Just over a century ago, when Florence Lawrence switched from D.W. Griffith's Biograph Studios to the Independent Moving Pictures Company, and began to appear in films under her own name, it all began. And that was before a movie 'star', had even found a voice.
It was all to do with money. When movies first started, the studios were wary of the fame of individuals: it might mean paying them more. But it quickly became clear that the the individual with a marketable 'image' could build brand loyalty. The star system could be manipulated. Celebrity status could be conferred on a chosen few profitably.
And now the term 'celebrity culture' is familiar to us all, fundamental to our entertainment and social activity, and thinking.
The cult of the celebrity affects all aspects of the arts, including poetry, though poetry is also dramatically different from movies or TV. If I were writing this blog about film, the majority of readers would be movie fans – not actors or directors. But this is a poetry blog. Most people who read will be poets, though mainly not poetry stars. They are the dedicated actors and directors of their own art form, as well as its audience. Weird.
But put that to one side for a moment. Stardom is commercial. It is about getting attention. It is about getting attention to sell a product or an idea. It is about winning.
In poetry, it is about selling the idea of poetry as a Good Thing. But more mundanely, it is about a) selling books and b) finding readers (the two are not synonymous).
Poetry is nothing without readers. How does it get them?
One way some poetry does it is via the publicity associated with national prizes run by arts organisations. The Forward Arts Foundation and the T S Eliot Foundation are the two best known (though not the only) poetry prize awarders in the UK. Year by year, the short-listing of 'best' poets creates 'stars' that poetry readers recognise. There are even, eventually (and if they pop up often enough), poetry stars that some non-poetry-readers recognise.
The short-lists for the Forward Prizes 2018 have just been announced. So that means a set of five judges have read no fewer than 207 books of poems to arrive at two short-lists. Five of these feature on the 'Best Collection' list, and the other five on the 'Best First Collection'.
It is not my intention to knock the prizes. They garner attention for the work of outstanding books. But I never much liked Sports Day at school. I find myself thinking a great deal about the ones that don't win and, worse still, identifying with them. Not to mention those not even entered (each publisher can only submit up to four titles in each of the two categories. (There are publishers that bring out many more than four poetry books each year.)
When you watch a film, you identify with a leading character – at least until they get killed, and then you transfer to another one. You do not identify with the characters with no names, the supporting actors, the bus drivers, the one-line speakers. Of course, you don't. In fiction, your attention is manipulated towards the main protagonists.
As a poet and poetry reader, you tend to identify with leading poets, dead or alive – those to whom your attention has been directed (though happily it can be more fun to find a neglected writer or two and attach yourself to them). From the available choice of stars and starlets, you orientate towards writers who attract you, in culture or personality or appearance or way of writing. You can only choose from the ones you have read (there are far too many for anybody to sample all of them, especially when masses are not even writing in English).
If your poetry heroes are alive now, and active, and visible, you want them to win. You think, at the back of your mind, that one day maybe you might be like them. You might win too.
And then you go away and work on a poem of your own. Maybe you'll enter that poem in a competition. Maybe you'll even enter the poem in the National Poetry Competition, run by the Poetry Society, another conferrer of stardom. And what might happen then?
The thought that your work might be a 'winner' is not helpful in writing. In fact, it's the opposite. While it may be true that every published poem is in competition with all the others for attention, while it is still in production what it needs is the best words in the best order. The best words, not the winning words.
Forget about winning. Put it right to the back of your mind.
Banish the word 'success' (it hisses nastily).
Each and every work of poetry – quietly and away from the remotest thought of stardom or celebrity or fuss or prizes – needs space to be its own good self. No publicity. No blurb. No photograph.
Each and every poet – quietly and away from the remotest thought of stardom or celebrity or fuss or prizes – needs to ... write. Despite publicists trying to distract you from the work in hand with new news about new and excitingly important poets, nothing else matters.
Writing poems is not glamorous. Nor is it – whatever the hubbub suggests – about winning.
It is about doing your best for each piece of work without your ego getting in the way. It is about listening. It is about not settling for less. It is about getting on with the job. (You are allowed to have fun.)
In any case, as Stevie Smith said, 'The poet is not an important fellow. There will always be another poet.'
(If you can find two or three good readers for your poems, your writing is likely to last longer than you will. If you can be a good reader for another poet, you are already a star.)