Max Beerbohm Looks Down on Canadian Poetry
by Max Beerbohm

beerbohm inked

Illustration: Daniel Donaldson

ANGELS and Seraphim, bygone poets, distinguished guests, it is my great honour to stand before you this evening in this heavenly auditorium, still speaking lines after my decease some sixty years ago. You may raise an eyebrow at my being here at all. I am surely not the first minor scribbler to have continued to write long after his living juices have stopped flowing. I do have the advantage over most, however, of having actually died. I have no great idea why I am speaking to you, nor why I have chosen a subject of negligible interest to the long majority here present — I mean by this the curious drama of contemporary Canadian poetry — but as it appears that my ventriloquist is remotely implicated in the subject, and as I am but a dummy sitting upon her knee, I appear to have no choice in the matter. It was ever so when I was alive. My reviews were frequently assigned, falling to me haphazard, as they would. When not assigned, I chose them when they inspired the sort of wry satire that would leave its victim unmarked, if chastened, as though massaged by a bag of oranges. It is my occupation this evening to lay before you the modest and preliminary pensées of one who knows little about the field on which he discourses, and therefore does so with genuine confidence and panache.

Let me first caution you against reading too much into my title, which, again, was not mine to choose at large. As I am in heaven, a moment’s thought will reveal that I must look down upon every subject I… take up. Bards all across that wide nation will breathe a sigh of relief. But whether the polite reader will discern an expression of condescension is not for me to judge. For my part, I am filled with nothing but sympathy for the penner of Canadian ditties. The poor souls, look how they try! Indeed, if trying were all that the attention of future readers demanded of their authors, Canuck poems would be on the lips of every schoolchild in Poland.

And why, you ask, should this matter? My heart is with thee. Come and sit here by me. Why indeed should any national bard be, as the poet Auden once mused, like a fine cheese, local but prized elsewhere? Let them read one another and be joyous. Let them speak and be heard. Let them cry out, as so many Whos down in Whoville, “We are Here! We are Here! We are Here!” and be done with it. Unfortunately one tends rather to make out the broken and desperate strains of “Hear Me! Hear Me! Hear Me!” But, as the deceased marathon runner once quipped in his afterlife, I get ahead of myself.

What, when all is said and done, is the current fate of the Canadian poet that they should warrant the patience of angels? Two hundred volumes of verse published each year! Heaven forefend! What a buffet! The land of plenty! Jolly good to all of them. Bless their laptops. Small presses, large presses, presses in the middle way. Dozens of books every month, whole thirty-pound boxes per season rolling into the offices of the national contests. Verses of all kinds, free verses, unfree verses, angry and mild, proudful and self-loathing verses, uptight and straight-talking verses, manifestos and confessions, verses on every subject… from the kitchen sink to the soap dish beside the kitchen sink. Large books and small, hand-crafted or glued, every one of them — their publishers boldly attest — changing the way we use the language! Here is the genuine article at last. Here is the poet who has broken free of the main, whose voice is a cry in the wilderness, a summoning to order, a prophecy! All hail! And so they come, marching by different drummers to their launches and shared readings, a parade of scribblers, trumpeted by their blurbs.

One mustn’t lament the sheer volume of work. Let the poems be howsoever invisible, bland, or silly, they shall do no harm. Welcome all! Doggeralists and drivellers, come take a seat. Propounders of the derivative, speak and be heard. It is, let us admire, a vibrant culture. Indeed, let them make more books than iPads! Let us by all means find verse dispensers beside Coke machines; let the street corners fill with the cries of “Extra! Extra! New experiment by Bök! Di Saverio heralds new era!” Let the parade begin! Let the publishers march down Main Street, their twirling authors in tow. Let them pass by the thousands; let their buyers flock to the roadside to cheer them on, let them wave flags from second story wi…. What’s that you say? There are only a handful of spectators stretched out along the parade route, scattered by ones and twos every half-mile? Was the date incorrectly advertised? Did they mistake the route? Alas, no. These are your readers, poets. Wave and be gracious.

A paucity of readers. A wandering in the wilderness. Poets, how is this possible? What is the matter? Get out your calculators. Two hundred bards publishing a book each year: let each poet read howsoever many books she may… let us say, on average, twenty or thirty a year. (Is this a fair number? I leave it to the poets to gaze inwardly and stand to account.) There is only so much time in her day. Two hundred poets reading thirty books each equals six thousand books sold (a handsome sum!), divided by those same two hundred books published, making, on average, thirty copies sold per volume. But there are others, you retort. Of course there are. Each poet may be relied upon to have at least fifty friends and family members, liking them on Facebook, eagerly snatching up their volumes, decrying the tragedy of their neglect. Let us by all means add them to our total. That makes eighty copies of each book. And then there are the libraries, bless them, those warehouses of hope. If we squint and turn our heads sideways, we might count another fifty copies sold across the country. But stand, are there not — to add to the sum — universities, those bastions of the literary, protectors and celebrators of the Word? Indeed, let us add another ten books across the nation. No more than ten? Is this not a scandal? Universities, you propound, have proved a fertile soil for writers. Try to swing a cat without hitting a new creative-writing or writer-in-residence programme. And yet campuses are a wasteland for readers. University is that place where the fishpond is stocked but where fishing itself is discouraged. But worry not, twas ever thus. In my day, we studied only the classics and would no more have read contemporary poets in class than we would have analyzed advertising billboards and political slogans. But wait now, English departments do read those. An ad for Chanel No. 5 will inspire more thoughtful response in an English department than any poem. The lonely contemporary lyric can only dream of eliciting the kind of dialogue that students and faculty summon for a banking commercial. Never mind. Let us not blame them. They follow the fashion ball as it bounces into history’s traffic. And they have made the further discovery that there is money in catering to the creative zeitgeist in each of us, but nary a nickel in reading its products.

But stay! Are we not forgetting the free and anonymous readers of the Euterpean muse, who snatch up volumes according to the pretty covers, their taste for something cultured this Sunday afternoon, their support for a bookstore, their discernment of quality verse? They stretch from sea to sea, a dozen or more for every saddle-stitched and perfect-bound offering. Why just last month, I know for a fact that Michael Lista’s latest volume was purchased in Vancouver as a Bar mitzvah gift by an elderly woman for her grandson who “writes poems you know.” Tomorrow, a retired postal worker in St John’s, suddenly recalling a poem he had to memorize in grade school, will go on Amazon and timidly type in “Canadian poetry,” in the hopes of finding himself by month’s end. How the poets love to visualize this phantom fandom. My book out in the world! My followers!

That puts us at one hundred and fifty books per volume, on average. Resign yourselves, dear scribblers. In the larger scheme of things, no one is reading you. Your books, for all the world, are tombs. Your poems are buried there. Their journey is done. The reading at your much-ballyhooed launch is a eulogy. Kind things will be said, a tear dropped, a smile cracked in remembrance of one or two lines spoken when the poems lived. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The ceremony complete, your two-dozen listeners will return to their affairs, disperse across the cemetery, and a deathly silence will gather in the air around the buried remains. Dead air. What Canadian poet does not know whereof I speak? The buzz of publication and then… dead air.

There is an elephant in the room. Do you see it? It is rarely spoken of, but here I name it for what it is. I call it to account. There are more poets than readers. Indeed, how could this not be so? Poetry is everywhere. Hands up, you who have never penned a single line of verse! Just as I thought. In sock drawers around the world, deep in hard-drive folders and in “The Cloud,” lie the nascent scribblings of those who have felt things deeply and wished to say so. Poetry will be assured a futurity for as long as there are hearts to break, beauties to bow before, deaths to fear. But the ratio of writers to readers of poetry is lopsided. If there were as many readers as there are writers of poems at large, George Murray would need Stephen King’s financial adviser, Anne Compton would have a monument in Saint John, and Carmine Starnino would be Prime Minister. Let them not suffer embarrassment, nor take the cat-o-nine-tails to their backs. The poet’s dilemma has been thus since Homer summoned a half-dozen sleepy soldiers to the campfire. Humanity’s drive to write poetry is greater than its desire to read what has been written. Hens find that they lay eggs; that doesn’t mean that they want an omelette for breakfast. It is as simple as that.

The difficulty is not with this fact, but that poets imagine it might be otherwise, when it never has been. And it is their discomfort with this truth that leaves them elbowing one another aside at the trough of social media. Is not the readership for poetry, per capita, the same as it has always been? If anything, it has increased by veritable dozens. Yet still the poets decry their neglect. It is surely the proliferation of virtual communities that has changed their idea of what poetic fame might be. It has altered the very idea of “recognition.” The social media exacerbate the illusion that global fame is but a shared post away. Glad to see my poem published in so-and-so. Delighted that my sonnet was shortlisted for what-and-what. See my oh-so-clever Jeweller’s-Eye reviews. Read this Sunday poem. Come to my reading! And to be liked by so many! Never, in the history of humanity, has your declaration that you “Like” a book meant, as often as not, that you neither own nor intend to read it. Poets, these are disorienting times. Your self-promotion, as humiliating as it is seductive, is so public. But it is unbecoming of the real purpose and place of your work. You use Facebook to put things out there, but not to foster genuine exchange. What is missing is not access to the pool of readers that has, I believe, always existed in the same proportion, but a culture of conversation. This is ironic indeed in an age when conversation was never so easy… never so “unlikely.”

Where genuine response is lacking, the competition among those who hunger for it increases. More competition! Can we be surprised that contests themselves have become the tormented unconscious of every poet in the nation? Whether poets choose to acknowledge the distraction within themselves, the hope that an award will bring recognition is irresistible. Poets look to the announcement of national shortlists as an actor might scan the recall list for a Broadway audition. What crushing dismay to find names there not one’s own. But to be included… redemption! Let the performance begin!

In Canadian poetry today, the scrimmage for recognition is its own form of response, has replaced response, even disguises its sorry absence. There may be, following the announcement of a prize, a few grumblers who question the recipient or the constitution of a committee. The laureate poems themselves, however, will be like the child in a room of adults: meant to be seen but not heard. Where is the parley of the book’s significance for the national literature? Where the enumeration of its attentions and allegiances? What are the poems like? The occasion of an award ought to be a moment of consolidation, a summing up, a reconfiguration of alignments. Alas, it rarely is. Instead, the award drifts from attention, a quiet ensues, and the laud washes ashore onto the back-cover of the poet’s next volume. And what is worse, of course, most books in the prize culture are left unpreferred. Once a book has drifted beyond the buoy of the last possible award, it is beyond hope. No one will see it, not even the poets. And then what is to be its fate? I refer to my own dear Enoch Soames, a writer so tortured by the question of his celebrity that he makes a deal with the devil to go to the British Library one hundred years into the future (this being your own 1997!) to find out if he is still read. I’ll leave you to discover how he makes out and what he learns there. You may find the story in my own collection Seven Men, available at fine bookstore everywhere.

Where does that leave us then? Friends, when I lived I was a satirist, and I see nothing now to change my idea of what the poets’ anxious milieu requires. Let them have a little more tongue-in-cheek. Let them be blithe and circumspect in their endeavours, and let their every thought be gratitude. I say to them, If you have published a book, you are one of the lucky ones. Hundreds will look up to you in awe, fawn at your celebrity. Enjoy the adulation if you require it, but do let your admirers know that the great audience you longed for, and believed you had, turned out to be your Aunt Phyllis and a software programmer in Surrey. Let them know that your hunger to be heard, addicting as it is, turned out to be an unrewarding distraction; that in the end you have had to make peace with the thankless muse whom you serve. You lay eggs.

That Canadian poets should be adding to the sum of poems ought to make them humbler, not more desperate. Like water, the created word seeks channels; it cares little for which ones in particular; only let them be inclined towards the sea. Poets are conduits, not conquerors. Let them therefore be exacting, but selfless. Let them not cry out for their own uniqueness, but confess an involuntary submission to something larger than themselves. Out of that humility, let them focus on getting it right. There are still the poems, after all, come what may. In my time, there was a form of deference, of apparent self-abnegation, that, while bordering on the insincere, preserved an aspect of playfulness among us in our earnest striving. That tongue-in-cheek would serve equally well in this age of the wearied superlative. For indeed, let the blurbers have independent pedigrees and the list of prizes be ever so long, my eyes glaze over. All that promotion is white noise. If you want my attention, stop asking for it. Let the new blurbs read: “Mr Bök apologizes for imposing on his patient readers another of his experiments. He could not help himself”; or “Ms. Queryas is a poet. Her poems speak for themselves”; or “Mr Babstock wonders about the limits of language and would have you wonder about the limits of his.” I cannot speak for others, but were I to see such blurbs I would snatch up the book faster than you could say “Griffin nomination.” Or let there be no blurbs at all! Let a poem be quoted, and enough said. When we discover, at last, this variety of fanfare kazooing a work into its modest celebrity, we will know that Canadian poetry has matured at last, found its calling. It will have got down to business.

Let me close by gesturing, ever so humbly, in the direction of this new humility. Shortly before I died, I was approached by an editor regarding the question of a uniform, collected edition of Max Beerbohm. I wrote in reply: “People have tried to make a success of me. It cannot be done.”

From CNQ 96, (Summer 2016)

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