The poet with whom he was in conversation, Huddersfield's Simon Armitage, a blokeish sort of bloke not much given to waxing lyrical about the virtues of the higher art of poetry, seemed pleased enough to be in the right camp for once.
Mortimer's point of view is not unusual among novelists. Many of them hold fast to the opinion that poetry is a great art that refines the language, and that writing mere novels is the labour of some jobbing builder of wordscapes. Kingsley Amis, that sometime poet, once said that he was saddened by the fact that he'd been predominantly a novelist and not a poet because poetry was "mysterious". It "uplifted" you. "Which was the greatest of the arts?" I asked Iris Murdoch at the time of the publication ofher last novel. "Schopenhauer would have said that music was," she replied. "I myself am very attached to paintings - but others might say it was poetry..." Anthony Burgess said music too. "But why music? What does music mean? "Nothing," he replied.
Doris Lessing's autobiography is punctuated intermittently with some of the poems that she wrote as a young woman. I asked her how she weighed poetry and the novel in the balance, and she alone of all the novelists I have spoken to seemed quite unfazed by the question. There was no sense that she felt herself to be the mistress of some inferior craft. Lessing has a powerfully impressive sense of her own worth, and to rise to the defence of what other novelists might regard as mere prose was, it seemed to me, a part of that need for her to estimate her value at its true worth: "No, one isn't better than the other. They're just different. How can you compare them?"
Lessing's response was a breath of fresh air. Novelists are too easily cowed by the idea of the divine rights of poetry. One of the more humdrum explanations may be the fact that many novelists have been minor poets themselves - including Iris Murdoch and Doris Lessing. Any passionate and creative person who fails at something at which they would have rather liked to excel lives a little in awe of that thing - and of others that do it well - for ever more.
But there is another far more important consideration: many living poets live in fear and envy of the powers of the novelist.
Many of them, being economically impotent and therefore lacking in self-confidence, are in awe of the novelist's skills - that dogged ability to go on for so long, for example. The poet and broadcaster Simon Rae described one poet's perceptions of the novelist's seemingly awe-inspiring aptitudes: "I don't understand how you know when to begin and end? A poem's a small thing, a small formal structure - you can see the end in sight - whereas a novel... just sprawls. How do you know when to stop describingthe inside of a room?"
Poems are often - especially in the 20th century - small, highly charged explosive devices that detonate themselves by means of a surprise. The surprise, the trick, is often sprung in the closing couplet. But, heavens, the novel - all those boundless wastes! The whole world can be in a novel - if the novelist should choose to admit the whole world. What don't you need to know about in order to write a good novel?
Many poets suffer from anxieties of this kind. It doesn't ease their anxiety that the novel continues to occupy so much more of the public's time and attention than poetry, for all the rock'n'roll claims made for the art form. Can any living poet, the Laureate aside, ever be truly popular in the way that novelists are?
I think not. It is only the popular dead poets who have the freedom to spend their royalties. For modern poets, poetry alone seldom pays. The print run of a new collection - the fruits, perhaps, of several years' work - may be in the region of 1,000 copies. Most poetry books are now published as paperback originals, and their average cost is approximately £7. Even at a royalty of 10 per cent of the cover price - which is fairly generous - the poet stands to gain only £700 if the first printing sells out. "God it's so tantalising, dangling five grand in front of your nose," said the poet Gerard Woodward at the T S Eliot Awards ceremony earlier this month. Would £5,000 have been so exciting to a novelist of similar standing? For him, winning would have meant, not the solution, but the postponement of imminent financial difficulties. Never mind the famous Amis teeth: last year, when Ciaran Carson won the T S Eliot Award, he spent the unexpected windfall on a new bathroom.
But why is poetry so financially unrewarding? Because there is a culture of the university and a culture of the mainstream poetry publishing house that believes poetry must be especially taxing. The conventional wisdom appears to be that one must not accommodate the casual reader for whom books are, in part, mere wallpaper. Poets must go on being the refiners of the language. They must look to their every word, never letting a single idle or careless locution slip from their pens. The truly popular middlebrow novelist, by comparison, doesn't have to give a damn about writing well. He is more concerned to describe the crude goings on in the world - with as much crudity as the world seems to require.
Poets, on the other hand, seem afraid to invent worlds outside themselves - in fact, such is their commitment to their own tender, experiencing selves that they find it difficult to lie by inventing at all. As an alternative, they fall back on stories about themselves, working up fragments of autobiography into minor epiphanies, ransacking their own memories of school days for poignant moments of exquisite discomfort. Even the best poets are guilty of this, whether it be Tom Paulin writing, with maddening obliquity about his own deceased father-in-law in his latest book, Walking the Line; Carol Ann Duffy chewing over her school days in Mean Time; or Hugo Williams writing book after book about his painful relationship with his parents. Too many poets are crabbedly self-referential; too many poets are satisfied with the ephemera of their own lives; too few poems possess the resilience of a good short story. Some good poets challenge us to think about matters other than themselves - Craig Raine and Christopher Logue, for example - but too many lie stewing in their own juices. I suspect that the novelist and the short story writer would consider it unprofessional to plunder their own autobiographies quite so shamelessly. And, being infinitely punctilious, poets are easily coaxed along by a literary and academic culture that seldom gives them licence to be anything other than arcane and laconic to the point of absurdity - a form of unfreedom that novelists are seldom granted.
There are, therefore, Wendy Cope, John Hegley and a few others apart, precious few middlebrow poets courting wide audiences; and there are, I suspect, precious few publishers who would wish to entertain the sullying presence of one - let alone two. They want real poets on their lists. Let those old workhorses the novelists be left to make the money.
No wonder, as Hugo Williams remarked, poets and novelists circle each other warily.Reuse content