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Fifty Fifty: A Review

Carcanet’s Fifty Fifty is a delightful and utterly absorbing read. A collection and selection of letters from each of the Press’ fifty years, its appeal lies in the rarefied realm of private correspondence. Each set of letters comes with an introduction, a commentary and lively, extensive footnotes before being rounded off by a list of Carcanet’s publications for that year.

The most engaging aspects of this book are the facets of humanity that thrive between its pages: Elizabeth Bishop’s declares ‘Your letter…you probably can have no idea how cheering I found it’; Michael Schmidt confesses ‘I was stunned by the MacCaig you quoted. What a superb poem. I will have to go back to him again. I liked but forgot him, which was silly’; Sisson advises ‘even a magazine devoted to poetry should, for the health of poetry, do something to avoid the impression that The Poet is interested in poetry, literary criticism and literary politics: full stop’; and W.S. Graham remonstrates ‘It is not like that. I was disappointed you writing the old cliché about me. My dear Michael, now is your time to say something about how poetry works, from yourself.’

As an emerging writer, it is thrilling to read about poets being recommended and discovered and put into print: to witness the initial spark of new relationships being forged; essays and books being commissioned from ideas discussed over coffee or considered during a holiday. To the aspiring writer, the internal workings that bring about the dissemination of new works, old works, and collected works, are processes imbued with mystery, and more than a little magic.

And for those who want to write, or write better, there are little wisdoms nestled between the everyday practicalities that preoccupy many of the letters: Frank Kuppner confides ‘for years I assumed that no-one would ever read anything I wrote, and this gave me a wonderful freedom of expression; Schmidt admits ‘I am always afraid that you will unvalue your better poems and over-value your most recently written ones!’; Alison Brackenbury observes ‘Poems get written…[T]hey are written under their own pressure, either soon after something has happened (or been thought of), or a little later. They will not wait for ever and they will not survive interruption, so a crowded life can both find them and destroy them.’

The book also contains a wealth of advice for those with an eye to having their work published, the most significant of which is to be aware of the increasing weariness and wariness of editors buried under a landslide of conventions. Schmidt states unequivocally ‘as an editor, the steadily rising tide of poems doggedly written in accordance with contemporary formularies of relevance and relatability, without much formal ambition and within the confines of the uncontentiously sayable, threatens to drown the instinctive love of poetry.’ What, then, is the secret ingredient that get the words from pen to print?

Sincerity. Not writers who just want to see their work on paper, who write only to have an audience, to gain acclaim or notoriety, but ‘poets who don’t seem to care about the reception of their work but who get on with it. It’s what they do’. And, for Schmidt, that sincerity extends to the poet’s aural presentation too, ‘my decisions on several poets have been taken after, tempted by the manuscript, I hear the way their voices bring the poems alive.’

There is a sincerity, an honesty, an earnestness to the exchanges in Fifty Fifty that is deeply refreshing in an era dominated by the exhausting circus of statement, offence, accusation, defence and division that categorises so much of our public and social discourse. Letters are replete with purpose and intention: even the most critical, banal, or whimsical missive must be written, enveloped, addressed, stamped and posted. While the advantage of email is beyond dispute, the invested reader can’t help but feel the loss of the winding, musing, deliciously indulgent letters in the latter end of the book that give such great insight into the characters of the poets and the relationships they have formed with Carcanet and Schmidt over the last fifty years.

Fifty Fifty: Carcanet’s Jubilee in Letters. Edited by Robyn Marsack; Carcanet Press, 2019. £14.99

ISBN: 978 1 784108 78 6

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