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.

A Room To Live And Breathe In

 

degas woman at a window

Sophie Collins has created such a layering of selves in Who Is Mary Sue? (Faber) that I found myself wondering if the act of creation had continued outside its pages and into the November 2017 piece she wrote for The White Review and even into her Twitter feed and the recent podcast she has appeared in for Faber. Who is the ‘I’ we are reading and hearing, we might be forgiven for asking, and how far do we dare associate it with the real Sophie Collins? This is an exaggeration, but it is a mark of the book’s power that its creative force seems to leave a jet stream in real-life. It would in fact be a mistake to locate any of the “masks and mirrors” (dust jacket) in this collection within the actual person of Sophie Collins: the text almost-explicitly warns us away from this quite sternly in the title sequence – that women are too often seen as unable to separate their imaginative from their actual selves is one of Collins’ key themes; and yet we are goaded into associating the narrative voice with that of the author herself at various times (most completely and disturbingly in the dream-narrative sequences of ‘The Engine’ and ‘The Engine Continued’); just you fucking dare I can almost hear her whispering to me as I feel the temptation to conflate author and narrator. And yet I read in The White Review that these sequences are autobiographical in the sense that they were written in response to the trauma of a sexual assault. So, there are no easy answers here; complexity is part of the point. What Collins is actually daring us to do (and she does it with flinty-eyed seriousness) is to “narrow” her writing and thereby “denigrate” her experience. Again, this is flagged quite explicitly in the title sequence, which becomes in effect a manifesto for the rest of the collection. I say collection, but Concept Album would be a better description, the whole being more than the sum of the parts. That is not to say that the individual poems do not stand up on their own, ‘Healers’ and ‘Bunny’ are particularly strong on their own terms (some of the sections presented as prose – often the most fascinating – are more difficult to see being extracted from context as individual readings) but more than most poetry collections, Who Is Mary Sue? is a single indivisible entity. As much as anything it made me think of Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterpiece The Unconsoled in that it appears to create through layer upon layer of dreamlike images, actions, locations and narrative perspectives an ever-growing portrait of an unspecified psychology or identity. And as with Ishiguro, at the centre of Who Is Mary Sue? we find absence, an ultimately unknowable centre which I take to be the artist’s creative core (in principal male or female I think – though in this case, decidedly, female). Unlike Ishiguro, however, Collins uses direct quote, reportage and even photography to locate her central themes outside any one individual’s psychology. This is the Art of the External rather than the Internal. If the fan fiction concept of a “Mary Sue” is anything, it is certainly not any single individual woman (real or fantasy); rather it is Woman (Created-By-Women) and it is Woman (Read-By-Men) and I guess, though clumsy as a phrase, it is Woman (Created-And-Read-By-Women-Under-A-Patriarchy). Collins accentuates this externality with a deliberately unvarying register throughout, in the poetry as in the prose she speaks in a cool, detached, analytical voice – one which brings to my mind a surgeon describing to a TV camera what they’re doing as they skilfully unpick their patient with a scalpel. She may be wearing different masks and looking into various mirrors, but she is not stepping in and out of characters. She is dissecting the selves encouraged or imposed by (male-dominated) society.
And as disturbing as the absence at the centre of the selves may be, symbolised by the central character “O” in the darkly erotic and literally Sadistic sequence a whistle in the gloom, Collins’ creative core is ultimately a place of self-healing through self-expression, a fact itself given expression in one of the book’s several moments of next-level inspiration: that is her conceit (if I can use that word) of transforming “O” into a personal pronoun, a “Rubenesque alternative to I”, an ‘I’ with an internal space in which to move around, create, be oneself: a room of one’s own, in fact; “…a room to live and breathe in, with some honesty”. This is the real point about the core of the book, that women, through the self-help of artistic endeavour and the “unfreezing” of traumatic experience (The White Review) – a process known as ‘working through’ in the wider experience of social trauma in Holocaust literature – can come to terms with that trauma and live within those multifarious selves.
There are other motifs that twist like “loose threads” around the central absence, and they all appear to have symbolic value, although what that value is may not be immediately clear – to me anyway: Russia (alienation? loneliness?); Christianity (authority? support?); the number seven (which could be so many things!); milk (fecundity? mendacity? the creaminess of the milk, the whiteness of the lie); kitchens (repression?); dogs (men? as opposed to the cats/women of Collins’ The White Review piece), horses (dullness? ignorance?); small white monkeys (shame). The only one I am sure of is the last in the list, “small white monkeys” having been explained by Collins herself in The White Review. But whatever they symbolise precisely these motifs link the poems, characters and moments like wormholes (or “threadworms”) throughout the book; or perhaps more accurately like a binding fabric, the casing in which the eventual “room to live and breathe in” can exist.
This is very much a book of the #MeToo zeitgeist, and it is one which I think contains within its complexities challenges for both women and men. There is dissection and criticism of the treatment of female writers here, but there is also clarity and guidance for those having suffered the trauma of abuse. It is a book to read and return to.

The painting above is Woman at a Window by Edgar Degas at The Courtauld Gallery, London.

Pages You Lose to the River

fallen woman

This poem is by Elisabeth Sennitt Clough (http://elisabethsennittclough.co.uk/), a poet and friend of mine who has published the award winning pamphlet Glass and her debut collection Sightings. She is currently working on a new book, At or Below Sea Level. Liz has kindly allowed me to post her poem, along with my notes on it, below.

Pages You Lose to the River

By Elisabeth Sennitt Clough

No horror but in folklore round here,
so the girl bathed in velvet silt beds,
swam slalom through river weeds
and harvested mussels and clay.

Algae shone fluorescent on her pale back.
The Ouse was hers to swim and glide along:
a river that spilled onto her clean page
as she watched it until the current shifted.

The breeze worked itself through the sedge,
the bur-reed, the bulrushes. Perhaps it told her
what the farmworker had found one day
on his docky-break. Maybe it was the curlew

who slow-dripped a stalactite of lore from its beak
into her ears. She swaddled their stories
in hessian, tucked their sharp corners in –
the one about her third great-grandmother,

who watched men bail oil from a whale in the dock,
only to climb inside its carcass to lie down,
baptising herself in fleshy hollows,
in the hope it would cure her rheumatism.

A version of this poem has appeared in The Rialto. The painting is Found Drowned by GF Watts, at the Watts GallerySurrey.

To me, this poem feels steeped in Alice Oswald’s Dart – the river Ouse here becomes a creative force that runs through the generations, a home to myths and stories which cannot be separated from the men and women who worked along its banks. But there is more than just the force of the river at work, there is the “breeze” (like Wordsworth’s “vital breeze” which signals the arrival of artistic inspiration) and the almost surreal structure in the final stanza, and at the mouth of the river – the hollowed out carcass of a whale, with its literary connotations, arrived from the monstrous depths like an entirely unexpected and overwhelming new idea – a whole new force – but also like a womb, with its comforting, maternal “fleshy hollows” and possibly its amniotic “oil” in which the speaker’s ancestor “baptises” herself. She is immersed in the whale the way the writer is as she bathes in the river, becoming part of its water and mud – part of the folklore – disappearing into the traditions and old-wives tales. But the “horror” in the first line, although negated and confined to folklore (why is this line italicised I wonder – is this a quote, or is it something spoken to or overheard by the speaker, indicating oral tradition perhaps?), remains throughout the poem; and there is a possible sense that the speaker is referring to a drowned girl, and that what “the farmworker had found” was a corpse. There is perhaps a hint of horror even as early as the second line when we read about the girl bathing in “velvet silt beds” which could be both comforting and menacing in as much as “silt” is so close to “slit” that there is a hint of a slit throat here, and a resultant death bed. Lost to the river. But is the Ouse a creative force linking women generations apart? Or is it a malign killer, perhaps a symbolic, communal forgetfulness, the inverse of a cultural memory, from which the speaker feels the need to protect the precious folk tales she has heard growing up, “swaddling” them in hessian as though they are babies (and, floating down the river with the girl, here we think of Moses being set afloat amongst the reeds by his mother to protect him from the king of Egypt – a biblical link to the self-baptism in the next stanza, where the female ancestor takes on the St. John role and purifies (regenerates?) herself, doing away with the need for the traditional and masculine “Baptist” figure). Or is it both: a creator/killer or capricious god(dess) who gives life to folklore as s/he supports life on her banks, and then destroys it with forgetfulness. As with the Oswaldian Dart, the Ouse in this poem yields no quick answers but each bend leads to another interesting question.

Valley Poem

duddon

Valley Poem

(Written in the Duddon Valley, April 2018)

You had better be full of arrogance
before you walk through a valley
and dare to write a poem.

Be ready to shout it out, mind;
full-throated, roar it to the wind –
release it, wild and dominant.

Because if it can’t curl around the low woods
and climb the quarry roads, up slag piles,
to take its place in the white mist and rock

with all the high, slow-dying features
so worshipped by walkers in their soft fabrics;
if it can’t whip the river and knock the birds

off-course, smother the dry-stone walls
with moss-like hubris and establish
from slate-crack to sun-shaft

a colony of perfectly-chosen words,
an empire of ideas about a valley
that will subjugate every other poem,

put down your pen, don’t even draw breath –
your poem will wither and fall from your mouth.
Like a new-born lamb in a long night

of hard sleet, it will bleat into the dark
but no one will come to save it
or even notice it has lived and died.

Poetry and the Educated, Liberal Middle Classes

Nagra-Daljit

I hope plenty of people send in properly shocking and edgy poems to the Bridport Prize this year, following Daljit Nagra’s recent call for entrants to liberate themselves from feeling they should submit a ‘good, liberal poem’ to the competition. I’ve submitted one that I hope will raise eyebrows and it would be great and refreshing if the eventual winner made readers sweat a bit and take a second, third and fourth look to check that they were really reading what they thought they were reading.
Poetry competitions are at their best when the winner comes as a complete leftfield surprise, and especially when it makes you as an entrant think, ‘Ouch – that’s a beauty!’, which was the effect Dom Bury’s National Poetry Competition winner The Opened Field had on me this year. A sestina! That’s not supposed to happen – they’re too formal, too old fashioned and – mostly – too difficult to write well. But Dom Bury did it, and… it’s a beauty – ouch!.
By the way, Stephen Fry published a fantastic diagram and mathematical formula invented by his father at the back of The Ode Less Travelled to illustrate the complexity of a sestina:

Anyway, on to my headline topic. Writing my own Bridport Prize entry this week, and thinking about shocking people and being shocked in return, I started wondering about something that feels to me like a truism; that is: contemporary poetry, when it comes down to it, is the educated, liberal middle classes talking to themselves (that sounds like it may be a quote from somewhere; if it is, I’ve forgotten where I heard it). Is it true? I don’t know any poets or readers of poetry who fall outside that definition – as diverse as they may be in other ways. And being ‘liberal’ as opposed to ‘illiberal’ (not necessarily anything to do with left- or right-wing) seems to be the key word here. That is why Nagra’s call is so interesting, he is asking entrants to step outside the poetically comfortable world where ‘right choices’ of the ‘decent word and the appropriate subject’ conform to an essentially liberal world view. He is asking us to take on dogmatism and intolerance and other ‘illiberal’ qualities, and not only in an adversarial way, but in the sense of grasping, wearing, getting inside them – using the dramatic monologue perhaps to ‘be so offensive that it is ultimately contradictory’.
What makes this more interesting, for me, is that ultimately this is asking poets to look outside their own sense of the world and attempt to realistically – or at least truthfully – portray ‘another’. The trap for all who attempt to take up Nagra’s challenge, I would imagine, is stereotyping and/or patronising those we are attempting to ‘take on’ in our poems. Even now, thinking about my already-submitted entry, I’m not sure I’ve avoided this. There was certainly something uncomfortable about trying to be ‘offensive’ and I think part of this is because it felt, attempting to write truthfully about a set of views that are not mine and so I ultimately reject, that I was in effect talking about someone behind their back, slagging them off while they were out of the room. I write as a middle class liberal, Daljit Nagra and those who are a) aware of and b) will read the winners of the Bridport Prize are middle class liberals; and yet I am writing about the views of those who are, say, working class illiberals. The fact that I agonise over this at all confirms my status as a middle-class liberal, I suppose. A middle-class liberal talking to myself.
“Poetry makes nothing happen: it survives/In the valley of its making” said Auden. I wonder if he had in mind the idea that poets only talk through poetry to other poets and so any power their work has is trapped within their particular social stratum. Probably not, the landscape was very different in 1939, although it is easy to look for and find parallels. But even if my statement above is true (and it may well not be), poetry would seem to me a very good way for educated, middle-class liberals to talk to each other, with its endless acres of fertile space for contemplation, suggestion, thesis/antithesis/synthesis, first baby steps and Olympic-level long-jump leaps. And if we speak shockingly and offensively to each other within this space sometimes – perhaps even without feeling guilty or worried about patronising others – and having done so if we understand the world a little bit more for when we do interact with non-poem-lovers (which surely we have to do from time to time!), well, that’s okay.

Auden in Yorkville, 1939

NPG P869(3); Wystan Hugh ('W.H.') Auden by Cecil Beaton

Having posted my Christopher Hitchens poem, which was based on Auden’s In Memory of WB Yeats, I thought I might post my WH Auden poem too…

Auden in Yorkville, 1939

He’s in colours I can never give the ‘thirties,
tramping flat-footed, lost but with direction,
through the wind and noise of Upper East Manhattan.

It’s November, not twelve months since he disembarked
with Isherwood on this, the latest stop on his journey
towards Heaven. He knows, really, where he’s going

just not quite how to get there yet. He needs a sign, let’s say
on Eighty-Six and Third, and when he finds it his way
will be clear into the darkness of a movie theatre, where

shortly he will see such silver-hardened hatred flicker
in the faces of the audience of Sieg im Polen
that he’ll be thrown back into the arms of a faith

he never left completely. But I always see him here
in black and white, on the street, cigarette nipped in massive hand,
sad eyes hard ahead. Always still and always incomplete.

This was published in 2017 in Issue 21 of Antiphon.

In Memory of Christopher Hitchens

christopher hitchens

This is a poem I had on the excellent but sadly now defunct The Literateur online magazine (actually, it’s still there)… now it’s here too.

In Memory of Christopher Hitchens

What instruments we have…

I

Snow,
On the sixteenth of December it was wet
Yet settled, and soaked the pavement
Like a strip of sheet held across my face,
While the day’s iron strapped me down –
Not to suffocate in the news of his death

But drown.
Down I sank and sat beneath the tree
Of his collected words. The wind had stopped,
Albeit temporarily. Though some birds
Twittered with high-pitched bile or syrupy respect,
There was unsung relief also in those branches

I suspect.
Irrespective, the landscape here was sweet
And nervous-fresh; more Alpine was the view
Than Ocean Bed, but lacking in the warmth
Of human flesh, the stink of cigarettes
And whisky; pleasures one partakes of

Then forgets.
Let’s call Death the final loss of Memory
In fact, and Memory the one real weapon
That we have: that’s the bloody tragedy –
Always – a great repository has gone.
Our arsenal is reduced. But the dialectic

Goes on.
Frozen statues terrorise the market square.
Wind will blow the passions who knows where.
Not quite so proud though, Death: the heat of our
Humanity is where wild words well-flung go,
Awaiting generations. Not afterlife perhaps,

But afterglow.

II

The light and dark of arrow shower rain;
Kissenger, Wolfowitz, Mujahedin.

Bosnia, the Falklands War;
The keyboard, the cocktail bar.

Mythos, Man the storyteller;
PG Wodehouse, the Ayatollah

Earth, receive him; World, your loss –
You were not consistent, he was.

III

We are keepers of our own museums: you must judge us on our filing.

The old warrior rides into town on a bloated mule, spitting and swearing.

An All-American family around a coffee pot await the man who killed their son.

No interval exists between the thought and its pixelled, 3am translation.

The sycophants will fall in line, their minds are small – they must agree with someone.

Janus debates his older face, locked in mutual disgust and open warring.

The temple gallery is ever-open. Cerberus is almost mad with barking and caring.