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Clare Brown & Don Paterson, eds., Don't Ask Me What I Mean: Poets in Their Own Words (London: Picador, 2004, £8.99, 335 pages, ISBN 0-330-41281-7)—Charles Holdefer, Université de Poitiers


The title of this book comes from the Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie, and it was chosen by this volume's editors as representative of a common lament of poets when they are asked to explain or introduce their work. Indeed, in this anthology—which provides an overview of most of the major poets published in the UK in the last fifty years—it emerges as a chorus.


The premise for this collection of short prose pieces comes from a simple but astute recognition by its editors of the value of archive of the Poetry Book Society, which was founded in 1953 by a group of poets and publishers led by T.S. Eliot and Stephen Spender. It was a scheme to increase the readership of contemporary poetry by selecting new works four times a year, then selling the winning book for each quarter to subscribers. One condition of this honour, however, obliged the poet to write a short piece for the PBS Bulletin.


Recently Clare Brown and Don Paterson took stock of the accumulated archive (by then the PBS had evolved into an Arts Council-funded book club) and decided to put together an anthology based on five decades of poets' contributions. Taken together, they constitute a rich body of work which would have been impossible to commission or plan:

Here was the last piece Louis MacNeice wrote before his death; Ted Hughes writing both on his first book, The Hawk in the Rain, and on the publication of Sylvia Plath's Ariel; Paul Muldoon on the etymology of 'quoof'; Carol Ann Duffy on difficulties with gonks; Simon Armitage on his debut collection; and practically the only words Geoffrey Hill has written on his own work—to say nothing of rare and brilliant contributions from Seamus Heaney, Kingsley Amis, U.A. Fanthorpe, Theodore Roethke, Philip Larkin, Elizabeth Jennings, Michael Longley, and many more. [xii]

There is no doubt about the interest of republishing many of these pieces. Long-forgotten or difficult to obtain, many of them have never appeared in book form. Ideally, this anthology will make them available to a new generation of readers.


Their eclectic nature, however, makes Don't Ask Me What I Mean a difficult book to classify. Some of these pieces read like prefaces in the conventional sense; others are a pretext for autobiography or politicking (sales of poetry books, though invariably modest, often doubled or tripled when the book was selected as a "Quarterly Choice"). Since each piece is contemporaneous with a writer's volume of poetry yet was not conceived as a part of the volume, its generic status is peculiar—but it is often interesting for that reason. What these pieces resemble most is a literary performance, like an after-dinner speech or toast, for which the guest of honour must stand up and say a few words. These poets acquit themselves in much the same manner as most individuals in this situation. Some are witty, some are ponderous, some mumble. Some bask in the attention while others are palpably eager to get it over with. W.S. Merwin describes the task before him as a source of "physical aversion" [177]. Christopher Middleton is virtually speechless, offering one sentence, in order to introduce quotations from Schopenhauer, Kafka, Whitehead and other worthies [180]. Hugo Williams, in contrast, reels off amusing anecdotes about family and life in general and seems utterly at ease in the situation. (At least that is the illusion he creates.)  Tellingly, though, and despite the reservations expressed by the title, by Merwin and by other like-minded poets who chafed at the task before them, they all rose to the challenge and produced something rather than refuse the honour. (Merwin's contribution is actually longer than most.)  Poets might be shy or retiring or sceptical, but this much is also true: they want to be read.


It is impossible to generalize probingly about the opinions of 120 poets (one can also wonder, perhaps brutally, if 100 would have sufficed, or even 80 of the best contributions would have been better). Even so, for all the variety, a number of common themes emerge. First, the question of place is primordial. Or, more accurately, places. Despite a certain inescapable (and unexceptionable) "Englishness" of the PBS, the range of locales evoked is impressive. Barry MacSweeney tells about his Northumbrian roots [168], Norman Nicholson underlines how Millom, West Cumberland "was human society in miniature" [199]. James Lasdun offers a memorable sketch of Woodstock, New York [145-146]; Fred D'Aguiar describes how happy his parents were to ship him back to Guyana to escape the "moral decay, induced by growing up in England" [46]. Dom Moraes defends both his Indian identity and his native tongue of English [184]; while Les Murray celebrates his roots in Bunyah, Australia, affirming that "from a global point of view, every place is now the centre of the world" [197].


Of all the places mentioned, however, Ireland is asserted the most often, and exerts the largest collective influence in this sample. The grip of this place, in a multitude of forms, is returned to again and again, as a source of nourishment and polemic. Patrick Kavanagh's piece, which appeared in 1960 after the selection of his volume Come Dance with Kitty Stobling, is particularly interesting for its blunt attack on "that atrocious formula which was invented by Synge and his followers to produce an Irish literature" which, he says, was a matter of "giving the English a certain picture of Ireland. The English love 'Irishmen' and are always on the look-out for them" [139]. Kavanagh doesn't spare himself, either, dismissing his earlier work, The Green Fool, as "dreadful" [139]. He also expresses his disgust with the journalistic establishment in Dublin, for whom he was cast as "the authentic peasant" [140]. In the space of a few pages Kavanagh manages to debunk nostalgia and dutiful politics about "place" and, in the process, he anticipates many of the debates which still animate Irish, post-colonial and multicultural studies. Subsequent pieces by Austin Clarke, Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Tom Paulin, Medbh McGuckian and others all return to these questions, which are problematic yet irresistible.


Another common impulse, contrary to the title of the anthology and to Elizabeth Jennings's claim that "no contemporary poem should need footnotes" [132], is to undertake precisely that task, by providing readers with a particular context or tidbits of information to ensure that they do not go astray, or draw the "wrong" conclusions. Although "Don't ask me what I mean" is a frequent chorus of poets, it is by no means universal. Some poets are very happy to expound upon what they are driving at, and can appear like parents who are overly protective of their children. They make no disclaimers. For example: Michael Longley explains his affection for the Japanese private aesthetic called karumi as well as his use of Ulster Scots dialect, his allusions to Homer, and the importance of Eros and Thanatos in The Ghost Orchid [153]; Penelope Shuttle announces her shared view with Engels about individual sexual love and how it figures as "Horse" in Adventures with My Horse, before proposing a reading of her collection's title poem and evoking the larger context of feminist writing and her quest for "a further place that is non-nihilistic, non-sadistic, non-disposable" [263]. In such examples—Longley and Shuttle are not the only ones—a reader might wonder if writers can be too generous in their counsel. Poets necessarily possess a privileged perspective of their work, but they can also sound defensive or didactic. They illustrate that saying "Don't ask me what I mean" need not be a dodge or a shirking of responsibility. It is a sensible response, too.


Lastly, there are poets who use the occasion to express highly personal reactions or wishes about their work. Idiosyncrasy becomes the rule here. Thom Gunn describes his "revulsion" upon reading the proofs of Touch, and informs readers that "it doesn't really add up to very much" [94] (this is 1967, when marketing strategies were not paramount). John Heath-Stubbs, in regard to his 1990 Selected Poems, complains of the trouble he had putting it together and doesn't hesitate to refer his readers to his more substantial Collected Poems instead [106]. Rita Ann Higgins writes about her bicycle [113]. Theodore Roethke expresses the wish to be read aloud [249], and Robin Skelton uses the occasion to thank God [270]. In these and other examples, no formula applies. The poets' responses defy generalization.


The richness of Don't Ask Me What I Mean is indisputable, but navigating such a collection is sometimes tricky. The editors' Introduction is informative and witty, and their stated desire to locate the English lyric tradition in the oft-disparaged "mainstream" is, for this reviewer, sympathetic. But their claim that the pieces have been gathered in a "systematic way" [xii] is overstated, since the organizing principle is merely alphabetical. It is difficult to say what C.K. Williams, Hugo Williams and John Hartley Williams have in common beyond the same last name. This presentation favours quick consultation and reading in "dips" but it dispenses with any sense of chronology, context, aesthetic continuity or change. The editors are disarmingly frank about this choice: 

There was a dishearteningly long stretch, beginning in the mid-seventies and extending into the eighties, where everyone bar a handful of poets forgot how to write a sentence, and chatty half-formed adumbration was the order of the day. (The alphabetised contents was one way of disguising this.) It seemed to take another hippie legacy—Thatcherism—to provoke the crew into literary seriousness again. [xiv-xv]

This "disguising" comes at a price. There is an interesting serendipity in juxtaposing Kate Clanchy with Austin Clark (the former writes that "ages ago" at university she got an A- for Feminist Theory; the latter describes being lifted up by his father to see Queen Victoria on her last visit to Ireland); but there is no method to help the reader make connections. The effect is a conceptual collage, or a series of impressions. For the bloody-minded readers who by habit or conviction are still attached to chronology, for example, it is possible to reorder these pieces mentally and discern tendencies: many writers of the 1950s and 1960s try to address the idea of poetry movements or schools (usually to disclaim them); whereas recent writers seem more likely to make topical allusions, to speak of the NHS and HIV, the death of Lady Di or 9/11. Although there are exceptions, history (in this immediate sense) appears to be back in fashion. The proportion of women writers in this collection is fairly slim, but in this respect the editors are probably reflecting the limits of the PBS archives. At very least, a short biographical note on each poet would have been helpful.          


As for the editorial policy regarding the texts themselves, it, too, makes sense on its own terms, but for some readers will not be sufficient. The Introduction notes that occasional deletions are not marked by "dutiful and unenlightening ellipses" [xv]. This is in keeping with the editors' stated goal of making a brisk and entertaining volume for a general audience, not a reference work for scholars. But, for better or worse, academics will also be interested in this anthology (who else, really, is going to care that "T.W. Rolleston translated Leaves of Grass into German"? [35]). Specialists will have to take this editorial approach into account, and will want to go back to the original.


Still, Don't Ask Me What I Mean: Poets in Their Own Words is a rewarding and stimulating book, and its variety is the source of its merit.

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