In autumn 2012 we began thinking about the content and themes for our guest edition of The Poetry Review (then called Poetry Review).
One strand of our conversation kept returning to the idea of reputation and how the very act of submitting poems to a journal like TPR might, even at the subconscious level, result in a kind of self-censorship by the poet, particularly one with an established reputation. Might such a poet hesitate over including a more experimental poem, one that explores new ground, either in form or subject? We wondered whether offering poets an anonymous space would provide freedoms that traditional attributed publication would not. With this idea in mind we approached a number of published poets to ask if they’d be interested in submitting a poem anonymously along with accompanying thoughts on whether this had made any difference to their poetic practice.
The results were fascinating and varied. At the time, we asked the poets concerned whether they’d be happy to be revealed at a later date – that time has come! So for everyone who’s been guessing their identities over the past year you can finally check to see if your poetic antennae were working. Not all the mystery is resolved though – one poet has asked to remain permanently anonymous, an appropriate outcome perhaps. Have you tried to guess who was who? If you want to read the poems first before guessing, simply download the pdf here.
Anon. Poet I Fred D’Aguiar writes:
A commission to be anonymous is like the invitation from hell: you don’t ever want to go there though you won’t mind finding out a bit about the place. In this instance the result is a poem that originates in the spark of a memory but owes much of its art to the imagination (Eliot’s visions and revisions, I suppose). The artist-figure who watches the making of the memory ends up being the one who fashions it into art. There is something of sociology’s participant-observer to all this. The poet lives the experience and, simultaneously, imagines it as art. That posture of hesitant participant may be the hardwired condition of the artist in life as much as that life inhabiting the artist. The two-way street (many ways, many streets) makes it hard to do anything more than simply obey the signs of the poem when it arrives, and asks to be fleshed out and be made more of than the bare bones of recollection. The nervous system of the poem translates as the emotional reality for the poet. The success or otherwise of the poem can be gauged or measured by the extent to which the reader picks up on the poet’s declared architecture of feelings. Or not. I wish I could have just read the invitation and not attended the party. But it turns out that these invites appear in disguise since they are really offers made to the imagination that are too good and therefore cannot be refused.
Anon. Poet 2 Mimi Khalvati writes:
I was very happy to be invited to submit a poem for the anonymous section of Poetry Review. It feels quite joyful to be nameless, without the baggage of biography and history, much as it does wandering around in airports once you’ve checked in and are suddenly unburdened. Every poet wishes to get out of the way of his poem and this is a welcome step further. Freed of the writer’s or reader’s expectations, prior knowledge, cultural frameworks, the poem can stand, ageless, genderless, before us and newly introduce itself. Although a poet’s work necessarily leans on its biographical and critical context, it is always revealing to see how a single poem fares when it is orphaned. I look forward to reading the other anonymous poems in this bold and intriguing editorial project.
Note: The following pair of poems comes from a poetic dialogue between two poets.
Anon. Poets III (Carol Watts) & IV (George Szirtes) write: The project involves us writing alternating poems, each a response to the last. Having agreed a starting point of 28 lines, we decided to move through ever fewer lines until we got to one line, and then reverse the process. The broad subject was fixed by the very first ekphrastic poem that had in mind a specific painting deliberately withheld from the other poet. That painting was loaded with certain associations, material texture, colour. The next poem picked elements of the first to riff on and develop, and so it continued, touching and prompting beyond habitual practice. Anonymous is the most productive of poets and we are pleased to be adding to such a magnificent oeuvre. Going without names is also what people on the internet do a good deal of the time – the billion-headed monster is composed of a billion mouths and twice that number of ears. These poems pop out of two of such mouths more naked than they would normally be in the company of their names. Let them live on their naked wits and hearts.
Anon. Poet 5 Luke Kennard writes:: The first image comes from that Arnold Schwarzenegger / Danny DeVito comedy Twins. I was talking to a friend about the scene where the villain dies and that, while suffocating under a pile of chain must be a pretty horrible death, it’s necessarily played for laughs. That in PG films death has this clownish presence, so (bad) characters still have to die for the story to have a conclusion, but the writer has to do this without upsetting the young audience or raising any difficult questions. This probably sounds like a truism, but I think you write all that you’re capable of writing. I’ve certainly never written a poem I wasn’t capable of writing, and that’s not for lack of trying. I’ve never spoken to a writer who feels as though they have a brand to uphold, so that writing anonymously might liberate them from that. But I have spoken to writers, including myself, who are prone to lapsing into self-parody, but I think I can say with conviction that writing anonymously hasn’t liberated me from that at all. Which in the absence of a self is maybe death by self-parody.
after W.H. Auden, from ‘Journal of an Airman’
Anon. Poet VI (who wishes to remain anonymous) writes: Between 1929 and 1931 W.H. Auden taught at a small school in the west of Scotland. During this time T.S. Eliot accepted his first book for publication and he wrote ‘The Orators’, arguably his first major piece of writing. ‘The Orators’ contains many references to the area he was living in as an outsider. My poem responds to a section from ‘The Orators’, taking Auden’s theme and mood of surreal paranoia and bringing it into the present day. This poem thrived under the strictures of the Anon. invitation because anonymity gave me freedom to write about what I wanted to, unfettered by concerns about how readers might relate the poet and the poem, and it also creates an interesting uncertainty around the poem.
Anon. Poet VII Carole Satyamurti writes: The invitation to provide an anonymous poem for the spring issue of Poetry Review was, at first, exciting. The possibility of writing as someone of the opposite gender, for instance, or in the style of some other poet, or in a form I have never used opened up the prospect of discovering a new voice, a different direction. But I soon came to feel that I had been given almost too much licence, and none of those tempting, playful possibilities produced a convincing poem. In the end, I relinquished the attempt and wrote a poem in my own, possibly characteristic, way – though not in my own voice. Curiously, preoccupation with the issue of how much freedom one can handle seems to have given rise to the poem. Adam and Eve are euphoric at having escaped the predictable constraints of heaven. But perhaps, if the poem were to have a sequel, we would find their joy tempered with disorientation and regret. Who knows!
Anon. Poet VIII Sam Willetts declined to comment on his anonymous poem.