Tim Dooley Rivers and Mountains
In Jane Campion’s atmospheric period romance, Bright Star, John Keats considers the critical response to his 1820 volume Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems. Enthusiastic notices by friends and a few neutral reviews are placed alongside the long infamous character assassination of the quarterlies. Keats could weigh in the balance the notion that he would be ‘among the English poets when I die’ with a sense that his name was one ‘writ in water’. In a matter of decades Keats’s reputation was secure.
He had passed ‘the test of time’, a process touched on in a more recent context in Dennis O’ Driscoll’s collection of interviews with Seamus Heaney, Stepping Stones (reviewed in Poetry London last spring):
It’s a matter of word of mouth between practitioners. It starts small, with the inner circle of contenders. Who’s the good one out there? In poetry in particular, an ancient and sacred art, the word ‘poet’ still has an aura – that’s why people want it so much. Maybe I’m talking idealistically; but I do believe that published poets have a responsibility to the unpublished poets in a way that novelists don’t. It’s a sacred charge; and that’s why the selection process is independent almost of the marketing process or the reputation game.
Heaney’s vision of a spontaneous election by the coming poet’s peers is characteristically noble and generous. It’s a process that the comparatively recent annual round of prizes and awards for poetry seeks to formalize, sometimes with mixed results. The fly in the ointment is, of course, that ‘inner circle of contenders’. To some, outside the circle, this apparently natural process amounts to unelected electors fast-tracking figures formed in their own image, an accusation that can easily and sometimes accurately be caricatured as the envy of the less talented. As often in cases of mutual suspicion, those inside and outside may be prisoners of unhelpful metaphors. Poets should know better, yet remain captivated by figurative ‘eminences’, ‘peaks’ and (worst of all) ‘career ladders’.
If topographical metaphors are needed perhaps they could be horizontal rather than vertical. In Auden’s ‘Journey to Iceland’ a typographical error turned ‘and the poets have names for the sea’ to ‘and the ports have names for the sea’, an accidental improvement the poet was pleased to accept. At best the larger figures in our poetic landscape can be like ports, the arrival points to those outside the island, the starting point for excursions along the coast and into the hinterland of the art. So Carol Ann Duffy is using her laureateship to celebrate the wider work of poets, and Don Paterson, the newest recipient of the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, speaks of the honour giving him ‘the permission to start working a lot harder’ both on his own poetry, presumably, and in his work as an editor and encourager of new talent.
Poetry London takes delight in celebrating and engaging with the work of figures brave and well-placed enough to traffic with a wider world. But they are only part of a rich network of creative practice, which can be traced and mapped out to find the secluded bays and riverside retreats of those who work with a lonelier integrity. So reviews in this issue explore new work by Paterson, Gillian Clarke and Billy Collins and T S Eliot prize-winner Philip Gross introduces the work of very young poets with and without the support of major publishers. But we also cover collections by Thomas A Clark, Ruth Stone and Samuel Menashe, who have pursued their craft quietly and little attended to over many years, achieving remarkable luminosity and authority. And it is a particular pleasure to publish an extended appreciation of the work of Selima Hill, whose strikingly independent voice and continuing creative exuberance place her surely ‘among the English poets’ of at least our time.
The poems in this issue were edited by Colette Bryce; the reviews and features by Tim Dooley.