Some notes on a recent PN review article by Rebecca Watts

Conflict and disparate opinions have arisen over an article in the UK poetry magazine,PN review.

I am not going to write here about ‘the poetry establishment’ or ‘ elites,’ or who I think they might be or what their role is, if any, in poetry . Nor will I offer my opinions on performance poetry versus page poetry, the merits or otherwise of some of the practitioners,  or any other seemingly related topic. These topics cause arguments that are endless, exhausting and generally seem to polarize people. I do not wish to support a point of view or an individual or denigrate another in this space. I don’t want to be part of a ‘faction’ and do not feel duty bound to ‘take a sides’. Maybe this means I am sitting on the fence.  I don’t think that is a bad place to view things from. Of course I have sympathies and ideas relating to some of the matters in the article and also relating to the responses to it that I have read on-line, including in The Guardian newspaper.

The PN Review article in question has caused some controversy in areas of the small but intensely opinionated world of UK poetry. I began to wonder about how it was written and what its salient points were, and also if they seemed to be supported by reasoned argument and example. With this in mind I wanted to ask a few questions, as perhaps an editor might, and add a few comments. It was an exercise that helped me examine the article more closely.  The original article starts with the bold type below, and my comments are in italics.

WHY IS THE POETRY WORLD pretending that poetry is not an art form?

Who or what is the ‘Poetry world’? This statement, ‘pretending that ..’  is based on an opinion, and is not really a question. It might be better to cut to the chase.  If the author of the article is going to address (accuse?) poetry reviewers or a specific poetry editor, why not begin there with a supported statement followed by an argument that builds? 

I refer to the rise of a cohort of young female poets

What does ‘rise’ denote? Popularity in terms of sales? Awards? Publishing deals? Is it a ‘cohort’ – what, if anything, do they have in common? Are the poets linked here exclusively female, or predominantly so? If predominantly so, say so. Otherwise people may imply you are a woman with something against other women. It is worth considering how this might be perceived by those who will inevitably take issue with some of what follows. Any perceived lack of understanding or knowledge of  women’s historical underrepresentation in literature might lead to accusations of failing to appreciate the ‘bigger picture.’    

who are currently being lauded by the poetic establishment

again, the author assumes that the reader knows who is being written about.  Presumably not all the ‘establishment’ are lauding the ‘cohort’.  It is likely that many have made no comment.  The author is in danger of making the ‘target’ or ‘targets’ of this piece more well supported than they might be.

for their ‘honesty’ and ‘accessibility’ –

perhaps this could be worded as ‘who often cite the ‘honesty’ and ‘accessibility’ as the main features that distinguish their work’

buzzwords for the open denigration of intellectual engagement and rejection of craft that characterises their work.

I don’t think these are ‘buzzwords’ for those things. It might be argued that the writing, in many cases is in fact distinguished by a lack the craft and intellectual engagement. This argument needs to be developed and supported before going on. The assertion needs to be backed up.

The short answer is that artless poetry sells.

 This really is ‘the short answer’, and is again, so far, unsupported by any argument or example.

In October 2016 The Bookseller reported the highest-ever annual sales of poetry books, ‘both in volume and value’. According to Penguin’s poetry editor, Donald Futers, this boom was due to the emergence of a ‘particularly energetic and innovative’ generation of young poets, who come to publishing with a significant and ‘seemingly atypical’ following. Figures released on National Poetry Day this year confirm this is no fad: sales are up by another fifteen percent in volume.

Names and more detail?  Otherwise this is an assumption based on the idea that Penguin’s poetry ed. (one source) is talking about the subjects that will be discussed in this piece. It might, however , be any of a huge number of poets. The sales could conceivably be up due, at least in part, to a new release by an established ‘mainstream’ poet or very popular anthology, for example.    

In 2016 and 2017 the bestselling title, which has outstripped all others by a staggering margin, has been Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey. Here is a typical poem from the book: ‘she was music / but he had his ears cut off’. Here is another:

i don’t know what living a balanced life feels like
when i am sad
i don’t cry, i pour
when i am happy
i don’t smile, i beam
when i am angry
i don’t yell, i burn
the good thing about
feeling in extremes
is when i love
i give them wings
but perhaps
that isn’t
such a good thing
cause they always
tend to leave and
you should see me
when my heart is broken
i don’t grieve
i shatter

 It might be best if the writer didn’t  assume that this quotation speaks (or doesn’t speak) for itself.  I assume the implication here is that this is awful poetry, and that everyone can see that.  I suspect that some can’t and/or won’t draw this conclusion. Perhaps the readers of PNR don’t buy Kaur, but as stated above, someone does.  If the author of the article can explain why this poem lacks craft/ intellectual rigor/ other qualities they hold to be essential in the poetry, perhaps now is the time to do so. If they do not wish to engage with the work quoted, perhaps it would be best not to quote it.

Following the example of New Zealander Lang Leav (with whom she now shares a publisher), Kaur amassed hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram before self-publishing a collection of her poetry online.

Does the writer know if Kaur followed the Lang Leay approach or worked it out herself? Does it matter?

Alerted to its popularity, Andrews McMeel Publishing – a specialist in the gift book market, now with a developed (as far as sales revenue is concerned) poetry arm – picked up the collection and issued it in print. By May 2017 it had sold 1.4 million copies (back then just over one per each of Kaur’s Instagram followers).

This is very interesting. A phenomenon.  The Instagram audience translated directly into hard copy sales. Publishing is a business. It makes profits or fails. This is bound to have an impact on publishing. 

Commenting on the appeal of Milk and Honey, Kaur’s publisher Kirsty Melville insisted that ‘the medium of poetry reflects our age, where short-form communication is something people find easier to digest or connect with’.

In the sense that Kirsty Melville is using ‘medium’ I don’t think this is anything new (see Marshall McLuhan, circa 1965, ‘The medium is the message’.) Technological advances help disseminate all forms of information. It’s not a very complex statement that reflects anything other than the perhaps a proven ‘truth’ as Melville has experienced it. 

Had we time to digest it, the diagnosis might provide cause for concern. The idea that Web 2.0 has a deleterious effect on our attention spans and cognitive abilities is nothing new; internet entrepreneur Andrew Keen argued the case in his 2007 book from which this essay takes its title.

I’m not sure that this has a research base. It is an opinion. And if it is true, how does the writer feel about the dissemination of this article on the web when prior to its invention it would have been read by a few hundred people at most? Also, what was Keen’s title referring too? I imagine it is being used here to describe the poets in question, but I’m interested in the context.

A decade on, this autumn, Twitter co-founder Evan Williams registered his dismay at how social media platforms were helping to ‘dumb the entire world down’, lamenting specifically the role Twitter played in Donald Trump’s election victory.

This is an article about poetry. I appreciate that poetry does not exist in a vacuum, but this is a little unfocused. Again, Williams is expressing an opinion and a lament in the tradition of Frankenstein’s creator. Not unusual, but impossible to prove as ‘fact’.

In the arena of politics, language has always been the slippery servant of self-promoting, truth-bending, popularity-seeking individuals.

And also the slippery servant of the great and good, perhaps?

In the age of the sound bite, for which social media is the perfect vehicle, we no longer expect the statements politicians utter to convey any meaning whatsoever.

Do ‘we’? And is this a result of social media or many other factors? How can we possibly know? Doesn’t a ‘social media trail’ also sometimes serve as a basis to hold people to account (see recent backlash and consequences for individuals in British and American politics.)

From literature we have hitherto expected better – not least because endurance, rather than fleetingness, is one marker of its quality.

This is perhaps a romantic view of ‘literature’. Do ‘we’ expect anything at all from literature? Perhaps, when we begin to read, a good story. Is it possible that there are now many ‘literatures’ which entertain, move, enlightened, surprise, inform. It is possible ‘we’ do not expect the same things, or agree upon what is good literature. Is the idea of ‘the cannon’ losing ground as people reevaluate power structures and the social circumstances that gave rise to it?

As for  ‘endurance’ as a benchmark, all manner of things endure. Nursery rhymes, limericks. Books that were considered great are forgotten, poets fall from fashion or return to it. New ways of seeing and making arrive and disappear.

As Pound put it, literature is ‘news which stays news’.

This reader’ s interpretation of Pound’s statement is that human experience, written about in a memorable way, will always be relevant. This leads to the question – what is memorable writing and is there a consensus on this? If the argument is that great literature seems to endure, it would be good to include examples.

Of all the literary forms, we might have predicted that poetry had the best chance of escaping social media’s dumbing effect; its project, after all, has typically been to rid language of cliché.

Of course, poetry predates ‘literature’ as a spoken word medium.
The ‘we’ is again problematic here. Some of ‘us’ wouldn’t have predicted that at all. We might, on the contrary, have expected it, denied it, rejected the idea, or embraced it. Mozart may not have predicted the seven-inch single, but it could be argued that the Beatles and others made it into an art form accessible by millions. The medium changes. Every aspect of life (as predicted by Bowie at the dawn of the internet) will and has been affected-even literature, even poetry.

It could also be argued that ‘poor’ popular poetry existed before social media. The above seems to suggest that Kaur and Instagram are partially responsible for the degradation of poetry. 

Yet in the redefinition of poetry as ‘short-form communication’ the floodgates have been opened. The reader is dead: long live consumer-driven content and the ‘instant gratification’ this affords.

This statement is not strongly supported in the article so far. One editor (Kaur’s) is cited as saying ‘the medium of poetry reflects our age, where short-form communication is something people find easier to digest or connect with’. This does not constitute a redefinition of poetry, but is solely the opinion of Kaur’s editor. The ‘floodgates’ of information exchange were opened a long time ago, and short of a world- wide internet crash, are not going to be closing anytime soon. To some, this may represent the end of discourse, reason, truth, beauty, even poetry. To others, a world of possibility.  Who is ‘the reader’ here? Is ‘the reader’ the one who eschews all ‘instant gratification’? Is it not possible to inhabit both worlds, the one of Twitter and other social media and the world of ‘literature’?

Though their reach is nowhere near Kaur’s in terms of absolute sales figures, Kate Tempest and Hollie McNish are her UK equivalents,

What are the similarities (if any) between these writers?

dragging

‘dragging’ implies no free will. Presumably this is not the case.

their significant and seemingly atypical followings

It would be good to provide some clarity about what is ‘typical’ and ‘atypical’. Are demographic details available? is the reader of the article supposed to guess who these atypical following might be?  

into the arena of establishment-endorsed poetry.

Both developed profiles on YouTube as an extension of their presence on the slam/performance scene, before being picked up in print by Picador.

So not really like Kaur (who used a different medium, Instagram, not performance, and followed a self-publishing route.)

Both have received the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry. Through them, the establishment – by which I mean its publishers, editors, reviewers and awards administrators– demonstrates its belief that poetry must adapt to changes in the way people engage with literary output.

Does it? Is this a statement from an ‘establishment’ member? Do ‘they’ all think this? Is the Ted Hughes award (possibly a marketing device) and Picador’s endorsement enough evidence to support this statement? Perhaps. Is it possible that the publisher is responding to market forces and nothing else, which is perfectly valid decision for a publisher to make (unless they have a signed contract stating that they will defend loss making ‘‘literature’ to their last breath.) Is it also possible the magazine in which this article appears, and its author, also represent, to some another facet of the ‘establishment ‘?   

Even McNish has deduced

Why ‘Even McNish’?

that her ‘poetic memoir’ Nobody Told Me won the Ted Hughes Award ‘because of where the poetry has gone, not for the quality of the writing’.

 ‘poetic memoir’ in quotes implies the author does not regard the book as a poetic memoir.  Would it be helpful to the reader to explain why this writer does not consider McNish’s book to fit the term? The quote from McNish is of interest. Here McNish seems to be aware of something and is simply stating what she sees as fact.

What good is a flourishing poetry market, if what we read in poetry books renders us more confused, less appreciative of nuance, less able to engage with ideas, more indignant about the things that annoy us, and more resentful of others who appear to be different from us?

There are several points to unpack here. Some might argue (not least established poets who might sell a couple of hundred copies of a book, in the unlikely event that it is stocked in the high-street/ has won a prize etc) that a ‘flourishing poetry market’ is not likely to ever exist in the uk ( if flourishing equates to high volume sales in comparison to novels, for example)  unless it is for books like those written by Kaur. 

Some might also argue that any interest at all in the poetry section of a bookshop is welcome. The much maligned and much loved (and much sold )Liverpool poets led thousands to poetry. Ask poets of a certain generation and they will verify this. So one argument might read that someone who wonders to the poetry section for one book might explore others.

Does McNish (I assume we are still using her as an example) really render ‘us’ (whoever ‘we’ are)

more confused, less appreciative of nuance, less able to engage with ideas, more indignant about the things that annoy us, and more resentful of others who appear to be different from us?

If so, where is the argument to support this?

The ability to draw a crowd, attract an audience or assemble a mob does not itself render a thing intrinsically good: witness Donald Trump.

I agree with the statement but not sure ‘a mob’ or Trump need turn up again in this poetry discussion. The association is out of place.

Like the new president, the new poets are products of a cult of personality, which demands from its heroes only that they be ‘honest’ and ‘accessible’,

The rise of Trump is, as I understand it, the result of several factors, not least the electoral college system. I don’t know if the ‘new poets’ are products of a cult of personality. They certainly know how to attract an audience through performance, as demonstrated. Does ‘the audience’ demand that their ‘heroes’ (a big word- do people consider Tempest and McNish ‘heroes?’  Maybe they do) be ‘honest’ and accessible? Do the audience create the demand or have the performers created the market? Do they reflect societal change, or instigate it? Who knows?

where honesty is defined as the constant expression of what one feels, and accessibility means the complete rejection of complexity, subtlety, eloquence and the aspiration to do anything well.

‘to do anything well’. Is that a fair statement? Presumably, some people think Tempest and McNish perform well, for example. And perhaps there are different types of eloquence, including forcefulness and fluency (two things I think Tempest might have, having seen her on TV, reciting long passages entirely from memory.) It will certainly not be to all tastes, but it is difficult to see how her performance can be categorised as not being done well.

As Kaur’s editor has explained:

A return to Kaur here feels like switch in tack. Perhaps the reader could follow the arguments better if the writer stuck to the main subject, which isn’t Kaur.

‘The emotional intensity of Rupi’s message of self-empowerment and affirmation, combined with her passionate audience really resonated and we could see through sales of her self-published edition that her readers were really responding to her message.’

This seems like standard marketing speak and possibly is ‘the truth’ as the editor perceives it. So what point is being made? I suppose the inference is that ‘we’ agree that such trite writing cannot resonate with readers. I’m guessing here since the link is not clear.

Similarly, Don Paterson, the editor of Tempest and McNish, says McNish appealed to him because of her ‘direct connection with an audience’ and the ‘disarming honesty of the work’.

Looking closely at the two statements above, I’m not sure the two editors are talking about the same things at all.

When did honesty become a requirement – let alone the main requirement – of poetry?

I don’t think anyone said it did. Patterson merely gave two reasons why McNish apparently appealed to him.

Curiously, the obsession doesn’t apply to all literature; there is no expectation that the output of novelists or playwrights should reflect their personalities.

I’m not qualified to comment on this comparison. I do find it difficult to think of Alan Bennett without picturing him, his clothes, manner, politics and voice.    

Yet every one of the reviews and articles relating to McNish in the press in the past two years cites this feature as her work’s main selling point. Reviewing her new Picador collection Plum in The Scotsman, Roger Cox writes:

It’s not that she doesn’t care about things like scansion and simile; more that, in her personal list of aesthetic priorities, immediacy and honesty matter more. […] Much of what McNish has to say urgently needs saying; and if form follows function in her poems, well, that’s as it should be.

It is odd ( unless written after an interview) that Roger Cox seems to ‘know’ what McNish ‘cares about.’ Being a fan is different from being a reviewer. As I understand it, that requires the reviewer to qualify their opinion with reference to the text. So the review is more of a PR piece or advertisement than a ‘review’. It is certainly my opinion that the same could be said of the majority of contemporary newspaper reviews,  regardless of the poet in question. I can support this statement, but won’t do so here.   

Honesty as an aesthetic priority?

It does appear that the perceived ‘honesty’ of McNish’s work is being picked up as a quality by the two sources cited above .

The function of poems?

BBC presenter Jim Naughtie delivered similar non sequiturs when interviewing McNish for the BBC News channel’s Meet the Author broadcast on 15 June 2017. Asked what audiences like about her poems, McNish answered: ‘they like the honesty in them’. Naughtie elaborated:

They want poems that don’t seem too artificial or contrived, that actually hit you in the solar plexus. […] With any good poetry there’s nowhere to hide for the poet – I mean, it’s all there, isn’t it?

Jim Naughtie (special correspondent for BBC News and not an arts or literature specialist) might have hit the nail on the head in the first part of his sentence – ‘they want poems that don’t seem too artificial or contrived.’ Maybe some people do. Apparently, they do, if sales are anything to go by. This is not a controversial statement. ‘Seem,’ is of course important here. The rest of the sentence shows, in my opinion, that Jim isn’t someone who has spent a lot of time thinking or writing about poetry, but I could be wrong. There is another essay here somewhere.

When we don’t expect linguistic precision from poets, perhaps it’s unfair to expect it from arts editors and broadcasters. Still, people who do not know that poems are deliberately created works, not naturally occurring phenomena, should not be paid to pass judgement on and host discussions about literature.

Where did anyone quoted above say that poems are ‘naturally occurring phenomena’?

If, on the other hand, these cultural commentators do know that poetry is an art form, why are they lying?

I’m convinced neither Roger Cox nor Jim Naughtie are ‘lying’. There haven’t been any other ‘commentators’ cited in relation to the two British poets mentioned thus far. It is possible that Jim is not a big contemporary poetry reader, and Roger simply likes the book (and, I note, in another article, its predecessor), and says why. It appears he’s writing for a broad audience (readers of The Scotsman) and he thinks they might like it too and gives his reasons in an uncritical way.  

One explanation is that they are pandering to a strain of inverse snobbery that considers talent to be undemocratic. In acting thus, they are playing a part in the establishment’s muddle-headed conspiracy to ‘democratise’ poetry.

Evidence? Quotes, examples to back this up? Is this a recent cultural phenomenon? If the establishment is democratising poetry, many may plaintively ask ‘when are they going to let me/us in’? It might conversely be argued that poetry is and always will be the most democratic art form. Again, another essay.

It was against precisely this ‘inadvertent’ trend that Paterson argued in his 2004 T.S. Eliot lecture ‘The Dark Art of Poetry’ (the full text is available online at http://www.poetrylibrary.org.uk/news/poetryscene/?id=20). A comparison of his standpoint then with his more recent comments about the new poets he has elected to publish reveals an astonishing U-turn.

This is interesting to this reader at least, and perhaps a better place to start this article.  

In 2004 Paterson denounced ‘the populists, who have made the fatal error of thinking that feeling and practice form a continuum […] those self-appointed popularisers, who, by insisting on nothing but dumb sense, have alienated poetry’s natural intelligent and literate constituency by infantilising our art’. Such writers, he argued, ‘purvey a kind of straight-faced recognition comedy, and have no need either for originality or epiphany’.

In the Guardian on 16 June 2017 he identified the same characteristic as a cause for celebration, claiming that McNish’s work ‘gives me the kind of feeling you get from recognition comedy’.

Well yes. There it is. Paterson appears to have changed his mind, or can be interpreted to have changed his mind in the intervening years.

Feelings aside, the analogy is problematic. Recognition comedy is the art of provoking laughter by making an audience recognise absurdity in the familiar. Its effect, when done well, is the cultivation of humility through self-awareness.

McNish’s poems consist of assemblages of words that relate to familiar topics.

Interesting contrast in the two statements (14 years apart.) But why ‘feelings aside’ ? Are they invalid? 
Also, isn’t any poem an ‘assemblage of words?’ Presumably this term is used to avoid calling the work a ‘poem.’  

Their effect is limited to recognition, which merely reinforces the reader or audience member’s sense of selfhood.

As McNish and her critics acknowledge, her fans are drawn to the poems by the themes – sex, relationships and perceived social inequalities – as well as by McNish’s ‘unpretentious’ presentation,

where unpretentious means abundant in expletives and unintimidating to anyone who considers ignorance a virtue.

This last sentence is quite a leap from the previous sentence and extremely provocative. It is not, at this point, well-reasoned or supported. A percentage of readers who may have been following this article with interest up to now may be quite surprised at the sudden injection of indignant and judgemental invective.

Again, these are characteristics Paterson derided in 2004:

To take a risk in a poem is not to write a big sweary outburst about how dreadful the war in Iraq is […]. This kind of poetry is really nothing but a kind of inverse sentimentalism – that’s to say by the time it reaches the page, it’s less real anger than a celebration of one’s own strength of feeling. Since it tries to provoke an emotion of which its target readers are already in high possession, it will change no-one’s mind about anything; more to the point, anyone can do it.

In 2017 he asserts the opposite:

Hollie takes on subjects that we don’t talk about as much as we think we do. People may think it’s easy writing as spontaneously as she does, with no artifice, but it’s really not. It only works because it perfectly suits her personality.

It is implied that one or both of the poets mentioned thus far are prone to ‘big sweary outbursts’  and inverse sentimentalism. This has not been supported so far by quotation. Paterson might not regard either of ‘his’ poets as falling into this category. The writer of the article is placing them in the category without, so far, supporting this view.

Paterson is right in this: Plum is the product not of a poet but of a personality.

It may be the writer’s opinion, but Patterson didn’t say that. He said, to paraphrase, that she writes spontaneously and that he doesn’t think this is easy. He also said it works because ‘it suits her personality.’ I’m not sure what he means by this. If he means her work works well live because of her delivery and presence/ humour/style etc. then fine. I don’t know how this translates /relates to the books.

I was supposed to be reviewing it, but to do so for a poetry journal would imply that it deserves to be taken seriously as poetry.

Maybe this is the point at which it is best for the writer to consider the main targets/ goals of this article are and to ask if there are too many.
She has a great deal to say, so far bringing in 

Kaur, Tempest, McNish, Patterson, Twitter, contemporary politics and politics in general,) Trump style popularism, the ‘establishment’ (as embodied by ‘publishers’ – possibly just Picador,) poor quality journalism, reviewers in general

Besides, I was too distracted by the pathological attitude

‘pathological attitude’ is a whole new territory. 

of its faux-naïve author,

as is ‘faux-naïve’

It is one thing to suggest that an author is ‘faux-naïve’ and to back this up immediately with reasons for this suggestion. It is another to make the statement in isolation.    

and too offended by its editor’s exemplary bad faith, to ignore the broader questions it provokes.

‘offended by’  ‘exemplary bad faith.’  To clarify, the author of the article has expectations of the editor, Patterson. He is expected not to change his mind(if indeed he has done so) in relation to whom he publishes and to conform to the expectations of the writer.  Perhaps an interview or discussion with Patterson would be a good way to proceed. 

Another starting point an more focused starting point might be here (and possibly the original ‘review’ did begin by considering McNish. )

In 2015 I heard McNish speak on a panel at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, where she was also a main performer. Two things she said struck me then as bizarre,

unusual’ might suffice in place of  the more aggressive ‘ bizarre. The strength of the language detracts from the information/argument and leaves no room for the reader to pose questions for themselves.  

both in themselves and for the fact that she chose to admit them publicly.

The first was that her publisher (presumably by then Picador) had sent her a pile of books to read, because they thought she hadn’t read enough poetry. The second was that the poems she was writing presently were the same as the poems she had written in her childhood diaries. It must have been around this time that she hit upon the idea for Plum, which treats us to the ‘first poem I wrote down, aged 8’, along with poems ‘written aged’ 9, 10, 13, 14, 16, 17, 18, 24, 25, 27, 29, 30 and 33 (as indicated in subtitles). Sometimes the childhood poems are explicitly paired with poems written in adulthood, with an introductory note by McNish highlighting their similarities. Via this novel format she curates her self-image as a writer in possession of her full talents from the start.

Poetry as an autobiographical project is nothing new; we could credit Wordsworth for inventing the expectation that a readership should be as interested in ‘the growth of a poet’s mind’ as the poet is.

Ignorant of any tradition out of which poets write, McNish has inadvertently penned a Prelude for our time.

I suspect the author of this piece does not know the extent of McNish’s ignorance or otherwise. Sarcasm is enjoyed by some readers, I imagine, but I’m never convinced it is a useful tool in a focused argument.

Where Wordsworth’s lifelong poetic project explores the development of the poet’s particular sensibilities – development brought about through a combination of emotional experience, education, philosophical reflection and personal engagement with events, and debates whose implications extend beyond the poet’s sense of his individual identity and importance – McNish’s slapdash assembly of words

McNish’s book ?

(‘scribbled in confused moments’, as she says in the acknowledgements) celebrates the complete stagnation of the poet’s mind.

The first double-page spread of the collection presents ‘Meadows yellow, brown and green. / Rainbows in the sky. / No litter on the grass or fields. / Butterflies flutter by’ alongside ‘i think of strawberries in the summer / firmed and ripe and juicy / and how perfectly dandelion seeds / are made to helicopter breezes / procreating across fields’. The first is standard eight-year-old fare, suggestive of neither backwardness nor literary promise. The second, ‘written aged 30’, is a response to McNish’s mother’s assertion (McNish calls it ‘advice’) that ‘I love you to the moon and back, Hollie / but you are no more important than a tree’. McNish’s philosophising (‘and i wonder why we’re here […] and i wonder what the point is […] and what the fuck we’re on this rock for’) leads her simply to ‘remind myself / this is not all about you, hollie’. Unfortunately the thought, like a tweet, is no sooner expressed than forgotten.

The eight-year-old’s poem is printed twice: it bookends Plum’s first section, which consists of seventy poems grouped under the heading ‘(mind)’. While the second section consists of eight short poems categorised as ‘(body)’, the majority of poems in ‘(mind)’ are concerned with sex, anatomy, physical appearances, dancing, animals, food, or some combination thereof (‘Hiccups’, ‘Sweat’ and ‘Nipples’ are all classified as ‘(mind)’).

I don’t have anything to say about this section. It seems to me to fall into the category of vigorous criticism, which is supported by examples.

If this feeble attempt to convince the reader that McNish’s infantile outbursts carry some philosophical significance seems preposterous, the use of parentheses to shield the terms from scrutiny is plain insulting – defensive and pretentious, meaningless and attention-seeking all at once.

Without ‘feeble’ ‘infantile’ ‘preposterous’ etc- it would be possible to argue that this is not good poetry. The author of the piece is not allowing the reader to make any conclusions which they might, if presented with examples of the work and  less pejorative vocabulary.  It would seem to this reader, to carry less persuasive weight due to its forcefulness.   

In‘(mind)’ we find the poem ‘MIDSOMER MURDER’, which attempts an analysis of the contemporary penchant for TV detective dramas. It begins:

there’s so much blood on the streets
why do we love to wade in it?
behind the safety of tv screens
we dip toes wet to the limits

it’s the underside of life
we like to lick a little for some reason
obsess over lips, spill, red, kissing death
camera shots zoomed
into actors’ faces screaming

A few stanzas later ‘we’ are caught red-handed, ‘lusting over shadows to stand in / where we can idolise the blame’. And what are we to learn from ‘our own grim fascination in this / in the details of the crimes / in the thorns piercing rose-red flesh / into other people’s chalked outlines’? The poem concludes:

it’s a human obsession, perhaps
to look beyond the fairy-tale glory

but when roses are painfully laid
on real graves every day
why do we so love a murder story?

In a sense it is unfair of me to single out this poem, because it’s the one in which McNish most obviously attempts to be poetic.
Appears to attempt to be poetic

Certainly it’s a departure from her usual style of garbled literal statements with the odd approximate rhyme thrown in.

Did she actually read some of those books her publisher sent, notice that other people’s poems contain imagery and metaphor, and decide to give these a go?

Unnecessary incredulous informal tone. This is a critical article, not a conversation between friends. 

If so, should we judge the outcome more favourably, preferring the noble amateur’s efforts over the practised artist’s achievements? I keep reminding myself of the facts: this is published by Picador; Don Paterson edited it; the book costs £9.99.

This too, might be a good place to start the article. Is this the ‘root’ of the authors ‘problem’ ? What is Picador’s list like? Who has it traditionally published and what ‘qualities’ does this writer think these poets had or have  which the ones under discussion do not possess? Does she feel similarly about all the output of Faber, Carcanet, Cape or other publishers of poetry that perhaps represent, for some, the continuation of a tradition in which the quality of literature is safeguarded by a few wise editors? Another argument, but worth mentioning here maybe..     

Open Plum at any page and you will find writing of equivalent quality. Another perplexing example is ‘NO BALL GAMES’, the message of which (all the poems have messages) is that as a society we shouldn’t vilify young people when we don’t provide them with places to go. Lines such as ‘like ghosts / the “youth” now shuffle round / youth clubs closed / for lack of pounds’ could have been lifted straight from Alan Partridge’s magnificent poem about the working classes in the North

(https://www.comedy.co.uk/tv/alan_partridge_scissored_isle/videos/11091/alan_partridge_northern_poem/). For lines such as the following there is no explanation:

I doubt anyone will click Partridge link. The article doesn’t need it and it doesn’t strengthen the arguments. 

so now
boredom
stinks of shit
from sewers, seeps to streets to poison kids
preaching, it lies in gutters lined in teenage kicks
deflated footballs, mud and teenage sick

with stomachs thick and sagging centres
minds left numb and fun repented
it snatches fire-filled beating teenage hearts
pours water over bursting teenage sparks

till nothing’s left, nothing to do
towns now turned to teenage zoos
caged and locked, their pathways blocked
left only cock or trudging shops

as the young poor wait and rot
labelled yobs by headline cops

If only Schopenhauer could have read Plum! It would have distracted him from his hatred of Hegel. It is such stuff as madmen tongue, and brain not; the product of a ‘(mind)’ with a limited grasp of denotation and the ways in which words can be combined to form meaningful phrases.

In the interests of avoiding accusations ( reasonable) of personal attack, it would be best, once more, to leave this entire section out . Any reasoned argument or serious points that might be considered by some to be valid  will be lost in the response provoked by this style.

Yet in the Times (23 July 2017) Jeremy Noel-Tod claimed that McNish ‘can be verbally deft over long stretches, and is seriously interested in how language shapes the world and our emotions’. (He also says McNish writes with a ‘passionately insistent voice that seems to look you in the eye’, which perhaps explains his indifference to her tangled attempts at metaphor.)

Another misconception among – or deception practised by – her celebrants is that McNish’s ‘bold’ (Scotsman) and ‘fearless’ (Scotsman, Times) inclusion of poems by her younger self in the book is both generous and admirable – that her ‘willingness to let it all hang out’ (Guardian, Scotsman) should inspire us to greater honesty concerning our own failings. ‘As part of her fearless, funny and inclusive campaign against “armoured adult thoughts”,’ asserts Noel-Tod, ‘it makes perfect sense’.

These are quite possibly (perhaps not very deeply thought out) opinions. They are not necessarily ‘deceptions’ or ‘misconceptions’. They merely differ from the opinions of the writer of the article.

Can anyone really have been hoodwinked by such faux-humility?

There are surely better ways of phrasing this

Rather, by making a virtue of her arrested development McNish shields herself from accusations of puerility. The book is deliberately bad: it is predicated on the defiance of all standards by which it could be judged. Here lies absurdity. Proud of their imperviousness to literary influence, the personality poets

wuld have us redefine poetry as whatever the poetic establishment claims it isn’t.

Is it a clearly stated mission? Any quotes to support this assertion?

Ignorant of Shakespeare, Burns, Rochester, Dickinson, Rossetti, Harrison, Ginsberg, Larkin, Plath, Rich and a thousand others (including their contemporaries – Addonizio, Capildeo and Lee-Houghton, for example) they regard themselves as taboo breakers, as though no poet before them had ever written about sex or motherhood, highlighted inequalities or deployed obscenities.

Is this supported anywhere? It is worth remembering that two poets (McNish and Tempest) are being written about here. I’m fairly sure they are very different in both approach and have very different levels of ‘ignorance’ and ‘knowledge’.  

While in person McNish admits her desire for establishment status – telling the Guardian that she ‘never would have got in’ if she’d ‘just sent [her] stuff off to traditional poetry publishers’, and, now that she is ‘in’, resisting the appellation ‘spoken word poet’ because ‘it can be a bit of a derogatory label’ – her writing is predicated on a truculent anti-establishmentism. In fact, in Plum the entire project of poetry – of invocation through language – is overturned. ‘I tried to capture it here, but I can’t’, McNish says, introducing a poem about her first bra. ‘I would say they are some of the worst poems I have ever written’, she smirks in her commentary on ‘extract from Désirs’, one of her ‘many terrible teenage love poems’. It is a twisted sort of vanity that leads a person to crave applause for what they believe to be their worst creations.

Better to let the consider by posing a question?

Yet as McNish understands, the cult of personality that social media fosters works precisely this way: once you care about the person you’ll consume anything they produce – especially if it makes you feel better about your own lack of talent.

Assuming knowledge of the audience and it’s inadequacy or ‘lack of talent’ is, I would suggest, inadvisable.

‘the poems tumble out my mouth / like our learnt school lines / people seem to like it’, she writes in ‘Oasis’. Despite her wholesale condemnation of aspiration, McNish aspires to be admired for her talents, as well as liked. ‘People often come up to me at gigs and tell me that they didn’t think they could write poetry until they read mine,’ she has lamented in the Guardian. ‘It’s not really a compliment, is it? Saying that anyone could do what I do.’

There is an upside to poetry becoming something that ‘anyone could do’. The art form can no longer be accused of being elitist – an accusation that until recently has precluded its mass-market appeal. In other contexts, elitism is not considered an evil in itself.

The subject of an entire essay perhaps. How recently is ‘recently’? Surely accusations of elitism are not as rife (or justifiable, perhaps) as they were before, for example, the generation that gave rise to Simon Armitage and Carol Anne Duffy? A point of view. 

We frankly desire our doctors, hairdressers, plumbers and sportspersons to be the best: to learn from precedent, work hard, hone their skills and be better than we are at their chosen vocations.

Best to stay within confines of the arts perhaps, when making comparisons.

Even in the other arts, the line between amateur and professional is clearer than it is in poetry. As Paterson argued in 2004: ‘Poetry is a wonderfully therapeutic thing to do at amateur level; but amateur artists and musicians don’t think they should exhibit at the Tate, or play at the Wigmore. (Serious poets, I should say, don’t start off amateurs, but apprentices – just like any other vocation.)’

Perhaps because poetry is taken to be the loftiest of the literary arts it is the most susceptible to invasion by those intent on bringing down all barriers on the grounds of fairness.

It’s a bit of a leap from this statement on poetry to the connections made in the next paragraph.

McNish is one such warrior. In her commentary on ‘Politicians’ she claims that her mother’s warning ‘not to become an inverted snob’ is ‘one of the most important and difficult lessons I’ve tried to learn’. Her poem ‘Aspiration’ (subtitled ‘After watching Grand Designs on telly for the last time’) is revealing in this regard. After stereotyping those with ‘highly paid jobs’ and ‘workmen’ equally (she’s nothing if not egalitarian in her refusal to engage thoughtfully with others’ experiences), she compares the Grand Designers ‘sarah’ and ‘tim’ (or ‘jim’ – his name inexplicably changes halfway through), who ‘nibble on nuts from a vintage glass ashtray’, with herself ‘nibbl[ing] on nuts eaten straight from the packet’:

and i think how those nuts might taste from a bowl
on a dining-room table carved straight out of a tree […]

and then i get bored of this dream
and i realise i do not like tim
and that soon enough
we die

It’s not clear what’s stopping McNish from putting her nuts in a bowl. But having set out to lampoon the paraphernalia of an upper-middle-class lifestyle, she concludes with the nihilistic flourish that any aspiration or application of effort is futile.

Whether socially or as a writer, admitting pride in an attitude of slobbishness

Not exactly what McNish is doing, I would suggest

is a way of shielding oneself against criticism or condescension. Yet McNish needn’t worry. The middle-aged, middle-class reviewing sector is terrified of being seen to disparage the output of young, self-styled ‘working-class’ artists. In fact, it is terrified of being seen to criticise the output of anyone it imagines is speaking on behalf of a group traditionally under-represented in the arts.

The following paragraph pertains to the culture of poetry reviewing in a broader sense, and it would be good to write a separate piece on this. The poets mentioned have absolutely nothing in common with the writers referred to above.

Time and time again, the arts media subordinates the work – in many cases excellent and original work – in favour of focusing on its creator. Technical and intellectual accomplishments are as nothing compared with the ‘achievement’ of being considered representative of a group identity that the establishment can fetishise. This is reflected in headlines such as ‘Vietnamese refugee Ocean Vuong wins 2017 Forward Prize for Poetry’ (Telegraph), and phrases such as ‘oriental poise’ and the ‘ragged sleeve’ of ‘ordinary working people’ (Kate Kellaway in the Guardian, on Sarah Howe and William Letford respectively). Such attitudes are predicated on the stereotyping or caricaturing of ‘audiences’,

and surely, in my opinion,  Kellaway often utilises fairly shocking stereotyping of the poets and their ‘inherent’ or culturally acquired qualities based on race and class? Again, another article perhaps.

rather than an appreciation of the existence of individual readers.

A lack of appreciation of the existence of individual readers might be an accusation levelled at the writer of this article, as ‘we’ and ‘they’ appear several times.

Just as McNish insults those she expects to buy her books – condescending to an uneducated class with which she professes solidarity, while simultaneously rejecting her spoken-word roots – the critics and publishers who praise her for ‘telling it like it is’ debase us as readers by peddling writing of the poorest quality because they think this is all we deserve.

We might ask: how is it? Life, as good poetry attests, is complicated and infinitely various. Just because something is ‘what I think’ doesn’t mean people en masse should be encouraged to listen (Trump and Farage should have taught us that much). It is the job of poets to safeguard language: to strive, through innovation and engagement with tradition, to find new ways of making language meaningful and memorable.

Eliot noted in 1932, ‘the people which ceases to care for its literary inheritance becomes barbaric’.

Though he wrote before Orwell, Eliot knew that to embrace Newspeak

Where does Newspeak, the government generated language of Oceania in Orwell’s 1984, fit in this essay?

is to relinquish the only tool we have for communicating and defending civilised values. If we are to foster the kind of intelligent critical culture required to combat the effects of populism in politics, we must stop celebrating amateurism and ignorance in our poetry.

The original article is taken from PN Review 239, Volume 44 Number 3, January – February 2018, and is available to view online at the time of writing.

 

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16 comments

  1. i will begin by acquiescing that i didn’t finish this, because after a quarter way through, i realized the kind of person who wrote this & your criticism (quite acute) exposed them. They fail to take into account that with an abundance of information & literature, enabled by the new technologies available to us, we can manage our myopia rather than having to follow a herd or grow incensed at popular rubbish, we can find small societies within the wider atmosphere of the time. We can pick a wide range & even engage directly with some of it. We don’t have to pay mind to everything, because that is impossible. If you don’t like Kaur, then at least acknowledge the small good she does: she is perhaps introducing people to poetry. Reading poetry, even if it is bad at least activates some of those undervalued neurons that have perhaps been off for a while & it may just ignite a lust for more challenging work, which people can very easily find. Literature is only as important as we make it, it doesn’t have a ubiquitous effect regardless of where someone invests their attention. A fan of football isn’t charmed by the craft of a villanelle because it is a villanelle. They may be, but it isn’t expected.

    Sorry i couldn’t finish this, i wanted to, but it just seemed fruitless. This person has some thinking to do yet. It surprises me the nonsense that gets published sometimes.

    Like

  2. No need to apologise. I often don’t read to the end of things if I feel I have got the point. I agree with your thoughts. John Cooper Clarke is unlikely to effect sales of Jack Underwood. I think it a shame that as Paul Farley said some years ago” my generation of poets don’t get reviews we get PR..” This seems to me to be the case from what I have read of late (admittedly not widely ) and that point perhaps was touched on in the article towards the end. As Gandhi said, be the change you want to see and this kind of article doesn’t strike me as an improvement on the sort of uncritical writing it critises. Thanks for comment.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thanks. You’ve saved me bags of time. As you suggest, the original article’s a tangle of threads each of which could be developed. I wondered for a while whether Watts had recently been rejected by Picador.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Watts is published by Carcanet. I would say there aren’t really sides here, as all of the poets involved are quite successful (Watts included) and don’t need defending. What does need defending, I suppose is civility, and an openness to engage with things we don’t like with dignity and a fair hand.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Watts is a figure of substance within the literary elite, but she will sell fewer books per annum than the audience numbers at one night of a McNish performance. Popularity and quality do not always equate. But if no-one knows that your work is excellent, is it? Who can tell?

      Liked by 1 person

      • True, but don’t all poets know this going in? Tempest and McNish both say, and I believe them, that they are as surprised by their success as anyone. I’d be overjoyed if Michael Schmidt at Carcanet/PNR thought my work was excellent, or Rebecca Watts or Kate Tempest or Hollie McNish or anyone, but the important thing to remember is that our individual excellences are unrelated to the popularity or excellence of anyone else. It’s one thing to look down one’s nose at what we think of as someone else’s bad poetry, its another to ascribe to those others a nefarious intent in creating it, merely because it is more popular than our own. The funny thing is, the only ones who ever bring up the grubby topic of money and sales in these kinds of discussions are the people who pursue a poetics that measures success in different ways than those, which is fine, but then pull this argument out to attack whole swaths of poets who are mostly just pursuing their own muses, which is what we should all be doing anyway.
        This whole thing brings to mind what I like to think is at the heart of the Buddha’s First Noble Truth (“Life is suffering”)– that we suffer because we can’t let go of the fantasy that life should be any different than it is. This is true in poetry as in anywhere else: some are popular, some not, some excellent, some not. The trick is to be true to ourselves and not to the fantasy that our feelings about what (good things) happen to other people should make any difference to what does or does not happen to us.
        All poets who publish invite criticism, and a healthy dialogue about how poems are made, what they mean, how they impact readers is essential to good art and the growth of poets and poetry in general. Conversations about the mechanics of the poetic marketplace(s), about the who and how and why things get published, and read, and seen is just as important– but how and when those two conversations intersect needs to be carefully considered, and not confused.
        Sorry for going on and on.
        J

        Liked by 2 people

  5. I suspect you’ve saved me a job. As has Greg Freeman in ‘Write out loud’. I’d been going through the article with a view to adding my own two pennorth via the cobweb, and thought I’d read your analysis. Wow. That’s thoroughgoing. I hope you won’t mind if I provide a link to it if I decide to stick to my plan. Which I think I shall, because it’ll give me a link to my next guest on the cobweb. There’s so much floating around my head. I suspect that I’ll try to bullet-point three premises she she seems to build her not-very-coherent argument around. I’m made angry by the intemperance of her attack which is absurdly ‘personal’. But I’m also annoyed by the sloppy ‘logic’ of it. I think I’ll try to stick to that. But thank you for saving me a very long job. xx

    Liked by 1 person

  6. An excellent blog Roy. Perhaps Rebecca Watts ought to turn her attention to, “Bear Hunt,” which at over 8 million copies sold must be abject popularist poetry and we who read it to or with our children/grandchildren should be castigated for giving them poems of insufficient rigour. So I am going to decorate my grandson’s bedroom with a Wasteland theme that should do it. Must dash. Just off to Dunelm for a J. Alfred Prufrock duvet.

    Liked by 1 person

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