Why aren’t we happy that poetry is popular?

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A couple of interesting and thoughtful blogs I’ve come across recently (via Matthew Stewart’s useful hub for all things poetry at Rogue Strands) have expressed some disquiet about the current state of the ‘poetry world’. These concerns are reasonable if not exactly new (as the blog writers acknowledge). Is poetry today too competition-focused? Is it too dictated by a central establishment? Is it too driven by the cult of personality and the desire for renown?
At the The Cat Flap, Richie McCaffery asks whether poetry is becoming essentially undemocratic, with those who play the festival-networking/self-promotion game rising to the top and as a result much good poetry going unnoticed. Helena Nelson at Happenstance points out that competitions look for ‘winners’ as opposed to good poems. Writing a poem for a competition encourages us to write the kind of poem that we think will get noticed by the judge rather than the kind we might naturally want to write (one that has “space to be its own good self” in Nelson’s lovely phrase).

In relation to this last point, it’s worth saying that every time we write a poem with a view to getting it published we are trying to write ‘the kind of poem’ we think a certain editor will look favourably on; in fact, magazines and publishers explicitly advise us to buy from them to see what sort of poetry is most likely to stand a chance of publication. This is, perhaps, an offer to see if there happens to be a lucky match, but it is also a statement to the effect of: “if you want to be published in this magazine, you will need to change your writing style to fit in with what we publish”.
There is nothing wrong with this of course, but it is also no surprise that as a result a lot of writers attempt to write in a way that will get them published in magazines, just as they will change their style to win competitions.
Poetry competitions and festivals and magazines and books exist as part of the system of commerce we all live by. Poetry is, like it or not, about winners and losers: if you win the competition it means someone else does not; if you get published in a magazine it means someone else does not (Nelson herself makes the same point in her blog). This can pretty much be said of all art at all times, at least since art was first commodified. Michelangelo would never have painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel if he had not won the contract, etc. It is just an extension of the basic producer-consumer agreement: I like what you have produced so I’ll look for more of it and even pay for it if necessary, I don’t like what s/he has produced so I’ll give their work a wide berth.
The poetry industry is…wait for it…an industry.

But having said that, it is also true that poetry (all art) can and does also exist within ‘the system’. Pockets of it are able to survive, thrive even, protected sometimes by their smallness and lack of popularity, sometimes perhaps by their lack of quality. Just as up and down the country amateur artists produce huge numbers of unsung sketches, water-colours and even full-scale paintings, so amateur poets scribble in their notebooks, save on their c:drives and post on their unread blog pages. Of course, any that are noticed and deemed good enough may well end up as part of ‘the system’ but not all. Are we a nation of poets desperate for recognition and stifled by jealousy of those chosen few whose talents are recognised by a central London coterie? We’ll probably never know, because all those poets who are inclined to get on with it quietly are doing just that. The ones who enter the competitions and struggle for publication are the ones who crave glory (and I count myself slightly sheepishly amongst them), but we don’t know much about the others. There may be an army of unambitious, uncompetitive poets out there. The next Emily Dickinson may be somewhere quietly among them (and she may not, ours will not be the generation to decide).

You don’t have to look far before you find these little pockets of poetry “hiding inside the system”. Take for example Kevin Bateman, a surrealist poet from Dublin I came across recently, who organises small scale performances in various areas of natural beauty. He invites seven or eight poets to read with him and he broadcasts on Periscope and then publishes on YouTube. These are joyful and joyfully amateurish performances – in fact their very strength is their unrehearsed quality and the fact that they locate the poems amongst trees, on cliff tops and halfway up hills rather than in the more sterile but supposedly intellectual atmosphere of a bookshop or with the self-consciously arty-trendy backdrop of a cellar stage. Kevin and the poets who perform with him exist happily and creatively nestled within the whirling chaos of competitions and networking that surrounds them. The space they and others like them are creating is artistically and culturally important precisely because it avoids (however much the poets themselves may want to get published ultimately) the rush and the push for central establishment acceptance.
This feels very democratic to me.
Very different, but also democratic by its nature, is the website footballpoets.org, which is an enormous repository of verse written for the sole purpose of expressing delight in football. The poetry here is written by anyone who chooses to submit, with (as far as I can tell) no vetting for quality at all. Judging the quality of the work in poetic terms would be missing the point; football comes first, and the language is put to its service, not the other way round. There is nothing here that would win a poetry competition, but also nothing that would particularly want to. On the other hand, if any of these poems were to be adopted and chanted by fans on the terraces, or quoted by a football manager after a game, I imagine that would be a prize worth winning. It is one of the few places I have come across poetry genuinely moving away from its middle-class home.
In Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry, Robert Pinsky makes a point of distinguishing between poetry as an art form (as which he says it will always be important to the individual) and poetry as a form of entertainment (as which it will always be at best marginal). I agree with Richie McCaffery that the distinction between print and performance poetry is largely a false one (although poetry in performance is clearly different to poetry read in the head) and Pinsky’s antithesis seems similarly dubious. This perception of duality forms the basis of the vague but common illusion that one set of poets (the performers) are democrats, jobbing entertainers who somehow represent the proletariat, while the others (the silent readers) are the snobbish elite gobbing poetic pearls from their ivory tower. I like to think poets can be all these things at once. But Pinsky’s wider point is that poetry itself is essentially democratic because it allows the inner world of the individual to link with the outer world of the landscape through the primal sounds of grunt and echo, and through metaphor link the psychological with the political. I can’t find anything to disagree with in this, and it might actually help to explain why so many people seem to feel aggrieved and concerned when poetry shows the outward signs of becoming popular: something we consider sacred to our inner selves is being profaned; something which on one level is deeply ‘ours’ is, on another, being manhandled by someone else.

It occurs to me that there are two ways of approaching the poetry industry and its associated battles for individual recognition and popularity: a) enjoy them, or (b) ignore them. Poetry, like so many things, is something we do to make us feel special; but it can do this in many ways, getting published or winning a competition are just two. One of the reasons I like poets like David Jones is not because I claim to understand The Anathemata any better than anyone else, but because I know it’s never going to be very popular and so reading it gives me that tingle of doing something just a little bit different from the crowd; and so, I briefly can allow myself to believe that I am different. This is part of what attracted me to poetry in the first place, and probably why, despite the thrust of my argument above, I am one of the many who, while yearning for recognition, feel the same awkwardness with the idea of competitions and festivals and national poetry days: they feel a little herd-like. When I got into this I thought it was just me and Auden; where did all these people come from?
Better just get used to it I suppose.

4 thoughts on “Why aren’t we happy that poetry is popular?”

  1. I used to be the same with bands. There was always (snobbish) joy in knowing/liking a band no-one had heard of, and as soon as they became known I’d lose interest. “The album/song is ok but not as good as their first one”

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    1. I think we all have that inner snob; we should embrace it! Actually, I think it’s more than snobbishness – we just want to feel a little bit different. Otherwise we’re just another piece of meat on the conveyor belt of life…. 🙂

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  2. The seductive pull of exclusivity is hard to resist, but why resist when the special enchants? Personally, I see a difference between exclusivity and snobbishness.

    One of the biggest spectacles of attention seeking poetry is the PoetySlam. I once went to one in the Bay Area not so much for the artistry but for the social aspect. I kept telling myself, trying to keep optimistic, that I was participating in the true heart of poetry: the voice! the performance! the audience! Up yours, academia! Unfortunately, it was mostly leftist agit-prop in a pub. The one poem I remember was a love poem. Who knows. If it was all love poems, I may have remembered that one political one. Anyway, it was a celebration of mediocrity.
    I was also introduced to the phenomenon known in poetry slam circles as “score creep.” Audience members were chosen at random to evaluate each poet. At the start of the evening scores are low but as the audience reacts to the scores, they “creep up” as the evening goes on. The judges bow to the pressure of the group.

    If I was snobbish (as I was then) I would look down on those who cheered on the crappy poems. Now, I’m just exclusionist: I don’t like that kind of poetry, and if others do, so be it.

    I also don’t think exclusivity needs to be limited to unknown poets. I’d like to think that I have a special insight into an over-quoted poem (“The Road Less Travelled”), even though I don’t. It’s all right there on the page and yet I’d like to think I have a leg up on many others and if they don’t get it, well, that’s their problem.

    There’s also the thrill of the new that keeps us looking for new artists, hunting for that first high like the junkies we are.

    I guess I’m saying that I like being shamelessly exclusive and even when I’m not, I’ll find a way to still try to be. I just don’t take it personally.

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    1. Hi Kenneth – Sorry I’ve only just seen that you posted this. What you say about PoetrySlams is interesting because I know next to nothing about them. One thing I find very interesting is how far poetry and performance can blend before they come something new that is not actually poetry. As soon as you read a poem aloud you are in the realm of performance, but then there is the location (have a look at https://youtu.be/GvkI7Yy4vCM and see what you think) and props and audience reaction. If you give it a drum and rhythm accompaniment it is a song, but if the music is just in the background it’s still a poem. And when we watch a poetry performed, how far are we appreciating the poem and how far the performance? But of course, most poetry exists to be performed and almost every poet I’ve heard recommends reading your poems out to yourself. Sometimes a poems meaning only becomes clear when it’s spoken aloud. But I think romantically I value the bohemian idea of a Van Gogh kind of artist, unknown until after their death – and that doesn’t quite fit with SlamFests and competitions!

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