Thursday, 28 May 2009

Of Smears and Sestinas: thoughts on the Ruth Padel thing

I was away in York when the news broke that Ruth Padel appears to have smeared Derek Walcott in the course of her campaign for the Oxford poetry professorship. At the time I was reading Chris Hamilton-Emery's excellent 101 Ways to Make Poems Sell, which I bought out of a combination of enlightened self-interest and a desire to support the Salt publishing appeal . Chris's book is wise, funny, and often charmingly cynical about the business aspects of poetry. It is, as its title suggests, a book about marketing poetry rather than how to write it, though it does often make the point that unless you're writing decent poetry in the first place you won't be able to market it.

Again and again Chris points out that marketing poetry is not a business for delicate flowers. Publicising your self and your work is hard work, easily as hard as writing, and, at times, you will probably do things in the name of getting your work out there that make it hard to look at yourself in the mirror. You will have to be nice to people whose faces you find eminently punchable. You will have to fight the fear that you are making a tit of yourself while appearing on local or national media. You will have to hustle for awards, cozy up to the right people, navigate a careful course between rival schools of poetics with all the skill and sprezzatura of a renaissance courtier, and generally prostitute your talent all over the shop. Thus do beauty and wisdom go as a whore in the night of the world, and all that.

We all do this, poets. Indeed, all writers do it to a greater or lesser extent. And most of us, in our heart of hearts, feel uncomfortable about it. We shouldn't have to do it. The work should speak for itself. Absolutely! In a perfect world it would. But in a perfect world the economy would work, George Bush would never have been President, John Ashbery would consistently outsell Pam Ayres, and Shelton Benjamin would be the WWE Champion. This is, demonstrably, an imperfect world, and as such if any of us want people to read what we write, then we have to hustle for it.

And we do, because we believe in what we write. We believe it can be good for people. We believe it can do some good in the world. We believe we advance a worldview which deserves to be presented. We believe that a tiny bit of beauty can make life in an imperfect world more bearable, or that by raging against the very imperfection of that world we can give voice to the dissatisfaction of those who lack our expressive gifts. Whatever: we believe that our writing has value, and so we suck it up and do things we otherwise wouldn't normally consider doing.

What I'm saying is, I find it all too easy to see how Ruth Padel convinced herself she was doing the right thing when she did what she did. Her poetry has value; it deserves a wider readership; getting the Oxford poetry professorship would give it a wider readership. It isn't a long jump from there to the assumption that she therefore deserved the professorship itself, and was justified in doing whatever she had to to get it. And if she had to smear - well, let's not say 'smear.' That's an ugly word. And it wasn't really - from a certain point of view - what she was doing. All she did was mention that Derek Walcott had been accused of sexual harassment. Didn't say he had sexually harassed anyone, just that he was alleged to have done. And, well, what if he had? If he had then, in a sense, he didn't deserve the professorship. In a sense, leaking the allegations was the right thing to do...

This is, of course, deeply flawed reasoning, and I've no idea if what went on in Padel's head really followed exactly this line of argument. But there must have been a flaw somewhere, because she failed to realise one thing: that while taking the action she did would have an impact on her poetry, that impact would be entirely negative. Thanks to her actions, Ruth Padel's name is known to a wider audience than ever before, and so is Derek Walcott's. But what are they now known for, to that wider audience? Ruth Padel is famous for being so desperate to win a university job that she smeared a rival in the press; and Walcott is now famous as the poet who was accused (and we all know what accused means, don't we, Mail readers?) of sexual harassment. Epic, epic fail.

So what does that mean for us - the slogging poets and writers who will probably never reach the dizzying heights commanded by Walcott and Padel? What does it mean, in fact, for writers who are on the same level? I don't know, but I can say what I think it means. I think it means that, as much as we believe in our work, as much as we believe it deserves to be out there, and as much as we use that belief to motivate ourselves to do things we otherwise find abhorrent, we should be wary. Because most of those things are only abhorrent on a small scale: they're embarassing, they're uncomfortable, they're a bit iffy, morally, but basically okay. And most of those things do help promote our work. And that's basically okay. But sometimes, when we've done a few of those things which are a little bit naughty but not actually bad, and which do help our work, we lose sight of when an option presented to us actually is bad, tremendously so, and which doesn't just harm the perceptions of our work, but that of everyone who works in our field. Maybe poets aren't as generally hated as politicians at the moment, but I'm fairly sure that telling anyone you're a poet this week is going to get you a lot of knowing smirks, and not just for the usual reasons.

So get out. Hustle. Promote your work. But be careful of what you do to do that. Because it isn't just the world that isn't perfect. We aren't, either.

Oh, and do go and buy a book to help Salt publishing. They publish work by good people, and as far as I know have never either smeared or sexually harrassed anyone, so they deserve your support. And you don't even have to scroll back up the page for the link, because I've reproduced it right here. How's that for convenient?

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