Second Chances

Donald Davie

  • Collected Poems by Patricia Beer
    Carcanet, 216 pp, £18.95, July 1990, ISBN 0 85635 788 X
  • Friend of Heraclitus by Patricia Beer
    Carcanet, 59 pp, £6.95, March 1993, ISBN 1 85754 026 3

Patricia Beer tells how not long ago she was giving a reading at which, presumably in a question-and-answer period, one after another in her small audience savaged a poem she’d written 25 years earlier, and hadn’t included in her programme. When after a while she asked if they wouldn’t switch to one of the two hundred poems she’d written since, it turned out that the early poem was the only one any of them had read, and this because it was the one that their tutor, who was present, had photocopied from an anthology and distributed among them. Such things happen on the reading-circuit, as I can attest. And one marvels at what authors will put up with for the sake of a little transient and pitifully restricted fame; how, to get that little, they let themselves be bullied by their agents and publishers, by educationalists and cultural organisers; and one reflects how much cleaner and more decent it is to write for readers than for auditors.

Patricia Beer might agree. But the moral she draws is different: how seldom in our time a writer gets a second chance. If you start off on the wrong foot, as she admits she did (‘I wrote as lushly and as loosely as I could’), you’ll be lucky if anyone notices when you change step. This, too, I can corroborate, in a way that does me no credit: disliking her first book, Loss of the Magyar (1959), I wrote Beer off for a long time, and only in the last few years, seeing the odd poem of hers in a magazine or a newspaper, did I begin to wonder if she hadn’t pulled herself together. She had, she has; and the proof is in her Collected Poems, which draws on the first two collections hardly at all.

What Beer has suffered from, in having to wait so long for a second chance with the public, is what we have all endured who have been writing through the last thirty years: over-production, less by the poets than by their publishers. Nothing is so wide of the mark as the still common notion that it’s hard to place a poetry manuscript with a publisher. It’s all too easy if you’re the right sort of poet and he’s the right sort of publisher. Reputations are made on the poetry-reading circuit, and those are reputations that many a publisher will take a modest risk on. Hence the heterogeneity of publishers’ poetry lists. A reputation made on the circuit in South and East London, Kent and Sussex, represents formal and stylistic choices quite different from a reputation made in Hull and the North-East, or Liverpool and the North-West. (And this isn’t even to touch on the highly profitable pool of Irish poets, the less profitable Scots and Anglo-Welsh, the Caribbean, the Asian.) The canny publisher, thinking of roundabouts making up for loss-making swings, will devise a list where, if a clientele is indifferent to one item, it will be gratified by the next. Thus, in the Sinclair-Stevenson list, the admirable William Scammell (Five Easy Pieces) has to rub shoulders with poets whose every move shrieks its discordance with his. The Carcanet list that houses Patricia Beer is a good deal more harmonious; but it features John Ashbery, of whom one has to say that if he is right, Beer is wrong, and vice versa. It is not a new phenomenon: eclecticism coming on as catholicity. But what results is a delusive fecundity that can’t be kept track of: with so many new starts, how to notice when a wrong first start begins to go right? Too many poets, too few informed readers, too many uninformed audiences – that’s the choppy sea we’ve been swimming in these thirty years.

And then there have been the squalls of opinion, or of the opinionated. Beer lists some of them:

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