One part of Nathan's post in particular drew my attention. Hamilton-Emery says this:
"… poetry belongs to you, not to the poet or the critic or merely the privileged and overeducated, not teachers or academics or editors..."To which Nathan replies:
"And, further, I can’t let this one go: is it really possible to be ‘overeducated’? What kind of strange nonsense is that? Is he pulling our legs? Can you actually have that much education that it eventually becomes a bad thing?"It is an interesting concept, isn't it? I've heard the phrase bandied about before, very often as part of a general argument (diatribe, if I'm to be unfriendly) equating intellectualism to elitism. But I do think there is some weight to the idea. It references, I suppose, formal education rather than all kinds of learning, and this perhaps leads us to the idea that too much regulation of anything is a bad thing. Formal education, particularly at University level, teaches specific ways of acquiring and using knowledge. Moreover, it is centered around the acquisition and use of knowledge as a means of responding to whatever the world throws at you. Just as growing up in a rough area with a poor education might burden a person with limited methods of resolving conflicts and solving problems, so might formal education, with its emphasis firmly and rightly on the intellect, lead to a propensity to respond to all manner of impetus in the same way.
The principle target of Private Eye's 'Pseuds' Corner' is not, after all, stupid or uneducated people trying to be something they aren't; it is educated people applying the full force of their intellect to banalities - in other words, making a lot of bluster over nothing. This has the effect of making intellectualism seem, as it well can be, like a mere exercise in being intellectual, rather than the application of a tool for the purposes of uncovering meaning. This is what I understand the criticism of 'overeducated' to be, that a person has, through absorption into academia, become more interested in the game of intellectualism, in the simple delights of applying the intellect, than in what it actually achieves.
Which is exactly the nature of the criticism most often directed at the poetry world from those who consider themselves outside it, though the view is expressed in a manner of different ways. Poetry is self-absorbed, if not interested in itself then interested in games of the intellect and written principally with intellectual gamesters in mind.
I don't agree with this view. But I don't feel that it is a completely unreasonable one to form based on some of the evidence. Most of the major British poetry journals tend to publish criticism in a format that has more in common with the essay mode of writing than a review of a film, novel or computer game. The trouble with the essay mode is that it assumes substance - so all poetry considered in this fashion automatically makes the leap to 'high' art - and that it discusses the mechanics of the accomplishment more than it does the effect. It skips the part which tells the reader why on earth they should be interested in the subject. When a review does make the effort to communicate some sense of an emotive response, there is often a whiff of Pseuds' Corner about it, partly because a high register is almost always inappropriate for declaring excitement or emotional transformation. So we end up with reviews that oscillate between oddly cold intimations of technical achievement, often expressed in quite foggy terms:
"This technique is an impressive expression of loss, of the desire to become what is missing."
Charles Bainbridge on Ciaran Carson in The GuardianAnd sheer silliness:
"His genius is in creating poetry for anyone with the slightest lingering wish for the beauty that can still infuse life. How he liberates us!"
Judy Gahagen on ‘Human Nature’ by Lance Lee, in Ambit
Somewhere along the line, all trace of genuine enthusiasm - and what else indicates an affair of the heart - is lost. I wouldn't suggest that the reasons for this, if anyone is with me so far, have to do with pretension or establishment politics. Nor do I suggest that I or some new generation are poised to wash the old order away, or indeed that there is no place for intellectualism in reviews. But its dominance makes me sympathise with anyone who has dipped a toe in contemporary poetry and fled, howling.
It may be that poetry compels more of an intellectual response. It could also be that poets, particularly those with a literature degree or two, are prone to over-analysing. Nathan's original post, for example, seems to me to give disproportionate consideration to what is ultimately a piece of marketing. "Who is this 'you'?" he asks, in response to Hamilton-Emery's "poetry belongs to you". Obviously it is the same 'you' that is addressed in all the other advertisements you see on the tube, in shop windows, on TV, on the Internet and in magazines every day. The advertising industry long ago cottoned on to the idea that people want to feel a product was specially designed with them in mind. That isn't to suggest Hamilton-Emery is being cynical - I'm sure he is sincere - but we often appropriate phrases and concepts we see elsewhere when writing in a similar mode.
And here am I giving even more disproportionate consideration to a phrase that really just means 'big-headed Guardian readers with degrees'. So there we are. Overeducation in action.