Report on The Listener Poems
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[ 561 Report on The Listener Poems TSE wrote this unpublished report at the invitation of Janet Adam Smith, assistant editor of the Listener, who wrote to TSE on 11 Oct 1933 to request his assessment of the poetry published in the BBC’s weekly magazine. Following complaints from readers, including one correspondent who bemoaned a “modernist cult of ugliness” evident in the published poems (“ ‘Modernist’ Poetry,” Listener, 12 July 1933, 50), Sir John Reith, director-general of the BBC, summoned Adam Smith in order to discuss the contents of a four-page “Poetry Supplement” which published poems by W. H. Auden, Arthur Ball, John Hewitt, John Lehmann, C. Day Lewis, Charles Madge, Herbert Read, Bernard Spencer and T. H. White. According to Adam Smith, Reith was “particularly concerned” by Auden’s long poem “The Witnesses.” Adam Smith defended her selection to TSE: “I myself feel we have been all too respectable, and can far more justly be condemned, on the evidence of the poems as a whole, for stodginess than for revolutionary or extremist tendencies.” TSE sent his report to her on 18 Oct, asking that his comments “be considered confidential and for the inspection only of those who need to see it for the purpose for which it was written. I do not wish to hurt any feelings.” He suggested “that a fee of ten guineas would be reasonable for putting some of my professional secrets at the disposal of The Listener.” The TS is in the BBC Written Archives Centre, Caversham. I have been asked to give my opinion of a series of short pieces of verse by contemporary writers which have appeared in The Listener between February 1931 and the present time. As the terms of reference are rather large it might be well to consider first upon what grounds a weekly periodical is justified in publishing specimens of contemporary verse, and with what frequency, and on what principles it should choose verse to publish. A weekly may allocate space either for publishing a little of as many writers as possible, or a good deal of a few authors of exceptional merit. There are two objections to the latter plan. One is formal: in a periodical appearing so frequently, it is much more practical to allot a little space every week than a good deal of space at rare intervals. The other is material: there are not enough good poets of established reputation: and the poets of established reputation are those who have nothing to gain by periodical – especially weekly periodical – publication. While I believe that periodicals should pay as much for poetry as they can, and that poetry should be better paid than prose, yet it would remain certain that the amount of money to be made in this way by serious poetry is derisible, and that the Essays, Reviews, and Commentaries: 1933 562 ] one strong motive is advertisement. It is only the younger poets to whom a weekly can appeal on this ground; when the best older poets give you contributions , you may regard it as an act of charity on their part. For the first ten years of his working life a poet has something to gain by having his verse seen occasionally in weeklies; later, he has nothing to gain and indeed something to lose. On both moral and practical grounds therefore a weekly, if it publishes poetry at all, should look to the younger writers, which implies publishing a larger number of small pieces by many writers, rather than a small number of large pieces by a few writers. I am inclined to believe also that the public for an intelligent weekly prefers to have its small weekly dose of poetry, rather than occasional larger doses. The format adopted by The Listener, of having the poem inset in a surround on the same page of every number, seems to be excellent.1 The readers know where to look for the Regular Feature, and the form discountenances the suspicion, aroused by most weeklies, that the verse is there only to fill a vacant space at the foot of a column. And the quantity seems to me right: most verse is of such mediocrity that no reader can read much at a time, and take it in, without fatigue. The question now arises as to the principle of choice. An editor may aim at choosing “anthology” pieces, that is the occasional trouvailles2 of authors the bulk of whose work may be worthless. (It is...