Poetry, Uncertain Knowledge, and Linguistic DNA.


Jack Underwood wrote in the Winter 2017 issue of The Poetry Review:

“If a poem works it’s because you’ve made it such that other people might participate in making it meaningful, and this participation will always rest on another person’s understanding of the poem and its relationship to a world that is not your own.”
(from ‘On Poetry and Uncertain Subjects’ TPR p.43)

I don’t disagree with this at all, but when I read Underwood’s essay, I also happened to be reading Helen Dunmore’s Inside the Wave, and these two texts have come into alignment for me with a recent TES article called ‘There is no “correct” answer in English’.

It was argued in the TES piece that schools should be asking students to give interesting and creative interpretations of texts instead of asking them questions of the ‘How did the writer use…?’ variety. This sounds like quite a tempting idea – creativity is after all a Good Thing – and it ties in with Underwood’s comment on the key importance of “another person’s understanding”. This is (part of) the idea behind Rolande Barthes’ The Death of the Author; in fact Andrew Otty, the author of the TES article, dismisses any thought of authorial importance as the kind of thing any first-year undergraduate should be outgrowing, citing Barthes along with IA Richards and others. But I disagree with Otty and reading Helen Dunmore has helped me crystallise for myself exactly why. This: no one but Helen Dunmore, in her exact situation at that specific time at the end of her life, could have written the poems in Inside the Wave. There was only one way it was ever going to come into existence – this one particular woman being who she was, when she was and (certainly for some of the poems) where she was. There’s no way round that for me – Dunmore gave creative birth to Inside the Wave shortly before she died, and we are all the beneficiaries of that.
I realise this is missing the main Barthesian point that once the text is in the world, then the Author dies, leaving the reader with all the power for meaning generation (and for Barthes in 1968 The Death of the Author was all about the transfer of power); and this may make it appear that Dunmore works against me as an example, and becomes a slightly over-literal reading of the Barthes metaphor, but I don’t think so: she as an author is gone, and the text remains for all and sundry to make of what they will; but the DNA of the text (that is the choices of words, phrases, thought-groups or lexical chunks, grammar structures, metaphor, juxtapositions, line breaks etc., the “foregrounded language” as Underwood has it) is hers and it will always be hers no matter what new meanings are attached by subsequent readers. Underwood quotes a line from Momtaza Mehri to illustrate the impressionistic nature of poetic language:

“Here is where an afternoon eats its meal from the hollow of elbow pits.”
(from Asmura Road, NW2)

But as impressionistic and open to interpretation as it may be, there is not a single element of this sentence (including, to one extent or another, its adherence to spelling and grammar conventions) which did not involve a choice being made, and each one could only possibly have been made by Momtaza Mehri. Those choices, which remain now as the words in the line, are the line’s linguistic DNA. Think of all the other choices that Mehri could have made all the way along that line. Change any one thing and you have a different line. Change any one line and you have a different poem:

“Here is where an afternoon eats her meal from the hollow of elbow pits.”
(from Asmura Road, NW2)

In some cases, of course, the choices may not be the author’s at all but those of their editor or friends, or anyone who may have added ideas. Whoever made the choices (and in this sense the poet whose name appears above the poem may not be as important as they seem), they become the genes from which any subsequent meanings will be able to grow. The area of criticism which analyses a text’s heredity, or ‘how it came to be’, is called Genetic Criticism for a good reason.
Underwood uses several extremely apt metaphors to illustrate the uncertainty of a poetic text: “a huge shoal of jellyfish”, “an open habitation” in which the poet leaves “holes in the walls”, “unstable material”, “someone who has something specific to say by their dancing”, “the precarious ledge of an inconsolable question”. All these metaphors make the point with great clarity, but to them we might also add this: the child who has been left alone in the world when their parents are gone, who may be influenced in life one way or another, who will make decisions and have decisions made for them, who will become one thing or another, who will fail or thrive; one thing amongst all this uncertainty will remain unchanged and unchangeable about this child – their parents’ genes which they carry in their linguistic DNA.

I think this addendum to everything that Underwood pointed out in his Poetry Review essay out is important because it underlines a dichotomy at the heart of contemporary poetry – that is: poems are places of “uncertain knowledge” as Underwood says, and yet they have a stable genetic core because they are built by people who are themselves definite (as in well-defined), certain (as in very sure) and very diverse (clearly, as in of very different backgrounds, sexualities, genders etc.). Within contemporary poetry, then, the uncertain and the certain come into direct confrontation.

And yet if we acknowledge that there is both certainty and uncertainty in poetry, we may avoid misunderstandings like January’s Rebecca Watts controversy. One way of describing what happened there might be to say that Watts was defending the rigorous analysis of “uncertain knowledge”, while Hollie McNish and her fans were wounded by an attack on the certainties of her poems’ DNA.

All of this is why I disagree with giving students a free hand to be creative with their analyses of literature. This should be part of it of course, but if they are allowed to ignore the author entirely they are simply not being asked to tackle the work in its entirety.

And finally, could linguistic DNA be a way of approaching issues of race and gender in writing and reviewing poetry, as highlighted by last week’s Ledbury Festival event? It is surely important to allow that while uncertainty is one of the great strengths of poetry, the twin certainties of ‘who wrote a poem’ and ‘where they came from’ also matter; otherwise the call for diversity in writing and reviewing sounds purely political.

It seems that Jack Underwood is working on a book of essays on uncertainty in poetry called NOT EVEN THIS. It should be a fascinating read.


When I copied a link to him on Twitter, Jack Underwood kindly replied to my mini-essay. I summarise what he said here:

The author is not a constant. The linguistic DNA is never there because in language the subject is always in the process of becoming. We see the evidence of the writer’s decisions but that writer is only a further text which requires constant reinterpretation and self-reinterpretation. Poems may be evidence of the “problem” of personhood, but they cannot be authenticated by it. We are changeable and changed by our own poems as much as they are different in the heads of others. This leaves us as very unreliable narrators of ourselves to ourselves since the narration belongs to language and not to us. It is very voidy, and the void is very much against our nature. A lot of gender studies comes out of this and numerous writers talk about the constructedness of race in language terms.

I had not thought of the author of a text in these fluid terms, or the idea of a poem as evidence of personhood – but of course it is. I get the feeling I am just scratching the surface here. I need to regroup on some of these fascinating ideas (especially the notion that ‘the subject is always in the process of becoming’ – a poem in itself!) and post again in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, if anyone has any comments of agreement or disagreement on any of the above (or any suggestions of good books to pick up to learn more), I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

Thanks again to Jack for his stimulating essay and response to mine.


All Dark Matter



Matt Howard’s debut full-length collection (Gall, Rialto) is both remarkable and remarkably intense. It is pungent with death and almost claustrophobic at times in the intensity of its gaze at the intricate machinery of life. Howard is a conservationist but to call this a book of conservation poems, eco-poems or even nature poems would be to belittle an astonishingly steely-eyed examination of what it means, from a rational empirical viewpoint, to be a living creature.
Many of the poems force us to join the speaker in his hard stare at exposed, collected and arranged examples of ‘life’: tables displaying human internal-workings, anatomical dolls, deformed skeletons, preserved moles, kingfishers stored for study. Others look equally coldly – or at least dispassionately – into cultural memory and myth (‘The Green Children’ and ‘Clouties at Madron’), individual memory (‘Stash’ and ‘Maggot-Mouth’), and psychological symbolism (which is how I read the sonnet-like sequence ‘The House of Owls’, although others may find something different in its dense, powerful imagery).
But what makes this book the success that it is, for me, is that behind all the examination of life-parts, and what in some poems (e.g. ‘Tic’, ‘Thanatosis’, the ‘Blackwater Carr’ sequence) feels like a microscopic investigation of Darwin’s “entangled bank”, there is also an unfolding drama taking place, bookended by the first and last poems and alluded to throughout. This is the drama of a disintegrating relationship between a nebulous and distant woman (the you) and what I can only read as an ever-present borderline psychopath (the I).
The speaker is not content to look at, he wants to look into bodies, the way a biologist looks into the pinned-out remains of an animal. Poems like ‘Making Evelyn’s Tables’ and ‘The Drawer of Kingfishers’ conjure a macabrely voyeuristic atmosphere of a cold clinician enjoying his proximity to death. The reader’s uneasiness is amplified when the cabinets’ contents are either female remains (‘Acquired Deformities: Constriction of Female Thorax’) or representations of female bodies (‘To an Anatomical Venus’). Are we watching in these poems a scientist-figure musing on the intricate systems that maintain life or a necrophiliac harbouring his dark fantasies?
The “veins, nerves, arteries, set in a triptych” on the Evelyn’s Table, and the “architecture/of a face, its harmony and balance” which has been badly burned in war (‘Total Reconstruction of the Burned Face’), and Capa’s Loyalist soldier with his “heart burst into that white shirt” (‘’If Your Pictures Aren’t Good Enough, You’re Not Close Enough’’), are all fascinating images of the workings of life exposed but they are also examples of how Howard’s speaker tends to make artworks of the dead: triptych, architecture, pictures. This is more than just a collector (though John Fowles’ The Collector does come to mind), this feels like the grim aestheticising of a serial killer. And it is not just that the speaker is staring, it is his fixation with the staring eyes of death, the emptiness of the hole left where life once was and the intimacy of staring closely into this hole (the ‘Wonderful Boy’ who “They had to bury with his eyes beautifully open.”; the “Unreasonably young” dead girl in ‘Maggot-Mouth’ with her “still open eyes”).
The you, with whom we recoil slightly at the beginning on being presented ‘A Jar of Moles’, and whom we cannot entirely blame for “the tell-tale nervousness/about your lower left eyelid” (‘Tic’), has become the object of our concern by the final poem, when it is hard to tell whether the digging out of the elder is a metaphor for leaving or killing her (but the phrase “if I give/everything with the billhook and axe then wreck/the ball of my foot on the lug-end of a spade” is certainly more than a little sinister).
And do I hear admiration in the speaker’s voice when he describes how Vedius Pollio, a councillor to Augustus, used to throw his slaves into a tank of lampreys to be torn apart?

the flurry, arterial and venous, all dark matter –
how gravity is unfixed by rings of teeth.
(‘From Natural History’)

Of course, it is very likely (as the cosmological reference above suggests) that what we are reading are personifications of more universal truths; this is an allegory: the psycho here is Mankind in a godless universe and the you is the Earth itself. And ultimately, it is this coming together of the two ways of reading the book that provides its real and unusual power.
So, this is a collection which troubles the reader, and it does so deliberately. The sensation reaches a high-point about two-thirds of the way through when we reach two poems facing each other which present us with the only two clearly living bodies to come under the speaker’s scrutiny. On the right-hand page he witnesses a man hit by a vase of flowers in Italy, hears his last words in a language he can’t speak and then holds him as he dies. Opposite, the speaker and others look on without obvious emotion as a mother weeps while she is breastfeeding her baby in the National Gallery. Both of these poems, but particularly the image of the weeping woman, will present some readers with almost insurmountable problems. In a work which presents women as dead and skeletal or anatomical ‘erotica’ behind glass, or as an “off-camera” you, how can the single inclusion of an apparently real woman, in some distress, juxtaposed with the objets d’art in a gallery, be justified? It’s a good question. Both the poems fit the ‘psycho theory’ in that here our potential killer-speaker takes his cold gaze out of the Norfolk woods, the Victorian anatomy museums and his history books, and he heads off to London and Rome. He suddenly becomes part of our real, busy, modern world. But Howard is doing more than creating a Hannibal Lecter chill, I think. Both of these human characters do become objectified by these poems for the very reason that we, men and women, are all objects. Their inclusion fits with the thesis of the rest of the collection: Howard strips back our humanity and challenges readers to dispense with human emotion. Perhaps what we are being forced to confront is some raw amorality within ourselves. Can you bear to look at your real (psychopathic/natural) self, we are being asked. Most of us will find this uncomfortable, and some may question whether we should even attempt. However, we could also read these two poems as part of the overall allegory: the Earth feeding, and weeping for, its demanding child; Mankind dying in its own arms, unable to express or save itself.
There is no doubt that there is difficulty in some of the poems in this collection, but for me the pay-off is a fascinating and powerful work which has remained circling in my head for a week after my second reading. The feeling of claustrophobia is potentially constricting for the reader, and a few more ‘wider open’ poems that invite a conventional eco-reading such as the lovely ‘Redwood’ would be welcome (“If I buy the idea of my very birth-cry as a release of carbon,” is as excellent a first-line as any I have read for a long time) – but more such poems would possibly have detracted from the oppressive, rotting and gnarly atmosphere necessary to summon a psychopathic Man in a world he seems bent on studying and destroying.

Gall is published by The Rialto, and can be bought here.

Coram’s Fields


We got to know them just a little, for a while,
in the playground behind the hospital,
chaperoned by our other, healthy children
in the sand and swings of early Autumn.

She was French and wore her worry openly,
he ran a business from his mobile phone.
A nice couple. Lives on hold while life went on.
He’d bought a copy of The Jungle Book

and each day enjoyed reading it to his son;
although the boy was far too ill and young
to take it in, he might register something
of his father’s cadence. Just as they’d said

when we arrived: sit beside your boy,
spend time with him, speak, read, sing, anything.
Just let him hear your voice. Create
a comfort zone, terrain, from sound.

My wife sat there for hours on hours
and spoke to him about I don’t know what,
her lips moved silently in silhouette
although I didn’t notice at the time;

there was a job she had to do for him
and so she did it. But I found perching
on a backless stool like a garden gnome
uncomfortable; his brown-yellow skin,

more like a lipid membrane over yolk
than anything that might contain the future,
deprived me of the power to talk.
I sat more with the monitors and tubes,

the CPAP mask, the windows and the floor
than with a real boy. Call this my confession.
I tried to read from books like Mr Strong
but soon pulled out the looped recording

we had made on Dictaphone and let
technology do all my work for me.
Half an hour was often all I stayed
before I headed back to Coram’s Fields

to end my shift early, to talk to those other
mums and dads – or often their mums and dads
looking after other, healthy grandchildren,
or just to stand outside the gate and listen:

to the rhythm of the roundabout, the swing
of swings, the tapped beat of small-booted feet
climbing ladders, and water coursing through veins
scraped into the landscape of a sandpit.

This poem was published in PN Review.

The Diary of a NaPoCoLo


In the semi-acronymic spirit of NaPoWriMo, and to celebrate the recent announcement of the winners of this year’s Rialto Nature Poetry Competition, I thought I’d share some extracts of my diary over the period of the competition and try to figure out where I went wrong…

I give you: the Diary of a NaPoCoLo (a Nature Poetry Competition Loser).

November 27th 2017

There’s another poetry competition up. Rialto Nature this year judged by the magnificent Michael Longley (surely one of our finest living poets). I read his ‘Collected’ on holiday in York one year; he obsessed me and I spent most of my time with him in our little Self-Catering while my wife and daughter were out painting the Shambles red. I’ve got a few nature poems kicking around so I’m going to have a look and see if anything will fit the bill.

December 3rd 2017

Not sure my old efforts will quite make the grade, but I’ve come up with a few ideas that I hope might catch Michael’s attention. I went on a Hawking afternoon after reading that Helen MacDonald book the year before last, I think that might provide a bit of inspiration with a little thought; if not then Seaton Carew near my parents’ place up north is good for birds and shells and wildflowers things like that. I’m pretty confident I can come up with the goods this year.

December 14th 2017

I’ve written five poems that I’m thinking of sending in to the Rialto comp. Three of them are about flora of various types and I’m extremely pleased with them. I got a couple of old folk-names in there and I’m happy that they work metaphorically. The other two have got the fauna end covered. Fox at Night is probably the strongest single work and frankly I’d be surprised if it didn’t make the longlist at the very least. I’m not quite so sure about At Swim Two Penguins but I’ve got plenty of time to tinker.

December 15th 2017

Spent the whole evening and most of the night on the penguins poem. Changed almost everything. This is, quite simply, the best thing that I or anyone else has ever written, I’m absolutely sure of it. It is called The Stooping Men. I can almost see Michael’s kind old face smiling down on it as he reads. Possibly brushing away an admiring tear. I sent it straight off (I sent the others too, but I’ve emotionally invested in my penguins now). I honestly don’t think it can fail to win.

January 15th 2018

Argh! The waiting is hell. I emailed Rialto today to find out what the hold-up was only to be told that the deadline isn’t until the beginning of March.

March 1st 2018

Deadline Day. So, the first half of the waiting is over, and now the second half begins. And all the time The Stooping Men is just sitting there in the middle of a pile of papers by Michael’s venerable elbow. No need to worry though, he’ll get to it in time; and when he does…game over. Apologies to other entrants, but you’ve wasted your money this year. I have absolute faith in Michael’s good taste as a writer and reader.

March 31st 2018

Argh! The waiting is hell.

April 15th 2018

Spent the drive to work daydreaming about standing on stage with Michael and the Rialto crew, accepting my award. I assume they’ll want me to do a reading. Might print it off this evening so it’s all ready. Planned a little anecdote about penguins.

April 30th 2018

Argh! The waiting is hell.

May 1st 2018

The email was waiting when I got back from walking the dog this afternoon. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and prepared for glory…

The pounding in my chest as I realised that my name did not appear either in the first three, or the second two, or…insult without end! …even on the longlist.
For the love of God, what is going on here? I switched the TV on and off in fury. I went upstairs. I came back down. I boiled the kettle, twice. Then I had a cup of tea and finally settled down, but I could still feel my blood bubbling away in my ears as I started to come to terms with this stark new reality. It was like waking up after the referendum. Worse. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t win. I don’t even care about the winning, it’s just a little hobby of mine really, you know? It was more the betrayal. The bloody Rialto say they are going to pick the best and then they fail to notice a bloody classic right under their bloody noses. I don’t think Michael can have ever even seen the poem. They must have had some underling working on it, someone who doesn’t know a classic piece of contemporary literature from a slap in the face with a cold fish. I’m going to have to look into legal action.

May 5th 2018

Reading back over couple of Longley’s poems, I’m not sure he hasn’t been over-rated all these years. I mean, are we really interested in his grandchildren and the mosses of Carrigskeewaun?

May 7th 2018

The days pass. The anger subsides ands turns to shock, the shock to disappointment. And finally, acceptance.

May 10th 2018

I opened up The Stooping Men on the laptop this evening. I just thought I’d have a look over it. Bit of a post mortem I suppose. I read it through a few times in my head. I read it aloud. I recorded myself reading it and played it back. I read it to my wife when she got back from work. I read it to my daughter when she got back from school. And the funny thing is that as I read it over and over and looked at my family’s kind and sympathetic faces, I noticed something that I’d never noticed about it before. Something that had never occurred to me in all the time I was writing it and in all the time I was waiting for the competition results, but which now jumps out at me as the overriding and fundamental feature of the poem. It’s shit.

frantic bashful

Rialto-Pamphlet-Sean WK

That the first poem in Sean Wai Keung’s debut pamphlet begins with the phrase ‘the most important principle is the principle/of never looking back…’ is apt as it lays down immediately two key structural strategies of his writing, both of which give you are mistaken its impressive sense of bewildered/neurotic/eccentric thoughtfulness.

The first is his use of unpuncuated repetition. Almost all of the poems here repeat individual words, phrases, sentence structures, images, and symbols in the intense and exhausting manner of an obsessive. Over the course of twenty poems this builds into an impression of the speaker (we probably do Wai Keung a disservice to assume that it is meant to be him, but that seems a fair conclusion) as a teenage or young-adult misfit who can filter neither his emotions nor his outbursts (‘+ so I said to the guy what…’) but who is also oddly introverted and stands silently at the shopping checkout watching his customers, lost in thought until he blurts some muttered phrase under his breath (‘the gift’), and who thinks constantly about the girl/boy who he loved but who never loved him and left Norwich for some far-off city (‘over skype…’). But this is ultimately, we feel, someone who would rather be explaining Chinese philosophy to his friends than talking yet again about his poetry or his mixed heritage when neither are understood by any of those around him (‘i think i want to write about race’ and ‘you are mistaken’ respectively). The constant wall of repetition and the impression that no one understands add to a sense of alienation and isolation, which is emphasised by the use of Chinese characters as titles for some of the poems – the non-Chinese-speaking reader is distanced from these poems by their titles and we feel for a moment something of what it is to be Not Entirely Part Of Something (and, equally, to need to have it explained).

Which leads to the second of the strategies used by Wai Keung, that is negation. Negatives abound in this pamphlet, adding to both the feeling of alienation and the youthful sullenness of the character we are hearing speak through the poems, but it also serves to emphasise the points he is making about stereotypes, misunderstandings, and myths which also abound when his Chinese heritage grates against the British culture around him:

‘those/translations aren’t completely right’ (‘三寶 [慈 -儉 -不敢為天下先]’)
‘they say they said i was none of those things/but don’t worry/its not a big deal’ (‘cny 2016’)
‘its not enough/you say/this/isn’t/enough’ (‘stealing table sauces from wetherspoons’)
‘…asia + europe used to be the same/massive place but now they arent’ (‘太極’)
‘which isn’t to say that yin promotes’ (‘陰’)
‘which isn’t to say that yan promotes’ (‘陽’).

All of this, of course, is entirely appropriate in a pamphlet entitled you are mistaken; and throughout we are being corrected in our potential misconceptions of what it means to be of mixed Chinese-British heritage and living in Britain. These are unlikely to be mistakes that any single individual would make (they are not only one person’s prejudices) but another effect of the repetition and negation is to make the reader feel the cumulative force of small-stereotype-upon-small-stereotype. It is slightly wearying, but it is meant to be.

The apotheosis of both these strategies comes in the title poem itself, which is a dense page-and-a-half block (indeed, two blocks) of negatively framed stereotype-corrections that build up into an overwhelming monolith of words. All the subtlety and grace of the other poems’ pagination is thrown out here, and we are made to feel that the quiet, shy, intelligent/eccentric boy (all part of the Asian stereotype, perhaps) is starting to lose his patience. When read out loud as a list (see Wai Keung performing with Kevin Bateman and others here) there is a controlled irritation about this poem, which because of the sheer quantity of observations feels as though it is just brimming over into anger.

Some of the poems work extremely well on their own; the yin/yang duo are particular successes, finding a powerfully ironic metaphor for the balanced duality of 陰 and 陽 in the circular centrality of pornhub.com and the slightly surreal, almost comic image of hermaphroditic self-sex. Others, like the ‘16 slices’ placed opposite the yin/yang poems, and ‘earnings’, are amusing and intriguingly experimental but add more to the overall feeling of unconventionality than to the many insights of the pamphlet. Although, having said that, the reference to ABBA’s ‘Money, Money, Money’ in the receipt-misprint ending of ‘earnings’ is one of the funniest moments in the pamphlet, and probably worth inclusion on that basis alone.

This will, I hope, be the first of many collectionsfrom Sean Wai Keung. The strategies this review has focused on work well in the context of the twenty poems on show here, but it would be difficult to maintain interest in this way over a full collection, even more so over several; being trapped by repetition and oppressed by negatives reveals much in the way of in-grown attitudes but it can also be emotionally and tonally limiting. To this extent, 無極, the final poem of the pamphlet, is perhaps auspicious as it is low on negatives, subtle in its repetitions, and it ends with ‘…just look out of the window now look/how did that get there’. Does this indicate that Wai Keung will turn in future as much towards what is as what isn’t? I look forward to finding out.

Sean Wai Keung’s You Are Mistaken is published by The Rialto (£7) and can be bought here.


Des Fleurs Magiques

chrysanthemums-in-a-chinese-vase-1902 matisse detail

Des Fleurs Magiques

Des fleurs magiques bourdonnaient. Les talus le berçaient. Des bêtes d’une élégance fabuleuse circulaient. Les nuées s’amassaient sur la haute mer faite d’une éternité de chaudes larmes.
(Rimbaud, Illuminations, ENFANCE, II)

A language I can’t really understand –
not more than three or four words in ten –
opens up before me somewhat like a flower

or rather, like a close-up of an impressionist
painting of a flower; I get the general gist
when the turn of its petal takes on a certain colour,

my sunlight catches on its barbs and strands
of meaning as it were, and what I understand
may lack the subtlety of stamen, filament and anther,

but isn’t there a form the flower’s form suggests
which may be less apparent to gardener than guests
to a garden, flowers being as much one thing as another?

The painting above is a detail from Chrysanthemums in a Chinese Vase by Henri Matisse (1902) Private Collection.

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.