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This poem is taken from PN Review 56, Volume 13 Number 6, July - August 1987.

Addressing the Society of Young Publishers in 1952, T. S. Eliot gave it as his opinion that 'the most important difference between poetry and any other department of publishing is, that whereas with most categories of books you are aiming to make as much money as possible, with poetry you are aiming to lose as little as possible.' This was nicely calculated: the eminent director of Faber and Faber, and founder of its poetry list, in his celebrated role of Old Possum, aphoristic and ambassadorial. Was it what he really thought? Never mind - the words have an impressive, worldly-wise ring to them, and are still echoed today when the subject comes up, in spite (or is it because?) of the frequency with which it gets reported in the press that the selling of poetry can actually be a profitable and satisfying line of business.

Statesmanlike urbanities apart, of course, the fact remains that at Faber and Faber poetry has always been treated with the utmost seriousness, and it has always been assumed that there will be a market for what is genuinely of the highest quality. No doubt it is due to Eliot's example that the firm has never made the mistake of regarding the list as a genteel adornment, or an elegant whim to be indulged while the 'real' money is made through the selling of more dependable merchandise. Everyone at Queen Square shows an interest in it, and its organic function is generally acknowledged. I believe that Faber sales reps approach booksellers with a degree of confidence that is envied elsewhere, whether they have reprints from the back-list to offer or new volumes by relatively little-known poets, not only because of the firm's long-standing international reputation, but also because they have faith in the way the list has been fostered over the years and, so far as one can tell, will be in the future.

Something needs to be said about this. It involves a manner of decision-making that may puzzle other publishers, but that seems to me essential to the health of the enterprise. Quite simply, the poetry editor is master of his own domain. Since Eliot's time, two other men have held the position at Faber and Faber: Charles Monteith and Craig Raine. (My own job has been to mind the shop while Raine has been taking a year's leave of absence.) Both editors have wielded absolute power, adding to the list poets of their own choosing, while maintaining loyalty to the recruitments of their predecessors. No collective ideology has been formulated to guide or constrain them; on the contrary, they have been encouraged to exercise their discriminations freely and without impediment. In all important respects, they have been autocrats.

This policy has had two significant results. First, as I cannot avoid saying, the Faber list is the finest I know of anywhere in the world; to arrive at my desk in the morning and see the volumes arranged above it is to be given a bracing reminder of this. The second consequence, to which fortune has contributed as much as good planning, is the incomparable variety of work it represents. Eliot set the example here: it would be impossible to fit the poets he assembled into any ideological category, except that of aesthetic excellence as understood by him and defined implicitly in the work he chose to publish. Similarly, it was astute of Charles Monteith to identify, for example, in Seamus Heaney, Tom Paulin and Paul Muldoon the most eloquent of Northern Ireland's new poets, but they do not in any real sense add up to a school, their voices, quite distinct from the start, have developed along entirely separate lines, and it would be absurd to try to reduce their careers to any neat critical formula. Of late, the poets whom Craig Raine has added to the list - notably Michael Hofmann, Philip Gross, Amy Clampitt, Oliver Reynolds and Wendy Cope - display a diversity of gifts which could easily have gone unrecognized by an editor working from narrower principles, or accustomed to keeping his talentspotting eye fixed in one direction only.

Does this mean that I believe the state of affairs to be unimprovable? Certainly not. No poetry editor can afford to rest on the laurels of his authors, however high they may be heaped. When I look at the list objectively, I have to admit to dissatisfactions. I am acutely conscious of the names that are missing, past opportunities that were not seized when they might have been, editorial mistakes now beyond repair. All to be expected, of course - and too much time can be wasted in lamenting imperfections. The Faber list will never be a pantheon, and that's that.

None the less, I can conceive of ways in which to broaden and strengthen it in years to come. Let me put on record a wish of my own: namely, to see a substantial body of foreign poetry in first-rate English translations appearing under the Faber imprint. To my mind, this has been one of the most regrettable shortcomings of the past, and I hope that in the few months I am to remain at Craig Raine's desk (he returns in August) I shall be able to consider submissions in this line of a sufficiently high standard for the old pattern to be changed. Apart from this, I shall continue to scan the many dozens of unsolicited manuscripts that arrive at Queen Square each week, as well as the magazines and periodicals where new talent is often first exhibited, in the confidence that whatever is next published by us, it will not look, or sound, or feel, quite like anything that has been met with before, and that it will have earned its place by its power to alter significantly one's sense of the list as a whole.

The Coney

Although I have never learned to mow
I suddenly found myself half-way through
last year's pea-sticks
and cauliflower-stalks
in our half-acre of garden.
My father had always left the whetstone
safely wrapped

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