Saturday 30 May 2009


Newsnight review produced some interesting points yesterday – and perhaps highlighted some of the broader issues poetry has had in engaging with the mass media in recent years. The panel comprised of Luke Wright, Simon Armitage, Josephine Hart and Akala – all of which made some strong cases for their various bits of polemic, while remaining distinctly underwhelming en masse.The contributors, probably through no fault of their own, all seemed forced to revert to type – Simon Armitage did his typically dull “I’m the people’s poet me” bit, Josephine Hart burbled in a pitch that rendered most of what she said incomprehensible, while Luke Wright and Akala seemed largely drafted in order to make the whole thing more approachable. Depressingly, the conversation seemed to centre round a very confused debate about whether poetry was relevant or popular – with the guests taking up the stand-point that yes it was, though their views on why remained more dependent on their individual backgrounds. For example, Akala banged the drum for the power of metaphor, that its popularity in Hip-hop has allowed him (and others) to make the connections to Shakespeare and others. As a regular hip-hop columnist I haven’t got time to make my personal views on this known here, but there is some element of truth in what he’s saying – albeit in a slightly more complex manner than just direct comparison.

The problem with these arguments about poetry and popularity is that it fails to acknowledge that when you use the word ‘poetry’ you are talking about a form – not a particular style or genre of writing. To clarify, like the word ‘painting’ ‘poetry’ is a catch-all phrase for a multitude of different things. Despite what the BBC presenter seemed to imply, elements do engage and see a fair degree of commercial success; performance poetry in particular is enjoying somewhat of a renaissance at the moment (although again, the term performance poetry can be divided into countless subgenres) – but on the flip side there isn’t much call for Neo-Catholic Metaphysical Sestinas at the moment. Perhaps the problem is not so much in the attitude of audience or poet, but in our expectations on how we should consume it. The poetry world is not in a position to proliferate a thousand new poets a year, and there isn’t the demand for it. This isn’t because people don’t engage with it, it’s because you aren’t able to passively consume a collection in the same way you would music perhaps. No-one asks why 90% of recorded music isn’t ‘engaging young people’ or ‘relevant’ – because everyone accepts that there’s so much of it that it couldn’t possibly appeal to everyone all of the time. The problem is that we want simplification – we want to feel that every endeavour can be flatly defined in terms of its engagement and the success it sees economically – when actually we’re not quite certain what criteria we are using. Trying to argue about “the state of poetry” using sales figures is like trying to guess the weight of the moon using fingers and toes alone.

So are we engaged, switched on, hip? Well no, we’re albino catfish in the lake – we have a place, but it’s an enigmatic, confusing one. Mass media can’t figure it out, or at least can’t find a way to make it look interesting on the telly-box. Media coverage of the recent hoo-has in poetry have exemplified this – Padel’s resignation has nothing to do with her art, it has everything to do with preconceived ideas of Oxford as being a stuffy, out-of-touch sort of institution – No-one seems to even talk about Duffy’s laureate in relation to her work, just in terms of what she’s done with the five grand and the fact she has breasts. The world doesn’t need poets to try and engage and “be down with the kids,” because there is nothing more ball-achingly embarrassing. Simon Armitage is prime example of this – his populism just succeeds at making the whole affair look woefully out of touch, a recreational pursuit for the middle-class Cambridge post-grads and bored housewives. Much like dogging.

So what’s the answer? I’m not sure. It’s important to cultivate new audiences, work on projects that engage outside of the usual niches – but at the same time there are ways of doing that without pandering to the usual blather or trying too hard. I remember Daniel Kane talking to me about his new book and saying that poetry was “a thing, like any other thing” – it didn’t need to be blown into some faux-profound bubble or space. I like his view best - that it is a creative reflex, a game that can be played. It doesn’t need to be worried about in quite the way people seem to, and it certainly doesn’t need academics talking about how they have a responsibility to “engage” or “make a point.” Sure, some of it does – and that’s a good thing – but when you try and put blanket definitions on what poetry should or shouldn’t be, well then it just gets dull. There’s so many multitudes contained in that one word, you can’t even begin to set it out as one cohesive thing. Where Newsnight failed was in its erratic generalising and simplification. Don’t talk to me about the “State of Poetry” - Poetry need only occupy a space into a reader or listener can project – what they do with that space is up to them.

Ah forget it, I’m quitting this racket and taking up gardening.

1 comment:

  1. I found Akala's banging on about the lyrics of John Lennon, Bob Dylan etc a bit offputting. It made him sound like a 15 year old who's heard Imagine for the first time and wants to change the world. Poetically a lot of these songwriters work doesn't cut it when read as poetry. About the only songwriter who can is Leonard Cohen and that's because a lot of his early songs were based on his poetry.