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PHILIP SALOM

Poet and Novelist

 

Poetry and Tables

 

The thing about tables is to imagine who is on them and who is being inducted, tabled, and how, and why, and even if you (um, where you) feature in this account personally. Tables it is.

Soon after the system established tables the poets decided they too, like any snobbish private school boys, would decide who sat at table. And the table was boys, as we all know, or by now, remember. This was a serious and snooty business.  They were the elite, they received the spoils and they alone pretty much decided who sat with them and who was accorded a table place and any spoils. At the table itself there was of course an inner table of tables and often one or two members who were top dogs at table.

The only way to establish membership in this group was to play up to sitting members, use flattery, the old bed-hug, and slavish adoration, duty, voluntary obsequiousness done with good research – know your betters' work very well indeed so your sucking up in terms of acts was intelligent, informed and essentially slavishly researched. Eventually you might be allowed a place. As on all good tables, there are manners, items are passed between the members, there is exchange. Everyone is reassured of their worth. It is ritual, manners and good economics. Nothing is wasted on anyone not at table.

Alternatively, if you did not or could not find a place at one table you and your friends made another table – in opposition to and openly, contemptuously critical of the main table. Your own table, but it needed numbers and an agenda, a poetic. Over time, and time matters in these matters, your table could even be seen as the more desirable table because it was set in opposition to the status quo (which is one way of both framing and reducing the main table) and so new wannabes would suck up to you and kiss your arses and... yes, all the same stuff as the other table so despised for doing just that. Hypocrisy and amnesia are necessary table-fellows.

In more time... the two tables come to seem much of a muchness, never accepting each other, and still dividing those who wished to sit at one table, or the other, or... but not finally different enough in worth to worry either group of members. From outside, from the cold place of not-belonging, both tables seemed equally powerful. They made reputations and they divided spoils. If a member was ever in public competition for a prize, a review, a... well, anything of gain, really, they received it automatically over anyone not a member. This is done arrogantly and blindly, the members never justifying or rationalising their favours because it is baffling to consider otherwise, it is self-evident: we are superior to them.

At some point those who scrutinise this table thing realise they have no chance whatsoever of belonging to the sitters because, apart from a few token members, a few girls, a few gays, a few other races... there is no acceptance of them for what they are, because of what they are. They are not white boys who belong at table. So they establish their own table. This is looked down upon by the main table players, especially the two big tables, who think this is mere table-making, this is merely and emptily political, not like them. Not in the slightest sense a table-set of genuine and superior worth. Like them and theirs.

Then come those who are not good enough (in any way) to belong at either of or any – by now there may be several – of these tables.  What do they do? They become table-setters, they write about members and establish from the outside, without inner privileges, why the table members are superior. They promote. If they establish for themselves enough credibility and opinion-making power... they are invited to the lower level of table. Possibly on both tables, even all tables. Some table pleasers are so good at this their own manners are praised from within table and regardless of how ordinary their work is, and sometimes it is very ordinary, they are raised to a kind of privilege. With such weak and sometimes plainly dishonest fawning they often suffer ego expansion, which is always ugly. Having arrived by weak and disingenuous means they strut as if kings. It makes them cocky, these pretenders, because compared to original, authentic members, who think they have earned their setting, to achieve a place at table these new members simply bought it. A different exchange. Their membership is not earned, it is simply accepted because, in realistic terms, it is strategic.

Some outsiders seduce as many members of as many tables as possible, then invent their own, and make such a manic public show of themselves that others, even – shockingly – those on the first two tables, go strolling over to see how they can be associated with this new strutting, sprawling, somewhat addictive new table set. What this table-maker, far more than a table-setter does, is establish secondary tables on public display and offer everyone they see on any other table, as table-guard, a place. They do something highly irregular but very effective: instead of receiving the fawning payments, they offer it for a place. They buy members who are gate (well table) keepers on other tables or – and this is very important not to miss – at the public places and venues and media pockets (which are like shadow versions of tables) where table members meet or where judgments of any kind are made. And in time, after all this buying has been unseen, or forgotten or –very importantly – suppressed, they are untouchable table dons themselves and they become beyond criticism. No one in table land, no one on any other table says a bad thing about them. In public, that is. In private these new faux table-riche are despised and their work is laughed at. But no one ever dares speak badly of them.

Over time, of course, the work done by anyone on any table is considered superior to anyone not on that table, not on another table and not on ... any table. This swirl of constructed values and unreason continues even if years may pass before any new tables form. In this time the lone wannabes are the dangerous players, naturally, they are hungry, they are the rats, who will bite anyone and anything to get near any of the tables for the crumbs left on them, and they lie and cheat and spread disease, even more disease than the already diseased members of the tables, diseased in their blind opinion, that is. The rats pretend to like one table and listen to complaints made about them then turn these complainers in and smirk and hope for crumbs. This is smart, rats are smart, because they can turn such complainers in to the table complained about for a certain result, and to other tables who delight to hear of such complaints but despise anyone who made them, unless they already sit, of course, of course, beside them. In which case the complaints are the purest and unbiased reason. The actual complainers are dead meat but the rats are still rats. Sometimes, occasionally, rats become bigger and bigger after so many stale crumbs and get more important and join one or other of the tables and then it seems as if they always belonged.

Sometimes membership is accidental. Amazing, but true. Someone is tootling along in a position which table members come increasingly to admire, or desire or – and far more like it – seek to neutralise in their own favour. So they put their arm around the shoulder (near the throat) of said person and lead them to a place. This is the most anomolous case of all table manners. The newly inducted is surprised and in the table-world of poetry probably hugely flattered by this 'warmth'. But then what to do? Pressure is applied to give special services to members – what else? there is always exchange – and now the deal is clear.

There are some people who do not wish to belong to any table. These individuals have made a bit of a fetish about individuality, they despise this table game in poetry or in anything. They stand outside. These people are heretics and have lank looks. They are punished for their surly outsider opinions, naturally, by all members of all tables, everyone has a piece of them, so there is always a price to pay by not belonging. These players dream of ideal tables, tables where merit alone matters, even though they know full well that merit is a poetic as well as an accomplishment and table merits/and poetics must necessarily differ from table to table – it is after all how the members shaped their table manners in the first place – but still the deluded non-joiners, heroic fools that they are, imagine such a table of troublesome perhaps but rigorous meritocracy. It will never happen. Such tables don't exist.