Wild Court

An international poetry journal based in the English Department of King’s College London

Fifty Forty: on the incomplete histories of Carcanet and the LRB

Kevin Gardner

One of the most pleasurable of readerly experiences is the subversive frisson of snooping into the conversational intimacy of an author’s letters. When the initial titillation of prying fades, however, we are left craving an indulgence. If only this invasion of privacy were permitted, encouraged even, by the letter writer. We may sleep easily: many writers composed their personal correspondence specifically with posterity in mind. The great eighteenth-century letter writer Horace Walpole wrote, “Nothing gives so just an idea of an age as genuine letters; nay, history waits for its last seal from them.” Walpole seemed instinctively to know that the epistolary art was much more than an extemporaneous and ephemeral communication but indeed an essential record of a mind and generation and thus meant to be savored by future generations of readers.


Certainly Alexander Pope knew the value of his own letters: he edited, spliced, conflated, and engaged in other revisionary tactics not only to enhance his own reputation and entertain future readers but also to confound the unscrupulous Edmund Curll, who had piratically published a collection of Pope’s personal correspondence. Infamous for his intolerance of publishers, Pope once administered an emetic to Curll as punishment for pirating a set of poems, and then wrote about it in a wickedly funny report, “A Full and True Account of a Horrid and Barbarous Revenge by Poison on the Body of Mr. Edmund Curll, Bookseller.” His assault on Curll notwithstanding, Pope was deeply loyal to his own publisher Jacob Tonson, whom he loved with brotherly affection and with whom he enjoyed the mighty converse of the pen. “Whether your Deafness will permit our Conversation to be on Equal terms, or whether I can only hear you,” Pope mused, “That will be a great pleasure to me, & I shall only be sorry to give you none on my part. Yet I think you love me well enough to find it some, meerly to be face to face.”


Replies from Tonson are no less genial and effusive: “I am sensible of the many instances of your friendship, and shall never do any act to forfeit your opinion of me.” If only relations between authors and publishers were always so free of suspicion and rancor. Pope himself had difficulty relinquishing his doubts about Tonson’s fidelity, worrying “that you, with whom I have liv’d ever upon amicable terms, will not be the publisher of any impertinencies relating any way to my character.” We might therefore be surprised if a spirit of generosity and forbearance ever truly characterized the author-publisher association. This rarest of bibliophilic delectations – the exchange of letters between author and publisher – is, happily, the substance and stuff of two new books that draw back the curtain on this mysterious relationship and extend an open invitation to the private communication of writer and editor.


Fifty Fifty: Carcanet’s Jubilee in Letters opens a window into the quiet annals of one of Britain’s leading small poetry publishers. Carcanet Press was founded in 1969 when a young Mexico City-born undergraduate at Wadham College, Oxford, transformed Carcanet, a failing college literary magazine, into what would become the UK’s most important arena for poetry publication and criticism. Michael Schmidt has spent the last fifty years as editorial director of Carcanet and almost as long as general editor of its sister publication, the bi-monthly PN Review, which he co-founded in 1973. In these capacities he has exercised greater influence over the kingdom of poetry than any editorial director since T. S. Eliot in his Faber fiefdom. Fifty Fifty is Carcanet’s history, rendered via epistolary conversations between Schmidt and his stable of poets; it is, simultaneously, a portrait of the enchanting relationship that forms between author and publisher, in lovely echoes of Pope and Tonson. Appropriately, Schmidt reports in his introduction that at Oxford he “became obsessed with editions published by Jacob Tonson” and has collected numerous volumes over the years.


As publisher and editor, Schmidt compares favorably with his eighteenth-century forbear. His Carcanet editions are always superb, designed with flawless typesetting on suitable paper and lovely cover designs; as distinct from limited edition chapbooks, Carcanet books are produced in volume and always priced affordably, often £10 or less for a standard book and £15 to £20 for an author’s collected. To Schmidt, editing has long been an art, not a chore: “Editing as I typeset, I developed a particular kind of closeness with the writing. Some writers were a joy to set because each sentence was a pleasure in itself and typesetting was a particular form of intensive, respectful reading.” Carcanet’s successful record of marketing and sales, combined with Schmidt’s editorial imprimatur, has drawn an extraordinary array of poets into the fold, one that would be the envy of any poetry publisher today. Carcanet has perhaps the most comprehensive and diverse backlist of modern poetry in English and in translation; poets in its stable include John Ashbery, Sujata Bhatt, Caroline Bird, Eavan Boland, Alison Brackenbury, Gillian Clarke, John F. Deane, Jane Draycott, Elaine Feinstein, Louise Glück, John Greening, Michael Hamburger, Elizabeth Jennings, Mimi Khalvati, Kei Miller, Edwin Morgan, Les Murray, Neil Powell, Peter Scupham, Charles Tomlinson, Helen Tookey, Rory Waterman, Clive Wilmer, and Jane Yeh.


There is a certain Schmidt-ness about Carcanet poetry, despite the impressive diversity in its list: not all its poets are formalists obsessed with exploring Englishness, but those who do so are likely to find a home there. Schmidt identifies his surprising earliest influences as Elizabeth Jennings, Roy Fuller, and Elizabeth Daryush, along with the once-ubiquitous textbook, Understanding Poetry by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. Theirs was a sphere of poetry that could withstand the scrutiny of New Critics, a realm that “homogenised readership,” in Schmidt’s assessment. Yet from the start, there was nothing rigidly traditional about Carcanet’s interests. Schmidt’s closest friend and collaborator in Carcanet’s founding, Peter Jones, was an ardent Poundian, and Donald Davie, who would help found PN Review, was also committed to the aesthetics of Pound. In many ways, Schmidt’s editorial vision developed in an ideal environment: “When decorums are rigorous, young writers have to be plucky to challenge them. . . . The independent imagination, once liberated, would neither accept the old confines nor subject itself to new – at least for a time.”


In editing this book, Robyn Marsack has selected one poet to represent each of Carcanet’s fifty years; she provides a biographical note and then sets that poet in epistolary conversation with Schmidt, who adds a memory or “interjection” as he prefers to call it, since memory is “a collaboration between actual events, accretions and imagination.” To add perspective and context to the focused portrait that emerges from the interaction of Schmidt and poet in each chapter, Marsack concludes each chapter with “The Year in Books,” a list of key Carcanet publications of that year. The collection begins in 1969 with Anne Ridler, who steps from Eliot’s shadow – as well as an accomplished poet, she was an editor at Faber – to assert her early influence over Schmidt, particularly in exhorting him to eschew a group name for his circle of poets and critics – and certainly not to use the proposed name of “Vividists.” The book ends in 2018 with medical doctor cum poet and essayist Iain Bamforth, whose affecting letter ranges from the death of a loved one to linguistic theory to Gadamer to his own poetry to Rilke and Rodin. In one letter, Bamforth embodies the best of what Carcanet and PN Review have become: a survey of the most intelligent, literate and creative thinking about poetry in Britain and the world. What Schmidt says of Bamforth should be said of himself, as editor and publisher: “There is nothing old-fashioned about him, but there is a broad living culture still informing everything he says and does.”


Between Ridler and Bamforth stand witty and urbane exchanges of tremendous variety and energy. Readers will be drawn to this book for the poets’ letters, but what really dominates is the personality of Schmidt; at the end we are left with a prevailing sense of his editorial vision and an appreciation of his influence and accomplishment in the world of contemporary poetry publishing and criticism. Fifty Fifty is a mosaic composed of individual poets’ portraits, but pieced together they form a portrait of Schmidt. His opinions are everywhere, and he does not stint. The poems of Charles Tomlinson, for example, are mere “pretexts”: “I often liked the idea of [his] poems better than I liked the poems themselves.” Yet Schmidt is no aphoristic critic, given to snippets of wit or knife slashes of reviewer brutality; in this instance he broadens his perspective of Tomlinson to praise his “epistemological comedy” and differentiates it from ordinary English irony: “This playfulness can provide glimpses, gaps through, into a world of latent meanings. It becomes an orienting feature of tone, and if it is missed, a key element in the poem’s delivery is missed as well.”


In the early years, one of the most important of Schmidt’s relationships was with Donald Davie, whose bronze bust, a gift from Vanderbilt University, now watches over Schmidt in his Carcanet offices. Appropriately, its function as cicerone is reduced on occasion to hat rack: Schmidt accepts that his mentor, though a formidable critic, was often guilty of “emphatic stringencies and occasional distortions.” Yet Davie’s critical power could be gently persuasive, too, as when he wrote to Schmidt, “I’ve a hunch that you don’t share to the full my admiration for Ezra Pound. Why should you?  Yet I suspect that your blessedly right and timely and well-informed exasperation with the self-congratulating permissiveness of the American poetic scene may have blinded you to the authentically heroic passion of Pound and some other Americans of the Poundian persuasion, such as George Oppen; and to the woeful and conspicuous lack of just that passion among their British contemporaries.” Though Schmidt would come to champion many American poets, it was this clash of poetic perspectives between Schmidt and Davie that partly accounts for the early success of PN Review – that and their shared admiration of C. H. Sisson.


One of the great merits of this collection is that it reminds us of poets we may have forgotten or neglected. Davie credits Schmidt for bringing Sisson to his attention in 1973 and for being so “right” about him; Sisson is “one of the elect” and “should be singled out from the ruck.” Davie returns to thoughts of this then-unknown poet at the end of his letter: “he nags so steadily at the one or two ultimately important questions that I feel many of my poems are unimportant and marginal by comparison.” Schmidt was Sisson’s first champion, and his account of the initial impact of reading him corroborates my own first encounter with this extraordinary mind: “[His] submission of poems knocked Carcanet off the rather predictable course it had embarked on, changing my expectations as reader and editor. . . . For me, Sisson’s work was a slow imaginative earthquake. . . . It was intellectually and spiritually ambitious, and it pursued its subjects without looking over its shoulder at the reader.”


If Fifty Fifty accomplishes nothing else besides helping readers to discover (or rediscover) Sisson, it will have achieved something meaningful. Marsack rightly includes Sisson among the fifty poets representing Carcanet’s history, but I would contend that he is first among equals; to discern and appreciate what Carcanet and PN Review stand for requires an immersion in Sisson – civil servant, translator, essayist, and the most Drydenesque of twentieth-century poets. Schmidt confesses as much, calling him Carcanet’s “presiding tutelary spirit”; he once opened a lecture by declaring, “At the heart of my editorial life, of my writing life, and dare I say even of my civic and spiritual life, C. H. Sisson occupies a central position.”


Despite the high seriousness of such passages, Fifty Fifty is full of energy and play, and not a few crossed swords. W. S. Graham takes Schmidt to task for a TLS review in which he felt Schmidt produced “only an extended blurb” and spoke “like an advert” – to which Schmidt responded, “Did you want an ars poetica?” A journey through the pages of Fifty Fifty uncovers all manner of delights, not the least of which is the pleasure of great poets’ prose. Sylvia Townsend Warner finds she has been “too be-Christmassed to read Sisson properly.” Peter Scupham, immersed in editing Metamporphoses and waiting impatiently for his Carcanet advance, assumes an Ovidian pose: “May the gods turn you into a Delia Smith cookery book in a torn DW and give you to Oxfam.” This is a poet’s paradise, and in this vein Sujata Bhatt recounts a dream in which “a secret door out of Carcanet’s Manchester office led to another earth: a sort of paradise free of economic, political or environmental problems . . .  walking through Corn Exchange, then through piles of Carcanet books and then through the hidden door into an unspoilt earth.”


A reflection on the poetry of Robert Wells (who with Clive Wilmer and Dick Davis formed a triad of Cambridge poets) elicits a memory from Schmidt of a critical conflict with Donald Davie over timelessness versus anachronism. Schmidt sagely concludes, “Odd how the battles persist, and the old trenches have not quite vanished from memory’s map.” This might well be the motto for any recollection of literary history, not least those composed of epistolary exchanges between author and publisher. The persistence of trenches is an apt assessment and summation as well of London Review of Books: An Incomplete History, a lively and diverting record of this indispensable paper’s first forty years.


The LRB was founded, as an offshoot of the New York Review of Books, during a 1979 labour dispute that shuttered the TLS for several months; its first several issues, in fact, were inserts within the NYRB, and it was not truly an independent organ until mid-1980. Out of this modest (and “marsupial,” as editor Karl Miller put it) inception grew one of the world’s most formidable engines of bibliophilia. Despite its name, of course, the LRB has always contained much more than reviews; in its pages have appeared some of the best critical and political writing in the UK. Its success can be attributed to its staunch opposition to black-and-white certitudes and its preference for ambivalence over polemic. In editor Andrew O’Hagan’s assessment, the LRB’s success lies in its belief that the best critical writing and reading depend not on a predilection for “rebuke” but instead “on a willingness to open your mind, to investigate thoroughly, and to believe that culture and politics – high and low, explicit and hidden – have a great deal to do with each other.” To commemorate its 40th anniversary – an impressive lifespan for a critical review – the LRB has produced a handsome and impressive volume of near-folio proportion, recording its history through its archival artefacts.


Reproductions of its covers fill the book, interspersed with internal memoranda, inventories, advertising communiqués, and other scrapbook material, but its singular pleasure and primary raison d’etre is its extraordinary array of letters between writers and editors, set beside extracts of essays and reviews that have appeared over the years. Among the most striking of these is an exchange between Frank Kermode and Karl Miller. The former, who sat on the LRB’s editorial board and who had helped to create the review, denounced the latter for allowing Al Alvarez’s ex-wife to review his memoir of their marriage and divorce. Miller’s rejoinder to Kermode’s high-minded and pharisaical insistence upon a reviewer’s objectivity is a masterpiece of epistolary form as well as a brilliant puncturing of the notion of “unprejudiced reviewing.” Pondering whether Kermode was aiming to create a scandal and undermine his editorial authority, Miller signs off by stating that “the time has come for us to have no more to do with one another.” To everyone’s relief, no emetic was ever administered, and Kermode’s essays would continue to enliven the LRB’s pages for years to come.


Teapot-tempests of the literary variety will always attract the bibliophile, and this volume has its share. Laura Riding Jackson, for instance: in Fifty Fifty she appears as an imperious friend of the press but one of whom Schmidt remains wary, nearly thirty years after her death. She demanded “a complete and unresisting loyalty based . . . on an understanding of the resolved rightness of her view and the irrefutable nature of her arguments.” In LRB: An Incomplete History, she speaks for herself, in a letter to Miller vociferating about her treatment in an LRB review of a recent biography of Robert Graves. The offending passages of the review are faithfully reproduced: she exploited “the sexual guilt and fear instilled in him by his puritan mother” and her “behaviour was often destructive or bizarre.” To this she responded with a rant against the British “reviewer-brotherhood” who wield the threat of “punitive revenge by the self-legalized denigrators.” Angry and hostile she may have been, but her assessment of the little dominion of reviewers was correct. Small wonder that John le Carré demurred when Miller asked him to review, refusing to enter the “partisanship” and “minefields” of literary London.


Other debates and conflicts fill the pages, perhaps with a bit less frothing and spewing but offering readerly satisfactions nonetheless. “We’re keeping abreast of the latest frenzies,” Miller is reported to have said, and this seems an apt description; as O’Hagan notes, “the paper’s habit of staying abreast of the frenzies, while remaining detached from them, became its character.” Revelling in bruised egos and knuckles is part of the pleasure of reading the LRB and this book, and the scrapbook presentation is an effective means of situating the reader just above and beyond the fray. In one marvelous two-page spread appears the following: a brief history of a 1981 philosophical debate between Isaiah Berlin and Hans Aarslef enacted in the pages of the LRB, an extract from a 2009 Adam Phillips essay that recalls Berlin’s rather nonchalant exit from a burning airplane, and reproductions of a letter from Berlin rejecting the LRB’s payment for his essay refuting Aarslef and the returned cheque for £125. This miscellany-effect creates a potent portrait not only of Isaiah Berlin but also of the LRB’s interaction with strong personalities.


Surprisingly, some of the agitation is over nothing more than layout, and LRB: An Incomplete History ruminates amply on its pre-desktop publishing layout practices. A fascinating entry on the early days of paste-up, scalpels, and cow-gum is accompanied by an illustration of how an early page of LRB text typically appeared: four columns of minuscule font unbroken by advert, poem, illustration, or even subtitle or drop cap. A subscriber’s letter, faithfully reproduced, complains, quite rightly, about “your extraordinary lack of sensible layout.” The dense typesetting was subject to much early complaint, but even as more thoughtful layouts became customary over the years, objections were registered, especially from poets like Ted Hughes and Jorie Graham, who understood that layout can significantly affect meaning. By 2018, however, Graham informed the LRB that her American publishers wondered why she gave her best material to LRB: “I keep telling them it’s because the LRB has the best readers, the best editors, and the best layout team.” It is the poet, though, who most often takes offense at the editor. Miller’s strong dislike for the final lines in many poems submitted to the LRB – too “last-line-y” as he put it – gave Patricia Beer exceptional offense when her poem “Cockcrow” was printed: “I have just received the current copy of LRB and am horrified by the mutilation of my poem.”


What makes the LRB the UK’s best literary review is not least its refusal to kowtow to the author. Beyond this one must admire its willingness not merely to take unpopular political stances, such as its vocal opposition to the Falklands War and to the Bush-Blair invasion of Iraq, but its consistently radical stance on social and political matters. The LRB can be overly serious at times, but this helps save it from snobbishness, an unfortunate trait of some of its competitors, including the New York Review of Books and particularly The Spectator. As frequent contributor Alan Bennett notes, the LRB “isn’t a particularly English paper; it’s not gossipy, cosy or cliquey.” It also isn’t perfect: as O’Hagan notes, “about ten minutes after” rejecting an Irvine Welsh submission, “Trainspotting became the novel of the decade.” Misjudgments such as this have happily been rare, and publication in the LRB remains an aspiring writer’s dream. Despite its editors having on occasion been taken to task, chastised, and raked over coals, not one appears to have suffered Edmund Curll’s fate.