Tim Dooley, Reviews Editor Disfiguring the text
I recently bought some first editions of Thom Gunn’s 1960s collections at the bargain price of three for five pounds, owing to the extensive annotations made by the previous owner. That owner was the critic A E Dyson. Dyson, together with C B Cox, founded the magazine Critical Quarterly a half century ago, in 1959. Cox and Dyson’s textbooks, Practical Criticism and Modern Poetry, were part of my own introduction to the work of Gunn, Larkin and others. There was a certain frisson to be had, therefore, in trying to make sense of the following passage on the acknowledgements page of The Sense of Movement:
No [word illegible] for Thom! Ted? maybe. Sylvia? (Yes – if OK) RST? Well, for fame, yes. Philip? – a little [word scratched out] with considerable power as versifier...
Less gnomically intriguing, but perhaps more typical, were the extensive marginal questions and comments on every page of the three volumes. Dyson was evidently a practitioner as well as a proponent of close reading, and what to the bookseller was a disfigurement of the text was for me a touching manifestation of one kind of disinterested intellectual attention to poetry.
It is a paradox of the current poetry scene that a boom in production – there are as many new books of poetry published each year in Britain as there are feature films released – has been accompanied by a crisis of reception. The pressure on independent bookshops by the behemoth chains has left little shelf space where an uncommitted reader can begin to ‘get’ poetry, cognitively or practically. With the honourable exception of the Guardian’s weekend edition, reviews in broadsheets have reduced to a trickle. In universities, where students are exposed to contemporary poetry, it is likely to be through the lens of different aspects of theory on thematic courses, or via the largely pragmatic and expressionistic poetics of creative writing.
Things have clearly changed, but not all for the worse. Michael Donaghy’s courageously individual practice as a poet and a thinker about poetry is remembered in this issue. Eva Salzman reminds us of his zest for life and draws attention to his ‘distinctly American iconoclasm: a refusal to belong to any club that will have you as a member’. Donaghy’s creative writing students are now emerging as poets and critics in their own right, active participants in new networks for the development and promotion of the art. The internet has created new possibilities like the discussion board Poets on Fire moderated by Jane Holland, or Todd Swift’s blogzine Eyewear. Poetry may be driven to the margins of culture, but there is vitality in the margins. The focused close reading of the Dyson era is in the process of being replaced by a less formal colloquy, drawing on wider participation, which may at present be poetry’s best hope.
Poetry London combines a mission of publishing the best new poems it can with comment on the burgeoning crop of new work coming from established and smaller presses. Our contributors are mostly active themselves as poets and representative of the diversity of the current scene. At a time when we celebrate Carol Ann Duffy’s appointment as the first woman Laureate, Linda Black’s review of the anthology Women’s Work reminds us that gender neutrality has not always been easy to find in poetry publishing. Over the last four issues we have reviewed thirty-four collections by women and forty by men. This is healthier than the general practice of the past, but clearly still needs to be monitored. So much for representation. As for nuanced attention to detail, I have every hope that the review copies I pack into jiffy bags will be so attentively read that they prove as unsuitable for resale as Dyson’s seem to have become.