Book Talk S06E04 transcript: On becoming a poet: in praise of poetry editors |
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Book Talk transcript : S06E04 — On becoming a poet: in praise of poetry editors

Jill Kitson: Welcome to Book Talk on ABC Radio National. This week; in praise of poetry editors. Clive James and Peter Porter in the fourth of six programs on their careers as poets.

Born ten years apart, Peter Porter and Clive James are two highly successful Australian poets who have lived in England since their early twenties. Peter's first collection of poems, Once Bitten, Twice Bitten, was published there in 1961. In 1988, The Automatic Oracle won the Whitbread Poetry Award. His most recent collection, Afterburner, his 17th volume, was short-listed for the 2004 TS Eliot prize. In 1990 Peter was awarded the Gold Medal for Australian Literature, and in 2002, the Queen's Medal for Poetry.

Clive James's first poems were published in student journals at Sydney University. His first book, The Metropolitan Critic, was published in London in 1974. Since then he's published over a score of books, most of which have never been out of print. They include collected essays, mock epic poems, novels, autobiography, and verse. The Book of My Enemy: Collected Verse 1958 to 2003 was a bestseller.

Poetry editors loom large in their careers. Here's Clive:

Clive James: Peter, just thinking back on what we've said so far...I think literary history, like history, has one big drawback in that it smooths things up and makes the story look inevitable when in fact there's nothing inevitable about it. What literary history leaves out is all the things that didn't happen, and I think you've established that things didn't go as smoothly as one might have thought looking back along your shelf of works, and certainly it was true for me; I made a very, very slow start and could very well have been defeated. I think the role played by editors in my own career was crucial. Nick Tomalin of the New Statesman was first, and there was Karl Miller of The Listener, but I think the one that really made the difference was Ian Hamilton who's dead now and was dearly loved by both of us. He was editing his little magazine The Review in those days. This is back in the mid-60s. I wrote my first piece for that while I was still at Cambridge. I met him at The Pillars of Hercules, the pub in Greek Street in Soho, and it was one of the big moments of my life.

Peter Porter: Ian meant a great deal to me too, he was a dear friend, but we started off at loggerheads. I was introduced to him at a party, and the first thing I told him was how much I utterly disapproved of his attitude, how absurd it seemed to me that he would establish a canon merely by slaughtering everything except the one person left standing on the deck and I thought this was a silly way of doing things. But then we became friends after that, and he happened to live close to me, and if I was coming out of Paddington Station and walking down to Chilworth Street to where I lived in Cleveland Square, Ian would often be seen halfway down standing at his window waving and indicating by his hand gestures that there was a public house just opposite, and so I used to join him there.

In fact what I really established close to Ian early on was that he had a wife who was schizophrenic, and my then wife was a nurse, and we did quite a bit to try and help with that. Ian remained grateful and also very caring, because when my own first wife committed suicide Ian insisted on accompanying me to the very unpleasant experience of the inquest. We always felt later on in life (which is nothing to do with literature of course) that we had been through something of the same sorts of experience. Where, however, we still remained divergent right to the very end, was in what we liked in writing. I even put a little bit about Ian in one of my translations of the Latin poet Marshall, and I dedicated this poem to 'Mr IH', and in it I say, 'Like the German fleet at Scarpa Flow, only the flying pennants show,' (the ships being under the water). And that was my view of Ian's poetry. Ian's poetry was supposed to get from nothing to frenzy in two lines, and it seemed to me that he was completely barking up the wrong tree in terms of style.

Clive James: Well, I couldn't imagine poetry more different from mine than his. Extravagance and exuberance and all the things that I favoured, he sedulously avoided. There wasn't much poetry that Ian liked anyway, by anybody, even Shakespeare, so that somehow took the sting out of the fact that he didn't like mine very much, but he really didn't (especially in the early days)...what he was after was my prose. But the first thing to say about him was what you said about him, about his friendship; he was terrific company, and all the more so because he was so serious and if you could make him laugh it somehow made your day. He had time for you, and he would stand there in The Pillars of Hercules and people would pay him court. Writers would come in, and they wanted his approval more than anybody's. For me, not just as a prose writer although I read prose for The Review and later on The New Review, the big new magazine that he started with an arts council grant...when he started publishing my poetry he published my longer and allegedly funny poems, and he published them only because they entertained him and he wanted some entertainment in his magazine. Entertaining Ian became very important to me because you were entertaining him against his will; he didn't want to like that kind of verse, and he often said so, he said, 'I don't really like the kind of thing you do.'

Peter Porter: There's a sort of collateral I would enter to that; I used to rebuke him, I used to say, 'Ian, you are the most erudite man, you are the wittiest man, you have the best control of serious wit I know, but it doesn't get into your poetry.' And he said, 'No, it shouldn't either, it's not appropriate to poetry.' I said, 'Everything is appropriate to poetry,' and this is where we disagreed.

Clive James: I agree with you, very much so, and he must have thought we were a bit of a mafia that way, actually. But, no, I thought he was dead wrong about that, the idea that a poem can be a piece of irreducible seriousness with nothing attractive about it. It certainly made it impossible to criticise, but also made it almost impossible to enjoy, although we should hasten to say that Ian has many, many admirers as a poet. As a prose writer he was simply incomparable. I studied his prose (I still do) for its balance within the sentence and the sentences within the paragraph and the rhythm from paragraph to paragraph. He was incomparable. So when I handed my prose to him to be edited I knew I was in very good hands. His blue pencil struck unerringly at the loose phrase.

Peter Porter: I think there is a difference between you and me in one respect however, and that is that I was far more frightened of these chaps. I was never frightened of Ian, although I did feel I had to put on my, as it were, my most serious clothing when I talked to him, but other editors, like Karl Miller, simply terrified me. When I went into Karl's' office...I was called in there once to the New Statesman...and every question he put to me sounded as though it came from the grand inquisitor in Dostoyevsky. It was designed to put you ill at ease. Actually he turned out to be a generous, kind man...

Clive James: And funny.

Peter Porter: ...and funny, but he still terrified me. I find editors terrifying. I think this is the result of having at least two extremely unpleasant headmasters at school who induced in me that kind of wayward terror which I'm completely incapable of...even to this day, if I have to meet a government minister, which I do very seldom, even though I think he's an absolute dunce I feel intimidated by him.

Clive James: Well, I'm not very good with figures of authority either. Karl is very much alive and I hope he hears this because I can just imagine the expression on his face when he's compared to an intimidating headmaster, but he was and is intimidating. But he was a terrific blue-pencil editor. We should hasten to point out that we're talking about the editors in the literary world, Grub Street editors. Grub Street was where you review the book or sometimes you review a batch of books and then you sell the book second-hand and you stay alive that way. It was a hand to mouth existence. It was very, very hard to stay alive in it, and one of the many reasons I have for admiring you is that you financed your career as a poet largely in Grub Street rather than Fleet Street. You did book reviews, you did the BBC, and you did broadcast and so on. You were never a regular newspaper journalist though, were you?

Peter Porter: This was not choice though Clive, this was a fact of capacity. I had a bit of experience of being a straightforward journalist and I was no good at it. I think one of the things you recognise early in life is that you are doomed to certain capacities and to certain incapacitates, and I don't think we make very many choices in our lives, frankly. I know it's good to think we do, but I think what actually happens that we've got a kind of rudder setting, and that rudder has been lashed down just as much as when Ulysses was going past the island of the Sirens, and we can't change that rudder. It will keep us going in the direction which our temperament and our talents will force us into.

Clive James: I suppose I was lucky in that I wasn't daunted by what I should have been daunted by, which was half a dozen editors of various magazines asking me to do a book review all at once. Instead of saying yes to one of them and no to five of them I said yes to all of them, and I would be hitting five or six deadlines a week, and these are 1,000 or 2,000 word pieces. That would mean writing all night, and that's the way I stayed alive when I began as a professional writer. I wonder if I could do it now? In fact, I don't have to wonder; I couldn't, it would be physically impossible to me. But if I hadn't broken into Fleet Street I would have gone on doing that for Grub Street. What happened to me was among the editors who asked me to write a book review was Terence Kilmartin of The Observer. The first review I wrote for him he wouldn't publish, and he brought me into his office and showed me why. He went though it with his blue pencil and he pointed out all the bits that were straining for effect and so on, and he said, 'Don't you want to rewrite this?' And I realised with a growing surge of happiness that he wouldn't be doing all this unless he planned to publish after all, as long as we fixed it. So he fixed it and he printed it, and he printed more, and eventually the newspaper asked me to write a weekly column on television which was the beginning of my career in Fleet Street, but it was my career in Fleet Street that kept me alive. I don't think I would have been able to keep it up just writing reviews, as what used to be called 'a man of letters', I don't think I would have made it.

Peter Porter: The one reason why it's very difficult to do is simply the rewards are so slender; you can just about pay the rent. When I was finally kicked out of advertising, my old friend the literary editor of the New Statesman at that time, Anthony Thwaite, paid me 25 pounds a fortnight to review radio. That was what paid the rent. Without that I would have...I mean, I had a slender what I called 'asbestos handshake' from the advertising agency that I had been sent away from, but it's necessity that drives you. I do think a very important point needs to be made and that is that writers have a secret life as well as a public life, and while both you and I agree that poetry is a public art, it may be conceived in a secret space. One of the things which I found were the attractions that even the hack writer who has to try and make money in journalism finds, is that I can sit at my desk and instead of doing the piece I was supposed to be doing (and this was a version, of course, of writing in the bosses time) I would write a poem. Anything which will cause a spin-off into writing a poem is still a viable way of life.

Clive James: Yes. The breakthrough was to get a regular post in journalism which I did. I never stopped writing poetry, but I'd also had...something strange had happened; by writing this entertaining stuff for Ian Hamilton, I had a kind of poem that I could market for the first time because editors weren't getting much of that sent in across their desk. They were getting tons and tons of lyric poetry but not much that was meant to be entertaining. Being involved with Ian on The Review and The New Review...he had a mythical poet going called Edward Pygge. Do you remember Edward Pygge? Edward Pygge didn't really exist, and in the end there was not just Hamilton and me but Russell Davies and half a dozen others who were all pretending to be Edward Pygge. But the role of Edward Pygge was to parody other poets and he could do this in a deadly fashion because he didn't really exist. I wrote quite a lot of Edward Pygge poems, parodies of Robert Lowell and so on. But the great thing about them for me was they were publishable, and so I got used to seeing my verse in print in Britain for the first time, and I acquired a taste for it and I had a big urge to do more of that in the future.

Peter Porter: But you're not actually telling your listeners quite how celebrated you were at the time. That is to say, between you (you and your predecessor Morris Richardson) changed the whole nature of television writing in this country, not only writing about television but giving direction for the people who were going to be writing television as well. You have to look back a bit now of course, but I think you have to try to recapture the period of that time in which the Clive James column every Sunday in The Observer was almost the first think that most of the people who bought the newspaper turned to.

Clive James: It's very nice to hear this.

Peter Porter: It was palpable. This isn't just flattery, this is observation. Only I think that that gives you a sort of public standing also which enables you to do other things when you want to do them.

Clive James: The late and wonderful Mark Boxer who was a great friend to both of us once said that the most important thing a writer can have is a constituency, as if he was an MP. I think that was terribly true. The Observer gave me a constituency. Writing about television once a week, I was talking directly to a million of the best educated people in England, in the world in fact. They were the ideal audience. It was like having a pulpit to climb into and preach. But I loved doing it and I loved being there and it gave me contact with an audience which is still there because they've grown old along with me and told their children. So it was crucial to my career, but when I think back on it...'career' is such a deceptive word because a lot of things have to go right, and if that hadn't gone right it would have been a different story.

Peter Porter: I agree, I don't think there is such a thing as a career; it's one thing after another. The truth of the matter is that you can refine it into a career, you can look back at your life and you can look at a sort of structure but at the time there wasn't any structure. I think it was Harold Macmillan who said, 'Events, dear boy, events.' I think the events of your life, they depend so much on people outside yourself as well. Even your private life...the death of my first wife undoubtedly changed my whole character in ways, too, which I now find upset me a lot...not just her death but the fact that I now feel I exploited it in my writings. Now, I didn't mean to but once again you get caught up in things. Any writer worth anything has to have a sense of value in his work or her work which has nothing to do with the private life of the writer. But it is almost impossible to stop that private life and the events of that private life from inserting themselves into what you're writing.

Clive James: It's my turn to tell you about your virtue because one of the many qualities of that marvellous sequence of poems you wrote about you first wife's death is that you make that one of the subjects; the fact that, as a poet, you can't help using it as material, and this causes you shame and regret, and you made a subject of it. Very few poets would do that. That goes beyond the ordinary conception of poetic honesty. The ordinary conception of poetic honesty, the conception of confessional poetry as exemplified by Lowell and Snodgrass and several other poets, is daring to tell the truth that will hurt others. Now, you went beyond that and you dared to tell the truth that hurts you. I admired it very, very much, so I don't think you should underrate that for a second, and certainly you're not vulnerable on the point.

Peter Porter: I think there is, nevertheless, in most of our minds a sense of our virtue as people and our virtue as professional performers and writers, and it is very difficult to ever come to terms with your virtue as a person. You can come to terms with your virtue as a performer, as a writer, as a creator, but always in the background there is that suggestion that there is still a bad person somewhere up in the attic.

Clive James: The bad person was what I wanted to get into my poetry but I had to face the fact that the kind of poetry I was finally getting published was mainly the entertaining show-business stuff which I didn't think was at the heart of me. I still had the sheaf of unpublished poems, it was growing, in fact, it was a manuscript, it was my book of poetry, but nobody wanted it.

Peter Porter: Yes, but you have got, don't forget, poems like the Johnny Weissmuller poem which manage to combine the comic poetry and the feeling poetry.

Clive James: They came much later. They came when I realised I had to combine those two elements. At the time (we're talking about the early 70s) I was still stuck with this unpublishable book of poetry that proved it was serious because it wasn't entertaining. The trouble with that book is nobody wanted it; it bounced off the desk of every poetry editor in England, quite often with an encouraging remark, and once with that fatal remark saying, 'We'd love to do this and I'm going to persuade the board that we should do it.' But of course it turns out that the board will do it on the day that the Soviet Union collapses or the day the ice cap melts, that's when they'll do it. It's the kind of acceptance that's a deferred rejection. But that book got nowhere, and it was a long time later that I realised it should have got nowhere. I was lucky it didn't get published, it wasn't the work that I was destined to do but it was very important for me to write it.

Peter Porter: My career, if I look back on it...just having eschewed the idea of career...looking back on this career that I didn't have it seems to me that the salient factors didn't have very much bearing on how I was living in my public life. I think we're enormously influenced by what we read and also by the tone of what's going on around about us. I remember my friend Redgrove saying to me that if what you read isn't part of your real life...and editors and commentators were insisting that you write out of experience not out of what your read...if your reading isn't part of your experience, then it's a great mistake for anyone to write anything at all.

Clive James: I agree.

Peter Porter: I found that the greatest influences in what I have done as a writer have been percolated through the reading I was doing at the time that I was writing.

Clive James: People very kindly tell me how much they enjoyed my first book. Sometimes, in fact, the just call it 'my book', and they invariably mean Unreliable Memoirs which in fact was my fifth book which I didn't publish until much later. My first book was a book of essays called The Metropolitan Critic, and the only reason that got published was I had signed a contract with Faber & Faber to do a biography of Louis MacNeice and it was obvious I was never going to get this biography done. I was drinking with Ian Hamilton one night in The Pillars of Hercules, one night after a day of drinking at The Pillars of Hercules...he had a very hard head, Ian, and I had a hollow leg, so there was only a rare period during the day where we were actually coherent simultaneously. He said, 'Get a book of your articles together and publish that and let the critics argue with that because your main problem is nobody knows who you are. They think you're a TV critic and they think when you're doing this other stuff you're just showing off, and the way to prove you're not just showing off is to publish a book.' So I did it, and that was my first book. I think it just about paid the publishers back for having published it, but I think what the publishers were hoping for was something that would do well later. It's a question I think we should raise; why do your publishers publish you, especially poetry books? Did your publishers get their money back on your early books?

Peter Porter: I think they did but partly because, in the case of this small publishing house, Scorpion Press, the contents of the first book and a little bit of the second book went into the Penguin, and that gave them some extra money. They then sort of ceased publishing and I was taken up by Oxford University Press. Believe it or not, I was actually, in some respect, their best-selling contemporary poet, which meant that they sold around about 3000 copies. Now, this is practically penury but then so many other people on the list were selling even less. As far as I know they didn't lose money. They certainly didn't make very much money, but it was a blow to me so many years later...I was with them for 28 years and I had a very happy relationship with the various editors who put the books together for me, but suddenly this noble publishing house, this extraordinary adornment to erudition, decided to close down contemporary poetry publishing all together.

Clive James: It was a ridiculous decision I think.

Peter Porter: Well, the man who did it was in fact an Asquith, he was left over from...

Clive James: I say he was just an ass.

Peter Porter: I said to them at the time, I said, 'Your grandfather nearly lost us WWI, look what you've done now.' I think this was the whole process...I was deeply hurt by that.

Clive James: Don't underrate it; the whole of the literary world was hurt. There was universal disgust at what this Asquith had done. He'd closed down the poetry section on the basis it didn't pay as well to the publishing house as the prose section did. Well of course it didn't! That's the whole idea; the idea is that you do the poetry as a duty. I don't think publishing houses should ever be granted automatic lasting prestige. They wax and wane according to who is running them. Faber is always regraded as the house to be with if you can and it still is, but I think even Faber should be questioned in its decisions. One of its decisions, after all, was to publish me. It published a book of my first letters called Fan-mail which was reviewed like the plague. This was in the mid 70s and there was no book in literary history that ever got worse reviews. I don't think they were quite deserved actually. I think the book was a little bit better than that but it did perhaps incorporate every possible mistake.

Peter Porter: I think we could possibly make a little garland or daisy chain of all our bad reviews. I think the worst I ever had was from a man now deceased, and his demise didn't actually make me burst into tears, a man called Martin Seymour-Smith. He said 'nobody could write as badly as Porter unless he intended to', and that was interesting because I suddenly thought to myself that at least I'm being given credit for an intention which has achieved something or other. But I don't think bad reviews or good reviews make any odds one way or the other. They do eventually in the sense of your chance of getting another book published, but I don't think one should ever read one's commendations, nor be too cast down by one's damnations.

Clive James: Kingsley Amis used to say that a bad review could spoil his lunch but he tried not to let it spoil his dinner. But he did read them. Edmund Wilson, who wrote a lot of damning reviews during his long career as a critic, used to get up in the middle of the night to read favourable reviews of his books, just so he could feel better. Words are magic, that's the problem. It doesn't matter how violent a drawing of you...a caricature could be as violent as you can imagine and you'll still want to buy the original because the drawing doesn't matter. Words matter, and sometimes people say something about you and it's very hard to get it out of your head. I've got slightly better at that as the years have gone by; I'm no longer paralysed by a bad review. But I got quite a lot of them...another ten years went by before I published a book of poetry. And sometimes I think the setbacks are helpful. I think on the whole I gained from publishing later rather than sooner in the field of writing that really matters most to me, which is poetry.

Jill Kitson: Clive James, ending that conversation with Peter Porter, the fourth of six programs about their careers as poets. Peter Porter's latest collection of poetry is Afterburner, a Picador. He edited The Best Australian Poetry 2005 for University of Queensland Press. The Book of My Enemy is the title of Clive's collected verse, 1958 to 2003. His latest collection of essays is The Meaning of Recognition. Picador is the publisher. And that's all for this edition of Book Talk

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