Poetry is flourishing, but how much of it is really good? Very little judging by my postbag as the Observer's poetry readerby Kate Kellaway / November 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
There is nothing more personal than poetry. It can go deeper than any love letter. It can be the most disciplined form of writing and the freest. For the past ten years, I have been poetry reader at the Observer. (I read and return–almost always–the unsolicited poems that come in). It is a strange thing to send poems to an editor you have never met. I know, because I have done it.
I know what it is like to fold up white A4 pages and entrust them, with hope, to their envelopes. And I know that they have a way of coming back like relentless homing pigeons. When a poem was accepted, it was the greatest joy imaginable; rejected poems were a disgrace. Virginia Woolf liked to have several pieces out to editors at once, to avoid the sense of consuming failure that rejection slips could bring. Good advice. Another solution is to stop writing altogether. I stopped writing poems when I started reading them (unpublished ones, that is). Reading poems in bulk is like being in a noisy room in which, as often as not, more than one person is crying. It is hard to hear your own voice beneath the sound of other people’s. Reading poems made me too self-conscious about writing them. It gave me a dismal sense of just what it meant to do it badly.
I started as a poetry reader at Jonathan Cape, job-sitting for James Lasdun (then becoming known as a poet himself). I can still picture the narrow blue rejection slips and I remember the words, in Lasdun’s angular hand, “probably certifiable” clipped to the top of somebody’s complete poetic output. Now, after years of reading, I can confirm that the certifiable do write to me–if not from actual mental institutions, then from the private madhouses of their minds. But so do people of every sort: sane, eccentric, educated, uneducated, octagenarians, children. I am still amazed by the poetry mountain that comes my way. From hospitals, prisons, universities. From London and remote corners of Ireland. Poems from India on tissuey paper, poems from America, Africa, Israel. I have had poems faxed to me, poems delivered by hand and, I fear, soon, a queue of poems at my e-mail address. Once a poet even called to recite her work over the telephone (a poem in praise of Margaret Thatcher).
It is a…