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On Cynicism

I’d like to say a few words about a subject I don’t often see explored in writing on contemporary poetry, in the hope that perhaps some of the sentiments expressed will chime with others. This year I was lucky enough to win a Society of Authors Eric Gregory Award. I was drinking with the other winners in a pub after a reading at the Ledbury Poetry Festival, and the topic of the selection process came up. There was an almost unanimous agreement that each owed their success to the anonymous judging process. Although I didn’t instigate it (if anything, I was playing devil’s advocate), I find myself in line with the general sentiment. I might occasionally entertain the idea that now, after scoring a PBS recommendation and appearing in several anthologies, there’s a chance my name could somehow worm its way quietly into the hindbrain of a key decision maker or two, but the fact is that apart from the Gregory, the only other major prizes in which I’ve placed have been the two National Poetry Competitions – also judged anonymously.

It’s not that there’s flagrant nepotism in poetry (although some may disagree with that). It’s that our sense of poetic taste – just like our literal sense of taste – is informed by a variety of factors and contexts. You’ve heard the expression ‘my ears pricked up’. In the case of poetry, this seems particularly apposite – the idea that on noticing a particular name, one that carries connotations of prestige or prodigiousness, the ear – that organ especially employed in the judgement of a piece – becomes suddenly extra-sensitive. The anticipation of excellence then plays a part in the fulfilment of the promise.

Of course, anonymity doesn’t necessarily mean that the playing field is level. In the reviews I’ve received so far in my exceedingly short career, I’m said to have access to a wide frame of reference, to investigate pop culture and esoterica as vigorously as anything else. But the poems that did well in the Nationals were about ginger and frogs respectively. I knew what I was doing (or so I like to think) when I entered those poems. It’s difficult to describe the thought process exactly, but I had a feeling that although they weren’t necessarily, at the time, my strongest poems, they were the ones that had the best chance. I certainly have never entered my paean to Japanese doujinshi in any competitions.

Does my thinking in this regard amount to cynicism? One of the chief struggles in my development as a poet has been reconciling my desire to be true to my particular ambitions with my sense of what plays well with other people. If other poets say that the latter never figures in their thoughts, well, (a) I’m skeptical, and (b) perhaps their personal aims and ambitions are already so in tune with others’ expectations (or their perception of them) that there’s no discernible tension between the two. But I’ve long carried the sense that I hope for and expect something different from my own poetry than others might. I’ve become keenly aware (again, I like to think) of what choices limit and expand a potential audience, or play to certain types of audiences. Don’t ask me to go into details – any attempt to categorise and formulate is necessarily reductive.

Now, while there is a particular kind of delight to be had in frustrating expectations, being able to do so and not then be dismissed at once from the reader’s consideration is a luxury afforded to those with other advantages – an existing reputation, perhaps, an extended network of similarly-inclined artists, or a peculiarly magnetic personality. I presume myself not to have any such advantage. If I want at all, therefore, to earn a hearing for my own concerns, to be granted open-mindedness towards my stylistic inclinations, it requires (and here’s a dirty word) compromise. It requires negotiation. This negotiation takes place inwardly, between many, let’s say, ventriloquised voices representing those different audiences I’m aware of. They do not speak all at once, of course. If they did, every poem would end up bowdlerised. Most of the time, I have to acknowledge that many of these voices – and that wedge of readership they represent – must simply be disappointed with the result. Also rather importantly, I reserve the ‘competition judge’ voice for when I’m actually choosing and editing poems for competitions. It’s too stifling otherwise.

The romantic ideal, of course, is for an artist to be fierce and uncompromising. But I simply don’t see a future for myself in the arts without the aid of this process. I will never strongarm you all into immediate acknowledgement of a poem’s worth, and I’m not sure I want to. My reputation is unlikely to ever flatten all before me. So I will try to keep in mind what it is people want from a poem, and use that as my grapple iron. Some people might call it cynicism; others might call it being alive to what readerships realistically exist for poetry and how they can be won over. Personally, I think of it as a kind of double-agenting. That gives me my own romanticised role to counter the prevailing one. I’m on your side, reader … or am I?

This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. As someone at an earlier stage of my ‘poetic career’ I am encouraged by what you say. I believe there is such a thing as a healthy degree of cynicism provided it is tempered with apptopriate humility and doesn’t tip over the edge into bitterness.

  2. No question about it, in my mind. It’s not cynicism to consider the audience – if you’re submitting to a magazine, the first rule is to send ‘the type of work we favour’ as many of them put it. You don’t need a split (writing) personality, just common sense and sensitivity.

    And if you’re entering a competition, it’s exactly that – a competition, so there’s no point entering unless you make the best effort you can to win – and if that means learning what you can from past winners or in-depth research on the the judges’ tastes, so be it.

    The compromise, in my mind, is no different from having different conversations with your best mates down the pub, and chatting with an elderly relative at a wedding. You’re the same person, you just express yourself a little differently.

  3. It goes without saying that we can’t all like the same kind of poems – there are some widely acclaimed poets whose work I can’t (or won’t) read beyond the first few lines to know that we are not in the same poetic universe. How anyone can be objective in judging the relative worth of cheese and bananas, frothy fun and the seriously deep and/or dark.

    Before submitting to a competition, I do research the judges, read their work, to discover whether I have written anything which remotely approaches common ground. There is sufficient variety in my work that in theory it should be possible to choose something to please. So far, I only live in hope!

    Yes, I am cynical enough to suppose that it does help to have a known public style and persona.

  4. I remember reading in ‘The Guardian’ one Saturday a poem that had won a competition and underneath the poem was written, ‘This poet is having a book published by and the name of the publisher was the same as the firm who had run the competition. And they wonder why people are cynical. But of course I have never won a competition though in fairness I haven’t entered one for, I think, 60 years.

  5. I think that even with anonymity a writer can be spotted by an ‘expert’ judge (which is what they are always assumed to be). I am fairly sure I could without doubt identify a Glyn Maxwell poem despite his name being removed from the top of the sheet. So being really cynical, I think the nepotism continues even with anonymity (albeit reduced a little).

    I think compromise in poetry is a helpful way to go if you are keen to be published. What frustrates me is that during my MA I was told that my poetry was too obscure, and went to great pains to compromise for the reader. But then obscure becomes fashionable again, if you face fits, and suddenly I realise mine was no where near as obscure, so I should have stayed true to my own voice.

  6. Whether cynical or not cynical is not the matter.
    ‘Cynicalism’ I think has to do with individual perceptions of a poem.. And for crying out loud, who is the best judge to know exactly how I feel when I write a piece, to be fit enough to say its not good enough? Huh???

    Everyone is a great writer, just that what matters most to me at my point of writing a piece doesn’t necessarily have to appeal to a judge who judges me based on his expectation of what ‘the winning poem’ should look like.. That’s so unfair!
    But I still express myself poetically anyway! because I love poetry.

  7. Hmmm, that’s got me thinking…. I have for some time steered away from submitting any work to competitions or publications on the basis that it doesn’t fit…. Not that I don’t feel my work is finished or crafted enough, just that its not fashionable so I get your point about the judgements we make, and then of course there is the confidence issue with submitting and selection.
    As far as judgement by the judges goes I’d say its its the same as any art form, totally subjective, and as a previous Editor of Magma once said, by the time you have removed a thousand or so poems for consideration because they are just plain bad. You still have maybe 2,000 very good poems to choose from, it inevitably comes down to: what floats your boat. How much the ‘what’ is determined by the prevailing group conciousness I couldn’t say, but its been a while since limericks were in vogue, though I believe they had an airing ! I’m cynical because I write funny ironic stuff, though often unintentionally and as Wendy Cope so cleverly commented, there’s no place for humour in competitions. Some things will just always be more right than others. I think we would be wise to admit this and not allow the cynicism to still the voice we have. Is it not a question of who has the say in driving collective tastes and preferences? I could be really cynical and say it all comes down to money and power, perhaps that is a step too far, I’d like to think so.
    I’m about to attempt some pamphlet competitions,this will, no doubt inform my opinion.

  8. It is important to stick to your own opinion on what’s good in poetry. Uniqueness in voice and form creates a far more lasting impact. There are quite a lot of poets who are convinced that poetry competitions tend to ‘endorse’ only a certain type or types of poetry, and poets.

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