Paul Farley, 2007 International Griffin Poetry Prize Shortlisted Poet, Opens the 2008 Awards Ceremony
It’s always a great pleasure to be invited back anywhere, especially from a land of bad orthodontics in the age of the giant plasma screen. When I was asked if I’d like to say a few words this evening, I called up one of the Griffin Trustees for some advice. And he told me: I shouldn’t worry about it. They’ll be far too busy laughing at your ridiculous accent. This put me smartly in mind of other solicitations for advice, and of a reading several years ago, back in the UK, where I found myself sandwiched between two well-known poets many years my senior, old hands who’d seen it all before. Sitting there in the bright light onstage can be unnerving, as many of you will know, so naturally I turned to the august presence on my left – and I think, in the absence of a Griffin Trust witness protection programme, we should call him Famous Poet A – I turned to this writer in the hope that some sage advice might be forthcoming. And he said to me: If you write poetry, it’s your own fault … I found out later this was something he’d been told by another poet many years before, and so was passing on the dark baton of disappointment. Slightly rattled by this point, I switched to the literary lion on my right, and in an attempt at easy joviality, I heard myself slowly falling into a black hole: I liked the way you dealt with the closing cadences there; [silence] you’ve a very commanding delivery [longer silence] … you handled the introductions with real aplomb … By this point Famous Poet B had fixed me with the kind of stare that my mother used to say could turn an apricot into a lemon. Desperate for any kind of acknowledgement, and beginning to experience what’s known in the trade as the ‘crumbling dam effect’, I blurted out: What I’m trying to say is, you read brilliantly … To which he replied: Well, I hope so: it’s not effing Amateurs Night.
Those shortlist readings we saw and heard yesterday, all brilliant in their various ways, didn’t feel like sitting through Amateurs Night, though I’d like to claw back that word’s original meaning and sense: an ‘amateur’ as somebody engaged in passionate pursuit of something, perhaps for its own sake; somebody hugely knowledgeable but largely self taught, devoted rather than professional. Looked at like that, it’s a serviceable description for what the poet might be all about. We write poetry, and it’s our own fault. Maxima mea culpa.
Poets, after a while, can develop an armor plating of stock responses, though as a subgenre this is best witnessed in action during the question-and-answer forum. I often think the great unspoken question hanging in the air over any such gathering is: What do your poems mean? Or: When will you be publishing the answers? And of course the Q&A can be a kind of DMZ of the absurd: I once heard another well-known poet being asked, in all earnestness: How much do you weigh?
But poets aren’t always the best people to ask, especially where their own work is concerned. John Ashbery and David Harsent both hinted last night at how a poem can find its subject gradually, and how its author can forget what he set to do. At the risk of this sounding like an abdication of responsibility, I have to say, Ladies and Gentlemen, that I know very little about how or why poems get written, and seem to know even less as each year passes. Why is this? Maybe I’m too busy trying to write one – and every time feels a bit like starting out from scratch. Maybe it’s a gradual avoidance of taking too much interest in the source, the mechanism, the little cues and prompts that have to take place, the rituals that need to be observed. Maybe I’m interested in preserving, or being respectful of, the essential mystery involved, a mystery that, increasingly, I feel is difficult to gainsay. The Irish poet Michael Longley once said that if poetry were a place, then he’d go there more often. Maybe I just don’t want to sound prescriptive.
One thing I can say – and this is the secret that isn’t really a secret – is that poems want to be read. Wherever we go to get them, they need to come into the light. It completes them. I’ve never been interested in ‘writing for the drawer’, in stashing the work under the bed with the grey gym socks and the nests of knickers, where it can exist in a state of quantum uncertainty. I feel sorry for any poet who has sent work to a ‘little magazine’, or even a big one, only to suffer what Clive James has called ‘Death by Acceptance’ – that long, sometimes terminal, silence following an offer of publication. All of our verbal contraptions want to be switched on, to feel the current of attention flowing through them. They do well on the page and on the stage. The ‘second life of art’ is real enough, and we can credit a poem with a mind of its own, a little artificial intelligence made out of words.
Another thing I’d venture is that poets are – quite properly – ambitious for their work, the point where reader and writer might conceivably meet. And this isn’t to say poets don’t want to be loved, or feel valued. The whole experience of being a poet seeking the approval and validation of any audience, is given a hard outline in this bleak chiasmus formulated by the late British poet and critic, Ian Hamilton: ‘Given the choice between: I like you, but I don’t like your poems. Or: I don’t like you, but I like your poems, most poets will take the latter statement every time. Hamilton might have gone on to say that either, of course, is infinitely preferable to: I don’t like you, and I don’t like your poems. Here, tonight, They Like You, and They Like Your Poems.
Though as I left Toronto last year, I will admit to thinking: Did that really happen? Was there a film crew following poets around? Did our faces stare down from banners onto a dance-floor while we threw ambitious shapes into the small hours? In a short story, the novelist Martin Amis once imagined a parallel reality where poets are flown First Class from London to LAX by film industry executives keen for work to continue apace on their latest treatment of – The Sonnet. Poets are met by uniformed chauffeurs who whisk them by limo to the Pinnade Trumont on the Avenue of the Stars, and they spend their long lunchtime in Los Angeles talking about how ‘Eclogue by a Five-Barred Gate’ or ‘Sheep in Fog’ did at the box office, both domestically and internationally. Meanwhile, the screenwriters struggle in proper jobs, send their movie scripts to little magazines, and suffer ‘Death by Acceptance’, forcing them eventually to fire off the kind of letter – the kind of letter familiar to many of you here, I-m sure – that begins: ‘It is now over a year since I sent you …’
But the thing I remember most from last year is slouching towards the dance-floor and imagining how much an old teacher of mine, the late Michael Donaghy, would have loved this gathering in Toronto in early June. Michael was an Irish-American poet domiciled in London who was running an evening class in poetry open to all-comers, and an amateur in the true sense of the word. I think he would have approved of the whole idea of a works night out for poetry, and of poetry being rewarded. Between 1972 and 1977 he’d worked as a doorman at a residential building in Manhattan, on Fifth Avenue, and he told me how in summer the doormen were allowed to take off their hats, so Michael hid books in the crown of his and was able to read on the job. One day, he placed his hat on a bench while a resident was entering, and she noticed he was reading Hopkins. It turned out this lady was the treasurer of the famous poetry reading series at the 92nd Street ‘Y’, and she gave him a subscription to the Poetry Centre as a gift. Out of an act of kindness and generosity, within a month he’d seen Borges and Bunting, and his life had changed.
Michael was no saint. He once told me how, just after his father had died, he reluctantly went along to view the laid out corpse, and, looking down at the old man’s dead face, he admitted to thinking: Jesus Christ, if I don’t get a poem out of this – But I like to think that while I was learning to admit the more predatory skills involved in writing a poem, I was also catching on to his idea that poems are best written, and read, out of a generous impulse, in the hope of discovery; that a poem is a mysterious meeting point, and is capable of being in two minds at once, every time we enter into its space, and can inhere long after the party’s over and the dance floor has been deserted, like in this little poem of his, called ‘The Present’:
Ladies and Gentlemen, shortlisted poets: enjoy the moment – enjoy this evening. I wish you all good health, and the very best of luck.
I’d now like to invite this year’s Canadian Judge, George Bowering, to step up and to announce the winner in the International Category …