Adding a blogospheric comment to a piece by Jon Stone on Fuselit the other day, I made a point that I want to follow up on here. Jon was responding to WilliamWootten’s stimulating article in the TLS, in which Wootten (wrongly, I think) equated Roddy Lumsden’s editorial imperative in Identity Parade – ‘to spread the word, to educate and recommend’ – with ‘undifferentiated plurality’, a term that implies an absolute relativism, unwilling to discriminate on the basis of quality. Wootten is about to publish a book on the poets who came to prominence with the publication of Penguin’s The New Poetry in 1962, edited by Al Alvarez, and he praises a willingness on the part of Alvarez – and Ian Hamilton’s Review – to take strong, contentious positions (for or against) on the poetry they encountered.
Now, I’m all for discrimination. Sadly, the word has become associated in liberal-minded discourse with its undesirable manifestations, in matters of race and gender in particular. But the fact that right-thinking people oppose discrimination on the basis of race and gender is itself an act of discrimination. Discrimination itself should not be a dirty word: any and every judgment of value and morality depends upon its activity. As recent neuroscience has found, the brain itself is essentially an organ of discrimination: an infinitely complex apparatus through which we might just about negotiate our presence within the infinitely complicated data of the universe. ‘To be discriminating’ is to exercise a considered and attentive taste. And so on.
Every poet discriminates: it’s self-evidently fundamental to the art. So it is – necessarily – with every poetry editor involved in any kind of selective process. Hence the very notion of ‘undifferentiated plurality’ prevailing in matters of poetry is nigh-on absurd – and no one could fairly accuse Roddy Lumsden of being undiscriminating. Like many experienced teachers of poetry, he’s amenable to many techniques – but he knows what he likes as much as the next poet. And if I was in a quiz on contemporary Anglophone poetry and poets (in fact, pretty much any quiz, actually) I’d want him in my team.
That aside, I like what excites Wootten about the Sixties poetry scene, in which the Penguin anthology and Modern Poets series played a galvanizing part: ‘a moment when contemporary poetry and its values were treated as a singular artistic arena whose various styles and champions could be debated, intelligently and passionately if not always in ways capable of clear resolution’. Are we missing something now, on the Alvarez/Hamilton/Davie/Penguin Modern Poets model? A more active discourse of articulate discrimination?
Yes and no. I’d like to see more high-level journalism – let’s say essays, and review essays – devoted to poetry in prominent titles, yes. And as I commented on the Fuselit piece, there should be room there for essayists and journalists to openly champion the work of contemporary writers they appreciate. We have excellent poetry journals, yes – but with a smaller readership to keep, these are often under pressure to be representative and inclusive, rather than contentious; a big readership gives a certain licence, as well as reach.
On the other hand, the debate is now less dependent on the kind of vehicles Wootten singles out. It’s now a given that the dynamics of the internet have opened up an ever-growing number of new opportunities to articulate why and how poetry deserves a reader’s attention. That shouldn’t be a problem in itself. As ever: it’s content that matters. Wootten’s worry that ‘an excess of supply – of creative writing courses, career posts, poetry volumes and prizes and competent but unexceptional poets – rather than a surge in demand’ lies behind what Lumsden calls the ‘Pluralist Now’, might equally be transposed and applied to the web. On the whole, I consider the internet a good thing. Besides, the so-called law of supply and demand is at best a half-truth. In Aldous Huxley’s wise correction of the familiar phrase: invention is the mother of necessity.
Likewise, pluralism is meaningless without discrimination: without difference, there is no true pluralism. The question is, then, how to accommodate difference – and here, I invoke the spirit of conversation. Conversation implies a willingness to listen as well as to speak: to be changed, as well as to change; to be moved, as well as to move; to learn, as well as to teach. Good conversation is mutual education: it draws out new orders of insight. Have you noticed how, in the street or on your doorstep, many religious organisations (it tends to be them, I’m afraid, or their pseudo-counterparts) try to engage you by asking for a ‘chat’ about this or that? Then you discover that although they want to change you – they (in my experience) are unwilling to change. That isn’t conversation – it’s attempted conversion. Chaucer had an eye for these things, and to countervail the world’s vanities, presented the example of his Clerk of Oxenford:
Sownynge in moral vertu was his speche,
And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche.