There’s an interesting series of posts on Jon Stone’s blog this month about poetry and the mainstream. He expresses a frustration about a certain bias in the media towards covering performance/populist poetry, as opposed to a more…well how shall we put it? ‘Serious’ poetry I suppose.
While I agree in part with what Jon is expressing, and can also claim that I’ve found it to be am opinion common amongst younger ‘serious’ poets, I do feel it takes a rather strong line against something while missing a much larger point. The majority of the media is a crass, wheezing monstrosity that tries to construct something resembling a narrative in a largely fragmented and confusing world. Poetry, for its most part, is fragmentary and confusing, and very occasionally it will try to pull together some semblance of a narrative. It is a multi-form and beautiful thing that expresses a rich variety of things; it’s that variety which makes it so special, and if media outlets such as the Guardian website choose only to dip their toe into the edges of that, where the water’s warmest, then it’s their loss.
Several things come to mind reading Jon’s blog posts and the various responses he received:
1) In May I had a conversation with Brian Catling before a reading - I was lamenting the onslaught of cuts coming to the arts within the coming months and he caught me with a glint, proclaiming,
“Of course, it’s our time. Poets have been doing it for free for years.”
Now, Catling is either some kind of criminal or a genius. After a couple of hours in his company I’m still uncertain. I do know that he is a man who genuinely loves the work he does, and is happy to do it for whoever is willing to engage with it. It’s a sensibility I do my best to share, because I tend to think it’s the best way forward - any man willing to strap rape alarms in his head at the age of 60 in the name of his creative practice is alright by me.
2) Poetry is a stupid way to make a living. At best it will give you a few years financial support and practically no peace of mind. It is a lamentable profession and you will be largely despised by the public. People will cross the road and curse your name. Relatives will disown you and sexual partners will do their best to forget you. The quicker we all come to terms with that the more pleasantly surprising the future will be.
3) Alan Moore sums something up quite neatly to that effect here.
4) Stewart Lee has made some interesting assertions in his recent book – one about the uniquely boring and safe line that universal art tends to take ( and by ‘universal art’ I’m taking this to mean the majority of the mainstream media’s focus), and a further one about farming one’s audiences. I would quote passages extensively from the book here, but I suspect it would be more beneficial to advise those interested to buy the book, therefore increasing the chance that Stewart Lee’s keen wit will move increasingly closer to the universal platform it deserves.
5) I like the exclusivity of the poetry I write. I don’t think elitism is necessarily a bad thing in art. This constant assumption that we have to play to the lowest common denominator (or rather the anxiety surrounding whether it ought to or not) is precisely what mars the whole progressive nature of poetry and literature in the first place. There’s nothing wrong with poetry as an entertainment, equally there’s nothing wrong with obscure, dense, ‘serious’ poetry either. I can understand Jon Stone’s frustration at media coverage and funding being thrown at the populists, but then it does seem similar to complaining that Charlie Kaufman’s latest film didn’t do as commercially well as ‘The Expendables’. Exclusivity is what makes it exciting when you meet another person who reads the Wire, or knows who Matthew Barney is, or can enthuse about their own peculiar niche of creative endeavour. In a world of such rich variety, I don’t think it’s necessarily bad to have some areas of art that exist in little dark corners and cracks. Finding and getting to grips with them is half the pleasure.
6) Joe Kennedy wrote a good review of Tom Raworth’s latest collection here. There are some pretty solid assertions being made about ‘difficult’ poetry there.
7) “Authenticity” is bunk anyway.
Poor Jon, looking at the various responses he’s had to his posts he’s stirred up quite a storm. I hope he won’t object to me hijacking his points to make my own badly formed arguments. Like I said, I can understand his frustration – I too have voiced similar complaints – but ultimately it gets you nowhere; far better to build the compound in the mountain and await the second coming. Or write because you enjoy it. Whatever.
I'll finish with a final word with Mark E Smith, or rather an approximation of something he said on a BBC documentary about his band last night:
"It was when Elton John said he liked the Fall that I realised we were doing something wrong."