Thursday, 25 January 2018


Stimulating, thought-provoking, informative, intelligent and closely printed in double columns on A4 size pages: P N Review is towards the Radio 3 end of the poetry magazine wavelengths.  When I read an article by Rebecca Watts in my latest issue (239 Jan/Feb 2018) I wondered if the wider poetry world would pick up on it - and it has.

Rebecca Watts takes no prisoners in 'The Cult of the Noble Amateur'.  Performance poets Rupi Kaur, Kate Tempest and Hollie McNish all come in for criticism for the shallowness of their work - particularly Hollie McNish, whose Plum was sent to Rebecca Watts for review.  Don Paterson, poetry editor at Picador (the publisher of McNish and Tempest) is a poetry establishment 'name'.  Watts accuses him of doing a U-turn from his 2004 denouncement of the 'populists' who have 'infantilised' poetry to his current endorsement of McNish and Tempest.

Do £ signs have anything to do with it?  T S Eliot said words to the effect that the aim of publishing poetry was not to make a profit but to make as small a loss as possible.  But Rupi Kaur's Milk and Honey sold 1.4 million copies by May 2017.  It's not surprising that Picador want a couple of performance poets on their list.  

Watts attacks the way writing about poetry has shifted from assessing the quality of the work itself to the cult of the personality.  

The article has provoked coverage in The Guardian (23 January) and a discussion on BBC Radio 4.  It's not often that the media actually notices poetry!  I suspect we haven't heard the last of this particular storm.


Last Friday I went to Rhiw, one of my favourite places on the Peninsula.  In the Plas woods winter storms had uprooted several trees, some of them still in a state of half-dismemberment.  Only a month after the solstice the sun was low, beneath a threatening cloud cover.  

Every crease of Porth Neigwl's crumbling cliffs and every fold of Cilan headland were illuminated.  The tide was well out but I could hear the waves on the shore - white surfing breakers that make the beach so popular in the summer (though not without danger as its English name, Hell's Mouth, makes clear).  The sea was gunmetal grey, except where a shaft of light pierced a break in the cloud to make a pool of dazzling silver.

I took the dog for a walk in the woods.  Two men were taking broken slates off a roof and chucking them noisily into a builder's lorry.  Rain had gouged big ruts in the path.  There were a few snowdrops already in flower - a foretaste of the great sheets of white which will appear here in early February.  But under the trees the woods still smelled of winter.


I flicked on the car radio - it was Radio 4's obituary programme, Last Word.  I often wonder why more men die than women, but Friday's programme included an obituary of the poet, Jenny Joseph.
Jenny Joseph was born in 1932 (the same year as Sylvia Plath).  She was a near contemporary of Elaine Feinstein, Anne Stevenson and Fleur Adcock.  

I first came across Jenny Joseph's poetry in the excellent Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Women Poets edited by Jeni Couzyn (1985).  
This was far more than an anthology.  It presented the work of 11 British writers in 230 pages.  For each poet there was a good selection of poetry , photographs, a short biography, and - this was the best bit - an essay on their writing.   No bleeding chunks here!

'Rose in the afternoon', 'Dawn Walkers','Women at Streatham Hill', 'Another old tale', 'In Memory of God', 'The inland sea', two extracts from 'Persephone' and ... 'Warning' were the poems selected.  

Jenny Joseph wrote in her introductory essay that when she was in her teens 'it seemed the absolute of fame that what one wrote should be so much a part of the world as to rise to the lips of any Tom Dick or Harry, Joan Liz or Mary, unaware of authorship, like sayings, like war songs, like ballads.'

Be careful what you wish for - this is exactly what happened to her poem 'Warning' which took on a feral life of its own, so much so that she told her publisher that she had grown to hate the poem.    You'll know the one - 'When I am old I shall wear purple ...'

I turned to Fleur Adcock's seminal Faber Book of 20th Century Women's Poetry (1987) and found just one Jenny Joseph poem - yes, it was 'Warning'.  Maybe Deryn Rees-Jones editing Modern Women Poets (Bloodaxe 2005) would do better.  Slightly - she included 'The Inland Sea' and 'Ant Nest' as well as 'Warning'.  

In 1996 the W poem was voted the Nation's favourite poem (i.e., in the UK).  It is a pity when a poet becomes a one poem wonder and not recognised for the body of her work.  So I was pleased when one of my students asked if we could read and discuss some more of her poetry.  I incorporated the poems into the course under the heading 'What else has Jenny Joseph written?'

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