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This item is taken from PN Review 94, Volume 20 Number 2, November - December 1993.

Editorial
IT MAY BE time to revive Anthony Thwaite's distinction between the two poetries, but this time with a new inflection. In a feature in the Guardian, NeilAstley editor of Bloodaxe Books, which he claims to be the biggest purveyor of verse in Britain, throws down his gauntlet. What he says is consonant with the introduction to The New Poetry edited by Michael Hulse, David Morley and David Kennedy and published by him, but Astley's expression is pithier than theirs. From his perspective we're entering a democratic age, but also an age of decorums and proprieties: poetry is instrumental, a language of use; the freedoms we might wish for citizens are not necessarily to be extended to poets. Here are some of the things he's reported as saying by Daisy Goodwin, who wrote the article.

First, the acid test writers must pass with at least aB+ if they are to be admitted to Astley's canon: 'you are emotionally tough, you have an intellectual grasp of the world and… you are in touch with the social realities of the 1990S.' He adds: 'There is a new generation of writers and readers, the products of the 1944 Education Act who know Johnny Rotten and Milton inside out … and it's these new age classicists who are leading the way in poetry today.' His eclecticism has limits: 'We publish everyone from vicars to punks… but we don't publish any right-wing poets…'

'Twenty years ago, most poets would have been teachers or academics: now they're probation officers like Simon Armitage, or, working with the homeless like Ian Duhig.' Then: 'the provinces are after all where everyone lives…' Poetry of the 1970s: 'dull stuff, boringly presented and irrelevant to most people's lives: And when his poets get poached by Faber or Oxford? 'It's like football … The good ones get bought up.' Hard luck on the dozens that remain on the shelf …

It's all there: not so much a programme for developing a list as a blueprint in poetic engineering. Astley reveals ashrewd 'intellectual grasp of the world' of modern marketing and an unerring instinct for the proprieties of our time.

He has a right to sound his barbaric yawp of triumph. He and his colleagues have worked hard, producing some excellent books and 'buying in others from abroad. Whether their drive to be 'the biggest' poetry press in the country is commendable time will tell. Other imprints - oft-maligned Faber with its incomparable backlist, Oxford, Anvil, Secker, Carcanet - are in thrall to an old-fashioned aim to be not biggest but best. Several of the other imprints work under commercial constraints and without subsidy, publishing poetry because they think they should, as part of a larger programme.

Astley does reflect the views of a large swathe of his generation, though they might not express themselves so emphatically. Yet his relativism ('who know Johnny Rotten and Milton inside out … and it's. these new age classicists who are leading the way in poetry today') is absurdly reductive: To use the word 'classicist' in this news speak way is at once to 'borrow' from it the legitimacy of an actual discipline and to degrade the term. To juxtapose Johnny Rotten and Milton - as though ignorance of Johnny Rotten is comparable, in a poet or a committed reader, to ignorance of Milton - is silly Has pop culture become compulsory? How much of it? The soaps? Top of the Pops? Match of the Day? And how many of the younger poets Astley admires know Milton 'inside out'? Actually know Milton at all? I am persuaded that not many poets and readers, pre- or post- the 1944 Act, give a toss for Milton, or the poets Milton is made of, or those he helped to make, which is one reason I'm less sanguine about the state of contemporary poetry 'atlarge', and about 'leaders', than NeilAstley appears to be.

It's the spirit of political and moral certainty from which editorial judgements seem to flow, that makes one reluctant to applaud unreservedly the enterprise of Bloodaxe. As in a Tractarian society dogmas prevail, work must serve a prescribed social or political end.
Packaging is of prime importance. A great sin against the Muse appears to be 'boring presentation': what's required is glitter to lure folk away from the box, and blurbs with the kinds of hyperbole which used to make Cape catalogues so funny to read.

How are the rules enforced? Does the standard contract include articles of political faith, a declaration of being untainted by Kipling, Pound or other certified monsters? A medical certificate of emotional toughness and a tutor's report (ah, no - nothing that smacks of institutional learning!) on 'intellectual grasp', and an inventory of the poet's collection of pop music, for appendices? If the poet is not a social worker, he or she must explain why People of a wimpy disposition need not apply Oxbridge graduates only in cases of emergency. Decadents and modernists: tread warily Poets must be emotionally and ideologically sound, competitive, able to perform. They must think less of 'readers' than of 'audiences:

Does this add up to more than the representative prejudices of the day? I take it seriously enough to hope that in time such views will soften so that those who entertain them may enjoy a range of work less correct perhaps, more compelling certainly than much that they allow themselves to savour and celebrate at present. If their views run unopposed, they will contribute to the growth of a literary culture - at least a big part of one - which is, for all its proclaimed openness, as closed as that which impoverished British publishing and readership in the early 1970s, after the boom that brought us three decades of American and European writing. In the end it's not how many books, but which, that matters.

Market orientation, the boast of size, ideological cohesion, are uncomfortably 1980s in tone. A fitting irony if the Thatcher legacy to poetic culture is not just a mountain of ephemeral anti-Thatcher verse now well past its sell-by date (though still described as 'scathing' and 'radical' in blurbs), but a poetry industry which, for glitz and big talk, emblematises that 'crisis of late capitalism' we talked of in the bad old days, when we knew we were being sold sizzle for steak.

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ISSN 0144-7076
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This item is taken from PN Review 94, Volume 20 Number 2, November - December 1993.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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