No, it’s rather muddled. The birch grove, which must cover a sizeable area, occupies a walled-off corner of the garden, is like an archaeological site, and also stands for the grown-up selves of the couple, though why, we are not told, beyond the vague resemblance of the woman’s white satin nightdress, in which she is pouring tea, to the white bark of the trees. After that it gets sillier, ending with some playful nonsense about willow tapers (how do jet trails wave?) and an observation that the human condition is private, which indeed the point of the poem is.

3. Regardless of content, is anything expressed with particular felicity, in a way that stirs our emotions or makes us think deeply? No, on this occasion the poet shows a tin ear. The rhythm is clumping and uncoordinated (dandles a sandal, etc.) The diction is an unattractive mixture of the banal (retain /Their credibility, etc.) and poetic diction (puts forth in the sun , As suffused and cool ). And the only amusing line, On his big timekeeping foot, as bare as an abbot’s, intrudes brashly into the quiet tone.

4. Is it a Postmodernist poem, which subtly undermines its assertions? That’s a possibility, but Heaney is not a Postmodernist, and this reads as an earnest spoof or self-parody. Of course we can argue that the poem exemplifies its content, that there is no connectedness in these matters, just as the last line states. But poems aren’t poems by stating the obvious. Nor do we praise a boring novel about small town life because small town life is indeed boring, but hope for the reverse, that the writer has found something memorable in the quiet current of events.

Andrew Motion may not be serious, of course, or have mischievously chosen something companionable with the efforts he puts on his own website {2}, when it would have been kinder to pass over in silence, which was my intention. But then came the second spur to action: reading Anthony Sampson’s book Who Runs This Place?, where the following appears:

Looking back on the landscape of power which I have surveyed in this book, whether in the regions of government or of business, I find it hard to recognise it as belonging to the British democratic tradition, with its small clusters of self-enclosed, self-serving groups on the peaks, and the populace on the plains below.‘ {3}

Sampson’s detailed survey of Government, the Civil Service, the Legal Profession, Academia, Broadcasting, Newspapers, Corporations, Banks and Financial Institutions finds that not only are they unaccountable, very largely, to the groups they purport to serve, pursuing their own agendas, but they are remarkably incompetent. Many institutional heads can’t do the job, and don’t do the job, and are fired, eventually, with handsome compensation, when someone equally ill-equipped takes over, drawn from the same, two-thousand strong, circle of directors. Having worked with top management in a previous existence, I wasn’t too surprised at the findings, but hadn’t realized that failings were so general.

There is nothing democratic in gifts, but we do expect accredited members of the literary establishment to demonstrate that pre-eminence. Their work sets standards, important when literature lacks firm principles {4} and the radical criticism of the last quarter century has created more uncertainty. From the same Guardian comes a survey of readers’ habits. Many readers never finish a particular book, particularly a taxing or literary work, and fifty-five per cent of those polled for the survey, commissioned by Teletext, said they buy books for decoration, and have no intention of actually reading them. {5} I suspect the public doesn’t care for ‘contemporary literature’ because they’ve sussed it out, and can see it’s often over-praised. Hence the need to distinguish the good from passable in truthful reviews, hard though that may be on all parties.

I remember, a long time ago now, being bullied into writing a few lines on the work of a BBC regional poetry director. But it’s essential for your own career, emphasized friends, and so it proved when, two years later, at a writer’s conference, the author  in question stepped forward to thank me and ask after my own activities. I was astonished that the piece should be remembered, or count at all, but reviews do count, or newspaper columnists and reviewers would not be so assiduously courted by publishers. {6}

Is status in the arts is a pyramid scheme, supported by the vast numbers wanting to get in and become recognised? Certainly reviewing can come close to the situation greeting the MP entering Parliament for the first time, who must decide either to serve his constituents faithfully, or head for high office. He cannot easily do both. Honesty will condemn him to the back benches, supposing he survives the reselection process and stays in the party. If he places the establishment first, he must go around asserting matters that are plainly not the case, and cannot refuse a job when offered, however distasteful. Equally, just to survive, writers have to join an establishment controlling access to the media, but their confidence can hardly be increased by demands to laud the second rate. Writing takes time, an enormous amount of time, that shouldn’t be wasted on other activities, and even the work of great poets would have benefited from more effort. Shakespeare, that supreme genius, could turn out very run-of-the-mill stuff in the rush to production deadlines, and the tenured existence of poets at medieval Islamic courts produced only facile panegyrics. Nezami, Jami and Ghalib all guarded their independence fiercely, and suffered for it.

It is possible, just possible, that the Internet will render unnecessary some of these degrading tasks, and allow writers to speak directly to their readers when they have completed something to their satisfaction. But increasingly, as mainstream journalists and politicians find themselves sidelined, there will come calls to ‘regulate content’, for which the mechanisms already exist. {7} Currently, writers can publish over the Internet as they please, but getting a readership, and making that readership pay, are much more difficult, not helped by the proliferation of blogs adding yet more facets to our self-reflecting world of culture.


1. Andrew Motion. Digging Deep. Review of Seamus Heaney’s ‘District and Circle’ (76pp, Faber, £12.99). Guardian: Saturday April 1, 2006 .
2. Andrew Motion. Poet’s homepage and booking site.
3. Sampson, Anthony. Who Runs This Place? The Anatomy of Britain in the 21st Century (John Murray, 2005), 372.
4. Watson, George. The Literary Critics. (Hogarth Press, 1986).
5. Paul Lewis and John Ezard. The great unread: DBC Pierre, Harry Potter … oh yes, and David Blunkett. Guardian Monday March 12, 2007
6. Allen, Michael, The Truth About Writing (Kingsfield Publications, 2006)
7. Internet Censorship. Wikepedia article.

Relevant Website Pages

Modernist Scene: Current Difficulties. http://www.textetc.com/modernist/current-difficulties.html


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  1. You should have stuck with the original resolution.

    Everyone turns out crap collections occasionally, and Heaney was nearing the end of his creative life with “District and Circle”.

    OK, Motion could have been more guarded, but you don’t rubbish your fellow members of the establishment.

    Wouldn’t it have been better to have celebrated what Heaney did achieve?

  2. It’s called professionalism. The science historian George Sartov described the institutional scene back in the fifties as:

    ‘Truth can be discovered only by the judgment of experts. Everything is decided by very small groups of men, in fact by single experts whose results are carefully checked, however, by a few others. The people have nothing to say but simply to accept the decisions handed out to them. Scientific activities are controlled by universities, academies and scientific societies, but such control is as far removed from popular control as it could be.’

    Quoted in chapter one of Rupert Sheldrake’s Science Set Free: 10 Paths to New Discovery (Deepak Chopra, 2012).

    Substitute MFA programs and the mainstream media for scientific societies and you have the current scene.

  3. Nothing to what’s happening today. Look at Prof. Lindzen’s article on what happens to climate scientists who defy the current orthodoxy on man-made global warning.

    Climate Science: Is it Currently Designed to Answer Questions? http://www.globalresearch.ca/climate-science-is-it-currently-designed-to-answer-questions/16330

    The IPCC’s views may or may not be right, but it’s no way to conduct science. There are equally plausible views: http://www.globalresearch.ca/global-cooling-is-here/10783

    That’s probably off-topic, but does something similar happen to poets who avoid the academic promotion machine — anyone know?

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