Prize Poems

Donald Davie

  • Arvon Foundation Poetry Competion: 1980 Anthology by Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney
    Kilnhurst Publishing Company, 173 pp, £3.00, April 1982, ISBN 0 9508078 0 X
  • Burn this by Tom Disch
    Hutchinson, 63 pp, £7.50, April 1982, ISBN 0 09 146960 0

The Arvon Foundation’s 1980 Anthology contains four splendid poems: Stephen Watts’s ‘Praise Poem for North Uist’, and Keith Bosley’s ‘Corolla’; Aidan Carl Mathews’s ‘Severances’, and John Levett’s ‘The Photographs of Paris’. The first two are longish, the others shorter. The only one that won a prize – and that the smallest, £100 – is ‘Corolla’, a sequence of nine exactly rhymed and metred sonnets, culminating in a stunning version of the Ronsard sonnet that defeated Yeats:

When you are old and lost in memory
you might, seized by a sentimental fit,
take down this book and blow the dust off it
recalling: ‘Bosley was quite keen on me.’

What on earth were they looking for – Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney and Charles Causley – that they should have rated Bosley’s heart-warming dexterity (feelingful as well as formal) below, for instance, 18 solid unpunctuated pages of pornographic daydream: Kenneth Bernard’s ‘The Baboon in the Night Club’? Did they judge the sonnet-sequence irremediably old-hat, even when managed with a Bosley’s erudition and inventive brilliance? I fear so. But in that case, how could they have rated below the prizewinners Stephen Watts’s poem, which exults in holding at a distance any formal discipline?

I am there and there and there, as if
  from Tigharry to Morag’s Bay,
as if from the coast of Lochportain to the
  strand of Baleshare North Uist was a city

Not an evil city, but a haven, a city
  in the wide spaces of the moor
in the wise generosities of those hearts.
Stand up now from the slow dark sessions of your sleep.

Possibly, though quite without reason (since I for one have never been to North Uist), the selectors uneasily felt that a first-hand acquaintance with the Inner or the Outer Hebrides was a qualification as special, as ‘marginal’, as the capacity to recognise a sonnet in a foreign language (French). They undertook their labours ‘in a spirit of service’, says Heaney, service to ‘a cause worth supporting’, seemingly unaware (Irish though Heaney is) that ‘a worthy cause’ is precisely the most insidious and the most disastrous temptation for an artist, especially when the ‘cause’ is generated by a society that is egalitarian. For poetry is, like all the arts, necessarily élitist. And on what other grounds than abject egalitarianism explain the award of £100 to a poem called (the title exhausts its significance) ‘If I weren’t a boring little middle class tit’?

Poetry is not a social service. Let us put that in capitals: poetry is NOT A SOCIAL SERVICE. It bloweth where it listeth; and it listeth as little to the liking of the Labour or the Social Democrat parties as to the liking of the Tories. If it has any socio-political value (which may well be doubted), that value is just there – in saying what nobody, of any political party, wants to hear. It follows that worth in poetry cannot be determined by that favoured device of egalitarian politics, the committee: not even when the committee is made up of poets so earnest and gifted as Hughes and Heaney, Larkin and Causley. From their deliberations, as from any committee, there emerges (Heaney as good as admits as much) a Lowest Common Denominator – a list of prize-winners that placates them generally, though it satisfies none of them individually. There seems no other way of explaining how their choices should turn out so bizarre.

Let us lower the sights a little. There are distinguished poems here by Jill Bowers, Jack Barrack and (a practised hand, which shows) Charles Edward Eaton; from William Radice (a beautifully imagined variation on Virgil), and Mark Beeson (a similarly accomplished essay in the Dantesque); from Pauline Rainford, Monica Ditmas, Anne Stevenson (two) and John Whitworth; from Aidan Carl Mathews (another besides ‘Severances’); from Thomas Shapcott (who may be Australian – we aren’t told) and from Peter Bland (probably, by the same token, a New Zealander); and from U. A. Fanthorpe (two). One of the Fanthorpe poems gets, reasonably enough, the third prize of £500, Bland gets £250, Eaton, Ditmas and Beeson get £100 apiece.

Below these again, by my reckoning, is a class of poems that are neither distinguished nor memorable but certainly creditable. And here figure Mairi MacInnes, Miriam Levine (two), Gerry Loose, Paul Coltman, Richard Dankleff, Robin Ivy, Pete Morgan (two), Phyllis Koestenbaum, Barbara Moore, David MacSweeney (one out of two), Randall Garrison, Donald Stallybrass, Ellery Akers, Peter Abbs, John Hodgen, Andrew Motion, Edwin Drummond, Gregory Harrison, Gordon Mason and Robert Ballard, Isabel Nathaniel and Peter Didsbury, Anthony Edkins and Brian Cosgrove. Several get prizes, and in particular Andrew Motion gets the big one, £5,000, for a poem that either is, or successfully if pointlessly pretends to be, documentary reminiscence. (Many other pieces here answer to the same description.) There remains £2,800, which is shared out among 13 poets whose performances are variously foolish, trivial or gratuituously ugly.

If this seems like a put-down, I don’t mean it so. After all, out of 85 poems to find 40 one can respect and four one can admire – it’s a better bargain than we had any right to expect. All the same, we need to remember that the field was originally not 85, but – wait for it – 35,000. Thirty-five thousand poems, read inside five months by Heaney and each of the others! (It’s enough to silence Seamus’s voice for good, and may he never again take such a stupid risk.) The statistic is appalling. Does it mean that in the year 1980 more than thirty thousand persons in the English-speaking world thought they had sufficiently mastered the principles of an ancient and intricate art, for them to compete for the laurel? No, of course it does not mean that. It means, it must mean, that for most of these competitors poetry was not, and in their experience never had been, an art; that for them, the ancientness of it, and the intricacy, had been conclusively superseded in our own blessed and enlightened 20th century. One perceives that this same blithe conviction persists even among the eighty or so survivors. And it must be said that whereas the four judges know that poetry is an art (though Ted Hughes, to be sure, mostly does his best to suppress the knowledge except in the act of writing), their performance as selectors has done nothing to impress the fact on the thousands of hopefuls at this very moment perpetrating what they conceive to be poetry though it must be something else. To an egalitarian century the exclusiveness of art – of any art – is an affront that will not be tolerated.

Still ‘Art’, simply the honorific name of it, is too good a cover to blow:

To be fair to these young men –
‘Young’ being understood as an honorific –
They must sometimes doubt their right
To tithe hours from the lives of strangers.
They have read each other just enough
To know the novel’s dead and poetry
A clash of ignorant armies.
Yet these strangers seem oddly content
To acknowledge that among the hierarchies
Of their busy world there’s one called Art,
Which doesn’t matter and for which
An occasional couple grand
May be spared as hush money.

This of course isn’t poetry; it is cleanly-written, intelligently civil and good-humoured verse. And as such it blows in upon us like a keen and bracing wind. The terms are not mutually exclusive – verse can rise to poetry:

        The grid of narrative
Is not the page on which the text
So interpretably rests, nor yet
The row of inky vocables that printers
String between two margins: it is a frame
Of mind, an imposition of the square
I-Think upon the blank I-Am.
As the linear narrative unreels,
As the words pale to transparence,
A world is formed complete with a table
Set for a dinner of roast goose, fake
Hobbemas on the wall, and passionate
Ping-pong matches with death to the losers!

This is Tom Disch, who should know what he’s talking about since he writes Science Fiction and historical novels as well as poetry:

From a world so circumscribed
A rational heroine might well wish
To escape, but all other novels are barred
To her by laws of narrative consistency.
Only in poems, and then but for a moment,
Can she hope to live unencumbered
By the walls of her novel. She inserts
The little key of poetry into the lock
Of the garden door, gives it a twist,
And in a twinkling she is out, amazed
At the rolling meadows, the meandering
Streams, the moon, the little teacups
Spinning end over end through the night sky.

This wind is keen: Disch’s wickedly exact deflations of American reputations like Creeley, Merrill, Robert Bly, A. R. Ammons arise not from the predictable biliousness of British prejudice but out of reasonably close and even sympathetic study. But what makes it bracing, at least for other verse-writers, is that Disch, because he practises other (narrative) arts, knows that poetry is an art, and knows what it can give that other sorts of writing can’t. It’s a long time since I read a book of verse so consistently entertaining and intelligent. The wit seems brittle and spiky at first, but in the end it’s mellow; and page after page yields sharp little morals to hang over the desks of those who enter for poetry competitions, and of those who judge them.