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 …

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