Wading Through Blancmange

An attempt to comprehend the Editorial in the Summer 2008 edition of Poetry Review

Wading Through Blancmange

The three paragraphs of this peculiar Editorial are taken sentence by sentence, in order, as it were, to keep our footing in somewhat slippery stuff.

  1. Impossible to say whether there are more poets at work in Britain today than ever before.

    We observe that this sentence has no subject or main verb. Further, we would suggest that the convention with whether is to supplement it with or not.

  2. After all, what makes a poet?

    This dramatic and rhetorical question is an important one that we hope to have answered during the course of this short essay.

  3. How many people ~ apart from your lover, Auntie Doris and the members of your workshop ~ have to read your poems before you can call them work?

    We ask what is the meaning of work here? Does the term have some special significance? How does the term relate to at workin i1? (The word work does not appear again in the piece.) We would ask, how are these poems evaluated, apart from their being read?

  4. One thing’s for sure, though: every new poet means a new point of view.

    This sentence does not answer, and is not logically related to, the previous one; and it does not answer the leading question in i2. We would also ask, of what does every new poet have a new point of view?

  5. Increasingly, too, our strongest poets seem to be developing their own poetics.

    Some answer as to what is the meaning of new point of view could be provided by reference to the phrase their own poetics. For this, we need to know what meaning this writer gives to the term poetics. We are not told. Further, if it is only certain poets ~ that is, our strongest ones – who seem to be developing their own poetics, and if they only seem to do so, the matter is not clear.

  6. Ever since Mr Eliot pointed out that the emerging poet becomes part of the practice of poetry by recognising himself in existing practices, young writers have tried to make poetry traditions their own.

    Was the Mr Eliot mentioned here perhaps an English teacher of the writer of this piece? Or is it the writer TS Eliot who is referred to here? Mr Eliot is not directly quoted, and no reference is given by means of which we may find out what was actually said by him.

    What is the meaning of practice here, and how does it relate to the later existing practices, which cannot be the same thing, because the one is singular, the other plural. Further, what may be this process of recognising himself in existing practices? Again, we should be told by what processes or procedures young writers have tried to make poetry traditions ~ whatever these may be ~ their own and how far they have succeeded.

  1. In fact, of course, they’ve always done so.

    Without answers to the foregoing questions regarding i6, this sentence has no particular meaning.

  2. Unless you have some sense of what poetry is, how can you know whether it’s what you’re doing?

    We would again point out that whether would usually take or not; it is a tradition, or a practice, perhaps, of grammar and usage; by ignoring a tradition or usage you do not make it your own. The sentence still makes some sense; but what is the sense of sense of what poetry is? Does it have something to do with poetry traditions in i6? Are these traditions in any way formal techniques used in the making of poems? We might just find here an implied answer to the question at i2, what makes a poet? in that a poet could be said to be someone who has some sense of what poetry is; but it is hardly a sufficient one.

  3. You might, for all you know, be writing dramatic monologue; you might reinvent the sonnet and never realise it; you might miss out on the whole wonderful experience of writing in dialogue with those other women who, it turns out, also struggled with what they were and weren’t allowed to write.

    This more complex sentence does hint at some answers to these questions. It might have begun with the same formulation, Unless you have some sense of what poetry is… The three clauses of ii3 say nothing specific; but the first two suggest that there are formal characteristics of poetry that distinguish it from dramatic monologue and perhaps other modes of what is called ‘prose’. The reference to the sonnet in the second clause does suggest that formal characteristics of poetry, such as measure, and schemes of rhyming or alliteration, may have something to do with what poetry is, and to the practice and poetry traditions of i6 that young writers (which have in ii3 become you) may be somehow trying to make their own.

    The third clause in ii3 is markedly different in substance to the other two. It presents an idea of a female writer of what may or may not be ‘poetry’. It then makes what may be described as historical or sociological considerations of literary production. In this clause the use of the term writing in dialogue is merely figurative but may be intended to link in some way with the more analytic term monologue used earlier.

    The general effect, then, of ii3 is to give some imprecise support to ii2.

  4. With more cultural traditions than ever before audible in Britain, even fashionable hegemonies can be seen for what they are: particular ways of doing things which suit some voices and talents wonderfully ~ others less so.

    We may presume that, more cultural traditions than ever before audible in Britain, has something to do with other languages than English, and perhaps with the general notion of ‘multiculturalism’. What may this have to do with having some sense of what poetry is (ii2) and poetry traditions (i6)?

    It would seem from ii3, where the terms dramatic monologue and the sonnet are used, that poetry traditions refers to the formal characteristics of English poetry, over many centuries, of measure, alliteration, and rhyme, which have distinguished what we call ‘poetry’ from other modes of English literature in the sense of ‘things written in English’.

    The term more cultural traditions than ever before audible may mean ‘other languages with their own literature‘, which ‘literature’ may or may not be analogous in some ways to our own ~ as common sense tells us is likely to be the case. In these languages there may be practices and traditions analogous to those established in English.

    Now let us turn to the further development of ideas in this sentence, which goes on:.. even fashionable hegemonies can be seen for what they are: particular ways of doing things,… We may surmise that fashionable hegemonies means ‘the traditions of measure, alliteration and rhyme’ or some such. We would ask why the word fashionable is used here? Indeed, why is the word hegemonies used? Neither term seems appropriate in this discussion.

    Further, what should we make of particularways of doing things? This does accord well with our proposal that fashionable hegemonies means ‘the traditions of measure, etc.’ Now we have to consider whether or not, and how, those of other cultural traditions with other languages and ‘literary traditions’ may have some effect on the fashionable hegemonies so as to bring about some new ‘fashion’ or ‘fashions’ of…English poetry. We may also ask if, by voices,languages’ is meant?

    No examples are given, of course. The meaning of this sentence ~ indeed, the meaning of the whole piece ~ seems to be ‘drifting away’.

  5. Creative writing courses emerged amid warnings that they would produce clones.

    This sentence does not connect readily at all with the previous one, but it does connect more readily with the following one. We may ask: the production of clones of what was warned against?

  6. Instead, the old, privatised apprenticeships of happy accident and privilege ~ someone bothering to take an interest ~ have become open to all: generating more, not less, plurality.

    This is a curious sentence. Like the third clause of ii3, it does not bear in any detached way upon the matter of formal poetry traditions in English, and on how they may or may not change. The somewhat odd and mixed locution, the old, privatised apprenticeships of happy accident and privilege, which then becomes equated with someone bothering to take an interest seems to be a more personal and ‘sociological’ utterance, and somewhat indirect.

    We are left with the undeveloped notion of plurality: We may ask, plurality of what? What is spoken of could be plurality of points of view, as in i4, or of poetics, as in i5 ~ which latter term has been in no way developed or elucidated. The ‘drift’ goes on.

  7. As emerging poets practice creative disobedience, taking existing traditions and making them their own, they show up a jingoistic fear of otherness for what it is.

    This sentence returns us to the first paragraph. We must presume that there is some relation intended between the verb practice and the term existing traditions here, and the terms practice of poetry and existing practices used in i6. It is said of emerging poets ~ if indeed they may be called such ~ that, by some process of creative disobedience, they take existing traditions (or fashionable hegemonies, ii4) and make them their own. What is the function of the curious word disobedience here? Is this disobedience exercised ‘in the face’ of fashionable hegemonies? The idea of ‘disobeying’ a ‘fashion’ is an odd one. Furthermore, how at the same time as something is ‘disobeyed’ may it be ‘made one’s own?’

    By Jingo brothers and sisters, clearly we should ask the Editor of Poetry Review to give us some examples of pieces of literature that embody and demonstrate the working out of the principles and processes that have been vaguely alluded to in this curious essay.

  1. Poetry Review is proud of the sense of ownership it generates among the widest possible range of schools of writing.

    This odd sentence anthropomorphises the magazine. Surely, it is the Editor, and possibly the staff, and perhaps the Director of The Poetry Society , etc., who feel ‘pride’ in the magazine? Why doesn’t the Editor say this? It is a display of modesty. We are also curious about the possible sense of sense of ownership. Further, what is the meaning of the phrase schools of writing? Where are these schools, or what are they? We presume that the phrase means some sorts of literary ‘movements’. We have heard of none such ~ though there is an organisation called The Poetry School. We are asked to imagine all these different purported schools of writing, or, indeed, each member of each school, recognising him- or herself in existing practices, or existing traditions, or fashionable hegemonies, and ‘making them his or her own.’ Again, we say that some evidence and examples of the working out of these processes would be useful.

  2. It is proud that the Editor reads every single one of c.60,000 annual submissions.

    This is an unusual construction. It seems that the anthropomorphisised Poetry Reviewdoes not now include the Editor as part of its existent self as presented. A picture presents itself to the ‘mind’s eye’. The staff of the magazine, and of the Poetry Society’s headquarters, and all the members of the widest possible range of schools of writing are standing and applauding the Editor of Poetry Review, who modestly bows her head, murmuring, ‘No, please, please, I am not deserving of this’.

    (It is, though, most impressive to consider that the Editor deals with, on average, about 170 items a day, some of which items will be considerable articles and reviews and so forth.)

  3. Proud to publish on the basis of quality alone ~ not style or personality ~ we’re even quite proud as proof of this of the sometimes obscene, sometimes verging-on-libellous correspondence we occasionally receive from individuals who haven’t realised this process is genuine.

    As an example, perhaps, of creative disobediencein the field of English grammar, the author has not provided a subject or main verb for this sentence. We may supply for ourselves, It is… Then we find that this ‘phantom’ subject, which before stood for Poetry Review, transforms into a we which must once again include the Editor and staff etc., who have collectively, but ‘proudly‘, received sometimes obscene, sometimes verging-on-libellous correspondence. However, such letters are usually addressed to the Editor. It is more straightforward to make the Editor the subject of the sentence, and begin it, I am proud. If we put a full stop after personality, we can begin again with I am even quite proud as proof of this… The pronoun this presumably applies to the Editor’s ‘pride’ in publishing pieces on the basis of quality alone – not style or personality. However, it cannot be said that the letters may be taken as any proof of this at all: the writers of them have no more access to the Editor’s subjective process of selection on the basis of quality than we do.

    The sentence becomes progressively meaningless; but it does carry the factual meaning that the Editor receives sometimes obscene, sometimes verging-on-libellous correspondence. It would be interesting to Poetry Society members if some of this correspondence were to be published as a special feature in Poetry Review.

  4. Poetry Review is proud to celebrate and learn from multiple points of view in today’s remarkably fertile poetic climate: whose intelligent fluidity, we believe, will allow the Next Big Thing to emerge.

    This ‘pride-full’ and apparently self-effacing rhetorical anthropomorphism of Poetry Review by its Editor continues in one last peculiar sentence. A new notion of ‘humility’ is hinted at with the emphatic, and learn from multiple points of view. (The word multiple might better be replaced by ‘the many’ or ‘new’, or both.) Since every new poet means a new point of view (i4), and a good proportion of the 60,000 submissions read by the Editor each year will be from new poets, the Editor will learn much ~ though what about is not clear.

    We cannot say in what ways, and to what extent, there may be, today, a remarkably fertile poetic climate; and the figure or analogy of fertility is not developed in this short piece: therefore the notion of intelligent fluidity hangs somewhat meaninglessly there. Thus, what the sense of the Next Big Thing is, is impossible to tell ~ but then, we have no idea what, for the Editor, was ‘the Last Big Thing’ that, possibly, we should understand as having grown out of the soil of, in the climate of, perhaps fashionable hegemonies, or despite them.

    Rather than taking away any sense of intelligent fluidity from this peculiar piece of writing, we have the experience of seemingly being stuck in a congealing ‘blancmange’.


    Some of us Poetry Society members are simple-minded chaps, and this sort of discourse leaves us bemused, and hungry, as it were. Notions of a ‘fertile climate’ make us think of warmth and damp, and of the things growing on our allotments. There, we may cultivate generally in rows and blocks, and use only our own compost ~ gardening ‘organically’, as it is said. We grow some things, such as pumpkins, that originate in other lands and climates, and which have a wonderful otherness. As we watch this year’s pumpkin plants develop their central cores and then put out trailers in all directions, we await the Next Big Pumpkin, or Two, or Three, or Four, by Jingo!

    We wonder what prompted this ‘lazy, hazy’ summer Editorial? It drifts ‘pottily’ from impression to impression of something sensible being said; but, in the end, it is like a pea-pod in which the seeds have not set. It certainly provides no answer at all to its initial question, What makes a poet?

    We suspect that it is a response to the same “particular media flurry” described by the Director of the Poetry Society in her summer Letter in ‘Poetry News’, and to what was called the ‘dredging up’ of “a dusty old ‘argument’ about what the definition of poetry is”. The chair of the Poetry Society describes it all, in her Thoughts on the same page as “quixotic tilting”. Neither of these principle Officers of the Poetry Society nor the Editor of Poetry Review has the courage and honesty to name the member of the Society who was the principle instigator of the “media flurry” and who is on their somewhat rank patch, in his clod-hopping gardening-boots, laying about him with an English, or even a Dutch, hoe.

Permission to reprint this Editorial from ‘Poetry Review’ has not been granted.