Why We Should Thank Rebecca Watts

rebecca watts

Four months have now passed since Rebecca Watts’ thorough critique of Hollie McNish’s poetry was published in PN Review, and three since the ensuing media palaver hit its height in late January. As the dust has more or less settled I think we can look back on the affair and begin to appreciate what a good turn Watts has done the British poetry scene (or scenes) by sticking her neck out the way she did, as has PN Review in successfully performing what is surely one of the most important functions of a literary journal, i.e. to stir up the cultural waters. I don’t know of any other journals or magazines around at the moment who are so willing to do this (perhaps Craig Raine’s Areté?), which is odd because it can’t do sales figures any harm when literary spats break out. It is also a pity because when you look back from a distance (admittedly short) you find a vital, exciting discussion taking place, which far from being twisted and blind with rage as I expected, is often thoughtful, sometimes unexpected and always deeply felt (there is certainly some high emotion in the mix but this is poetry, what do you expect?). Conversations have been had and minds have been engaged on an important topic, that’s no small thing.

I’ve been following the trail this week to revisit the debate and to see how it looks from the vantage point of early May. I submit the main strands of conversation here in the hope that the links might be of use and/or interest…

First of all, there is the primary conversation:

  • (Jan-Feb Issue of PN Review) Watts’ initial piece is a very complete and, in my view, beautifully written evisceration of what she sees as intolerably ‘dumbed-down’ and ‘hyped-up’ poetry.
  • (21st Jan) McNish’s hurt response on her website, although exhaustingly framed as paragraph-by-paragraph replies, is a genuine attempt to explain where her writing is coming from. The style (like her poetry) could not be more different from Watts’, emphasising all the ‘populist-elitist’ differences that were about to make such good mainstream-media copy.
  • (25th Jan) Watts and Picador editor Don Paterson appear on Radio 4’s Front Row. Both provide succinct articulations of their positions.
  • (26th Jan) Paterson’s reaction to the original piece in the Comment Is Free section of The Guardian is written in classic, unflappable Patersonian. He defends himself deftly (breezily, and I think rightly, swatting away charges of double-standards) and both defends McNish and praises Watts for her bravery – and for her poetry. The piece is entitled (presumably not Paterson’s idea) ‘Curses and verses: the spoken-word row splitting the poetry world apart’.
  • (Feb-April Issue of PN Review) Michael Schmidt’s editorial on both the original piece and the McNish/social media response is a well-argued defence of Watts (not yet online).

Four intelligent people exchanging differing views on an interesting subject. What’s not to like?

Then there are the secondary conversations:

  • (23rd Jan) The Guardian article by Alison Flood and Sian Cain which claims that the poetry establishment has been “split” by Watts’ article plays its part in ensuring that that is exactly what it feels like is happening. Quotes garnered from Schmidt and Paterson serve to emphasise the idea of schism.
  • (Also 23rd Jan) An article in The Bookseller magazine, which reports on The Guardian’s report of the original piece and the subsequent reaction, lets more people know there is a literary ‘scrap’ going on using high-voltage language like “Watts slams…” (possibly an ironic reference to slam poetry but even so, designed to get the blood racing). The article is doing its job but like The Guardian article adding to the fray rather than contributing to the substance of the argument.
  • (26th Jan) Granta add their thoughts (largely anti-Watts but also making interesting points about the Trump comparison and noting a “renewed reckoning with what we value in poetry”, which is a lovely way of putting it). And they give some useful links to the other contributors to the debate.
  • (27th Jan) Poet Tim Wells in The Morning Star attacks Watts’ position, perhaps not surprisingly emphasising the class question, and the “graft” of live performance.
  • (29th Jan) An article on The Conversation website gives a measured reaction to all the above by pointing out the increased visibility of poetry in the media over recent years and highlighting the rise of millennial poets but not substantially adding to the overall debate.
  • (12th Feb) Another article in The Morning Star joins in, this time Neil Fulwood convincingly arguing against the class “narrative”.
  • As late as 6th March, a lengthy, cross, but extremely well-thought-through article by Katie Ailes appears on the Sabotage Reviews website. If Watts ever has the energy to read it and respond, it will make fascinating reading.
  • A lot of blog posts begin to appear towards the end of January and the beginning of February (e.g. here, here, here and here to list a tiny selection) which also react to and comment on the primary conversation. A particularly good representative example is Nottingham’s Young Poet Laureate Georgina Wilding, who uses her blog on the Nottingham City of Literature website as a platform to  criticise Watts severely in language that fizzes with outrage and (possibly over-) confidence.
  • Some blog posts from this time are balanced, others less so; some are succinct, other less so; some (like Helen Mort’s) contribute positively by giving interesting new perspectives on the debate, others do not.

It is fair to say that most if not all the articles and blog posts you find by googling the key names and following the links are pro-McNish and anti-Watts; at most you find the almost over-even-handedness of posts like this one. This is a shame, and it is a mark of the strength of Watts’ original piece that her argument is largely able to take the strain of the counter-criticism on its own. I can’t help wondering if the lack of online back-up is an indication of either the respective ages or social-media-literateness of Watts’ supporters and detractors. If anyone knows of any staunch Watts defenders online, please comment.

There are so many articles and blog posts (this one included) that taken together they become wearisome and leave the reader slightly fuzzy-headed; but taken individually everything in these secondary conversations (as far as I have seen) is at the very least marked by someone thinking carefully about what they want to say and putting time into saying it as best they can, whether for professional journalistic reasons or for their love of poetry as they see it.

And then there is the third strand of conversations.

  • The comments following the articles and blogs are, of course, far less considered than either the original discussion or the secondary articles and blogs themselves. They are often knee-jerk and sometimes intemperate, but between the quick-fire abuse-offs they also encompass internal arguments/debates which occasionally lead to mutual understanding, respect and friendships (it sounds unlikely I know but see it for yourself in this rather touching exchange at the bottom of Gary Longden’s blog, between Gary himself, from Brighton and Liz, from Brisbane).
  • Posts on Facebook were rattled off in the way such things are, and naturally they employ the patterns and registers of the quasi-real-time-conversations they are. Doing a search for “Rebecca Watts Hollie McNish” yields some such conversations which, while including both rudeness and easily-ignorable silliness, also have some thoughtful comments by people genuinely engaging with the questions raised.
  • Poets Anthony Anaxagorou and Niall O’Sullivan (among many others I expect) both tweeted strong condemnations of Watts shortly after the article and response were published and the ensuing tweets from their followers, like the Facebook comments, are a mixture of the Dull, the Silly, the Rude and the Actually Very Interesting. But that’s what twitter is always like. The replies to an initial tweet by Jack Underwood are more insightful than some I came across.

This third strand of conversations is I think the one that makes many people feel claustrophobic, a little overwhelmed, and perhaps even slightly sick when a topic ‘trends’ or ‘goes viral’ on social media (the latter term has become current for good reason). But it is also the most ephemeral. Nothing online really disappears, we know that of course, but old posts and tweets are buried so deeply in the subsequent chatter that they can be easily ignored by anyone following the real debate; and below-the-line comments by their very nature can be overlooked without difficulty, although they may often be interesting and intriguing.

So, as we head into May what we are left with, I think, is far more than just a ‘spat’ or a ‘social media frenzy’, it is an informative and impassioned set of views and counter views on various aspects of the contemporary poetry scene (or scenes) in Britain. To me, this feels valuable.

And it leads to a fourth and final conversation set off by Watts’ article: the one which went through my head as I read everything linked above, the internal conversation that anyone who decides to follow the ‘paper-trail’ will experience, I imagine. As you come across opinion and opposing opinion, following link after link to new material, you review and modulate (or confirm) your own stance. And consider this: the debate and its fall-out turned me towards two poets I knew little about, it introduced me to bloggers I’d never heard of, it helped me understand the clash between ‘page’ and ‘performance’ poetry, see the perspective of younger poets, feel the intensity of perceptions of working- and middle-class, and populism and elitism, rubbing up against each other in Art. Of course, none of this has harmed my engagement with and enjoyment of this country’s poetry, in fact just the opposite – it has helped me analyse for myself where I stand on the issues, informing and increasing my ability to articulate to myself my own position on, for example, the performed versus the written word, and the extent to which thorough academic critiquing is appropriate for all poetic texts. It has also triggered what I think are interesting ideas of my own (like this one: as there’s a cultural space for social-media-based poetry performance, is there also an opportunity for online journals to focus on social-media-based poetry performances and subject them to rigorous critical scrutiny? I don’t see why not).

I would be surprised to find that I was the only person ultimately feeling some benefit from Watts’ original PN Review piece so although I’m sure she’s entirely sick of the whole thing, I think that as lovers of ‘poetry’ (whatever we mean by that) we should thank her and the magazine for contributing positively to the vibrancy of our cultural self-analysis.

In the name of full-disclosure I should say that I had a poem published by PN Review in 2015. I’m very proud of this, but I don’t think it influenced anything above.

4 thoughts on “Why We Should Thank Rebecca Watts”

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