Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
John McAuliffeBill Manhire in Conversation with John McAuliffe
(PN Review 259)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Patricia CraigVal Warner: A Reminiscence
(PN Review 259)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Tim Parksin conversation with Natalia Ginzburg
(PN Review 49)
Next Issue Gwyneth Lewis ‘Spiderings’ Ian Thomson ‘Fires were started: Tallinn, 1944’ Adrian May ‘Traditionalism and Tradition’ Judith Herzberg ‘Poems’ translated by Margitt Helbert Horatio Morpurgo ‘What is a Book?’
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
PN Review 276
PN Review Substack

This item is taken from PN Review 154, Volume 30 Number 2, November - December 2003.

Bloodaxe Books celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary with an anthology entitled Poems of the Year, with a three-page polemical introduction by the imprint's begetter, Dr Neil Astley, and featuring writers whose collections are appearing at this time. It is right to pay tribute to a list which has introduced so many writers, in English and translation, to British readers. It used to shout the macho slogan 'poetry with an edge', as against - we must assume - the blunt or blunted lists that preceded its arrival.

Bloodaxe's emblem is a little man in a skirt called Eric Bloodaxe. He is running left, wears a curious acorn helmet, carries a shield and wields the eponymous axe. Possibly the skirt no longer represents an ancient Borders sartorial tradition, but rather a modern ambiguity in Eric's identity; the polemical stance Dr Astley has adopted in recent years has been hostile to what he calls 'today's critical fraternity'. He intends us to hear the frater in that word: 'poetry's new bogus academic spin doctors', all 'articulate young men', 'sly spin doctors trying to foist their academically distorted version of contemporary poetry on baffled readers'.

Particular hostility is directed, it seems, against the new editors of Poetry Review and some of their associates. They are less willing than their predecessor (a proper Mandelsonian spin-doctor) to be poetry's cheerleaders. They have found it possible to reopen the Modern and Post Modern debate, as relevant to the writing, reading and appraisal of contemporary poetry. They do not seem troubled at this stage by the gender demographics to which Dr Astley makes continual reference.

Dr Astley's vehemence, after two and a half decades of his own spin ('poetry is the new rock-'n'-roll' is his most quoted sound-bite) baffles many. Why is he so grumpy? 'The puritanical members of that bogus male cult' ('bogus' again, does it go with 'male' or 'cult'?) 'of literary seriousness' (reprehensible) 'and poetic difficulty' (examples, please: are we talking Eliot, Auden, Hill, J.H. Prynne?) have done dastardly deeds. Dr Astley narrows their crimes down to a representative handful. They have disliked the work of the 'wonderful American poet Billy Collins' (referred to as Mr Feelgood by an impatient non-male American critic), and they were hostile to his own commercially successful anthology Staying Alive: real poems for unreal times (published in June 2002).

Material success is not sufficient: the fact that his anthology has sold in its tens of thousands hardly weighs in the balance against the indignity of the reviews. Beyond the thanks of a satisfied market, he wants critics unanimously to roll over as well. Some did: Professor John Carey and Ian Rankin both, he says, used the phrase 'a revelation' to describe his book. Yet every single poet who reviewed it hated it. He doesn't say how many bad reviews he received, but he insists that they were all by male, well educated poets, and he gives the impression that they were legion. This reception is a symptom of a wider malaise, he believes, which encompasses 'their' dismissal of women's poetry, too.

Describing his vision of publishing twenty-five years on, he uses a species of democratic rhetoric. When he began, he declares, 'Publishers weren't serving readers. Even now there's still a mismatch between publication and readership'. This 'mismatch' is not aesthetic but demographic: 'over three-quarters of poetry collections published by the main imprints are by men, despite the fact that poetry's readership is over two-thirds female, and numerous women poets are either unpublished or only available in small press editions not found in bookshops. And the published women poets receive far less review coverage than the men.'

Poetry editors pay 'more heed to peer approval than reader response'; here they are hand in glove with the 'sly spin doctors' who seem, in Dr Astley's eyes, to constitute their entire peer group. The publication of unpopular poetry licenses bookshops to carry little verse. If it was all Billy Collins and Staying Alive, poetry not with an edge but with a comforting smile, things would be different. This stance recalls the old political paradox: 'I am their leader, I must follow them.' The editorial and marketing departments merge.

The sly male spin-doctors promote a poetry whose 'primary concern is language (for its own sake) and intellectual play, not communication and human life'. Nothing evinces deeper concern with human life than an insistence on the precise use of language, the instrument with which sense is detected and made, and the inventive exploration of its resources. Dr Astley at some level shares this view: he published the work of J.H. Prynne, a poet 'wonderful' in different ways from Billy Collins. Even the most culpably intelligent and male L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, in their most extreme experiments, cannot help but communicate, though their work may elude paraphrase. And intellectual play, from Sappho through Dickinson, from Catullus through Auden, and now, has a place.

Why take this indignant polemic seriously? Because Neil Astley is an important editor and has done too much for poetry to let him get away with such facile stuff. He has made a primary contribution which the critical, academic and readerly establishment has warmly acknowledged for two and a half decades. Staying Alive, in which he replaced a critical with a utilitarian editorial net, ordering the poems accordingly and providing slabs of 'accessible' and questionbegging prose, has travelled further than any other Bloodaxe book. That's good news for his balance sheet. But does it make the book good?

Buck up, Neil: you've done excellent work. Allow your critics a few reservations: your dedication to readership sounds commendable; but remember that at the outset you were dedicated to poetry, to poetry that the Establishment, because of its spinny agendas, overlooked. Now that you're a central part of that Establishment, don't fall into the same trap. Frankly, Pam Ayres's popularity does not cheer me up, though Pam Ayres has been known to. If poetry were an extension of the entertainment industry, to be judged entirely in the present on the sales, then most of your wellwishers, disappointed with Staying Alive, have all the time been on a hiding to nothing.

You were awarded a D.Litt by Newcastle University, you tell us, for your 'pioneering work'. This is an appropriate phrase for any serious editor's endeavour. Can you use it to nuance your sense of democracy, step back from the immediate market, a place in which to establish commercial value, and introduce longer-term perspectives? The instant, insistent now determines nothing. The vote of posterity counts. Without it, Hopkins, Joyce and Eliot, Pound and David Jones, Charlotte Mew and Mina Loy and Djuna Barnes, Frank O'Hara and J.H. Prynne, would not find an audience. Nurture goes into many talents; some of them change poetry and readership by broadening and deepening it. In the culture of reception which you seem to advocate, we would never have found them, or they us.

This item is taken from PN Review 154, Volume 30 Number 2, November - December 2003.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
Searching, please wait... animated waiting image