Now that poetry has been brought into the marketplace, and publishers have discovered how to make a modest profit from it, and now that publication outlets can be found in any good-sized store, so productivity levels in British poetry have increased dramatically. Most poets these days publish a new collection of thirty or forty poems every three or four years; some are more industrious than even that. Paul Durcan's Going home to Russia, coming two years after The Berlin Wall Café contains 48 poems; Peter Redgrove's In the Hall of the Saurians, one year after its predecessor, has 34; Norman MacCaig's Voice-over, three years on from his Collected Poems, has 58; Cat's Whisker by Philip Gross (three years on) 41; Jouissance by William Scammell (two years) 38; Disbelief by John Ash (three years) 55; Ken Smith's Wormwood, a collection of poems written during a spell as a writer in residence in Wormwood Scrubs (one year), 30. The justification for such work-rates, beyond the economics of scraping a living and the PR requirement of keeping a high profile, is that you have to write the bad poems in order to write the good. But do you have to put the mediocre ones in hard covers? The example of Larkin and Eliot, severe critics of their own work, seems alien to our Thatcherite enterprise culture, where Creative Writing Fellowships have created a new breed of eager-beaver writing fellows and where everyone must be seen to be hustling their product up and down (but mainly down) the country.
LRB 3 March 1988 | PDF Download