Peter Sansom
on Poetry and Business

There's a popular belief that poetry and business don't and perhaps shouldn't mix. The present remarks, which began as a talk (that, appropriately, was cancelled due to lack of take-up), hope in a roundabout way to address this, or something similar. A business-man or -woman would make shorter work of it, wouldn't we say, time being money. But I like sorting things out in language - through language - and that means giving words their head: which is why I say 'or something similar'; I'm not entirely clear what issues this piece will address. Almost two hundred years ago, Coleridge noticed that 'language as it were thinks for us'. And thank Christ for that, is my feeling, because thinking's beyond me. More recently, John Ash - taking a swipe at Heaney's early 'Digging' - said, 'Did you think you could just pick up language and use it, like a spade, the one you call a spade'. Well, the notion is that in the real world that commerce represents, they say, 'I don't care what you call it, just get that dug'. And maybe they do. Also that sorting things out in language means the poet likes the sound of his or her own voice, which is generally the case and in this instance is certainly so.

This is probably the first perceived difference between business and poetry, that business is rational, gets to the point, says what it means; and poetry, well, that makes it up as it goes along and - when the reader's slogged through it - what does it boil down to? 'Isn't life short' or 'She's buggered off and I do feel fed up'. Business, this is to say, is utilitarian. The poet on the other hand is worse than useless. In a meeting in an office dedicated to M&S's ideas for the millennium, they expected some lateral input from their poet in residence. My head was empty except for that man's haircut, and the way the woman always looked over my shoulder or at the floor, and wondering if it was me or her, and then what it was they did all day and how much they got paid. Evidently their job was to be creative, even though they were part of the machinery of this giant of high street retailing. Me I'm only creative in words on paper. Some poets assuredly are 'creative'. There's Paul Durcan, for instance, the man (as Sean O'Brien says) with the lefthanded head, or John Agard, whom I've met just the once and whose life seems to be a poem. Or Ian McMillan. Geraldine Monk. Most, I think, are like me, and not poets at all, but people who sometimes write poems, and whose lives, for good or ill, are given over to making that sometimes possible. However that is, my point is that the millennial think-tank is only a very obvious example of creativity in the business-place. It goes without saying that creativity is everywhere in business, not just those certain areas - design for instance or new product-placement - that immediately come to mind. It's worth pointing out something equally obvious, that many poets are also businesspeople. In their day-jobs, or indeed as free-lance writers. And that not all poets are as useless as I flippantly remarked just now.

That poets can be extremely useful in business - even if like me they're not very Paul Merton about it - is taken as read at the Poetry Society. I won't go on too long about my own area of interest, on which I have gone on elsewhere (the PS Website, principally): that idea of staff writing together, and sharing their work. We did this at M&S - an ongoing workshop at Head Office, and one-off visits to stores around the country - and everyone found it more than simply useful (and a lot of fun). I have this theory that writing poems is as natural as dreaming and may serve a similar function (especially if you don't interpret what comes out of it); and as such the writing and the sharing of work might loosely come under the heading of staff development. Running workshops is not necessarily the job of a poet, but I think poems are uniquely valuable in this instance because they are built of language in a particularly manageable (short, self-contained) form. And I think poets are often better than non-poets as facilitators, because of their experience of and their own relationship to language, and the fact that they've developed strategies which work, though mainly in fact because, even if they've thought a lot about it, they're not quite sure how those strategies work.

At this juncture, just where I ought to be detailing the benefits of poetry in the workplace, and perhaps trying to do more than merely assert that businesspeople are people and, despite some evidence to the contrary, so are poets (so that what we're dealing with here is really only a problem of naming, and the prejudices that come along with certain habits of naming) - just at this point, I want to turn in a slightly different direction. I want to talk about poets. First of all John Keats, a man who - as the Letters attest - might in a way have done anything, including being a successful businessman. And this despite the fact that the only awkward, not to say gauche, letter he seems ever to have written was to his publisher, for what after all was an advance but which seemed to him more of a handout - being an advance against sales which were unlikely to happen. I thought it would be interesting to discuss a statement of his, made in a letter, that 'Everything is worth, as tradesmen say, what it will fetch.'

Keats's truism plays on the fact that his reader will know it isn't true, and that it is. Also on the quite natural prejudice we have against tradesmen. They are selling us something and it's irrelevant to them if we need or even want it, so long as we will buy and they have their living, which is profit. It's irrelevant to them actually what their percentage comes from, the ode 'To Autumn' or one of the hats Keats's guardian thought he should go into making. Hang on though. When we write poems, isn't it irrelevant to us too if anyone needs them? It must surely be irrelevant to us whether anyone wants them. The difference is of course that we write poems for their own sake, and it's the selling that's irrelevant to us. If we write primarily to sell, to exploit a niche or supply a demand, the poems will be synthetic, factitious, dead. (I'll come back to this.)

There's snobbery in Keats's statement too, isn't there: 'Everything is worth, as tradesmen say...' What do tradesmen know about art? And what, as a matter of historical fact, did Keats's poems 'fetch' during his short lifetime? Keats knew his worth, 'I think I shall be among the English Poets' - but also how the market worked - 'after my death.'

We like this, don't we, this outrage against an age so dim it made the poet feel his name was writ in water, an error we would not make ourselves, and which inevitably we do, and are doing now. Or if not Keats, who died before he had time to earn the audience he must surely have found, we might ask for instance who the present day John Clare is. We might ask why it is we persist in buying the equivalent of those later Wordworth poems that frankly stink, instead of shelling out a subscription to get The Midsummer Cushion, or at least some more general selection of Clare's, into the booksellers. Well, to do that, to appreciate that contemporary Clare, we would have (as Randall Jarrell would say) to be born again. There are literature panels, awards that recognize and foster talent - but even supposing they choose right, they can't make us read those poets. They can't foster a readership, though they may let us know the poet exists, and the poet may exist a little longer for the money they bring. Let me say here and now that I think cash awards are wonderful and personally I couldn't get enough of the things, though I know not everyone favours them. There's an essay by Humphrey House for instance that argues Coleridge's tragedy was the annuity from Josiah Wedgewood, when what he needed was the discipline of a job. What Humphrey House - you can't say that name too often - means I suppose is that Coleridge lacked self-discipline, wasn't organised, wasn't businessman enough, and being given money for nothing (for writing!) encouraged a sitting-on-his-arse proclivity. Fair to say though that Coleridge wrote considerably more than Humphrey House: the output of his various ventures as we know was phenomenal. Nevertheless, let's contrast not Humphrey House, about whom I know nothing except the name, but instead the Laureate Southey, about whom I know hardly much more, finding his verse either infuriating or soporific; sometimes, oddly, both. Robert Southey who worked so hard, often on Coleridge's behalf, and so efficiently and seemed able to do everything except write poems. He was serious and determined, and humble before the craft he mastered over a lifetime, and his writing brought pleasure to tens of thousands. Coleridge, it seems, fretted over the fact that, however he tried, he was not Southey; though Coleridge's tragedy actually was that he met Wordsworth, his opposite in temperament, and submitted to him. However that is, Coleridge was, to borrow a phrase of Simon Armitage's, 'all voltage, no current', and yet, on strength of a handful of poems in a hardback Collected like a halfbrick, there he is 'among the English Poets', Southey or no.

You might wonder where I'm heading with this. Me too. 'A little knowledge is an English degree', as the saying is. But I think the drift of this is that poetry is in part a business, from which people sometimes make a living, and we've a tendency to think that in the free-market of culture you either do it so it sells - or earns you awards and prizes - or you do something else, like write a play (from which Coleridge earned more money than he ever did in fact from his verse) or journalism or run workshops, or work in a plastic mouldings factory, like Geoff Hattersley, one of the best and potentially best-selling poets around just now. It amazes me he's not on the telly or at least booked up months ahead on the readings circuit, a whole business in itself. 'Fame burst like a meteor' on John Clare before the bottom fell out of the peasant poet market. In his late 'mad' poems, he counterfeited Byron - the ottava rima of a ventriloquist's dummy that has found its own voice: funny, satirical, beautiful and chilling - from our perspective - in their need for recognition. Clare who had already written better than Byron poems that would wait till 1979 to see the light of day, and who, even then, even now, has more champions than readers and rarely merits a place in University modules or more than a couple of pages in anthologies, a vicious circle that distorts his achievement and excludes his best work from the canon.

This leads to Byron himself. He famously woke to find himself famous and soon rich for poems nobody reads nowadays. Later he held out for some extraordinary figure for the opening cantos of Don Juan. Not that he compromised his artistic integrity for the sake of a bestseller, declining forcefully to make changes, some of which Murray, fearing prosecution even more than his lordship's ire, made anyway. I don't have to tell you that, notwithstanding the exceptions which prove the rule - Birthday Letters, for instance - poetry as a business has changed since Byron's day. Though Birthday Letters deserves them, the reason for its sales has as little to do with poetry per se as Byron's did.

This brings to mind the students on my course, usually young women, usually rather aggressively, who sometimes say they want to write about Murray Lachlan Young, himself not a little Byronic. It's mainly the charismatic performance (they bring in a video) that appeals to them, and it's easy to see what they mean (and I don't just mean I wouldn't kick him out of bed either), though many are genuinely engaged by the verse on the page. Michael Schmidt, apparently, managed to tell M L Young, with ungainsayable charm - on air and to his face - that actually his poems were doggerel. It is hard to show Young's shortcomings to students without blunting their enthusiasm, and it's actually unnecessary, since his strengths are there to be learned from too and moreover mirror those in other writers whose success doesn't depend so much on the delivery. What is most difficult is evading the kind of timewasting debate people tire of rapidly apropos the pop poets (where often mediocre but dull poems were seen as preferable for the seminar room). 'What it will fetch' then comes up hard against the dictum - following the Birdy Dance or sales of the Sun - that 'Popular is Bad'.

We distrust 'palpable designs' as Keats says, but poetry may be a product placed in the market and still succeed as art. May still, I mean, avoid being what I called 'factitious'. For all those bands - Soft Machine were my favourite - blatantly ignoring commercial pressures to pursue their muse, there's no doubting Lennon and McCartney's genius, and this partly because of rather than despite their attitude. According to a recent Grimsby Evening News ('Quotable Quotes' section), they'd generally sit down and say 'Let's write another swimming pool'. (What did they do with all those pools?) The two best poets of my generation are also the most popular. Among the top twenty greats of the century, however - hovering round the top ten in my chart, in fact - is a poet hardly anybody has heard of, largely because he wasn't a businessman about it, his job being merely to write the poems, and his poems never quite suiting the market. This is a man called Stanley Cook, who published only with what's called 'the small press': those outfits who do it - as actually all poetry publishers do - from commitment or, if you'll forgive the expression, from love, and who can't afford to do much in the way of marketing, the business side of publishing. I mustn't get started on poetry publishing. If Eliot thought writing poems was 'a mug's game', what does that make the publisher? As small businesses go, poetry publishing would have John Harvey Jones sucking his teeth.