On Challenge

I’m sitting down to start this blog after the very first ‘Poetry Corner’ at Manchester Metropolitan, a Wednesday drop-in session open to anyone who wants to talk, read magazines or share poems. This week – perhaps inevitably – the first topic of discussion was Rebecca Watts’ article in PN Review lambasting the ‘cult of the noble amateur’, a piece which Hollie McNish responded to very eloquently and generously in her recent blog. Our creative writing students come from many different backgrounds and bring a range of experiences to their studies but they were uniformly outraged by what they saw as an attempt to question whether poetry is something that can be accessed in many ways by many people. One student, Heena, contrasted the apparent exclusivity this implies to Asian network radio stations she used to listen to with her gran in the car as a child where poetry was regularly broadcast over the airwaves in Urdu, intended to be immediate and engaging. Heena admires Rupi Kaur’s work and accesses poetry in a variety of forms from instagram to course textbooks.

Like all provocations, the PN Review piece has proved interesting and worthwhile insofar as it has opened up a debate and generated a number of thoughtful responses, not least Salena Godden’s call for solidarity on Twitter. Of course, it has also generated a lot of depressing media coverage, fuelling my suspicion that the papers like poets best when they can be characterised as a divisive bunch, fond of nothing more than a knife fight in a phone box.

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Is the debate depressing evidence of a structure where young female writers turn against each other?

There is always value in questioning what seems to be regarded as ‘popular’ and how it connects to other visions of what poetry can be. I also think Rebecca’s is a really strident piece of critical writing and you have to admire that boldness. But what’s so sad and so regrettable about her piece in PN Review is that it – intentionally or otherwise – seems to target one perceived ‘style’ of poetry and, worse, attack several young female writers who are its apparent representatives. I was interested in the critique of Don Paterson’s seemingly shifting ideology as a publisher and taste-maker, but the rest of the piece evinces something dispiritingly familiar and structural: a young woman attacking other young women.

If ‘attack’ seems a loaded word to ascribe here, I think the judgemental language of the Watts piece justifies its use – labelling poets like McNish ‘artless’ and using the term ‘noble amateur’ is shockingly stark. The term ‘noble amateur’ is especially patronising and the idea that to write and perform and broadcast in a style that might be deemed accessible is inherently ‘artless’ is just misinformed. Ever since I started writing, I’ve believed that saying a thing simply is often the hardest thing of all. I’d also take issue with the notion that poets like McNish are producing work that fails to challenge us – that simply isn’t true on an ideological level if you consider the themes these writers engage with. Surely the very existence of the PN Review article is also evidence of some kind of ‘challenge’ too.

rosie_the_riveter3But you can read far more nuanced analyses of the original piece all over the internet and, besides, I’m not interested in writing an implied criticism of Rebecca Watts as a writer any more than I’d want to critique Hollie McNish or Rupi Kaur or Kate Tempest. I’m more interested in what I think lies behind this kind of opinion piece, where our constant need to establish what poetry ‘should be’ comes from. What does Watts really believe to be under attack from the ‘cult’ or ‘cohort’ she identifies? Why is the notion of ‘validity of experience’ important either way when we talk about poetry? And what is it that we think we are defending our art form from or preserving in it when we come down on either side of these polarising debates? In his rebuttal, Don Paterson made a flippant observation about how pointless it would be to critique T.S. Eliot as a hip hop artist. But there’s a serious, oft-mentioned point behind his comparison: why is it that different musical genres can seem to co-exisit ‘happily’ in the way different poetries can’t? Why do we feel such a compulsion to pass judgement about what should be ‘taken seriously’ as poetry?

Again, many of the answers and problems are deeply structural. Personally, I don’t see any style of poetry as a threat to a notion of universal truth or to my own personal aesthetic. I’m of the opinion that any poem and any poet can be a gateway to the rich and varied world of poetry. I don’t think I can say it any better than this brilliant manifesto by Jason Schneiderman does:

You can’t hurt poetry.

You can write bad poems, but that will not hurt poetry.

You can like bad poems and you can dislike good poems, and you will still not hurt poetry.

You can even write bad reviews of good books and good reviews of bad books, but even then, you will not have hurt poetry.

Poetry is an endlessly renewable resource of language.

In any moment that poetry is forgotten, it reinvents itself.

Poetry is a necessary symptom of language.

Poetry matters.

People will only listen to you ask about whether or not poetry matter because it already matters.

For example, if you asked, “Do paperclips matter?” someone would say “Well they matter more than staples, but less than bookbinding” and you would be done with it.

Paperclips don’t matter in the way that poetry does.

If you can’t tell the difference between how poetry matters and how paperclips matter, you should read some Frank O’Hara.

If you think that you wouldn’t mind not seeing a poem ever again, but you’re fairly sure you couldn’t live without paperclips, that’s also OK. Frank O’Hara is dead, so you won’t hurt his feelings.

Poetry contains multitudes.

Poetry contains more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio.

No one ever talks about this, but it really is kind of a dick move on Hamlet’s part to insult his best friend just before he dies.

If you think you know all the things that poetry can be, you have to wait to be proven wrong.

You can read the full manifesto here. 

I think from now on, every time I read a divisive comment in response to the article or a response that talks about a ‘split’ in the poetry world, I’m just going to post a link to Jason’s manifesto.


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