Thursday, 11 December 2008

Andrew Bailey - Beyond the Horizon: Great Trustworthy Doubts

[Andrew Bailey sent me this wonderful response to an essay I wrote for Horizon Review, originally published here.]

It was a pleasure to read your piece in Horizon, George, especially with some underlinings for applause, such as "Leavis crossed with Hovis" and "for 'oak' read 'jacaranda'". But I don't find myself agreeing with an undercurrent I found in it; stop me, of course, if I'm misunderstanding, but aren't you asking for one Great Trustworthy Voice to hand down opinion on what's worth reading? Or, rather, "a critic able to measure today's society and to establish an acceptable coda on how modern readers can choose which poetry sits on their bookshelves."

Partly I want to tease - are you volunteering? - and partly I want to demur, not least in comparison with the wine industry where there's an argument that all the interesting old-world wines are being pushed out by Robert Parker's taste buds - he who, according to the Guardian, "can make or break a French vineyard" - in favour of the round, fruity, easy-drinkers he prefers. One critic, one taste, one type of production grows to be too prevalent and the pleasure of exploration is lost.

You've dealt with that, of course - your "casual readers" are those without the time and interest to dedicate to exploration, presumably wanting a guaranteed hit of the good stuff. On the part of the committed readers, there's a failure "to promote quality use of language" which lets the casuals down, so that they're faced with a wall of poetry - or a shelf or two, depending on the shop - and don't know where to start. A Great Trustworthy Voice, henceforth GTV, would be able to tell them what to start with. Am I misrepresenting? If not, isn't this precisely what the Poetry Book Society aims to do? Admittedly, I left in horror one year at the thought that they thought the book they had sent me was the best of the quarter, but that's a failure of execution, not intention.

That's a thing that does the decisions for you, though, and I think you're after informing the decisions that people make themselves. Doesn't a single GTV work against that?

There's also a measure of obedience here that I think bears looking at. There was a music reviewer on Teletext I used to love purely because his taste was so opposed to my own; I knew, from having followed his recommendations in the past, how to read them. I don't think I'm terribly special in that; someone who loves romantic comedies probably reads Mark Kermode differently from the way a zombie fan does. So "readers must also decide which of the many struggling critics put forward by mass and local media they should trust". I think they'd cope.

It's not a lack of criticism I see; not even a lack of good criticism. Nor the lack of it being bound to a moral yardstick. I sometimes see people unprepared to give time to a slow art, but it's a powerful critic who can change a reading style, rather than draw out a book's good points. It might be possible, but I don't think it's Eliot who's the model so much as David Attenborough, or maybe Maggie Philbin. You need the energy from somewhere to give the thing enough time to become enjoyable - as with smoking, with ballroom dancing, with coffee - and trying to do it by creating more palatable poetry is just the alcopop approach.

Let's have a Private Life of Poetry; not Daisy Goodwin's little acted-out self-help dramas, not the tragic life story to which poems are handy sources of illustrative quotes, but people who can transmit their enthusiasm as well as - maybe even before - their knowledge. Realising the joys of food may lead you to recognise the flavours of cumin and oregano, may help you decide which kinds of restaurants you want to go to, spot the difference between an acquired taste and a nasty one - but joy first.

It's the enthusiasm of people - friends, teachers, other poets and, yes, critics - that has given me the urge to pursue things I didn't initially enjoy, to drive me past being a casual reader, and that's almost always been about shaping ways to like, not shaping a list of things to try to like.

Best wishes, as ever -


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