I’ve always wanted to belong to the city of ideas, and it seems to me that membership of such a city is often incompatible with the other kinds of membership on offer along the way. Choices, or compromises, have to be made, and I find myself more and more inclined to say no to some invitations as a way of saying yes to to something closer to that ideal. I found it liberating to refuse both the Poet Laureate’s invitation to write a poem for the Queen’s Jubilee in 2012, and the Poetry Book Society’s attempt to include me in its Next Generation promotion of emerging poets this year. It’s not that I don’t want to be read, or that I object on principal to the business of actively seeking a readership. The question is one of context—do I feel happy in those groupings, in those lights?
A strange bit of posturing, this. Incisive, even admirable stuff from the poet Frances Leviston on Poetry magazine's editor's blog, and well worth reading in full. Any poet of genuine talent should value their citizenship of "the city of ideas", and strive to take their life and writing seriously without the need for official sanction.
But in being at pains to make us aware of her principled refusals - no laureate commissions or PBS endorsements for her, ta very much - Leviston is only really playing her own little marketing game, pitching herself and her work at a different audience; one that will undoubtedly applaud such a brave eschewal of accolades, even if it comes from a prize-winning and commercially-published poet who, variously approved of in other official ways, can now afford to take such calculated risks.
To put it less cynically: if Leviston were published by a smaller independent press - even, say, by bigger players like Bloodaxe or Seren - and there hadn't been such a fanfare around her first book, and consequent opportunities afforded her and her writing, you have to wonder whether things might just be a little different. The sentiments and values she expresses are admirable, of course - even if keeping one's head firmly up in the firmament of "the city of ideas" does smack worryingly of a writer whose feet seem a long way from the ground. But given the officially-sanctioned accolades and awards she has happily accepted to arrive where she is - Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors, PBS Recommendation for her first book, Forward Prize and T S Eliot Prize shortlistings; all perceivable as compromised groupings under certain lights - a couple of brave eschewals doesn't look much like the aesthetic high road she seems to imply. Especially when one such accolade that Leviston has chosen to reject - the Next Generation 2014 promotion - is less about individual validation, and much more about committing to an attempt to seriously raise poetry's public profile, without diminishing the cerebral and emotional, perspective-shifting challenges that genuine verse poses.
I say all this, incidentally, as someone who enjoyed and admired Public Dream, Leviston's first collection, very much. Her poetry is, I think, the real deal, and more than deserving of the attention and awards it has received. But there seems to be, at best, some forgetful self-delusion at work in this piece, and at worst, a level of contempt for the intelligence of much of her audience, thinly and unconvincingly veiled as whiter-than-white, holier-than-thou artistic purity. Red squirrels indeed.