English Without Borders

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Fifty Fifty: Carcanet’s Jubilee in Letters 
Edited by Robyn Marsack, With interjections by Michael Schmidt
(Carcanet, 2019, 464 pp., $21.99)

Fifty Fifty: Carcanet’s Jubilee in Letters might be described as a victory lap for what Harold Pinter has called “a great publishing house.” It could also be read as a year-by-year epistolatory narrative of its publisher, Carcanet’s managing director Michael Schmidt. In either case, the fifty-year history of the press is of considerable interest well beyond the UK. In the US Carcanet has remained, relatively speaking, under the radar.  But not only does the Jubilee volume’s five-decade survey neatly illustrate the widening world of English-language literature, several ALSCW poets (Greg Delanty and Jee Leong Koh, to name but two) also form part of the Carcanet narrative.

The story it tells is mostly one of poets and poetry. Schmidt, himself an award-winning writer as well as professor of poetry, has been since 1972 the general editor at PN Review (formerly Poetry Nation). A regular on BBC radio, he is the editor of numerous anthologies and surveys of British literature, and he has been a contributor to almost any literary review (as well as a participant in any literary festival) one might name. Such experiences have served him well as servant “to the servants of the muse.” Nevertheless, as he wryly notes in his Lives of the Poets (brought out by Knopf in 1999), “publishers get written out of the story [while] poets live for ever.”

Born in Mexico, Schmidt was educated at Harvard and Oxford, where the Press project was begun while he was still a Wadham College undergraduate.  In 1967 the university literary magazine Carcanet was “up for grabs.” Two years later editor Schmidt and his young staff determined that, as their graduation “swan song,” they should produce a series of poetry pamphlets to be sold by subscription. These early publications, as well as readings run by Schmidt as president of the Oxford University Poetry Society, were enough of a success that Carcanet Press was launched. Among the Poetry Society readers was Anthony Rudolf, one of early English translators of Yves Bonnefoy and himself the creator of his own Menard Press at the time.

“Innocent of the reading circuit and the poetry game,” Schmidt’s friends and colleagues had “a strong sense of common purpose rather than competition.” The close of the sixties, he writes, “despite its technological poverty, [was] in many ways more amenable to the innocent prospector than the present republic of poetry.”  Edited by Robyn Marsack, with supplementary commentary as well as an introduction by Schmidt, Fifty Fifty records the editor’s search for interest, excellence, and importance. Each annual chapter presents a set of significant correspondence followed by a bibliography of works published that year. The resulting chronology is impressive, illustrating Carcanet’s “bias toward the Commonwealth but with a strong American list.”

The transatlantic quality of Carcanet’s early poetry list derived in part from its publisher’s Oxford-Harvard nexus. James Atlas, influential editor and biographer of Delmore Schwartz, was Schmidt’s roommate and a Rhodes Scholar when Carcanet was being set up. (In 1973 Atlas would edit the anthology Ten American Poets for the Press.) And though the now-British Schmidt attended American schools until college in England, his sophomore year at Harvard was nevertheless pivotal to the Carcanet enterprise. In his preface Schmidt writes candidly of the influence Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren’s Understanding Poetry had on him, as it did to “almost every American poet coming of age between 1930 and 1970”; the volume was “formative” to Schmidt and “certainly had an impact on my editorial discriminations.” Poets of his generation, as he observes, could “go along with it (they might be quite comfortable with it, as I was) or they could kick against it.”

Brooks and Warren, as Schmidt writes, came out of the New Critical milieu that formed Robert Lowell and his circle. But much to Schmidt’s disappointment, it was not at Harvard that he encountered the person of Lowell (William Alfred was teaching in his place that year), but at All Souls, after the poet had moved to England in 1970:

I discovered Lowell, when I first went to meet him, in great distress, rather like Laocoön tangled in his typewriter ribbon, which he had tried to change, but unavailingly. I extricated him, changed the ribbon for him and soon had agreed to type for him, working in particular on the final typescript of Notebook.

Lowell encouraged Schmidt to write to Elizabeth Bishop. As Fifty Fifty’s 1970 correspondent, Elizabeth Bishop (to whom Schmidt dedicated his second book) describes Lowell as “an old friend [who] has always been very kind about my work and has helped me innumerable times, in many ways.” Bishop’s Selected Poems had been given to Schmidt by Ian Hamilton to review; in turn, it would be Schmidt who would introduce Lowell to his future biographer.

Other significant American elements in the Press’s lineup include the New York School (who, as it happens, tended to despise Lowell), a group described by Schmidt as “a central strand in Carcanet’s DNA.” John Ashbery, in particular, was not immediately accepted by the British critical establishment, as made evident in the 1986 correspondence with poet John Ash.  Ash reported from New York to Schmidt on James Fenton’s New York Times review of Ashbery’s work: “And talking of criminals — Have you seen Ms Fenton’s abominable ‘review’ of John’s Selected Poems?  John took it very hard.”  It was Ash, writes Schmidt, who “opened a window on a world in which some of my favorite poets moved.” Carcanet would publish over a dozen of Ashbery’s collections as well as the Selected volumes of Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch (for whom Ash had worked as editorial assistant), and James Schuyler. Of ongoing significance are Carcanet’s two volumes of New York School anthologies, both edited by Carcanet poet Mark Ford. The first (Ashbery, O’Hara, Koch, and Schuyler) appeared in 2004; New York Poets II (assembled with Trevor Winkfield) came out two years later. Such a useful set of compilations has yet to appear in the States.

Early on Carcanet engaged in what might be called, if not “canon revision,” canon archiving, making sure certain poets of the English tradition (Wilmot, Campion, Drayton) remained readily available. Schmidt credits the undergraduate Oxford curriculum (Christopher Ricks was one of his occasional lecturers) for the publisher’s “strong sense of continuities and developments, of the generic and thematic connections between works remote in tone and time.”  Serious poetry readers (and instructors) have been especially grateful for the affordable and otherwise unavailable volumes (Gower, Henryson, Surrey, Behn) in the Fyfield Books / Carcanet Classics series.

As with its ongoing project of publishing the works of Yves Bonnefoy, the press also made available important translations of Paul Celan, Fernando Pessoa, Octavio Paz, and many others. Some of the early advocacies, discoveries, and reappraisals of Carcanet include Sylvia Townsend Warner; Laura Riding; and Edwin Morgan’s important translation of Mayakovsky into Scots.  This year’s just-published Songs We Learn from Trees offers a curated collection of (contemporary) poems translated from the Ethiopian Amharic, a poetic tradition reaching back millennia. The resulting anthology is both splendid and groundbreaking.

Though the letters and Schmidt’s interpolations make occasional reference to poetic “sides,” antagonisms both temperamental and strategic, none to this American reviewer seems central to the larger story being told. Most familiar British poets make their appearance via reference (Larkin, Hughes, Hill), though an impressive number speak for themselves in the included correspondence (Tomlinson, Murray, Logue, Gunn, Boland). The poets who appear to have had the most influence on editorial direction and choices are Donald Davie and C.H. Sisson. Considerably less familiar are English-speaking poets from India, Pakistan, Jamaica, and South Africa — what used to be the colonies and are now part of the Commonwealth, voices such as Kei Miller, Lorna Goodison, Carola Luther. Obviously, the course of a half-century catalogues a lot of names; a much better, and more immediately accessible, sense of Carcanet’s range would have been possible had the year-end lists of authors also been incorporated into the book’s index.

Nevertheless, the given overview preserves an era seemingly long past, back when “the floor and the ceiling of the literary world were much closer together than they are now.” Over the course of decades, of course, what once seemed significant may fade in import. At Carcanet’s inception, the Vietnam War was still going on (and, in fact, Schmidt renounced his US citizenship in 1968 in order to avoid the draft). Those times, what F. T. Prince referred to as “youth culture” acting out its “Rimbaud impulses… but without his genius,” must have seemed like the beginnings of a new poetry. There have been several sets of youthful enthusiasms in the interim, and much admirable experiment, yet it’s interesting how the work of someone like F. T. Prince, “standing apart” (as his admirer Ashbery observed), grows more burnished even in its relative shadows. Poetic reputations are subject to constant transformation, and it would have been impossible to predict the effect of five decades on the reception of Carcanet’s first authors.  Along with its distinct sense of time travel, such twists of literary fate make Schmidt / Marsack’s celebratory revisiting especially fascinating. As Schmidt himself observes about the year of the Press’s origins: “1969 is so remote from the present-day reality of poetry publishing as to seem a foreign country.”