When poets go to war

It's time for the Poetry Society to reconnect with the grassroots.

Being a poet, or being interested in poetry, looks bad enough. It's the dowdy aunt or eccentric brother of the literary world: once the dominant form in terms of sales, exposure and cultural capital, until displaced by the novel starting in the 1840s, in the 21st century it's considered a strictly minority art form. Those who write it are either inappropriately emotive teenagers or spinsters whose efforts could better be turned towards ceramics or local history. But when poetry gets into the papers, it gets worse still. The debacle over the election for Oxford Professor of Poetry in 2009, with accusations of both sexism and foul play and its subsequent postponement, made the poetry world look like a small and fractious place.

And then things got even worse. There were increasingly obvious problems at the top of the Poetry Society, the main charitable organisation for poetry in the UK, visible in a series of high-profile resignations. But no explanation for these convulsions was forthcoming until a group of members, formed in an online campaign by the poet Kate Clanchy, pressed for an Emergency General Meeting at which they demanded answers. When said EGM occurred, what came out was a litany of mismanagement by the board and personal spats spiralling out of control - George Szirtes has a good summary here. The board agreed to step down, but only after a few seething months of controversy.

The coverage of the affair has, as poet Polly Clark has pointed out, been very one-sided, "a lazy kind of PR for the Board... with added parmesan shavings of insinuation about the ex-Director Judith Palmer". There are, as others have made clear, a great many dedicated, capable and enthusiastic members still participating in the Society at a local level, and in the Society's many activities (such as its education section). Nonetheless, the Society looks discredited.

The fact is that, as throughout the history of poetry in the 20th century, much - and much of the most interesting - activity in recent years has taken place outside the institutional parts of the poetry world. Small presses, live events and new magazines being set up by young poets have become the main loci of poetic innovation in this country (discounting, of course, the usual old bastions of neo-modernism). Increased access to print publishing and the web has fostered an expansion of outlets for young poets run on a DIY basis. Brash, irreverent, incorporating vast swathes of pop-culture forms and material - video-games, spam, chunks of sampled text - and frequently surreal, the work of poets like Simon Barraclough, James Wilkes, Kristen Irving and Rachael Allen has injected life into a scene that can sometimes seem to just be ticking over on the margins. It's come out through magazines and e-zines like Pomegranate, New Trespass and Fuselit, through presses like Sidekick Books, Penned in the Margins and Donut Press, run out of flats and, just occasionally, offices. And all this has happened without support, or even much attention, from the main institutions and organs of British poetry. Many of the poets in this new generation of writers have little in common with those who currently dominate the poetic mainstream, who are patronised by the big poetry publishers and control the main journals and funding bodies - they are, in fact, closer to the groups of experimental poets who, starting in the 1960s and '70s, produced a thriving poetic counter-culture and small-press scene in Britain. Regarding the goings-on at the Poetry Society, cynics might well say: "Who cares?" But what implications does they have for the poetry scene?

David Keenan's claim, in an essay published in The Wire in July, that the slashing of state support for the arts would foster small-scale and radical culture that refuses the "narcotic compromises" of an art world sponsored on the basis of economic impact, "social worth" and accessibility, isn't really borne out in the case of poetry. Arts Council money that kept alive mediocre work also gave a start to Stop Sharpening Your Knives and its associated Egg Box Press, and a host of small presses - those putting out more traditional and newer or more experimental work alike - depend on their annual infusion of cash to put out work for which there is a small market. Moreover, the role that the Poetry Society, in particular, plays in all of this is at a tangent to the problem.

For Tom Chivers, director of Penned in the Margins and a board member of the Poetry Book Society, there is little connection. On the one hand, there is "a lot of work to be done" in terms of the full representation of spectrum of poetry by these institutions, and the Society's role is "not really relevant" to Penned in the Margins. But the Poetry Society still plays a vital role in the "poetry ecosystem". They play "a very different role" from the indie organisations and the poets that support and constitute them - in terms of education programs, the National Poetry Competition, local work with Stanzas, the network of local poetry groups, and so on; the Society's performance shouldn't be understood in terms of how much newer poets are interacting with it. The press coverage of recent events at the Poetry Society, not to mention the mishandling of how it was dealt with publicly, he says, has made what was "a purely organisational problem" seem like a real crisis.

The poet, editor and novelist Jane Holland agrees to some extent, but feels there is definite room for improvement. "I would be glad to see a return to a more inclusive programme at the Poetry Society, and by that I don't necessarily mean 'anyone who writes poetry' but a better understanding and sympathy for the aims and achievements of the small presses, including smaller magazines." The vast extent and diversity of the poetry world - "we have many different schools of poetry, we have multiple cliques and ghettos, we have new and established alternative presses, we even have the looming possibilities of digital poetry" - do not "seem to make it into the consciousness of the Poetry Society". A re-engagement between the small presses and grassroots groups and the Society is necessary: "it's about time we returned to a position of cheerful amateurism".

Photo: Jonathan Cape
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Who’s the daddy? Two memoirs that examine the complexities of fatherhood

Both Fathers and Sons by Howard Cunnell and Fathers by Sam Miller chase what can never really be known.

About three-quarters of the way in to his striking memoir, Fathers and Sons, Howard Cunnell writes about a support group he attends at the Tavistock Centre in London with his son, Jay, who is trans.

He observes the other boys, their “look” – short hair, shaved at the back and sides, low-slung jeans, Converse trainers, caps. He observes their expressions and manner: “a lot of looking down, faces set to blank, whether out of fear and unhappiness, or an approximation of the hard mask boys often wear”.

Then he observes the other dads, “all of us trying hard to look like there’s nothing unusual about being here . . . recalibrating our speech and body language to masculine when we talk to our new sons”.

He calls Jay “mate”, ruffles his hair and pretends to punch him, that manly sock on the shoulder that signals a certain kind of defined gender identity. He asks himself, “What do the dads who don’t come think? The ones who think there’s something wrong with their child?”

He has no answer to those questions: only his understanding of what it feels like to be judged, or to imagine such a judgement. Fathers and Sons begins not with Jay but with Cunnell’s own early history, with the sense of permanent loss and recrimination he suffered when his father abandoned the family – he, his elder brother, Luke, and their mother. In his childhood in Sussex, his mother’s love is no cure for the wound he carries with him always: “I want other boys to like me because that might give the lie to what I know about myself. That I am worthless. That’s why my dad left.”

The reader understands, then, that from his earliest days Cunnell, a novelist and academic, has been haunted by the absence of masculine love, forced to ask himself why that particular lack should leave such a hole in his life. When his beautiful daughter becomes – with suffering and struggles – his beautiful son, he is again accosted by those issues, this time from the other side of the generational divide.

What does it mean, a father’s love? Does it signify something different to a daughter from what it does to a son? Perhaps so, but then every love has a different shape. Sam Miller’s memoir, Fathers, comes at paternity and the question of what it means to be a father from a no less arresting angle.

Miller is the middle child of Karl Miller, the founding editor of the London Review of Books and great British littérateur who died in 2014. Miller, Sr wrote two volumes of memoir of his own, Rebecca’s Vest (1993) and Dark Horses (1998). But as Sam discovered when he was a teenager, he is not, in fact, Karl Miller’s son, but the product of an on-again-off-again affair his mother, Jane, had with a family friend, Tony White – who died suddenly at the age of 45 as the result of a blood clot in his leg. Fathers is Miller’s heartfelt attempt to come to terms with his complicated family, to consider the meaning of fatherhood and to grasp at the ghost of Tony White.

Where Karl and Jane Miller lived a mostly settled life in Chelsea, Tony, a friend from their university days and widely loved by their circle of friends, was a wanderer. A talented actor and footballer, he worked as a translator, a lamplighter, a lobsterman in the west of Ireland.

From his own memoir, it seemed that Karl Miller loved his friend unequivocally, despite the affair between Tony and his wife. Sam quotes Karl’s description of Tony on the football field. “Tony was big and strong and eager, forever being cut and gashed,” Karl Miller recalled. “His rich dark eyes, boundless generosity and zest and his lavish brushstrokes on the field of play held us together.” It is clear to Sam that his father’s affection for Tony ran deep – and this book also explores the seeming mystery of masculine love.

Tony is a shining figure, always out of reach and, after his death, he seems even more unreachable because his biological son is his spitting image. When Sam finds a photograph taken at a Christmas party that his parents gave the year before he was born, it gives him a fright: it shows Karl, staring straight at the camera, with Tony standing, half hidden, behind him. “The head in profile appears to be me, as a grown-up – some 13 months before I was born . . . The upper parts of our faces are almost identical. And I just can’t understand how more of my parents’ friends did not guess I was Tony’s son.” They might have guessed without speaking, of course.

Both of these books, in very different ways, chase what can never be known. Cunnell’s is the more artfully written, a meditation as much as a memoir, the fragments of his life presented with a novelist’s eye for detail and language. The author uses pseudonyms for those close to him, but that does not make the book any less honest.

There is plenty of darkness here – as Cunnell grows to manhood, he seems to be heading for self-destruction, his restless life marked by violence and heavy drinking – and yet his account is suffused with light. The light of the Sussex Downs that washes his childhood; “tin-coloured clouds” racing across the moon when he finds himself in Mexico; light that gleams from page after page, “a floating frame of light” that shines over Jay’s bed when he was a small child. These images of brightness, of sun and shadow, make a prism of the book. Narrow ideas of what makes a father, what makes a son, are opened out into a rainbow of possibilities.

Miller, who worked for the BBC World Service for nearly two decades, takes a much more documentary approach, searching for evidence, photographs and letters, which nearly always fail to give him the answers he seeks. No wonder, for he seems to be alone in the world:

I came across no likeness, no one in literature or in life, who seemed similar to me, who was brought up as the middle child of a married couple, and then learned his father was not really his father, and that the two men were friends and remained friends. I have not yet met my double. And my situation, my story, seemed both unusual and, in the way it played out, surprisingly uncomplicated.

Or, as this book proves, as complicated as any life. His quest for a deeper understanding of his paternity is punctuated by his accounts of the months and weeks before his father’s death, a time to which he returns in his mind, painting a loving portrait of father and son. Something is missing, and yet nothing is missing.

Perhaps Sam Miller’s memoir offers more of a sense of completion than the author knows. Fathers is a book that circles around itself, asking questions that can have no answers, looking for truth where none can finally be found, and it is all the more moving for that. 

Erica Wagner’s latest book is “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” (Bloomsbury)

Fathers and Sons
Howard Cunnell
Picador, 224pp, £14.99

Fathers
Sam Miller
Jonathan Cape, 250pp, £14.99

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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