Monday, 9 September 2013


[This is an item I first published in Anon 2 (2004), pp.46-48.]

I sometimes think I should write every poem of mine as if it were an anonymous letter, deceitful and wounding, swift to the point, stark in message but in voice undependable: ventriloquistic, plagiaristic and synthetic.  It should arrive in the hands of the reader as if slipped under her door late at night by a malicious hand.  Anonymous never takes the blame.  The rest of us have to account for our failings.

Anonymous was a woman veiling her gender, a homosexual expressing his sexuality through the gag of social convention, a radical dissembling her dissidence, an aristocrat holding himself aloof from the sway, a libeller ducking responsibility for the forthrightness of his views, or just a shrinking violet, modest to the point of invisibility.  Virginia Woolf wrote in 1929, ‘I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman’.  Marilyn Hacker wrote in 1978, ‘Women and other radicals who choose / venerable vessels for subversive use / affirm what Sophomore Survey often fails / to note: God and Anonymous are not white males’.

As for me, I like to think it was the same Anonymous who wrote ‘Sumer is icumen in’ and ‘There was a young lady from Exeter’.  Prolific and haphazard, Anonymous’s genius is too mercurial to pin down.  Like Ariel, Anon can change his gender and finesse her way through the confining walls of definitions and categories.  How can we ever attack him, when she is invisible?   Yet how can we grant him more than the marginal status of her virtual absence?  It will never be possible to love his work as a whole, since we can never be sure she wrote it, or that his later work is by the same hand as her juvenilia.  Besides, isn’t there always something deceitful about Anonymous?  Does she really imagine we can trust him?

When I.A. Richards handed out poems to his students at Cambridge in the 1920s, but withheld the names of the poets, he was famously horrified by what he regarded as the ignorance of their responses.  They slated poems by John Donne, D.H. Lawrence and Gerard Manley Hopkins, preferring the work of poetasters little known then, let alone now.  Richards wrote up his findings in Practical Criticism (1929), thereby initiating a whole new trend in university teaching and examining.  For decades it became common practice to withhold information about poets and their societies while discussing their poems.  The central plank of the New Criticism of the 1950s was that the poem must and does work in isolation.  Biography and social context were irrelevant, impertinent; as was the writer’s other work.  To read a poem without knowing the poet’s name was to see it in its purest condition.  And to be able to infer the poet’s name from nothing but the poem was the skill literature students were expected to acquire.

Today, the poems submitted to this magazine, Anon, are to be assessed under similar conditions, isolated from context.  In terms of the judging of merit, this means isolated from prejudice—which can only be a good thing.  The poem must speak for itself.

The benefits of this innovation are obvious to those of us who work in universities and routinely mark essays and exams with the names of the students concealed.  It is obvious that this helps us avoid prejudging the work, for whatever reason.  Yet in the refined world of poetry magazines, the principle of anonymous selection is considered revolutionary.  Perhaps it intimidates the famous, or others who imagine themselves famous enough—and therefore good enough as poets—never to be rejected.  If so, let them be intimidated; they need to be. The rest of us will take our chances alongside everyone else.  If the process scares us, perhaps it will force us to write better poems.  If that proves impossible, rejection is what we deserve.  Nothing is to be gained from a system that rewards poets for their names rather than the self-evident quality of their work.

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