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This item is taken from PN Review 134, Volume 26 Number 6, July - August 2000.

Letter from Martin Blythe
The Poet's Vocation


You comment in an editorial (PNR132) that 'the vocations of poet and performer have become intertwined'. I would like to suggest that a sense of vocation is more important to most poets than judgements of how well they write or perform.

As Charles Bukowski put it: 'Writing chooses you, you don't choose it.' What happens after that may depend almost as much on sheer determination, as upon innate ability, in the face of those welldocumented discouragements to recognition, success, or even a decent regular income - among them, as you mention, more than three hundred new books of poetry a year, of which all but a handful vanish without trace.

No less well documented are the cases of major poets who never achieve recognition or success in their lifetime, which may be one reason why so many poets - regardless of ability - are just as determined to keep going as the punter who wants to win the National Lottery. That, however, is not necessarily the same thing as possessing a sense of vocation.

Indeed, as your article implies, too much single-mindedness about success may be counter-productive, for both the poet and the cause of poetry as a whole. Perhaps this is more evident at certain public performances, where poets are subtly encouraged to think of themselves - and audiences are encouraged to think of poets - as, in some way, special people whose right to respect does not have to be earned at each reading.

I'm afraid I don't see it quite like that. I would sooner try to respect all poets, regardless of their popular standing, who want to share their work with me. It is not enough merely to hold it up for approbation (or whatever an audience can get out of it) on the basis, say, of a Gregory award and a Bloodaxe book - albeit that in the rat-race for recognition, such trophies supposedly put the contender near the front of a very large field.

A major difficulty nowadays is that many poems are not meant for sharing, anyway. They are just reports on an experience, often not a very profound or unique one, dressed up in the style of the moment. The poet's patter in those instances may be merely an attempt to interest the audience in the subject, and perhaps pass on a few important details that did not make it into the poem itself.

You mention Philip Larkin's refusal to give public readings. He could have started almost any poem without patter, because all the audience needs to know (including, quite often, an indication of what prompted him to write it in the first place) is present in the poem. These considerations also have a bearing upon the enjoyment of a one-to-one encounter with a poem on the page.

Sharing a poem with an audience is not the same as performing it, and is by no means dependent upon a poet's skill as a performer. Poets may be natural sharers or natural performers: a few, such as Thomas Lynch or Brian Patten, may be both. Yet it is only when sharing occurs that the act of reading aloud becomes creative for both writer and audience: and that holds true over a wide spread of poetic abilities.

The spread of that vital sense of vocation is equally wide. It is not the concomitant of success or recognition. It is more sincere than - and, one hopes, incompatible with - the practising of techniques of spin or marketing, patter or performance, to produce a passive audience. How long, incidentally, do such practitioners expect audiences to remain passive? If, as you suggest can happen, an audience starts to judge a performance, instead of the poems, it is in control, and poets may find themselves at the mercy of the literary equivalent of a first house at Glasgow Empire. Ticket sales may gain importance as a primitive yardstick for official funding or artistic merit.

You also suggest that poets may lose publishers, if they can't, or won't, acquit themselves well as performers. The slam ethos, where the better poet may go down to the better performer, seems to be gaining ground. One can think of several distinguished poets who might fail this test: yet it would be iniquitous if they were dropped from publication and public readings. Again, it must surely have an ill effect upon a poet's work to be compelled to worry too much about its suitability for live performance. In the shadow of these prospects, a poet's sense of vocation is increasingly important to the overall health of our cultural life.

It is the widespread practice of creative activities, rather than their perfection and performance by a few, that underwrites such health. Many more writers feel they have been chosen than can possibly become successful: yet they continue to produce work that does not take the world at face value, but searches for deeper meaning within the confines of an individual life.

Their role in society is closer to that of a worker-priest than of a show business personality, and they may achieve no more recognition than a modest sharing of their work with a few like-minded friends, or the readers of a little magazine: yet it is absolutely vital that such integrity of purpose should continue to thrive, at all levels. It stands in the way of further subjugation to commercial values. It helps to create readers, rather than consumers. It encourages an active dialogue, rather than patter for passive consumption.

Those who seek to compromise it may argue, at first glance convincingly, that the aim is to bring art to a wider public. Eventually the wider public will grow tired, realise it has been patronised, get up and leave. Once again, poets with a true vocation will have kept the flame alive during the years of dumbing down and eventual disillusionment.

That leaves the question: what does one mean by a vocation? It is more profound than a consoling egotism, privately hugged to the breast, and it is easier to recognise in others than to define. Perhaps John Henry Newman, that marvellous user of words, tells us something about it, in what he said when dangerously ill with fever. The saintly theologian did not say: 'I have not sinned', or 'I have not sinned against God', but 'I have not sinned against light'. To those who don't understand the difference, I can only apologise for having wasted the time it took them to read this far.


This item is taken from PN Review 134, Volume 26 Number 6, July - August 2000.

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