Generations, speaking

The exchange* between Don Paterson and Gboyega Odubanjo in the new Poetry Review is a welcome, necessary, and much overdue intervention in the unsettled and unsettling world of UK poetry community dynamics. Having barely stepped into that world, I stepped back out of it again a couple of years ago, finding that, mediated as it is by digital platforms, it was too disorienting a place to feel entirely comfortable. It was a dangerous world in which to take the chances I felt gave poetry life, and all too easy to get blocked, unfollowed, or whatever. And now it has started to feel as though cracks which had already become chasms, have become oceans of open water.

In fact, it might not be particularly useful to talk about a poetry community at all, given that its members claim nothing in common but Poetry itself, and Poetry, as Paterson and Odubanjo touch on, has by no means a single unified definition or means of assessing excellence. Perhaps ‘poetry community’ is itself an oxymoron; or at least, maybe speaking of cracks or divisions in the poetry community is little more than stating the obvious.

These are societal problems of course, which I shall subject to amateur analysis in a moment if you’re interested (if not, you have been warned), and they are only Poetry’s problem in as far as there is a small section of society who read and write poetry. As experts in the artform that deals most forensically and creatively with language, though, I have been disappointed over the last few years that big name poets and editors have not more meaningfully explored ways of learning from this difficult social moment. This piece in Wayne Holloway-Smith’s first Poetry Review is, therefore, a very pleasant surprise.

The much-feared ‘generational gap’ is far from being the only fault line weakening the integrity of our shared sense of community, but all things considered it is probably our San Andreas. The many other aspects of identity that divide and sub-divide us crosshatch the dynamics of our interactions with each other in every aspect of life, but these tensions have all been heightened by a more fundamental weakness in the relationship between the generations.

It’s tempting to think about the generations in terms of Boomers, GenXers, Millennials and Alphagens (all of which sound more like gangs of superheroes than age groups) but tagged in this way you don’t so much find gaps as false delineations and generalisations that serve only to bolster what were artificial categories in the first place. Generations are, like many things in the modern world, easy to pin down when you look at individuals (Paterson is old enough to be Odubanjo’s father, therefore they are two different generations) but much messier when looked at across society (where GenXers end and Millennials begin is at best a blurred sketch of a Venn diagram). There’s no escaping it though, without categories there is no meaning and so we do need these divisions, however inadequate; but let’s not use them as boxes where we can collect our most recent bunch of antagonistic words and phrases, what Paterson rightly calls ‘the holy watchwords of both left and right…(those) nuance-free signifiers…(which are)…an abuse of language’.

So it there really a problem with the generations? Do we need this tête-à-tête between Methuselah Paterson and Gboyega The Younger? Well, yes and yes.

There has always been conflict between the generations; at least, there has since the Cultural Teen was invented in the fifties and James Dean screamed ‘You’re tearing me apart!’ at his parents. In literary and artistic terms, this generational conflict is just a truism: Modernism was reacting against Romanticism, Post-modernism against Modernism etc.; these are generations of writers rubbing up against each other and creating sparks. And let’s not pretend it was all a friendly process: snide and angry remarks were made, punches were thrown, battles were fought (against real Fascists), but the outcome was, if not progress then at least changes in the cultural zeitgeist.

What’s different now isn’t Political – the left and right have been pushing and pulling since the French Revolution – but Economic. Odubanjo gets closest to the nub of the point when he mentions neoliberalism – to which Paterson, perhaps tellingly, doesn’t respond. With the advent and evolution of the internet, Capitalism has moved on at breakneck speed since Paterson and his gang were in the position that Odubanjo and his are in now. Call it Techno-Feudalism, call it Surveillance Capitalism, whatever, but something has changed. And with it, the modern West’s over-emphasis on individualism, which is a keystone of the liberal consensus that has reigned supreme since World War Two, was given a lightening jolt that has triggered its mutation into something resembling a Cuchulainn warp spasm. The personal freedoms demanded by rampant liberalism, mixed with now-monetised groupthink (which is driven, behind-the-scenes, by what Shoshana Zuboff calls ‘behavioural futures markets’), pervades a society wealthy and tolerant enough (probably tolerant because it’s wealthy) to educate everyone to the same comparatively high level, regardless of their biological or cultural identity preferences. This has led to, let’s say…fireworks.

So here are Paterson and Odubanjo sitting down (metaphorically) to an ‘intergenerational discussion’, or what they have termed a ‘mutual agitation’ (lovely phrase). Neither of them are arrogant enough to think that two poets can solve the world’s problems and they are both careful to try and strike an un-self-important tone, acutely aware I suspect that arrogance and its perception is at the core of the antagonisms between the ‘richly matured’ and the ‘excitingly fresh’.

This exchange is not only a delightful moment, but also I think a more important one than either interlocutor realises. Odubanjo seems to think they ‘failed’ and though Paterson disagrees, he also limits their success to ‘clarifying differences’. But they are under-selling themselves. I haven’t seen this kind of thoughtful, respectful, anger-free, and above all relatively lengthy, dialogue between two people of clearly differing views in any other literary or cultural media**. It’s so beautifully and majestically Not Twitter. It’s the kind of thing the BBC would like to do but never seem to get right, either because of not having enough airtime available, not getting the right people involved, or just by making a general hash of it. Perhaps it needs something like The Poetry Review, which can allow the space, and whose contributors and readers both understand already the genre specifics of the divisions under discussion, to lead the march here.

I had just cancelled my subscription to TPR because, like everyone else, I don’t have as much money as I used to; but I regretted it on receiving Spring 2023, my last issue; Wayne Holloway-Smith has done his readers a great service by commissioning the piece. I hope he will continue the series with more exchanges of opposing views conducted in similarly respectful terms, because the importance of them is not that they answer the questions they raise, or solve the disputes, but that they contribute to setting a new tone for public cultural discourse; that they add to the sense that even though there may still be oceans between us, we are at least finally paddling somewhere.

*I was going to call it an ‘epistolary exchange’ and deleted it because it sounds too pretentious, even by my standards, but I love the phrase so much I can’t resist adding it back in as a footnote.

**I may be wrong and if anyone who reads this knows of similar dialogues elsewhere, please comment.

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