The Whitsun Wedding Video by Jeremy Noel-Tod (Rack Press, 2015) reviewed by Dai George.
What do Pam Ayres, R.S. Thomas and Frances Leviston have in common? Not the set-up to a bad joke overheard at the T.S. Eliot Prize ceremony, but a question I pondered as I read ‘A Mug’s Game’ (subtitle: ‘The Modern Poetry Career’), the third chapter in Jeremy Noel-Tod’s invigorating pamphlet, The Whitsun Wedding Video, a zippy tour d’horizon of the contemporary British scene. All three are poets, of course, but beyond that I’d struggle to imagine three more starkly triangulated figures in the history of modern verse.
The more nuanced answer – and one that it took someone with Noel-Tod’s specialised antennae to detect – is that they all have a varyingly acquiescent relationship with commerce and self-promotion. Ayres sold out to a frozen food company, lending her ‘good-humoured doggerel to the animated story of a flying potato’; less willingly, one suspects, Thomas had his likeness filched by a posh crisp manufacturer after his death. At the far end of the spectrum, Leviston is called upon to provide evidence that a certain ‘dignity of intellectual independence is something that the uncommercial career of poetry still offers the serious-minded’. Turning down various invitations to take part in high-profile industry promotions, Leviston has stood her ground. In a recent article, cited by Noel-Tod, she argues ‘that one need not be appointed to one’s own life: that no sanctioning government, no official position, is required for the business of taking oneself seriously, in whatever sense seems right’.
This omnivorous, scattershot approach is both the joy and the frustration of The Whitsun Wedding Video. To start with frustration, I find the slide from Ayres to Leviston – which happens across two brief pages – clever, and funny, but glib. It elides two connected but separate matters: first, the barefaced shilling that poets might do for advertising companies (a moral crisis many more poets would love to face, I’m sure) and second, the more insidious culture of networking, commissions, prize circuits, promotions and mutual blurbing that undoubtedly compromises almost everyone in the British poetry mainstream these days. Only one of these types of artistic compromise has anything much to do with what Noel-Tod calls elsewhere – with mordant precision – ‘the etiquette of the modern poetry career’. It isn’t the type that may lead to a lifetime’s supply of potato-based convenience food.
Joking apart, I have genuine doubts about whether Noel-Tod’s own jokey style – moreish and enjoyable though it is – can do justice to the bigger arguments it attempts. In the Ayres-Thomas-Leviston example, he ends up crowding out the composure and challenge of Leviston’s words, ushering her too swiftly offstage with that condescending epithet ‘serious-minded’. This is strange because Noel-Tod comes at poetry from an avowedly modernist angle, skewering the bluff, matey parochialism of recent British verse – the popular sort, that is – in favour of ‘stronger, stranger drink’ like J.H. Prynne and Geoffrey Hill. He seems to be on Leviston’s side, in other words, though he clambers into the Trojan horse of witty, accessible table talk to make his point. ‘Rumours persist,’ he quips at one stage, discussing how the T.S. Eliot Prize has betrayed the modernist instincts of its benefactor and namesake, ‘that excellent poetry is being written by poets who are not venerable names rehearsing old themes’. The overall effect can read like Evelyn Waugh writing in defence of Samuel Beckett: an amiably sharp ironist standing up for more austere virtues, the mockery blowing a little in all directions.
If The Whitsun Wedding Video has an overarching argument, then it’s summed up in its opening anecdote. Quoting Philip Larkin’s story of how he almost had a car accident while an emotional reading of Wordsworth played on the radio, Noel-Tod adds:
If Larkin had careered into the hard shoulder trailing clouds of exhaust, British poetry today might look a little different. As it is, thirty years after his death from natural causes, he remains the post-war poetic monument to be – depending on your point of view – saluted on parade days or pulled down when the revolution comes.
This notion of Larkin as a shibboleth, dividing traditionalists from iconoclasts, holds more water than the vivid though fanciful counterfactual of his early death diverting the course of British poetry altogether. Was Larkin such a lonely exception that without him British poetry would have gone the way of wild, postmodern America? He might have liked to think so, but I can’t see it.
More persuasive than the Larkin thesis is Noel-Tod’s view that, generally speaking, the contemporary moment tends to favour poets that will fare less well in the halls of posterity – or, simply put, the popular romantics of today become the winsome fuddy-duddies of tomorrow. One of my favourite moments in the pamphlet arrives with a provocative comparison between Marianne Dashwood’s passion for William Cowper in Sense and Sensibility (a marker of passé or gauche taste even in Austen’s time) and our current mania for Seamus Heaney. ‘Like Cowper,’ Noel-Tod writes,
Heaney is a reflective, rural poet, moving easily between man and landscape, and finding a moral in humble objects evoked with a sumptuous accuracy of phrase…
It’s characteristic of Noel-Tod’s open-minded discrimination that he can do justice to Heaney’s talents even while relegating him to the second division. Doubtless, Larkin may well fall victim to a similar type of reputation fade, in time; maybe he already has done, with the likes of Frank O’Hara and Rosemary Tonks (Noel-Tod’s examples) emerging out of relative obscurity as the key ‘60s influences for switched-on contemporary poets.
But this would just be an instance of the wider phenomenon; Noel-Tod doesn’t quite convince me that Larkin’s example is especially definitive of the contemporary moment. Indeed, by citing Daljit Nagra’s recent ‘Domes of Britain’ and its reference to the speaker’s ‘Larkin train-brain’, he seems at once to undermine and confirm his final prediction that ‘in the century to come, migration and climate change will remake the little island-world that Larkin cast in verse’. Yes, that ‘little island-world’ is being remade, but contrary to what this wording implies, Larkin’s influence isn’t standing in the way of such change. Rather, his writing has so far proved remarkably fertile ground for reinterpretation, as Nagra’s subversive tribute demonstrates.
I quibble with Noel-Tod’s larger arguments because this is the sort of contentious yet generous book that invites one to. Clocking in at a mere 50-odd pages, The Whitsun Wedding Video is impressive for what it does manage to pack in, and it’s the brief, glancing insights that linger, not the rather provisional headline thesis. Apart from neo-Romantic reputation fade, we should be grateful to Noel-Tod for coining the idea of the Shy Tory Poet. As he says, it ‘stands to statistical analysis’ that some contemporary poet or other will have opinions towards the right of the political spectrum, as Larkin famously did, but I’m damned if I can think of one. Modern poetry has become the province of the cultural, ecological and political left – all constituencies in which I’d readily position myself, so this isn’t a complaint as such. You could come up with cogent reasons to explain why poetry lends itself to leftist ideology (that it’s a tool of empathy and therefore solidarity; that it prizes originality and truth in language rather than market-driven efficiency; even that its negligible economic value fosters a bracing knowledge of capitalism’s pitfalls). Nevertheless, I worry about poetry’s fate in this relatively new order. The more that our art becomes a political monoculture, the more embattled and marginal will be its position.
This is the sort of meaty topic I would love to see Noel-Tod tackle in a serious study. For the time being, The Whitsun Wedding Video is more or less the perfect pamphlet: a broadside fired off from the trenches of occasional journalism, peppery, well-intentioned, spiked with social media gossip, and without fail very interesting. It’s surely the only place you can read in codex form about Dave Coates’s essential blog, or John Clegg’s Prynne-dow at the LRB bookshop. Read it now, before a phrase such as ‘Earlier this year, in a review for the Guardian newspaper, Sean O’Brien played Socratic doorman to the debut collection of the poet Jack Underwood’ loses too much in relevance as well as pedantic truth. Most of these pugnacious sallies on the vicissitudes of literary fortunes make as much sense at the start of 2016 as they did in 2015, and will likely do so for a time to come.
Dai George’s first collection was The Claims Office (Seren, 2013). He blogs on British poetry for the Boston Review and edits the web journal Prac Crit. Follow him on Twitter @dai_r_george.