Poetry Writing: the Expert Guide – a talk by Fiona Sampson

Fiona Sampson’s career is decidedly admirable. With over fifteen publications to her name stretching across works of her own poetry like Common Prayer and Rough Music – both of which were shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize – works of literary theory and philosophy of language such as the highly acclaimed Poetry Writing: The Expert Guide, her selection of poetry by Percy Bysshe Shelley, and her fervent interest and pursuit in translating eastern European poetry, she has proven herself as one of the most diverse and talented British poets alive today. Her 7 years at the Poetry Review, articles for every major British broadsheet, string of awards and Fellowship at the Royal Society of Literature, on the other hand, make her one of the most influential editors not only in Britain, but on the whole European scene. It is rare that you find such a combination, but Fiona Sampson is quite proudly a rarity. It is partly with that in mind and partly with the promotion of her new international journal POEM that she began her discussion on the state of contemporary British poetry at an event organised by the Oxford Poetry Society.

She spoke freely about the diversity of the British scene and, rather than crisis, about the state of ‘going on-ness’ of the current world of poetry. It is this activeness which gave (and more importantly – gives) birth to poets today. Writers, she noted, do not produce it as much as they are produced by it. There is definitely a calming sense of positivity in her view, which is not necessarily a common one amongst critics. She describes poetry today as a colossal avalanche, already set in motion and thus attracting more material with its sheer magnitude, keeping itself moving with new additions whilst giving them the benefit of its established size and acceleration. However the lack of a distinct leading movement emerging from the cocktail of variety in British poetry has often been criticised; with no one current shining forth and dominating the scene it has been accused of an overall blandness. Sampson is, nonetheless, rather defensive of poetry. She is happy to list and identify major movements within the current poetry scene like the post-surrealism she sees in Don Paterson, the expanded lyric of Burnside, the exploded lyric of Prynne, and the modernism of Peter Porter. And although she is more critical of some than of others (she calls performance poets “cabaret artists”), Sampson has confidence in the diversity of poetry and, rather, sees the diversity itself as the defining factor of this generation. There is so much more, she asserts more than once, ‘going on’ in poetry than the works of Simon Armitage, Seamus Heaney, and Gillian Clarke which still confidently cover the pages of GSCE anthologies across the board. And it is only here that we see from Sampson a sense of disappointment with modern poetry. It seems evident that her passion for the breadth of poetry she has found on the British and international scene is not matched by the passion of editors with enough power to make young, talented poets the next Simon Armitage or Gillian Clarke.

Although Sampson is very rarely explicit in her criticism of people, her many years of training have shaped her quite convincingly as both honest and questioning. More importantly – they have given her the freedom to be critical without the fear of offending. She is measured in her words and comments, but not at all vague in her disapproval. She acknowledges that there is a lot more to be desired from the current book list editors, who although informed and intriguing, continue to edit by taste. Sampson seems to have high hopes for journals like her own which she insists should attempt to find the best of all schools rather than attempt to homogenize the diverse British scene. And in this sense, Sampson does make a lasting impression. A diverse poetry scene is much more demanding of editors than it is of writers. What is, for the poet, the freedom to express themselves in whatever form they feel most comfortable or in whatever movement they find most attractive without the fear of being irrelevant or outdated, is for the editor a constant struggle at understanding and accepting a whole selection of art they may not enjoy or feel in any way attracted by. However, Sampson is very determined in explaining that you do not have to know a lot about football, for instance, to be able to see charisma. Similarly, she urges that editors must not spend too long researching a movement or simply ignoring it altogether, but should rather let themselves be caught by that most primordial of appeals that poetry has – its seductive charisma. Charisma, Sampson admits, that one does not always feel comfortable with.

She concludes her discussion quite simply by acknowledging that the tragedy of poetry of the present remains in the fact it is never treated with the same prestige as poetry of the past. But also that, this sort of prejudice should not at all be based on the lack of hegemony on the British scene. A poem can capture with its uncontrollable charisma no matter what school or movement gave birth to it and rather than struggle to find poetry by the tin, editors should let themselves be consumed by this same ‘going on-ness’ which sustains the poets. This way, editors will not be forcing an artificial sense of liveliness and fluidity, but rather let this liveliness borne of itself give birth to their selections. Thus, Sampson seems to suggest that rather than designing an avalanche of their own, editors should also let themselves be captured by diverse ‘going-on-ness’ of British poetry and not try to harness it, but slide along with it. In this unity, poetry can flourish.

M. Ivanova

For more information about Oxford Poetry Society and their future events and speakers, please visit their Facebook page. Their next event, ‘Composing the Poetic’ is on the 6th March, discussing poetry, music, and Greek national identity. 

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