Felix Dennis, No Pro,
Has Spotted His Foe:
Poetry's Status Quo
He Likes Meter and Rhyme,
Calls Free Verse a Crime
And Dog Poems Sublime
By MATTHEW ROSE
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
May 3, 2004; Page A1
When he began reading his poetry in public, Felix Dennis, the publishing mogul behind Maxim magazine, usually arrived by helicopter. He dubbed a late 2002 12-city trip around England the "Did I Mention the Free Wine?" tour, on the advice, he says, of Mick Jagger, his neighbor on the island of Mustique. During the reading, young women in tour T-shirts handed out free glasses of wine from his own cellar.
As he read, his words were flashed on a screen and electronic music, especially written for him, provided a background.
"Never go back," Mr. Dennis growled into a microphone, starting the poem that kicks off and ends his readings:
Never go back.
Never return to the haunts of your youth.
Keep to the track, to the beaten track,
Memory holds all you need of the truth.
In a picaresque career, Mr. Dennis has played drums for Eric Clapton, gone to jail for publishing Oz, a crudely satirical magazine, and written a biography of Bruce Lee. In his newest chapter, the British multimillionaire is on a crusade to challenge the obscurity of modern poetry, by reclaiming old-fashioned values of rhyme and meter.
His flair for marketing, and his bankroll, are giving him unusual success. His first volume of poetry, "A Glass Half Full" got barely any attention from serious reviewers but sold all 10,000 copies printed in Britain.
For the American edition, due in September, Mr. Dennis, 56 years old, is upgrading his traveling show. He has hired a jet for about $300,000 to shuttle him to towns around the country where he plans to hand out a DVD of previous performances. Hoping to make a profit from Mr. Dennis's new passion, publisher Miramax Books, a unit of Walt Disney Co., has plans to print 25,000 copies. Most serious poets are lucky to sell 3,000.
"It would be nice if Mr. Letterman or Oprah gave me two minutes," Mr. Dennis says. "I'd blow their bloody socks off."
Mr. Dennis has let his hair grow long and shaggy since he started writing seriously in late 2000. He has completed 650 poems, at last count, in the four hours a day he devotes to them. Every few weeks, he sends what he calls a "wodge" of poems to his editor and to a lawyer friend, who stands in for the kind of ordinary reader Mr. Dennis seeks. Mr. Dennis then joins the other two in grading his poems. Those that get three As make the cut. Cs are discarded. Anything in between goes up for discussion or revision.
Mr. Dennis says in the next few years he's considering selling Dennis Publishing, owner of the highly successful Maxim, an irreverent men's magazine. He would like to concentrate on poetry and other interests, he says, such as accumulating enough land to plant a 50,000-acre forest in England, named the Forest of Dennis. He also has an idea to build retirement villages for baby boomers.
His poetry is intended for "people who appear to devour it as if they've been starved for 40 or 50 years, which, by the way, they have," he says. Easing into a leather armchair in his Manhattan apartment, Mr. Dennis accidentally sat on a slim volume of poetry by Ezra Pound, a poet known for being impenetrable in his later years. "That's what he deserves," Mr. Dennis snorted. "He used to write good poems."
Some of Mr. Dennis's poems are introspective slices of life, including ones about love and his well-publicized former crack-cocaine habit. Others are about business, such as a tribute to computer servers and a paean to his work ethic called "The Bearded Dwarf." Some of his poems are political, such as "The Taking of Saddam." Mr. Dennis has been struggling recently with a poem about the Concorde.
"It harks back to one of my favorite poets, Kipling," says novelist Tom Wolfe, who attended a reading in New York. David Carey, publisher of the New Yorker, heard him at a conference in Monterey, Calif. "The audience was simply blown away," he says. "Most people expected poems where the words all rhyme with 'truck.' "
Many established poets don't seem to think their craft is in need of saving. At a London event, Mr. Dennis read a poem titled, "I Wish I liked Your Modern Verse...":
I wish I liked your modern verse,
I wish it were not so...perverse;
I wish the lines were not so dense,
Or even made a bit of sense.
A poet named Michael Horovitz jumped up and protested that it was "so wrong and so unfair," Mr. Dennis recalls. Mr. Horovitz says he didn't use those exact words, but he has little admiration for Mr. Dennis's style: "He has this maddeningly reactionary and Philistine concern about rhyming, which is why Felix, until he gets over it, won't become a true poet." He adds that people only bought the book out of "sheer gracefulness" in return for free wine.
Mr. Dennis wrote his first poem in 1999 and was "a bit embarrassed" by the idea. He didn't share any of his work until October 2001, when he read a poem at a dinner party. "I brought the house down," he says. "I felt like a young girl who won her first pony gymkhana." (A gymkhana is a sports meet often involving horses.)
Mr. Dennis duels with his editor, Simon Rae, both agree, especially about dog poems, which Mr. Rae thinks pander to the more mawkish sentiments of readers.
"This is an underpandered audience," splutters Mr. Dennis in response. "Maybe it's time someone did a little pandering," he says before launching into a favorite:
An old dog is the best dog,
A dog with rheumy eyes;
An old dog is the best dog
A dog grown sad and wise,...
He takes a breath: "They love these. Audiences like this stuff."
Mr. Dennis says he picked the title Maxim in part because it reminded him of a Hilaire Belloc poem about British colonialists in Africa: "Whatever happens, we have got/The Maxim Gun, and they have not." He is particularly proud of a cover line he wrote about the TV show "Xena, Warrior Princess" for the April 1999 issue of Maxim: "Xena Like You've Never Seen 'Er!"
American poets aren't rolling out the red carpet. "The associations between poetry and poverty are very strong and if you arrive in a helicopter, people would doubt your poetic credentials," says Billy Collins, the former U.S. poet laureate.
For the U.S. tour, Miramax plans to excise poems that are too British. It had to nix venues that wouldn't allow alcohol to be served. The publisher's president, Jonathan Burnham, says Mr. Dennis will also have to put aside his cigarettes during performances. "Welcome to America, Felix," says Mr. Burnham.
"Jonathan is not paying for this tour," says Mr. Dennis, who smokes two packs a day. "I am."