New Subscribers!

Albus McInerney edits a literary magazine.

In 1914, WB Yeats published a poem entitled To a Wealthy Man Who Promised a Second Subscription to the Dublin Municipal Gallery if It Were Proved the People Wanted Pictures. It argues that art resides in a place above and beyond public taste and should be supported on its own merits – regardless of the popular will. Yeats’s aesthetic preoccupations were not ideally timed, as many were concerned in 1914 and in the years immediately afterwards with social and political issues that may have appeared more pressing. And in any case “the wealthy man” addressed in the title ignored the poem, while an entirely different wealthy man, imagining himself to be the subject, became an enemy of Yeats and launched a newspaper campaign against the Municipal Gallery.

Poetry, then, can have a somewhat scattershot impact (if it has any impact at all) and unintended consequences. A better known example of poetic misdirection is Every Breath You Take, the song that propelled The Police to global popularity in 1983. Generally taken as a catchy expression of loving commitment, it was written as a bitter meditation on psychotic possessiveness – and when you look at it in that light, I’ll be watching you comes over as less than cuddly and romantic.

I note these things in light of something that has mystified Patrice and me – and not in a bad way. More people are subscribing to our magazine.

Our circulation is moving from modest to slightly less modest. In the great scheme of things, where Instagram influencers are followed by millions and a single tweet can move markets, our subscription uptick is something of a blip (though it’s our blip and we intend to make the most of it). We are speaking about hundreds, not hundreds of thousands, of new readers.

Our sales graph has moved in the right direction just as graphs showing the spread of the pandemic are moving in the wrong direction, especially in countries where some thoughtless citizens and many disagreeable leaders have apparently abandoned common sense concerns about public health.

So, we can only conclude that in periods of crisis, things like poetry and fiction and art and film become more rather than less important – an argument that would certainly have gratified Yeats. This would explain the remarkable popularity of operas and musicals and plays that have (of necessity) been taken out of the theatre and repackaged for the internet. It’s not just because technology allows millions to watch Claire Foy and Matt Smith at the Old Vic online that their socially distanced drama has been a hit. It’s because in present circumstances drama is a salutary balm for the troubled soul.

Patrice takes the view that our new subscribers are seeking solace, and our next issue should therefore offer an alternative to uncomfortable reality.

But I think if readers are flocking to our magazine (and, yes, I know the connotations of amplitude in that verb may verge upon poetic licence of the irresponsible, perhaps even gratuitously misleading sort) in a time of global insecurity, we should take a more Yeatsian approach, and offer a measure of meditation on the difficulties as well as the consolations of the human condition. The point of the Dublin Municipal Gallery, in WB’s view, was to challenge

. . . what the blind and ignorant town

Imagine best to make it thrive.

It was to try and educate, rather than simply reflect the prejudices and preoccupations of public opinion.

The blind and ignorant town has not been absent from debates over how to protect ourselves and others from contact of the contagious sort. Facebook has been abuzz with dispiriting vignettes of people – particularly people in the United States – refusing on peculiar grounds to wear masks. Some of them have cited Big Brother concerns that few apparently identified in Sting’s cautionary tale about every breath you take and every move you make. Perhaps we can offer our subscribers, not an alternative reality but one in which today’s imperfect reality, complete with its flat-earthers, is better understood.

We need poetry that takes account of – but rises above – the vacuous inanity of dim but opinionated individuals who have managed to place themselves within reach of a municipal microphone. Perhaps lines, To the Lady Who Said She Would Not Wear a Mask for the Same Reason She Does Not Wear Underwear, ‘Because Things Gotta Breathe’.