Monday, 13 September 2010

Spitting 'Cop-out! Cop-out!' as if from heaven...

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."


  1. Hi Andy,

    It's good to see my posts prompting more posts! Couple of points though:

    "The quicker we all come to terms with that the more pleasantly surprising the future will be."

    While, on a personal level, I completely agree with this (I must save what remains of my sanity, after all), I think you've just got to rattle the bars of the cage sometimes. You never know when it might set something off or change someone's mind. There's a balance to be achieved - I agree that if I did this sort of thing all the time I would be wasting my life!

    "“Authenticity” is bunk anyway."

    I don't actually agree with this. Well, I guess it depends what you mean. I don't expect poets to never play the crowd or to stick with being honest about their feelings, but I do think integrity in all art matters.

  2. Hi Jon,

    Thanks for taking the time to respond. I'm not against you raising the points you made, it's clear they are ones you are passionate about, and as I stated I've felt similar on occasion myself.

    My concern is rather that these discussions tend to become massively reductive, and indeed seem to become more about people's personal fears and anxieties about how they are/want to be perceived. I feel this can especially be seen in the past few comments made on your blog. It's no longer an argument dealing with general issues but rather seems to be taken on a personal level. This isn't a criticism of you, or those who have chosen to take issue with what you are saying - it's more that the whole thing seems to have devolved into a series of increasingly spurious justifications.

    I would like to add that I have seen Tim Clare speak very eloquently with regards to the role of performance poetry as entertainment. It is a shame that there is not a better platform for some of these debates (no slur intended on your blog), or that people are less willing to engage in it outside the relative comfort of the internet.
    Mind you, there were recent stories circulating of an unamed poet punching someone in the back of the head over a grammar correction, so maybe there's a reason. Look at me. A relative rumour mill.

    To clarify, the question of "authenticity" isn't one of insincerity or integrity - I meant it's more that the notion of the "authentic" poetic experience is one mired in numerous academic and popular definitions, all of which point to a largely repressive and regressive line of thinking. That's a debate for another time and another day though.


  3. I pretty much agree with Jon, so will try and keep my comments brief and as unsuperfluous as possible.

    I think Jon's initial point, as I understand it – that people like Clare and Wright being labelled 'poets' or 'bona fide' in the mass media when they're more 'performers' than 'poets' in the conventional sense... No, fuck it. Like Jon said (I think) in one of his posts, if we were to read their poetry off the page, solely off the page, it would either be dismissed as not being poetry or as being very bad poetry. I haven't read Wright's latest pamphlet, the last thing I read of his was his poem on Hand+Star, and I assumed the only reason he was on there was publicity related. It wasn’t good, and I can’t see a reader who knows their poetry considering it anything other than bad.

    But anyway, brevity: that the average reader not involved in the world of poetry is likely, having read one of the many endorsements of 'poets' like Clare and Wright, to associate 'young British poetry' with what they're doing, which is in no way representative of all the innovative and exciting work that is being produced. I agree with you, Andy, in that poetry is exciting due to its exclusiveness, or its obscurity compared to other art forms, and that's fine; equally, I think it's legitimate to want to "rattle the bars", and to be frustrated about the fact that when the mass media does stoop down into the cracks to explore contemporary British poetry, it's the stuff that is predominantly stand-up, 'entertainment'-based and not the 'serious' poetry. (Forgive these silly inverted-comma words, it's just easier to begrudgingly use them.)

    I guess it just feels like a slap in the face that journalists (predictably) won’t bother investigating what I think it’s fair enough to say is better poetry, but will portray stuff that isn’t even all that rooted in poetry as being the best the young poetry scene has to offer. And so on and so forth.


  4. The problem with those assertions Josh is that they fail to acknowledge there is a far greater issue with the media, rather than the performers.

    Without wanting to come off sounding like a militant radical, people like Luke and Tim are awarded attention because they (intentionally or unintentionally) became part of a narrative, one that can be digested into part of a larger narrative about cultural exchange and value. The fault doesn't lie at their door, but with platforms such as the Guardian, standing as they do to assert notions inexorably linked to the status quo and keeping a whole muddle of ideas about culutral consumerism running.

    Yes, as consequence a few fidgety readers will abbreviate these young men as being the entire of 'the young british poetry scene' but then it's ultimately their loss. The kind of person who tries to define their cultural experience by what they read in a mainstream press without doing any digging of their own deserves to miss out.

    In addition, I'm sure poets such as Tim and Luke have been at the receiving end of some pretty hardline bias themselves. Certainly it seems, by the tenacity of their responses, that the issue has been one they are keenly aware of.

    I got more I could prattle on about, but I think I need to leave it here for the time being...


  5. I'd rather people spent less time fussing over why the media doesn't care and more time telling me why they think Wright's poetry is shit. It's silly to insist that the media should be paying more attention - that's not its purpose. However, if we think that a poem is not worthy of the name we should be justifying ourselves, expressing our reactions critically. Jon's now talking about the absence of critical reviewing - but he's as guilty as the next man. ;)


  6. On the absence of critical reviewing (as opposed to 'negative' reviewing), I suppose the thing is that it seems way more productive to spend time articulating why something is good than why it is bad. Why? Ultimately, I think, because positivity is more persuasive (smacking less of prejudices) and thus more of a force of change. When you deconstruct the awfulness of something, you might entertain and enliven those who already agree with you but you've got to be a damned good shot to change anyone's mind.

    That said, I *would* like to see more critical reviewing, and I'd start by saying that the obvious flaw in Wright's poetry (disclaimer: I haven't read the pamphlet, only what's freely available on various websites) is that the rhymes are predictable (when the first line ends in 'can', you already know you're going to see 'man', 'plan' and 'gran' before the stanza is finished) and that the humour is rarely more cutting or subversive than taking the piss out of a stereotype.

  7. I'd not seen those comments on the end - sorry for the delay in throwing my penny's worth in. Jon, (and indeed anyone else with an interest) I think you would enjoy/find some benefit in reading Peter Riley's summary of British Poetry, it can be found here:

    I'm not certain but I suspect you will find certain parallels can be drawn...

  8. One slight correction - Peter Riley's summary of post WW2 British Poetry -