Monday, September 04, 2006

Most Poetry Ignores Most People?

I was thumbing through an old issue of Thumbscrew, a UK poetry magazine, from six years ago, and an article from Andy Croft caught my eye. He begins:

"Most people," as Adrian Mitchell once famously put it, "ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people". This is of course regrettable, but at least it means that "most people" don't realise the contempt with which they are regarded by so many poets. Contemporary British poetry is not so much a game which everyone can play, as an élite sport played by professionals to which the rest of us are invited as spectators.

It is a stately-home nature-trail patrolled on every side by game-keepers. It is a night-club with more bouncers than dancers. It is a world in which, according to Jane Holland in Poetry Review, "there are too many people out there writing poetry" - an opinion which subsequent correspondence in the magazine suggests is "the private view of most serious poets" and editors "who have to wade through oceans of substandard verbiage on a regular basis to find anything worth publishing".

I can see why editors might feel that way, although I suspect they get some of that "substandard verbiage" from people who ought to know better, from frequently published poets and indeed, the "professionals".

I suppose the subtext of the attitude is that the professionals would much rather people stopped writing and instead read what they (the professionals) are writing, but people won't do so unless they like what they are offered to read.

Although there is a lot of interesting poetry around, you often have to know what you are looking for to find it. I find a lot of poems I read in magazines, even well-respected magazines, astonishingly tedious. Maybe editors have to start publishing fewer poems. Less could be more in this case, a higher quality product overall. If you want people to read poetry, give them something worth reading. That should also improve the overall standard of submissions, as readers of poetry obviously make better writers than non-readers.


Eloise said...

I think it is probably true, and quite probably all down to the popularity of free verse (not that I have anything against well-written free verse).

From a reader/potential poetaster point-of-view, free verse removed that one barrier of craft that restricted the number of poets before the 20th century: rhyme and meter, if you had no proficiency with that is was unlikely that you would ever have any success in poetry. Now free verse looks so simple that it deludes many people into believing that old lie that if you just put your feelings out there, that that will count as poetry. And as we all know, it doesn't!

On the side of the poet, without the easy markers of craft and formal dexterity it seems that a lot of poets have gone the way of the avant-garde and seem to think that by making their poetry incomprehensible to any but a rarified elite, they have recreated that barrier, whereas actually they (IMO) have just prevented a lot of well-crafted free verse succeeding. They ignore any audience, and some even go so far as to actively reject any possibility of a casual reader finding and enjoying their poetry, which is the only way really that the audience will become any wider.

I'm not saying that it is only through formal verse that poetry will become popular again (because that is obvious tosh: you get as much pretentious and elitist metrical verse as you get free verse, and you always run the risk that the New Formalists fell into, that of allowing very mediocre poets to become famous, purely because they wrote formal poetry), but if you look at the nation's most popular poems (like those BBC books), the vast majority are rhymed and metered. If poetry wants to become a major force again it needs to try and promote poets who have that balance of craft, depth and accessibility that the finest of our canon (almost all of whom are formal poets, as much as the term is applicable before the advent of vers libre) managed.

That was probably a terrible ramble but it's 6am and I haven't slept yet.

Anonymous said...

Literary fiction has the same problem: most of it mind-rippingly dull, and largely comprised of competent prose directed toward very small, consistently depressing, and almost uniformly uninteresting stories and themes. And publishers have allowed this to happen for so long that a false dichotomy has emerged: unless you're into genre fiction, the only options are lots of caffeine and kowtowing to what the critics insist is worthy fare, or retreating to badly written, utterly disposable bestseller fare, whose sole virtue is often an interest in entertaining you.

And there's a dirty little secret behind all the snobbery and denigration of the audience: it's hard to be entertaining. Really hard.

Dickens, Shakespeare and Twain worried about box office, among many other things. But apparently, worrying about entertaining has become a line of demarcation between highbrow and lowbrow writing, for all the wrong reasons.

On the bright side, this isn't the case in film--the best-written movies are almost invariably the most entertaining ones--Amores Perros, Shaun of the Dead, Lost in Translation, Chinatown, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Trainspotting, etc. Perhaps it's because so much money is at stake; it's not enough to win over eleven critics and go back to academia afterward.

Anonymous said...

Look on the bright side - Neil Astley:

is out there wielding the axe (heh) in defence of us literary commoners.

And from the other side of the pond Steve Kowit:

lays into the horrid pedants.


(Sorry Rob to repeat - delete if you wish.)

shug said...

It's bound to be dismissed as the bitter ramblings of an outsider but I'm convinced too much of the so called "scene" is dominated by a self-elected , self-perpetuating and self-promoting cabal. There are people in the elite who are patently gifted, great writers- Don Paterson comes to mind- but there are others who don't seem to deserve the position and owe it to the usual combination of nepotism, networking, greasing, fauning, thigh slapping etc.
There doesn't seem much integrity about poetry publishing or reviewing (For instance Alan Warner (Cape Author) reviews Robin Robertson (Cape Publisher)and much to everyone's astomishment finds him brilliant)
After patient observation spanning some 20 odd years (very odd, some of them)I would postulate that the possibility of anyone who had a normal life ,eg job, kids or other commitments apart from literature, being able to commit the time, effort and loss of self-respect needed to "make it" is very remote.

Harry said...

Meh. Everyone has their suggestions, and the truth remains that most people go through life without reading poetry and don't feel any loss. If poetry really met some aching need a lot of people felt, it would soon start shifting copies. It clearly doesn't.

I find arguments from both sides faintly depressing: the anti-intellectual tendency of believers in 'accessible' 'relevant' poetry who would happily peddle the most anodyne pap in the name of getting people to read poetry – but also the scorn of the highbrow at people's simple wish for emotional engagement and immediate pleasure. Two bald men fighting over a comb.

I support attempts to package poetry in ways that make it less intimidating, but I think there's a tendency to kid ourselves that there's a great untapped pool of potential poetry readers out there. Maybe it's just not true.

Roddy said...

Shug, even among our fellow Scottish poets who might be said to have 'made it', those with jobs / kids / commitments would include Kathleen Jamie, John Burnside, WN Herbert, Kate Clanchy, Robin Robertson, Don Paterson, Stewart Conn, Jackie Kay, Robert Crawford, Douglas Dunn and so on. Okay, some of them work in jobs (in publishing or academia) which involve their writing, but jobs they certainly are, and they had a wide variety of employment before publishing a book or two.

I have heard the 'scene' / elites and cabals / 'bouncers at the door' argument so many times - it's a pound of mince. A grand story, but I've yet to see any evidence of it - if you look at poets taken on recently by bigger publishers, they are from all over the place and all sorts of backgrounds.

In the past five years, via teaching and editorial work, I have helped over a dozen poets towards first collections, including ones from most of the big publishers. No one slapped a thigh or fawned - they were simply good writers who deserved to be read.

shug said...


I rather like my mince, thank you.

"In part the Scottish Poetry Scene like any other is a mix of backscratching and indifference to genuine talents who remain apart from the ruckus."

(Gerry Cambridge writing in 'Dark Horse')

Whenever anyone comes up with blindly idealistic tosh about good writing always getting the recognition it deserves I always think of Willie Neill, clearly one of the best Scottish writers of the last 30 years, largely sidelined because he's stupid enough to stay in Castle Douglas writing rather than getting his photo taken in a leather jacket and doing some networking.

Scavella said...

"Dickens, Shakespeare and Twain worried about box office, among many other things. But apparently, worrying about entertaining has become a line of demarcation between highbrow and lowbrow writing, for all the wrong reasons."

I was thinking about this just the other day (may have been yesterday, not sure) and came up with the following: the marginalization of poetry in the popular imagination has taken place almost in direct proportion to the availability of recorded music. And I'm not sure the two are separate phenomena.

Think of it this way. For most of its history the link between poetry and song has been strong. Early poems were songs, and the earliest were songs and stories rolled into one. The playing with language, rhythm, music, rhyme, action, adventure, and suspense all happened at one and the same time. Poems dealt with all, as well as social commentary, satire, everything that we don't find in contemporary Poetry on a regular basis.

But we find a whole lot of it in song.

And for some reason, Poets (myself included) tend to regard themselves as different from songwriters. Lyrics that go with music are separate animals from poems these days. What the lyricist does, we can argue, isn't really poetry.

I think that the reason for the decline in popularity/centrality of poetry is linked to the availability of recorded music and the separation (relatively recent) of poem and song. The recording industry has done for form (regular rhythm and rhyme) what the printing industry did for narrative — remove the need for poems to do that job.

Poetry is irrelevant because, well, it is. It's printed in little books or read from pulpits, and too many of us, schooled as Eloise says in the Free Verse norm, have far less familiarity with the power of rhythm and rhyme and sound than (dare I say it?) the best of the rappers. (The worst, of course, are just as bad as we are.) The "people", however, are still listening to stuff — they pour songs into their ears all day long. Poetry is marginal, I think, because song is central, and poetry has separated itself from song.

Rob Mackenzie said...

Shug, I’m in no doubt that many excellent poets never get the success their writing deserves, and poetry isn’t the only field where this happens. Look at the pop music charts and the talentless idiots that fill them, and then look at the many bands who make far more interesting music but achieve only modest commercial success at best.

However, I don’t think Roddy was arguing that talent will always find success. He was suggesting only that those who achieve some success with poetry, in the main, don’t do so because they have sucked their way to the top, but because they are quality writers who have caught people’s attention. They may not necessarily be the ‘best’ writers, and it remains a sad fact that many other quality writers go unnoticed and uncelebrated, but that’s unavoidable. It’s true in every sphere of life, sad as that might be.

I never subscribed to Thumbscrew and only possess this single copy from 2000, but in the same issue there is a letter from Kate Clanchy complaining about the quality of a review of her book by a certain poet/critic in a previous issue. She writes that here is “something very naive in his bilious listing of the ‘British Council and Society of Authors disbursements’ and his boyishly martial vision of the world of published poets, where, apparently I have ‘set up camp’, and am ‘staking a claim’, surrounded by ‘cronies and flatterers’. I only wish that such attentions really did follow the publication of two collections of poetry to modest success.”

I suspect that Kate Clanchy has it right. Of course, some poets will come to attention more through an ability for self-publicity than from their writing skills, but I’ve no evidence that that’s true generally. I’ve also found the few published poets I know to have been very generous and helpful, not at all wanting to shut the door on me or keep me out of their club. Of course, I’ve had little success in the poetry world, but that’s probably more my fault than anything else. I keep wondering why certain magazines I would like to appear in keep rejecting my poems. I could blame them, but I notice that they do publish other poets who aren’t well known – just not me! It’s frustrating, but I think a commitment to plug away at writing is the only answer, other than giving up entirely. The writing of a good poem is its own justification, even if no one rushes to make you a celebrity because of it.

Shug, you seem to be doing OK. You’re getting poems, pamphlets, and even books published, and you never know what might happen in the next year or two if you keep plugging away.

Roddy, I couldn’t help but notice your letter in that same issue of Thumbscrew. You wrote, “I’m glad to hear my thumbs are being screwed again – with no mention in the last issue, I began to wonder what I was doing right!”, and possibly as a result of that, the editor a few pages on, expressed his disappointment that your book had become a Poetry Society Choice rather than some other book he thought was better. That was six years ago – all water under the bridge now, I expect.

Rob Mackenzie said...

Rob, Harry - two bald men fighting over a comb? That's right of course. Most people will never have any interest in poetry, just as I will never have any interest in stamp collecting. But for people who do feel relatively well disposed towards poetry, it's hard to search out the good stuff sometimes amongst all the mediocre. I try not to step too far to one side of the accessibility vs. difficulty argument because I think there is good accessible poetry and good dificult poetry - and bad in both camps too of course.

Eloise and Scavella - you both make some interesting points. Let me think...

Roddy said...

Hi Rob - I think you've answered Shug on my behalf. We all have our favourite writers who are undervalued. That's nothing to do with the idea that the poetry scene is controlled by a dozen of us living in a penthouse flat in Covent Garden and taking turns at the prizes.

Sadly that Thumbscrew business was not water under the bridge - the 'letter' you quote was an email (not for publication) from me to the editors, in a hope they would lighten up and not place stuff about me every issue - most of it petty, some of it funny, but snide dismissals and speculation about other poets I may have been shagging was way off. Kate C got the same - as did others to some extent.

Without wanting to dig this all up, it came to a head in 2004, when after several anonymous and libellous / nasty reviews allegedly written by Thumbscrew associates on a Oxford University site (KC and myself as the main targets again), it ended with a flurry of legal stuff (some prepared, some seen through), which involved the Charity Commission, three large publishers, Oxford University, StAnza and various writers and academics.

The point (laborious, tiresome, but in my view necessary) was to stop the use of anonymous, libellous attacks masquerading as reviews on the internet (please don't confuse with 'negative reviews'). It seems to have worked.

shug said...

Thanks Rob, if I keep "plugging away" I'll maybe get a bed one day in Roddy's penthouse.

If as you both say many good poets are neglected then it's a no-brainer to calculate therefore that poets sometimes "make it" for reasons other than or supplementary to the quality of their writing. You'll know more about this than me Roddy because you live in that rarified world but isn't it true to say there a relatively small number of writers/reviewers etc who are ,when it comes down to it, arbitrers
of what is "good" and who "make it?".

Rob Mackenzie said...

"Thanks Rob, if I keep 'plugging away' I'll maybe get a bed one day in Roddy's penthouse."

Is that what you want? Symbolically, I mean (I don't know whether Roddy has a penthouse or not). Is being accepted in the 'poetry world' important to you? And if you did 'make it', would that change your views on it?

In case of misinterpretation, I'm not meaning to be cheeky in asking those questions. But it strikes me that many people who rail against elites also want to be part of those elites.

shug said...

Rob, you've moved from patronising to smug in the space of two posts.

I have absolutely no desire to do anything about poetry except try when there's time to write the stuff.

And express the odd opinion.

Rob Mackenzie said...

Shug, I was only asking the question, not being smug or patronising at all (I'd use "plugging away" as much of myself as of anyone else).

I honestly don't know whether the kind of poetry elite you describe exists. It looks to me as though there are several schools, who often disagree with one another, and that new schools and alliances are forming all the time.

Like you, I try to write poems whenever I get the time. But we both (I think) also want an expanding readership. And if talent isn't enough in itself to achieve that, networking is anathema to you, and you don't want to become part of any 'in crowd', how do you achieve that? Unless you don't care, which I would find difficult to believe.

shug said...

Yup. No poets to network with here. Only sheep. Thousands of sheep.

I think it all began to go wrong for me when I stopped writing about seagulls and started writing about sheep.

Anonymous said...

I know it's important to search for the subtle angle at all times, so as to perpetually remain intriguing while always maintaining the upper hand, but I have to say, yup, scavella.

Eloise said...

We are writers not monks. What is wrong with smiling sweetly in a leather jacket occasionally if it means you can get your words out there? It is the same with musicians--the ones that have the wherewithal to get their demos on the right desks are the ones that have the chance of making it, not the musical genii locked in their bedrooms.

Our artform is a public one, so why is everyone so afraid of a bit of public relations?

It is the same thing (to continue with the musical analogy, and because I know far more about the workings of that business) with the music business. When Nirvana released Nevermind one of the most famous music mags of the time wrote words in their review to the effect of 'this is one of the best albums of its genre ever, but what a pity that they had to produce it through a major label'. Indie snobbery kills bands, and the same thing seems to happen in poetry--those that make it by winning over the big guns get sniped at by those that are too purist to allow even the faintest whiff of capitalism to invade their 'art'.

Why look down on a room in a penthouse? Better that than a garret.


PS I don't mean to be a pedant, but it is 'fewer' poems not 'less'.

Rob Mackenzie said...

Eloise, I've made the change.

I think self-conscious networking which involves 'using' people for personal ends, or attaching yourself to people in the hope that some of their fame might transfer to you (by, for example, being seen with the right person in the right place) is transparently nauseating.

On the other hand, if you run into a well known poet who then reads your poems, likes them, and offers you a helping hand in a small or significant way, that seems fair enough to me. The same thing almost certainly happened to the well known poet before he/she 'made it'.

You know the Morrissey lyric, "We hate it when our friends become successful, and if they're northern, that makes it even worse..." It's so true.

Student/Nic Sebastian said...

Harry writes:

"Meh. Everyone has their suggestions, and the truth remains that most people go through life without reading poetry and don't feel any loss. If poetry really met some aching need a lot of people felt, it would soon start shifting copies. It clearly doesn't."

Harry cracks me up on this topic, and I agree with him. "What are (insert practioner of trade here) for?" is a question easily answered by "mostpeople" when it comes to almost any trade you can mention - except that of poet. I think even poets have a hard time answering: "what are poets for?", so how likely is it that non-poets would find it easier? Cacofonix in Asterix comes to mind. Sigh.