Friday 26 February 2016

16 types of poet

Their ghosts are gagged, their books are library flotsam,
Some of their names–not all–we learnt in school
But, life being short, we rarely read their poems,
Mere source-books now to point or except a rule,
While those opinions which rank them high are based
On a wish to be different or on lack of taste.

I'm prompted by this resonant stanza from Louis Macneice's poem Elegy for Minor Poets to propose a ranking similar to the Bristol Stool Scale for poets. The BSS, which I blogged about recently, is a simple and effective way of categorising types of human excrement, devised by Dr. Stephen Lewis and Dr. Ken Heaton at the University of Bristol as recently as 1997 (and we can only wonder why we had to wait for so long for such a fundamental classification). I am not for one moment suggesting that poets, and poetry, can be classified in the same way as excrement. But I think the time has come for an exploratory audit - the Bristol School Scale is a wake-up call for all literary critics.

My list has an anglophone emphasis and is not intended as a hierarchy. Type 1 poets are not necessarily better than other types, but certainly different. Ready?

Type 1: Poets from the remote past (often anonymous) who may be described as foundational - the author (or authors) of 'Beowulf' and 'The Battle of Maldon' and 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight' for instance, or Chaucer.

Type 2: Poets from the less remote past who are still read, and not only by undergraduates. Their work  continues to inform the language of the tribe. Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Shelley, Donne, Marvell, Coleridge, G. M. Hopkins, Lewis Carroll, D. H. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy. The usual suspects.

Type 3: Poets who cannot be overlooked by anyone with a serious interest in poetry: Christina Rossetti, Robert Browning and Algernon Swinburne, say. 

Type 4: Poets from the more recent past who are of minor interest but with some claim on our attention. Coventry Patmore can stand for them all. I have a strong weakness (as Beckett used to say)  poets such as Charles Madge of the Mass Observation Movement, a writer who is(as George Melly said of the Belgian surrealist E.L.T. Messens)  'a figure of major minorness'.

Type 5: Modern poets (by which I mean those born after 1880) of the first importance: Eliot, Auden, Pound, Lowell and Yeats are representative. There are others, but not many.

Type 6: Modern poets of secondary significance: Macneice himself (although the more I read of him the more he strikes me as a Type 5). I'd include in this category Robert Graves, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Elizabeth Bishop and Stevie Smith (all of whom I admire and would far rather read than many of the poets in the earlier categories).  

Type 7: What one might call poet's poets. My own choice is certainly not, as Macneice puts it, 'based / On a wish to be different or on lack of taste'. Without thinking too much about this I'd opt for three favourites: Ian Hamilton, W. S. Graham and Basil Bunting. They tend to be admired by the poets I admire, for what it's worth.

Type 8: Poets I don't like. These fall into two broad categories: good poets I don't like and bad poets I don't like. Of the former: Edmund Spenser (of 'Faerie Queen' fame) and George Herbert; of the latter: J. H. Prynne. I know that Prynne has his admirers but you can include me out. 

Type 9: Foreign poets. Since foreign poetry is likely to be in a language that resists even the most able translators, and since I don't know any foreign language apart from French well enough to appreciate the originals I tend not to read them much. They can fit any of the other categories in this list and especially Type 3  - Apollinaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine etc. And that's just three random French names. (I cannot name a single contemporary French poet, which is my loss).

Type 10: Contemporary poets, as distinct from the Moderns (Type 5). J. O. Morgan (whose latest book Interference Pattern was published by Jonathan Cape last month) can stand for them. One develops a fierce and attentive affiliation with such new voices - Dan O'Brien's War Reporter knocked me for six.

Type 11: 'Difficult' poets. By which I mean that I haven't yet settled on an opinion and will continue reading and reflecting. I'd include James Merrill here. But this type can also include experimental, avant-garde writing, or stuff that baffles me but may repay the effort.

Type 12: Poets in any of these categories that I haven't yet read. There are very many of these, naturally.

Type 13:  Poets who are not really poets at all but despite this, or because of it, meet with public approval and in some way represent the idea of poetry to a mass audience. Examples: Pam Ayres, Ronald Fletcher (he of the 'odd ode'). They tend to be popularisers, and populist. They can be of  interest (the rapper Eminem, say) or voguish (Kate Tempest). Or they can be negligible (the authors behind Hallmark Card verses, for instance, which are the poetic equivalent of park railing art). I suspect this is by far the largest category.

Type 14: Poets not yet conceived. not yet born, or alive but not yet writing or publishing poetry. This is an optimistic view of our post-literate culture.

Type 15: Poets I don't to read because for reasons of age and taste and sensibility and education  I'm safely beyond their reach. My loss, no doubt. You'll know who I mean.

Type 16: Poets who don't fit any of the above categories. That is to say: most poets.

I'll be the first to admit that this list is partial in both senses - it is both incomplete and subjective. There aren't enough women on it, and the focus is on dead white men, because  . . . well, I really can't be arsed to fight that corner. Type 11 gives me some wriggle room.

Extract © The Estate of Louis Macneice


  1. Thanks for this! Also, don't forget the female poets who should be in the earlier categories but whose work either disappeared or wasn't even written because of the way things were. I call that "the lost women poets".

  2. Good point and yes - possibly a separate category, and one I'm keen to explore. Although they will all figure in Types 1-15 and especially 16.

    Type 15 is my escape clause, for what it's worth.