I was reminded, recently, of something I blurted out, years ago, at a ‘roundtable’ on the shady business of poetry publishing. Apparently, barely into the job at Poetry London, I had made the case rather forcefully that, as an editor, it was important to practice as profound an aesthetic pluralism as possible, even to the extent of publishing poems you did not like, but which you felt were a contribution to the art form.
Although I find it difficult to imagine the sprightly zest with which I was reminded of making this remark, I find it plausible I did so. Primarily, perhaps, because I had made much the same argument in the introductory note to an anthology, The Best British Poetry, that I had edited the year before. At the very least, my tendency towards repeating myself makes this story eminently believable.
After six years editing this magazine, and with my tenure drawing to a close, I find myself in a reflective mood – pulling on a cardigan and slippers, chewing on my pipe – and asking myself whether I still agree with this particular statement. As I cogitate, my mind working slower than it did in my youth, I am drawn to remember three texts that I have read, or returned to, recently.
The first is an article, published in the Guardian, in which Natalie Nougayrède argues forcefully that ‘human rights are individual rights; they are not the rights of a group’, going on to cite Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, former UN commissioner for human rights, that ‘defending the rights of one community against other communities amounts to creating the conflicts of tomorrow’.
The second text is from Julia Kristeva’s 1991 book, Strangers to Ourselves, in which – echoing Freud’s Civilisation and its Discontents – she argues that ‘group identity forms itself by excluding the other’, that exclusion of the other is, in one way or another, the dark underside of a sense of community that is akin to what Freud called – in a phrase that seems, now, rather Sgt. Pepper-esque – the ‘oceanic feeling’.
Finally, I am drawn to recall the following words, from Jacques Rancière’s The Emancipated Spectator, in which he writes that ‘we have heard so many orators passing off their words as more than words, as formulas for embarking on a new existence… we see so many installations and spectacles transformed into religious mysteries that it is not necessarily scandalous to hear it said that words are merely words’ and, then, that ‘to know that words are merely words and spectacles merely spectacles, can help us arrive at a better understanding of how words and images… can change something of the world we live in.’
I want to park these references here for a second, and offer up an admission. If the last six years have had a profound effect on me, it is that they have nurtured an almost absolute indifference to what some call ‘the poetry world’. By this, I do not mean an indifference to poems, or poetry, or poets, but to the minor scuffles, gossip and melodrama that often plays itself out in pub whispers or, increasingly (and depressingly), on social media.
And yet, try as I do to remain blissfully ignorant of X Facebook fracas, or Y grandee’s broadsheet broadside, I too often fail to maintain such splendid isolation. And so, it was with genuine sadness that I learned – from a friend who reads newspapers, and another who reads Twitter – that in an age characterised by Trump’s tweets and tabloid accusations of ‘betrayal’ against ‘enemies of the people’, writers were being interviewed and were using words like ‘betrayal’ to categorise particular forms of poetics. Simultaneously, angry, often ill-informed, poets and punters were furiously typing 280 characters about something else that now I can’t remember, because, well… poems?
The artist Cally Spooner has talked about a kind of writing she calls affirmative, a form of writing that breaks free of the dialectical shackles and writes for something, rather than against. It is in this context, and with half an ageing eye to what might be called a kind of affirmative reading, that – returning to my initial, probably half-baked, assertions about publishing work that is not necessarily to your tastes – I would now go further.
I would say that the absolute bare minimum an editor should be doing is publishing work they do not ‘get’. I would say that the absolute bare minimum a reader (let alone a writer) should be doing is reading work that is not necessarily to their tastes, that is not written by poets ‘like them’. In a time in which the ‘group’, a time in which ‘identity’ is almost always defined negatively, as that which it is not, I would hope that anyone with any sensitivity to words, to the lyric as spectacle, would be reading and talking about and, if possible, publishing, as many words, as many poems, or poets, that they do not get, that are not to their tastes, and that are ‘unfamiliar’ or ‘different’, as they can.
So, yup, I guess I think young, baby-faced me was right. For the most part, that’s what you’ll also find in this issue of Poetry London: plenty of poems that I certainly wouldn’t profess to ‘get’ yet, and then – because this is my last issue, and I’m rather self-indulgent – a few poems that are here precisely because they are, like, really to my taste :p