As I’ve practically neglected to mention up until now on this blog, my book of essays (Forgive the Language: Essays on Poets and Poetry, Penned in the Margins) is out on 1st December; click that link there and you can even pre-order it. Naturally, with this in mind, I’ve been in a mood to support books of essays on poetry, so last week I made sure to go to the launch of Jeremy Noel-Tod’s The Whitsun Wedding Video: A Journey into British Poetry, new out with Rack Press. Rack Press is a pamphlet publisher, and this little book is only slightly bigger than a sort of essay pamphlet: five essays, 46 pages plus notes. It’s a truly pocket-sized volume that feels three times the size once you’ve read it.
I’ll tell you the contents, because one of these titles is so good that it almost obviated the need for the essay that followed it, and has made me terminally jealous. The astute reader will guess which one.
1. British Poetry After Larkin: the Whitsun Wedding Video
2. A Patient Etherised Upon a Tablet: the Afterlife of TS Eliot
3. A Mug’s Game: the Modern Poetry Career
4. A Golden Age: In Praise of Older Poets
5. Full Disclosure: Criticism, the Internet, and the Future of British Poetry
Jeremy Noel-Tod is the editor of the Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry In English, and wrote his PhD on TS Eliot. He has reviewed and written critical essays in various newspapers and was, I believe, closely associated with the writer of the unmissably scurrilous poetry blog The Lyre, Ron Paste. He was, in short, definitely someone whose book I was interested in.
This little book raises almost an air of iconoclasm with its slant towards what I might call the longer view, or the further aspect. Noel-Tod takes on some of the key cultural assumptions we live under these days, the orthodoxies of current bias. Among other soundbites: ‘The presumed incompatibility of the poetic imagination and Tory politics has had Larkin’s admirers wrestling with their close readings for a long time’… Also in his title essay, Noel-Tod makes a slightly different stand. ‘The real problem with much contemporary poetry’, he writes, ‘is that it softpedals what people really like in the arts: mystery and drama’.
Before you reach for your mouse, I’ll point out that my younger contemporary poet friends are absolutely mad for box sets, Scandiwegian noir thrillers, the works of Angela Lansbury, and old Inspector Morse episodes.
One of the great things about these essays is how Noel-Tod refuses to allow poetry to stay in its little poetry ghetto. It lives, if it lives at all, out in the real world where we live and breathe; this has always been the reason why JNT has held it to account for itself. He’s not opinionated so much as something far rarer: smartly observant. And he brings an awful lot of reading to bear on those observations.
Here’s an exchange just now between me and the other half:
Me: ‘… beautiful music, when champagne flutes click’.
Him: <expectant look>
Me, holding up the book: ‘It’s a line from JayZ’.
Him: ‘Oh – I was about ask if it was Noel Coward!’
In the fourth essay in this book Noel-Tod takes on (again, quietly) the current obsession with youth as some kind of panacea: ‘… the vigorous proliferation of poets who were born, like [Jenny] Joseph, before 1950, is one of the most exciting things about contemporary British verse’, he writes, and drily continues: ‘But it has not yet been much remarked’.
What follows is an interesting discussion of some of our leading ‘golden’ lights, including both Sir Geoffrey Hill and JH Prynne. It would have been instructive if JNT could have followed up the promise of that sentence with some examples of older poets who have published their first or second collections later in life, as I know several who have done (just as there are plenty who have reached middle age, having built a whole career and persona on the fact of being young, and suddenly, like the Roadrunner, had nowhere to go). As it happens, poetry is never going to be the new rock & roll, largely because you can keep on doing it even when your knees have gone… The essay is almost openly a provocative act, and also useful: I quoted it re Prynne in my advanced workshop group the evening after the launch. (Plus, shocking fact of the week: Ashbery is 88!)
The essay on Eliot – on whom Noel-Tod is an authority – is sublime; alone it’s worth the price of the book. And the title makes me sick with envy.
The ‘poetry career’ is ‘a mug’s game’ (cue photo of a mug with TS Eliot’s face on it): ‘Lyric poetry has rarely produced immediately popular art. But the poetry that the people need emerges over time, and is very often by writers considered irrelevant or insufficiently ordinary by the commentators of their day… This short book is about how reputations have been made in modern poetry and may be remade’. It’s easy enough to forget this when you’re caught up in the hurly-burly of things as they are. One of the sacred cows of the moment is the current dependency on approval. Social media. Funding. Endorsement. Reviews. Even honours. Frances Leviston is quoted saying ‘that one need not be appointed to one’s own life: that no sanctioning government, no official position, is required for the business of taking oneself seriously, in whatever sense seems right’. The factoid here is that Felix Dennis, the flamboyant and oft-derided poetry flâneur who died last year, left most of his £500 million fortune to a forest he had planted in Warwickshire: ‘a poetic act that will outlast all his others’.
The final essay talks about how the modern landscape is formed and transformed by the internet (aside from that instant-approval thing) and how the playing field is flattened and widened as a result. This is presaged, to some extent, in the chapter on careers; both highlight a new fluidity, increased publication opportunities brought about by new media, etc. Full marks for citing the annual VIDA count, which lists numbers of men and of women published in major periodicals, and quoting generously from women as well as men. Indeed, there was a little joke at the launch, as Rack Press publisher Nicholas Murray brandished a 1972 issue of Ian Hamilton’s The Review:
(JNT quipped on Twitter a few days later: ‘On
#InternationalMensDay, a reminder that men have suffered a sad decline from the glory days of this 1972 manfest’.) The final essay also discusses the two Ten anthologies, and opening up of opportunities for poets of colour. He ends the book with a quote from Basil Bunting’s amazing modernist poem Briggflatts, contextualised in geopolitics, global warming and the impossibility of guessing the future.
This is my kind of book. It takes on the ghost of Hamilton, looking – instead of into the future and second-guessing it – straight into our own teeming present. In an era of narrowly defined ‘identities’ and battened hatches, it respects no borders. Experimentalists beware, for ye shall be mixed up with the mainstream, the old shall be lauded even as the young, and the dead among the living. The book takes on whatever comes into its path, flattens a few things out, and makes new connections. And it’s funny.
The launch event was a panel discussion, and one question was about ‘the current critical climate’. This little volume fills a gap we should all feel keenly. Criticism is so much more than just ‘book reviews’. And even book reviews are much more – or should be much more – than just ‘good’, or ‘positive’ ones versus ‘bad’ or ‘negative’ ones. In some senses whether you ‘like’ a work of art is almost beside the point; it’s being made a prisoner of one’s own taste. Criticism is about understanding, and this depends on a wide frame of reference and a greedy mind. If the ghost of Ian Hamilton hangs over this book, so does that of Randall Jarrell. There’s a lot more to say about poetry – just as any other form of literature – than just whether we liked it or not. And as we occupy a continuum, there is a lot of poetry besides the current crop about which to say it.
And, I may say, if you enjoyed this one, there’s another coming out soon that you might also like…
* & n.b., yes I want to read that too