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On Fame and the Writer

The following was given at a meeting organized by Foyles Bookshop in London last spring.

Writing in these pages, Robert Craft recently observed: “Next to Auden, the most abiding concern in the Journals is with what Spender sees as a lack of recognition.”* This remark surprised me a bit and if true, must show how demanding I am or how ungrateful, or both. But on reflection, Robert Craft’s remark seemed to provide me with a theme, which is that today—perhaps more than ever before in history—writers and artists may have two kinds of fame, one of which is as public figures whose names frequently appear in the press and on television, the other as the authors of works which are famous for their virtue as art.

It may happen that the first kind of fame—that of the man—may almost eclipse that of the work. And there are conditions in the present time—greater than previously—that tend to make this happen. Thus the writer or poet may feel recognized and unrecognized at the same time. Hence the sense of lack of recognition which Craft attributes to me, though I am not sure whether I myself recognize it.

That names, promoted and paraded and advertised, should be better known than the actual works of those who bear those names is the situation of hype, which promotes reputations and sales rather than considerations of achievement. I wonder, though, whether in some form or other and to varying degrees from generation to generation this was not always the lot of poets—poets more than other artists—wherever there was what is called civilization. Perhaps only in primitive societies can poets and painters seem to represent through their spoken words or their paintings in caves the people who surround them.

In conditions of civilization the arts—and especially poetry—seem to need patronage. Even poets as unworldly as William Blake and John Clare sought patrons: the tragedy of Clare being that he was taken up and then dropped by society people, at first his patrons. In classical Rome, Virgil, Horace, even scurrilous nose-thumbing Catullus—the Dylan Thomas of his time—all sought the patronage of Augustus. Today, happy is the English poet who receives patronage from the televised South Bank Show.

A poet makes verbal artifacts of very refined and concentrated form out of his emotions about people, nature, history, life, death: whatever he feels strongly enough about if it comes within the scope of his ability to turn it into poems. Poems are not journalistic reporting or editorializing, nor are they scientific descriptions of things. Once written they have little to do with the poet who made them. Like objects of value created by a craftsman, a jeweler, poems are passed from poet to poet, reader to reader. The poem is the expression of the poet’s truth, his particular vision, and the reader, considered as a person with powers of individual judgment and not as a public appraiser, judges it as such.

This being so, we find it difficult to accept the fact that poets, being quintessential purists in their work, can have dealings with the public world of advertising and promotion. When, recently, the early letters of W.B. Yeats were published, several reviewers recorded their dismay, if not their disgust, that even as a very spiritual and mystical, not to say ethereal, young man Yeats was involved in Anglo-Irish literary politics, Dublin logrolling, praising the work of his inferiors as poets, because he knew that, poor fellows, they were also likely to be reviewers of works by W.B. Yeats. For in literary politics, from an early age, Yeats was disconcertingly hardheaded, clear-eyed, realistic, and in every respect far removed from the russet myopia landscape of the Celtic twilight, the exalted impotence of frustrated love for the actress and prototerrorist Maud Gonne, which formed the subject matter of his misty poems written at that time. But Yeats was living in the literary Dublin and London of the 1880s and 1890s, that Ireland of “great hatred, little room,” not so unlike our England, also of “great hatred, little room,” of the 1980s.

I don’t want to make an apologia for the literary politics and logrolling of Yeats or of any more recent practitioners of such activities. The point I want to make is that the test of Yeats lay in his poetry, not in his journalistic maneuvering. But I also want to draw attention to the fact that it was his Dublin intrigues and squabbles out of which he made poems harder and clearer than his early “twilight” poetry. No one was more conscious than Yeats that the poetic lily grows out of the Grubstreet dunghill. Squalor, not just of journalism but also perhaps of love, was the gross material that he refined in his poetry into gold, and that enabled him to leave the Celtic twilight and learn the lessons of the agonizing nightmare of Irish nationalist politics.

All art is transformation and the greatness or littleness of a poet in his poetry lies in the degree of his capacity to translate the harsh unpoetic material of the world into poetry. The dyer’s hand is not just stained with the dye of his trade and occupation, it is also, when it is marking the cloth of his poetry, stained with the grease, oil, and muck of the world that surrounds him, the society in which he moves. In his later work Yeats, who had been a minor poet in his youth, transformed the world in which he lived, of politics, theater, business, and sex, into great poetry.

I think that poets living today—whether or not they call themselves modernists—agree that it is their aim to turn their experience of the modern world into poetry, and to do so in an idiom of ordinary, current spoken language, with all its brutality. The word “poetic” as applied to their work is regarded by most living poets—perhaps all good ones—as derogatory.

Three things are to be kept distinct: (1) the poems, which, when they are written, are separate from the poet; (2) the poet as a private person writing private poems for other private people, who has nevertheless to enter the public arena; (3) the poet as public figure—Yeats’s sixty-year-old “smiling public man.” It is extremely understandable that the three should become confused—that the poet has become victim of his own public persona. I can think of examples of this happening today, and that it does so becomes tragic when the poet—or other kind of writer—is still very young.

In the conditions of publishing today, when publishers have a very rapid turn-over in the sale of their products—books—the pressure on writers to put their personalities on show in order to sell their books is increasingly great. This selling of books en masse makes some writers more conscious of their public as appreciators of them than of their writing. It can produce a curious kind of alienation in which the writer cannot see his readers beyond his public. I am thinking here not only of poets. Recently an American novelist whose books sell immensely told me that he did not feel at all certain that anyone at all read his books. The personality advertised before the public overshadowed as it were the individual private personality writing for readers as individuals.

I have been indicating here the latest manifestation of a historic situation—that the artist may find himself having to be patronized. I have tried to point out, though, that this situation is part of his experience of the world. Hype is the world, and the poet, even if he is a product of it, experiences it as the world—just as Yeats experienced Dublin politics—and can perhaps overcome it by making poetry of it. But there has always been the possibility that there might be such an excess of promotion, advertising, and personalizing that the poet or artist—subject to these as he has always been—might one day find them overwhelming—so much so that he cannot liberate himself from them in his own personality or transform them as part of the surrounding world in his art.

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    The New York Review (April 24)

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