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Clive James ‘Letter to a young poet’

I’ve sung the praises of on-line poetry magazines on here before. Another new publication, The Scores  went live ( think this is the correct term) this morning.  I haven’t had a proper look yet but the first issue contains  work by many well-known (in the poetry world) poets, as well as an introduction by Don Patterson  and an interesting ‘Letter to a young poet’ piece by Clive James.  I read Rilke’s original letters to a young poet some years ago, and am always interested in advice, thoughts  and ‘wisdom’ relating to poetry .

James’ piece begins with an echo of Rilke’s original letter. Basically, James suggests that unless you are dedicated to the point of obsession to writing poetry, you should give up. Unless you find yourself driven to it to the point where you can’t help it, do something else. James’ reasoning for this advice is that – ‘ the chances of failure are too high, and the disappointments are too cruel.’ I’m not sure I agree with the assumption that failure and cruel disappointment are the overriding experiences of the poet. Of course there must be many frustrated writers out there, but I have also met several hundred who’s lives have been enhanced and enriched by their involvement. Perseverance, dedication, and the occasional check on one’s motivations and expectations might be valuable.  I hesitate to suggest that one shouldn’t aim high, but it would be a good idea for a young poet to know the number of poets wishing to be published, for example, by Faber and Faber, as opposed to the number who actually are. If we are talking about ‘failure’ in terms of publishing (and it is not clear what James means by ‘failure’ ,) then I think it reasonable to believe that one can be published, firstly in magazines and later perhaps in pamphlet or book form.   James continues ‘  the average stacked shelf is not only more useful to society than the average poem, it is actually superior as a work of art. ‘  I suppose this statement too,  depends on a definition or definitions of  ‘average’, ‘usefulness’ and ‘art ‘ in relation to poetry and supermarket shelves.

James also writes

‘ Train yourself to care less about the praise. You should work your new poem to perfection not because it will please more people that way – it might please fewer – but because in its finished state it will prove itself an independent artefact invulnerable even to your own doubts. If the poem has its own confidence, the day will come when you can look back on it and wonder how you did it. ‘

This seems like good advice. If only it were  possible to ‘train  yourself ‘ to care less about praise. In my own experience, one becomes less concerned with both praise and negative criticism as time goes by. When starting to share poems with others , it is of course possible to be elated or deflated by their reactions. Only experience and time can develop confidence in the work (I like the idea of the poem having its own confidence.)  Another factor in how someone responds to praise is their temperament.  Some people will always be buoyed or swayed more than others by praise. For my part, although pleased by it, I’ve always found it a little difficult to accept, ( and here I hope I don’t sound ungrateful,)  of little use.

While I find James’ trademark laconic pessimism  (some might say realism)  a little too negative,  I did find aspects of the article enjoyable, and think the idea of inviting people to write such a letter is a good one.

The piece also contains an odd reference to Malcolm Muggeridge’s thoughts on how the contraceptive pill might effect the light in a woman’s eyes.  I found this off-putting and unnecessary reference, betraying, perhaps, some of  James’ generation’s  lack of subtly and sensitivity when approaching gender issues, or maybe illustrating a predilection for deliberately stirring up a little controversy with offhand sexist generalisation. James’ includes some thoughts on notebooks and how to organise work in progress, and some may find this useful.  Whilst a certain amount of organisation is undoubtedly required to keep work in progress accessible and orderly, I found the setting out of one particular approach a little prescriptive when applied to poetry. This may be because I am resistant to being told how to work, preferring to find ways that suit me best (although I am not a ‘young poet,’ and therefore not the addressee of the letter.) However, I believe there are  many ways of working, and individuals will eventually find what works best for them.

On reputation and career, James writes

‘If you start thinking about your reputation, or even about your career as a poet, you are in the wrong frame of mind. What matters most is the poem, not the poet. ‘

I’m fortunate in that the words ‘career’ and ‘poet’ have never appeared in the same sentence in my mind. Of course I understand why people use ‘career’ in relation to their poetry; either because it suggests a developmental path (which can be a comforting conception ) or that it adds credibility to their dedication to poetry, or perhaps they are referring to the fact that their writing is an intrinsic part of an academic or performance based life.  I am fortunate in that my poetry has always been largely separate from such concerns. As for reputation, maybe that, like beauty, is in the eye and ear of the beholder.

My  favourite line from Clive James’ piece is this.

‘If even a few people remember a line or two in a poem you wrote, you’re not just getting there, you’re there. That’s it: and all the greater glory is mere vanity’

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