Dear Felix Dennis, we date back to "Oz" magazine. You're rich and I'm poor, but we both write poetry. You are a fraudby Michael Horovitz / March 17, 2005 / Leave a comment
A Glass Half Full by Felix Dennis (Hutchinson, £6.99)
Lone Wolf by Felix Dennis (Hutchinson, £8.99)
As you know, we go back long—if divergent—ways. In the late 1960s and early 1970s you coedited Oz, the rebellious hippie magazine to which I contributed the occasional poem. While you were choreographing squads of miniskirted teenyboppers to flog Oz up and down the King’s Road, I was taking “Live New Departures” jazz poetry circuses round the country. We’ve enjoyed close friendships and love affairs with some of the same people. For the last three decades you’ve been a very successful magazine publisher, and over the last four years an increasingly strident and public versifier. Your personal fortune is estimated in the region of £500m, whereas I survive, by the skin of what’s left of my teeth, on precariously financed poetry gigs and a state pension of £92.32 per month.
I’ve been studying your published verse collections and the razzmatazz around their promotion. Many of your claims—about poetry in general and about me in particular—are plain wrong. For example, the blurb of Lone Wolf, your second volume, declares that its predecessor, A Glass Half Full, “startled the British poetry establishment two years ago—not least because it has become the bestselling book of original verse for years,” a boast repeated in your preface and PR for Lone Wolf: “No one,” you declare, “sells 10,000 copies of verse in Britain.” But Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters alone has sold over 1m copies worldwide since its publication in 1998—and 530,000 of them in Britain. Heaney, Pam Ayres, Christopher Matthew, Carol Ann Duffy and plenty of others also consistently sell in the tens of thousands or more.
As for startling the poetry establishment: if this were indeed what your debut volume had done, why would you have complained in a cover story in the Independent on Sunday’s “ABC” magazine that you “haven’t had a single review, apart from one” by me (hardly a pillar of the poetry establishment)? You went on in that feature to misquote me, much as you do in the preface to Lone Wolf, as having said, “This man is a philistine and until he stops rhyming he is going to stay a philistine.” If you check the Wall Street Journal of 3rd May 2004, you’ll discover that what I said was: “Felix has this maddeningly reactionary and philistine concern about rhyming,” a rather different point.
Cheered by your not wishing to be thought philistine, let me suggest that huge sales are no guarantee of quality in the arts (cf Blake, Van Gogh, Emily Dickinson, and so on), and that rhyme is only one tool in the ever-expanding box of tricks by whose means humans have been shaping wordsounds since David and Sappho or the authors of Beowulf and medieval minstrelsy.
Your poetry mission’s two main aims are to restore the devices, forms and prosody of ancient Greek and Latin verse, and to convey “a dialogue on subjects that matter to nearly all of us” to a wide audience which, you allege, has been starved of these pleasures for the last 50 to 75 years. Are you unaware of the genuinely bestselling rhymers of these years—to name but a few: the Roberts Frost and Graves, Betjeman and Larkin, Stevie Smith and Wendy Cope, the Liverpool poets or Benjamin Zephaniah?
Knowing perfectly well how to rhyme and measure stresses, as Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Eliot, Auden, Lawrence, Ginsberg, Hughes and Plath did—just as Picasso, Bacon, de Kooning et al knew how to draw, and Bartók, John Cage and Charlie Parker knew how to write or play straightforward tunes—does not mean that any worthwhile poet, painter or musician needs to do those things, again and again, in every work.
Your own published output to date, though underedited and rather pompously thumpety-thumping, also displays some agreeable verbal energy and slapstick humour. But your presentation of such end of line couplings as “ladies/babies,” “amongst/once,” “subsidy/Italy,” “lemons/Netherlands,” “shells to me/mystery,” “stoppages/sausages,” as persuasive rhymes, leaves me more persuaded by Milton’s disparagement of rhyme per se as “the jingling sound of like endings” and “the invention of a barbarous age, to set off wretched matter and lame metre.” Thus your would-be poem “Craft” hectors:
Speak not to me of Craft as Art untaught,
What need the trowel to curtsey
to the brush?
A walk within an old cathedral’s hush
is worth all the Picassos
Although lines two and five neither rhyme nor scan, the quaintly antique diction, inversions and pseudo-metrically constrained line breaks (unironically EJ Thribbish in their clumsy self-consciousness), all serve to underline the false antitheses and coercive superficiality of any supposed dialogue. Half full is more than half empty, coarsely splintered prose here. How on earth, prithee, does such attempted playing off of two given anti-philistine goods (“old cathedrals” and “all the Picassos”) against each other, contribute to “a dialogue on subjects that matter” to most?
Let me play the repeating card back: it was your preconceived concern to gild your cathedral walk with rhyming bells—”untaught/bought,” “brush/hush”—that heavy-footed it inexorably down the valley of the shadow of philistine death-to-the-poem.
You freely admit that you paid Hutchinson to publish A Glass Half Full, you invest heavily in advertising to welcome all-comers with free admission to your plush tour venues, and you extrapolate from the consequently healthy attendances that you’ve tapped a thirst for your ultra-traditional style of poesy. Hmmm.
Your preface to Lone Wolf rants at me for being underwhelmed by your first collection, and asks what I think all the punters at your shrewdly titled “Did I Mention the Free Wine?” readings were up to— “pretending to listen to poetry?” The straightforward answer is yes. Certainly at the two London launches I attended—at the In and Out and Groucho clubs—roistering gaggles of celebrants were so smashed on the vintage wines on offer that their ability to appreciate anything at all, er, sophisticated, was visibly curtailed.
A commonly held opinion of our time is that more people are trying to write poetry than are reading it. My hope and advice for you is that, if you’re seriously occupied with mastering the sullen art, you pay closer attention to the work of others who have done so. Why not lay down your quill for a year or three of woodshedding, holed up with the likes of WH Auden, perhaps humbly absorbing the wit, wisdom and pith of his lightest jeux d’esprit (for instance: “John Milton/Never stayed at the Hilton/Hotel. /Perhaps it’s just as well”) but also engaging with the demanding higher reaches of loci classici like “The Cave of Making (in memoriam Louis MacNeice)”?
This is the paean in which Auden praises poetry as an inner quest that can never afford to make market values a priority:
After all, it’s rather a privilege
amid the affluent traffic
to serve this unpopular art which cannot be turned into
background noise for study
or hung as a status trophy by rising executives,
cannot be “done” like Venice
or abridged like Tolstoy, but stubbornly still insists upon
being read or ignored…
All that your pretensions to musehood have proved so far are that, yes, anyone and everyone with enough money can buy a publisher and yes, you can buy so-called fame and acclaim of a kind; you can always buy extensive media coverage, and you can even sort of buy hard-drinking folks to seem to buy your books (though not necessarily to read them). But one thing you’ve proved you cannot buy, as yet, old adversary, however hard sales forces try, and however high your fine wines dizzy ’em—is a perch on the topmost branch of any bona fide Elysium. That height can only be earned, as Keats put it, by the production of poems that grow “as naturally as the leaves to a tree.” Who knows—if you cast quick-sell marketing to the winds, and drink deep of the Parnassian springs, your future produce may still, one day, attain that sweet golden clime. But, as long as you go on pushing hype over truth, you’ll stay irredeemably money-mouthed, stuck in the affluent traffic of birdless wheeler-dealing.
As Delacroix observed: “To be a poet at 20 is to be 20. To be a poet at 40 is to be a poet.”
Yours sincerely, Michael