Douglas Clark: Waffle -- 2

Ted Hughes new book of Sylvia Plath poems Birthday Letters is, as well as being a remarkable publishing event, basically a very good book of poems. Probably the best he has written. The book is slightly uneven until his poem for Assia Wevill where, to me, a sharp decline takes place and there are only a couple of more excellent poems. But as this happens only 30 pages from the end of a 200 page book it is not an enormous disaster. And the earlier weaker poems are probably better included to prevent lacunae in the story. The book can be, and from the bestsellers charts is, read as a novel. There are times when Hughes is writing as well as anyone in English for the last fifty years.

I am intrigued by Andrew Duncan's conjecture in the new Angel Exhaust 15 (available for four pounds from Flat 6, Avon Court, Holden Road, London N12 8HR) that for a poet to be succesful in this present Philistine age he must gather him/herself a following. And Andrew perceives that the way to do this is by public performance. It reminds me of the chant `semen...semen' at Stephen Rodefer. If poetry is to be reduced to the level of a football crowd it is a sad day for poetry, which to me has always been a cerebral activity. I know many poets I rate highly on the Internet whom I have never been within a thousand miles of and will never meet. They perform in my head quite satisfactorily as does many poet in a book or magazine.

And I should qualify this by saying that Michael Donaghy on flute, accompanied by a pretty blonde fiddler and Don Patterson on guitar and bodhran made marvellous Irish music at last night's Bath Literature Festival event. Matthew Sweeney read his quintessential Irish poems and Donaghy from the Bronx proved himself a brilliant performer from memory of his own poems.

More interesting was John Burnside with his soft Scots accent. His early books were incandescent when he appeared on the scene. There seemed to be a new book every year. But in the end a sameness developed in his work and he now seems to be moving on to novels. His language doesn't seem rooted deep enough and is too much of the everyday. This wouldn't matter if it was striking. So he has moved from being a `knowledge engineer' working on expert systems to being a fulltime writer in the giddy space of a few years. He is a lucky young man.

In the afternoon there was a discussion of small-press publishing. It appears that payment to the author should be at least 10 per cent of the print run. I note that I got 20 per cent of my latest book but the print run was miniscule.

Then on Monday night along comes Ian McMillan, who turns out to be a one-hour non-stop comedy act of the highest quality. He did slip in half-a-dozen poems written for children. So much for me thinking that poetry was cerebral. It was quite hilarious. And Barnsley have beaten Manchester United in the FA Cup and climbed off the bottom of the Premiership.

It should be said that the way to establish oneself as a poet is to spend an apprenticeship submitting to the Little Magazines, build up a following, then eventually a publisher will be found to print a collection. And prizes in poetry competitions can help this process. This has been the way for many years now, although performance does seem to be attracting more attention of late.

The saddest event of the past few weeks has been the death of Sally Purcell, at 53, from a rare form of cancer. She left behind four books of poetry: The Holly Queen (Anvil, 1971), Dark of Day (Anvil, 1977), Lake & Labyrinth (Taxvs, 1985), Fossil Unicorn (Anvil, 1997). I will quote entire the last poem From Propertius from the third book:

Let others write about you, or else you can stay unknown;
let a man praise you if he likes to sow the sand.
For believe me, all your gifts go with you,
carried out in one coffin one dark day,
and the passer-by will scorn your bones --
he will not say, `This ash was once a learned girl.'