Sunday, January 29, 2012

Editing and the Zeitgeist

On the back of reading the Spender biography, I was fascinated by this trawl through 100 years of Poetry Magazine where the writer has looked for forgotten gems amongst the voices of the day. It's a humbling experience - for how many of us writing poetry today would hope to get a poem in Poetry and haven't?, yet at the same time, history shows that the poetry of a time fades into a certain sameyness.

Sameyness comes to mind when reading this intrigueing article about the mystery of poetry editing. For those who have a sneaking suspicion that mainstream British poetry is a club, where any existing member can apply the black ball to a new entrant, it offers a sense of poetry style decided on high. The success of Rachel Boast's Picador debut is suddenly explained as not a bright new female poet bursting on the scene, but one held back as a male editor, Paterson "honed the book with her for a number of years." It's an impression that I doubt Paterson wanted to give. After all, Paterson, a poet I like a lot, is quoted as saying "there have been notorious instances in the last 50 years of poets forging whole lists in their own image, and failing to notice,” offers an only partial commitment that Picador, Cape and others aren't doing exactly this.

It's a fascinating article, however, for poetry is something that surely can benefit from another ear, but, as any regular reader of poetry magazines or anthologies will tell you - there's definitely (as implied in the Poetry article above) a contemporary style that can sometimes drift into an orthodoxy which can exclude. Having Robertson as an arbiter of British poetry might seem a good idea if you share his tastes - but if not? Well...

What concerns me is that there's a lot of luck in finding a poetic mentor, whether a friend, another poet or an editor/publisher. You need someone who is sympathetic to your ideas (which may well be very different than theirs), where there is mutual liking and respect, and ideally where they can provide a different instrumentation to your familiar tune. Is this mentor more like a record producer? A Martin Hannett to Joy Division shaping the sound, or an Eno to U2 and Coldplay adding a warmth and nuance that their bombastic shapes would otherwise deafen out? And, if poetry is so dependent on finding that (senior) figure then what about those poets who are yet to find one? What rings truer is Robertson's role in shaping a poet's disparate material into a book; for modern publishing expects first collections of twice the length or more than in the past, and good poets aren't necessarily prolific ones.

Worth a read, but it raises as many questions as it answers.

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