Halt at 1997
On Sunday, I spent a morning re-examining some data I collected about ten anthologies of “new poets” published around 2010. The check didn’t come up with errors, viz. there were 250 different poets in the anthologies (and nobody emerged as “leader of a generation”). I was taken back to a moment around 2012 (records missing) where I looked at this data and was sure that I didn’t want to go on and acquire knowledge of all of it. Let me underline this – in about 1999, I read Jim Keery’s essay about ‘Schönheit apocalyptica’ and decided to go back to the 1940s and write about what led from then to modern times. The problem with doing this was that it meant I had no time to track down new poetry. I resisted and then gave in. So, in 2012 I could have cleared the decks for action and decided to start another project, on recent poetry. And this is what I decided not to do.
I have a 2014 anthology of young Scottish poets, named “Be the first to like this”. So, the date is slightly later than the other anthologies. 38 poets are included. And, only three of them appear in the initial ten anthologies. The conclusion is that English editors don’t know where Scotland is – but also, that the figure of 250 is too low, an incomplete dredge from an ocean which holds far more than 250 “serious poets”.
There is a cognitive task, of memorising 250 names and also memorising a summary of their style so that I can think about them. This is what I am declining. Obviously, I have carried out that cognitive task for an undefined number of poets active between 1960 and 1997. If I want to think about the older period, I have the data to support that properly.
It’s so easy thinking about the 1950s. There were so few poets writing and the data organises itself into such clear patterns. Gradually, things get less and less clear – possibly because more and more poets start publishing.
When I began publishing reviews, in the late Eighties, I was animated by a strong sense of injustice. Every page of documentation was going to make things fairer. The unfairness was located inside particular human beings, it lived and teemed in them. Why doesn’t this apply now? I looked at the 1980 Oxford Book of Contemporary Verse, edited by DJ Enright, and worked out that the average age of the poets was, in 1980, sixty. It was a slam-dunk – Enright had bypassed everyone under 40. He just hadn't taken anything in for the previous 20 years. He was a pig who could get work because the whole system was run by pigs. But, when people like that vanished from the stage, I was unemployed. Game over. Today, I can’t see unfairness so clearly. It seems everyone gets published. Many anthologies come out specifically to promote young poets.
The sheer number of poets is admirable but also, obviously, a problem. If a poet feels blocked, it is because of the sheer throng of other poets, fighting to get on stage. I can’t affect this. Anyway, it’s questionable whether I affected the problems that were so oppressive back in 1988. Also, the people in charge are less arrogant than they were in 1988, or especially than they were in the 1970s. They are more exhausted and have almost no sense of power. The people who made these anthologies around 2010 are tired from reading too much, rather than swollen with an arrogance which means they read almost nothing and make lordly pronouncements. They are genuinely helping the poets they deal with. I don’t have a fight with people like James Byrne or Clare Pollard. They are probably under-paid, actually. They stretch to observe rules rather than trying to give the impression that they are sovereigns of taste. They are providing a service rather than being members of an elite (even an imaginary one). It’s not attractive to subvert them.
My impression about being a "gatekeeper" now is that the pressure of poets etc. trying to guilt-trip you and denouncing any decision you take as unfair is just overwhelming. And, if there are hundreds of books to survey, editors don't get paid for the extra work.Unfortunately, it's worthwhile for poets to spend much energy guilt-tripping. The pressure of competition from x hundred other poets is just too much.