As I was cleaning my teeth this morning for some reason I remembered a boy called Andrew* at primary school who was always either 1st or 2nd in class rankings (oh yes we had those). For any subject: maths, English etc. I remember because it was me who was 2nd when he was first and vice versa. I doubt he even noticed my existence at the time, let alone remembers me now; at age 10 he had an air of confidence and single-mindedness whereas I could only worry about how to do well at everything and be liked at the same time. Thinking back on that, It was a horrible pressure to put myself under, and I think there’s no doubt it came from inside me – there were no familial expectations or teachers building up my hopes. But the idea of the need to constantly compete was always big in my mind.
Then I went to a grammar school full of girls like me and many much cleverer. And something happened. I settled into the comfortable upper-second. I didn’t have the drive or the application to be a high flyer. I wasn’t super-talented, just talented enough (and hard working enough) to keep the teachers happy, and confident enough to not take the odd poor mark or result to heart.
At university it was the same, and guess what? I finished with a 2:1 (or upper second class degree as it used to be known I think).
A bit of history/explanation here for anyone who graduated in the last 10 or 15 years: a 2:1 probably sounds a bit slack. But it used to be the case that British universities awarded degrees based on a percentage rather than an absolute. In other words, around 5 – 8% of degrees awarded were 1st class, and 5- 8% were 3rd. The vast majority were second class, divided into two equal groups – upper and lower. If you happened to graduate in a year with a large number of academic hot shots, you might miss out on the 1st. Another year you’d be in.
I’m not saying I feel any bitterness about my 2:1, quite the opposite in fact (!) But just look at this idea in diagram form (bear with me!)
Does this look at all like anything to you? Perhaps a teeny bit like all those ‘open book’ logos we see on book club websites or whatever?
Ok I know it’s a bit of a leap, but with this thought I suddenly realised the problem with striving for/hoping for some sort of big breakthrough in the poetry world is that you’re trying to enter a tiny, tiny sector.
Now look at the huge central area, the massive open double-page spread – that’s where most of us sit. We hope we’re in the right hand section, the recto page. Anyone who sells print advertising knows that an ad placed on the right hand page is noticed first. It’s the place to be. Premium. It costs more. The left hand page is less good. Verso. The sinister side. The casual reader probably skims over it. The RECTO side is preferable, and what’s more, it’s a big target, which makes it relatively do-able. The comfortable upper-second embraces a very wide range of poetic ability and success.
That tiny sector on the right is the Prize. It’s where the big names are: poets who publish with the big houses, who win the Eliots and the Forwards, who have long successful careers in poetry publishing. But I know for a fact that plenty of poets who you might think are here, either don’t consider themselves to be, or don’t feel they deserve to be, or who constantly feel one poem away from slipping into the upper-second.
So there we are (well, I am, and maybe you are too) in the ‘upper-second’ sector of the poetry world. There’s plenty of fluidity of course.
Scenario one: You get an email from The Rialto accepting two of your poems, or you win mid-range poetry competition, or your book is reviewed in the Guardian… HUZZAH, move up to position A on the diagram. You’re nearly there! Look how close it is to 1st!
Scenario 2: you haven’t written anything you’re happy with in months. The last six responses from magazines have been rejections. It’s been years since that competition success/big magazine acceptance/wildly successful reading you did. Go directly to position B and stay there until you pull your socks up. That Lower 2nd is beckoning you, and the bright young things are pushing in!
So that, my poet friends, is the game of snakes and ladders that we’re all playing, not necessarily knowingly, not necessarily willingly, in fact you might be thinking it’s a load of bullshit.
But for some reason I take comfort in this analogy. The open book, the invitation to read and write, and look! – the middle section is the most prominent, the most visible. That RECTO page is mighty big, with room for us all to be a little easier on ourselves I think, still with plenty of scope for ambition, some healthy competition … and the chance to be successful enough.
*not his real name, by the way. Apparently he went on to make a fortune with Lehman Brothers and raised a family on a twenty acre estate in Kent.