A network of connoisseurs; legitimated errors
This is a text about rules or methodology, which needs to be there for reference but doesn't talk about individual poets or poems.
If you start with a list of 6000 poets (active 1960 to 1997), an initial suggestion would be to read all of them. So you discount this because probably 90% of them are tedious. This gives away the fact that you have limited faith in your subject. However, reading the whole lot would kill a normal person. So a second suggestion would be a non-selective sample, where you take the list you have developed and take every tenth row, and read that one. But actually, the method I followed was based on anthologies. I read a lot of anthologies (maybe 50, in the end) and chose the poets on the basis of poems I liked in the anthologies. This gives you a sample of maybe 500 poets.
Could there be problems with this method? First, reading a couple of poems can give you a wrong idea about what the poetry feels like at volume length. Secondly, your reactions may not be perfect. The more fascinated you are by one style, the less time you have for the others– and the easier it is to miss something of real interest. Sadly, the same applies to editors. In reading through sheaves of poems, they may simply fail to react to something. If you are in love with a style (or even a subject matter), their responses may not predict yours. They don’t have the same “weakness”, or partiality, or need.
A recent case was where someone recommended a group of four 80s poets to me, names I hadn't heard before. I ordered a 1985 book by Stephen Oldfield and, yes, it was very good. I checked back and found that I had seen his poems in an anthology. But the ones in the anthology were unimpressive – a matter of presentation. Some editors can't select good poems over bad ones. Conclusion: poets you dismiss after reading a dull anthology may actually be very good. I haven't checked out the other three yet, but a trip to London should allow me to do that at the Poetry library. I wrote about 160 poets, but in fact that left out George Szirtes and Stephen Oldfield, so the likelihood is that I am still missing some good poets.
The port of entry for poems is the doormats of editors. (Today it’s all email, but I am thinking of a timenow at circa 1970.) Poets who actually want to get published send envelopes full of poems to editors, mainly magazine editors. The editor reads it all through. An editor recently described to me how he reads about 600 poems every month, as they come in. So 7000 a year. The total had gone up sharply during the lockdown, so it was maybe 1000 a month in that period. But he accepts maybe 120 poems a year. Clearly, he rejects the others. I am terrifically grateful to him, and to many other editors, for doing the spadework and locating the good stuff.
In a second process, some poets go on to produce books. I haven’t surveyed the field, so I can’t be dogmatic. I think magazines are normally the gateway to a book. The typescript may have a covering letter which lists all the magazines who have published the poems, that is a proof of quality. But it could be less mediated. A poem wins a prize, the poet attends a creative writing class, they do a public reading... any of these could stimulate the publisher into action. Or stimulate a friend of the publisher, whose advice they respect.
I am speaking of a social network based on connoisseurship. It is an intelligent network… individuals inside it distinguish good art from bad, they exchange ideas, they store information, they accept advice from other people in the network. Also, they accept people into the network based on critical evaluation; those whose evidence is perceived as bad do not acquire influence. This self-criticism protects the quality of the network. I am definitely thinking of it as something fallible, but one has to admit that the editors/ advisers are eager to gain credit for finding new poets, and that it is multiple – if it fails to accept a new talent at one point, that talent can gain entry at many other points. There is no crucial point of failure, there are gateways everywhere.
My work on British poetry 1960-97 is based on this social network as the source for which poets I need to read. The poets I read came primarily from anthologies. This approach could fail, and I can give reasons for failures. Connoisseurs cannot judge poems they do not read, so poets may never even have been considered by the compilers of anthologies. The system can forget, so that a poet who was active in the 1950s might have fallen out of visibility by the 1970s. The system is sectorial, and poetry relevant to one editor may seem like “modernistic junk” to another. Sectors may lack resources, so that what would have been key anthologies never come out. Difficult poetry may simply perplex an overworked editor and get passed by. Poets may fear rejection too much to submit their work persistently, or after an improvement in technique. They may not understand the system well enough to send work to the right places. The market may be saturated – to put it brutally, 50 good poets arrived and the retail channel only took on 10 of them. (However, the sector of anthologies should take care of that, at least for someone like me who reads anthologies.)
A line of testing is offered by the gap between book publishers and anthologists. I think we probably have 6000 poets who released at least one book in my period 1960-97. I am sure most of those never appeared in the anthologies I looked at. The count in anthologies is less than 1000, maybe less than 700. This means that the publishers are not supporting the conclusions of anthologists. There could be a number of reasons for this, but we have to concede that the anthologies may not be based on reading everything and that one part of the “intelligent network” may actually be blocking out signals from another part. To be concrete, my belief for studying standard anthologies that they repeat the judgements of the predecessors and do not venture out into areas which the predecessors shut out of view. Michael Roberts defined who was modern in 1936 and poets he left out haven’t been picked up by later anthologists. Crucially, this is not true for Edward Thomas: Roberts left him out but other editors have included him. That was a rescue operation, the system can be proud of it, but it is an exception. New anthologies take a receptive view of the newer generation of poets but do not go back 30 years to look for legitimated errors.
I cannot think of an external source for measuring system effectiveness, but we do have the internal one. Most published poets do not get anthologised. Somebody is not getting it right – or, one part of the system is invalidating another part.
Magazine editors are reading an awesome amount of unpublished poetry. It would be nice to think that this process meant that everything of high quality rapidly became visible to the “network of connoisseurs”. However, it is quite possible that someone writes terrific poems and they get published in a magazine and then nobody reacts at all. They did't read that magazine. They were busy.
I can see that, if we look at one era-spanning anthology (The Firebox), which contains 126 names, it omits 81% of the poets I have written about within my ‘Affluence’ work. I worked with a group of 15 anthologies of around 1985-95, for an exercise, and I have recorded details of them. The details allow me to say that 50% of the poets I have written about are not in those anthologies. I rely on anthologies, it follows, while finding them all defective. Obviously I have other sources of information, but the conclusion is that all sources are riddled with omissions, not that there are independent or complete sources of knowledge.
Under certain circumstances, the collaboration of experts is not going to correct local errors but actually amplify them. If the individual components are flawed, it is perverse to say that the whole is unflawed. Even though the experts are correcting each other's errors, it is unreasonable to think that the final outcome is perfection.
I am doubtful about the merit of reading large amounts of poetry. Appetite is the key thing. If your appetite gets satiated, you can't take the poetry in. This is simply a useless process or pseudo-process. Normally a critic or editor arouses my appetite for a poem and then I read it. This works really well. I suppose poetry in an agreed genre is easy to take in; it is original poetry which requires sensitivity. Anyway, there was no point in reading hundreds of books quickly. I have read a lot, but over 20 years. Nobody read all those 6000 poets.
I have not discussed the effect of consensus among the connoisseurs ending up as conformity. This is just too hard to measure. If all editors agree in disliking something, it probably is no good. I like some not very popular poets, but this may not be a breakout and win. It may be just me writing criticism which is useless for the reader. Consensus between the poet, me, and the reader is certainly the goal. Art is a social thing.
When I say “network”, I choose the word because it implies parts being knotted together, flexibility, and being able to trawl things up (or, store information). But also, something genuinely made out of holes. Obviously poets fall through the holes. If the experts between them only read 1000 out of the 6000, the intelligent network does not have intelligence about the other 5000.
We can imagine that after 6000 poets got published there are another 6000 who never got published and are hanging around just outside the gates, looking famished. I can't confirm this. Maybe people who were blocked in 1970 are part of the published category by 1980. I simply don’t know.
Anyway, my initial set of poets to read is based on the anthologies and the critical intelligence embodied in them. Of the poets I read, I then wrote about the ones I found interesting to read. Writing about something uninteresting is a chore. I also read a lot of magazines and hung out with other poetry fans a lot, trying to acquire information from them.
Having read this over, I feel I should add something more. There is a game being played by poetry connoisseurs where they win by finding good poets whom other people don’t know about. We don’t need to explain it to see that people are playing this game, and that this is how they win. This is why circulation of info about good poetry is very rapid and why people are willing to spend long evenings searching through bad poetry to find the good stuff. Another rule is that people don’t like reading bad poetry. Editors are willing to read lots of weak poetry coming in ‘off the mat’, but the suggestion “you should read twice as much bad poetry!” does not usually meet with a warm welcome. I didn't mention reviews, but after all the effect is pretty much the same whether the method is a review, a poetry magazine, an anthology, or a conversation in a bar. It's always "Look at this, Andrew!" and it always draws on a network of connoisseurship.
Another key concept is that of hatred of authority. People don't like being turned down. If you are a magazine editor, you can quite easily send out 1000 rejection letters. All the people who receive those letters will dislike you. There is a pool of hostility towards editors, as the people who turn some poets down and validate others. This can extend from disliking the editors to disliking anyone successful in the poetry world. So success becomes proof of guilt. So the energy animating the poetry system has a "negative field", the energy of resentment and desire to overthrow all judgements. The negative energy may even be the larger quantity – it just isn't focused. The people who do the rejecting are also carrying out the steps that give someone reputation and success, you can't really separate the two.
There is something else I need to add. Not all witnesses have equal standing. If a poet votes for themselves, their evidence does not have the same standing as that of a connoisseur who is recalling their feelings about poetry by another person. The network is composed of messages, bits of information of various lengths, and each one has a coding to show its origin (like an IP address). Different origins have different levels of importance and credibility. A great deal of information in the “poemosphere” is publicity and promotion and has very limited value. It is a retail business like another. The inequality is fraught with problems. However, let me point out that, if you want new information, you need someone who has such information, and someone who has spent time reading unfiltered typescripts, in from the public, possibly has it. In fact, work is the basis for being a good witness. Unpaid work, normally. What the perky rebels in the long grass will point out, barely a breath later, is that the choice (or: evaluation) of witnesses is as complicated, and fallible, as the evaluation of poets. Certainly people who are full of resentment are bad witnesses, because they are psychologically off balance. Does it follow that the people closest to the sources of legitimation and validation are the best witnesses? absolutely not. There probably is a problem with conformism and orthodoxy. People who don't accept what the business is telling them to consume probably do have something vital to offer.