Saturday, 17 February 2007


I generally look forward to reading The Guardian's Saturday Review, because alone among the national papers (I think) it has a regular poetry slot, with at least one review, a poem, and a few news items.
Today's review, by Glyn Maxwell, was of Derek Walcott's Selected Poems. Now the fact of them choosing Maxwell annoyed me a bit, because he studied under Walcott in the 80s and was to some extent his protege. Too often editors give books to reviewers who they know will either gush praise about the poet, or do a total hatchet job, and the poor reader is left suspecting the truth is actually somewhere in-between.
I was briefly appeased when Maxwell admitted "there's no praise so superfluous as that of an apprentice", only to be disappointed again by "let us figure out why reading this work reduces the number of poets now writing in English to the fingers of one hand".
If he's saying that Walcott's brilliance reduces virtually all other living English-language poets to mere versifiers, he's perpetuating the myth that great poets write nothing but great poems, while minor and even mediocre poets are incapable of hitting the heights even once, indeed are incapable of writing true poetry. And that's plainly nonsense. There are plenty of great poets (Ted Hughes is the first who springs to mind), whose work is hugely uneven, just as there are plenty of great poems by relative 'one-hit wonders'.
One other point raised my hackles, namely when Maxwell said "to dispense with rhyme and metre on theoretical grounds is to oppose memorability. Among new American poets this is virtually an orthodoxy, which is why you haven't heard of any". Now, I'd hardly say my tastes in poetry are experimental or avant-garde, but I reckon every bit of that statement is nonsense. If he hasn't heard of any (and living and working in the USA, of course he has), I'd suggest that's because he's just not listening.
I have read and enjoyed both Walcott and Maxwell, so I have no particular agenda on this. And, I suppose I should say, the fact the article made me think so much is probably all the proof you need that it has done its job.


Andrew Shields said...

In Germany, he would not even have mentioned that he was Walcott's student. In the English-speaking world, at least people sometimes (or even mostly, I think) feel obliged to mention their own connection to what they are reviewing!

Matt Merritt said...

Good point. And don't get me wrong - it's obviously inevitable that a lot of the time, reviewer and reviewed will have some connection. I'm just not keen on the way reviews often seem to be assigned to draw a love or hate response.