Letter to a Young Poet
Firstly, the warning would be to beware of the epistolary style. If you haven’t already, you must read Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos – to not have done so is a moral gap. It will teach you mostly about people’s motives and how we live, about psychic defences and how they both defend and warp us, but also that reading between texts is more important than reading texts.
Secondly, the premise of this exercise proposes that I see myself as ‘an older poet’, and vanity aside
[though vanity is never completely aside – see Les Liaisons Dangereuses] your age as a person is different to your age as a poet. As Harold Bloom explains in The Map of Misreading:
“But Stevens [Wallace Stevens] was as astonishing an instance of late incarnation; fifteen years had to intervene between his undergraduate verse and his first real poem, Blanche McCarthy, not written until 1915, when he was nearly thirty-six.”
So a poet’s age is gauged by the writing of the poem which is the first, full incarnation of their actual, fully-realised voice and this might not even appear in their first few books. My attraction to this theory is in no way influenced by the fact that it probably puts me somewhere between eighteen and twenty.
Similarly, a young poet can sometimes sound so much older than they actually are, depending on the source of their influences, surroundings and upbringing. A ‘young’ poet can seem full of [inherited] ‘wisdom’ and an ‘old poet’ can seem continually to get younger. John Ashbery [whose precursor was Wallace Stevens if you believe Bloom’s theories] in his final phases, when asked how he thought his work had developed, answered something to the effect that he noticed it was getting ‘sillier.’
Giving advice to ‘young’ poets such as yourself, X, would also seem something of an impertinence, given that, in the current moment, there is a groundswell of young poets breaking onto the scene. They mostly seem to be incredibly focused, organised and to know what they are doing. Many already have their PhD, have gained teaching tenure, have at least one or two books out, have taken up editorship of magazines, or organise events, write theories of their practice and know how to network.
This groundswell has its root not only in the current strong pool of talent, but also because of the increase and popularity of Creative Writing courses, funding bodies telling poetry publishers that a certain percentage of their output has to be young poets, the ease generally of digital communications also plays its part, and the fact that there are more prizes for pamphlets, first books, more mentoring schemes. This is all to the good and health of poetry as a whole. ‘Young’ poets usually have the time, space and energy to get things up and running.
When I was the age [the physical age] of these poets I was wandering around Paris with an edition of Baudelaire peeking out of my pocket, living on a single baguette a day and several espressos, staying at Shakespeare & Co [George Whitman would give you a bed for free if you helped out in the shop] and generally living out the after-trace of an after-trace of a lifestyle that had long since vanished, writing bad poetry with total contentment and utterly unaware of the machinations of the poetry world and publishing. All I knew, coming, for the first time, across an edition of Marianne Moore’s Collected Poems in a bookshop in Mabillon – in which there are the lines:
“that one must not borrow a long white beard and tie it on and threaten with the scythe of time the casually curious”
– was that this is what I wanted to aspire vaguely, towards, something like that, equally mocking and true. Now, ‘young’ poets have a route-map, and guide-ropes, and are fully primed from the beginning of where to go. This is a health. But wandering aimlessly, living outside of Academe, being unsure, being pretentious, drifting, that is – living a bit –is equally a great education, and one denied to many young poets in our ‘professionalised’ and more pressured age. A poet of 24 publishing their debut now might have a potential productive writing life of another sixty or so years. The position and support and culture they have now may not always be around during that time. Do they have the will-power, the drive, the energy, the need to continue to produce strong work during that span? So there’s time to perfect your work. Advice? After college, [if you’re at college] drift.
Abigail Parry’s Jinx. Wayne-Holloway Smith’s Alarum. Richard Scott’s Soho. Sophie Collin’s Who Is Mary Sue?. Nia Davies All Fours …I could go on… but here is a raft of relatively recent debuts – all different in technique and approach. I read these debuts without thinking particularly that these poets are ‘young’ or ‘younger’ than I am. I know quite a few ‘young’ poets’, some are friends. In fact, I feel probably more affinity with what they are doing than with many poets of ‘my own generation’ – a phrase I really take against. There are far too many assumptions about any ‘generation’ and their supposedly shared traits. Poets have to be both in their time and out of their time. And as we now can re-cycle and re-use and reconfigure the vast range of all previous poetries – any poet is simultaneously in the ‘now’ and re-fashioning techniques and approaches from 30, 50, 100 years ago in a new context. So another formulation for a poet’s age – their actual age with the age of their primary precursor influence added – and if they claim they are influenced by their peers, the age of their peer’s primary precursor’s influence. One current huge influence on young poets [his influence revives every six or seven years, almost as often as flares come back into fashion. Look out: they are meant to be coming back again] is Frank O’Hara. So if a current ‘young’ poet is 24 and O’Hara’s Lunch Poems were written in 1964 then you have to add the space between them together. Do the math, X. You might be older than you think.
So, X, finally: our current age is much concerned [rightly] with getting beyond ‘binary oppositions’, to see things along the lines of ‘spectrums of difference’ [or Derrida’s différance] – gender, sexuality, ability/disability, mental well-being/mental instability etc. I would hope we can also work to obliterate concentrating on actual age-gaps and looking at the ‘spectrums of difference’ between texts and see poems themselves as ‘art-objects’ that have the potential to defy time and speak across so-called ‘generations’, eras and epochs. That’s my final word, and it must be right, I am older than you.
I told you to never trust the epistolary style.
Matthew Caley’s debut Thirst (Slow Dancer, 1999) was nominated for The Forward Prize for Best First Collection. He’s published four more collections, the most recent being Rake (Bloodaxe, 2016). A sixth is in train. He’s been a tutor for The Poetry School and is currently Associate Lecturer in Contemporary Poetry/Creative Writing at The School of English, University of St Andrews. He lives in London.