Monday, 9 August 2010

Too Much Poetry

I was struck by these recent comments by Hugo Williams, one of the judges of this year's Forward Prize, in the Guardian. He's talking about the 147 entries for the best collection category:

"That's too big a number of books in one year in one country to put out. I think it's something to do with the democratisation of everything – that everyone's got a right to get a book out ... I've got the feeling that sometimes it's more about desire than worth."

I didn't actually read the Guardian article; it was quoted in Rob Mackenzie's Surroundings, and from there I linked to another article, from some time ago, where Robin Robertson, an editor at Jonathan Cape, says this:

"There’s too much bad poetry being published, polluting the pool. That would be acceptable if there were arbiters in place, like editors in publishing companies. Now, in many cases, ‘gatekeepers’ are waving people through.” Buyers can’t make the decisions on what books to buy, or they just don’t know where to start, he argues."

I've been discussing this on a poetry forum and there are many interesting points of view arising from it, particularly around the idea that buyers are confused by what's on offer. My feeling is that comments such as these - which aren't that uncommon in the poetry world - arise from two kinds of fear. One is a genuine fear for the future of poetry. As I see it, one of the principle ways in which we judge an art to be 'alive' and 'thriving' is if we can point to several recent examples of greatness and give a collective nod of agreement (where 'we' is the culturally engaged general public). For that to happen, however, there has to be a common understanding as to what constitutes 'great'; otherwise we would just squabble about it, with nothing like a consensus emerging.

That common understanding is present where there is (a) an independent, trustworthy critical community and (b) a widespread public awareness and engagement. So when it comes to, say, film, we find ourselves putting a certain degree of trust in critics and acquaintances, whom we believe to use similar criteria of quality to ourselves. There's never total agreement, but let's face it, if someone says, "Let's go and see x. It's been getting great reviews", or if a friend recommends a film, we don't usually act with guarded suspicion.

Without these two factors, which poetry lacks, there are two other models of 'quality' assessment. One is where an elite group make the choices for us, even though they may be unrepresentative and influenced by self-interest, and the other is where 'quality' is whatever we like best. Ben likes what Ben likes and Bill likes what Bill likes, and though they may argue, their tastes are so distinct that they can never agree on a shared set of criteria. Poetry hovers somewhere between these two systems, and, as I see it, sustains a degree of credibility because people are prepared to listen to each other, and are unwilling to subscribe wholly to either the subjectivist ("Anything I like is good") model or the elitist one. Because of this, some sense of shared criteria emerges, at least among those actively interested in poetry.

What Williams and Robertson fear, it seems to me, is a slide towards that total subjectivism, where, at worst, poetry becomes a world of a small number of people buying their friends' books and there no longer exists any credible assessment of quality. This effectively erases all possibility of 'greatness' since 'greatness' is created by a readership who recognise and agree on the depth of achievement of an author. In the vacuum of space, all books are equally duff.

But what Williams and Robertson also fear, I think, is an end to the era of poets as superheroes. I say this because the idea that most of the poetry floating around is simply 'bad', 'polluting the pool', with the few genuine articles still alive but struggling to be seen, is a comforting lie that people tell themselves in order to avoid dealing with the far more terrifying prospect: that there's more worthwhile poetry being written than anyone can properly read and assess. As readers and critics, we lose our ability to get a grip on things, to survey our own culture, when there is too much to take in. It's a situation we just can't handle.

Since we're all still stuck in a world that measures achievement through fame, it's so much easier to believe that we can ignore everything we haven't heard of, that the only things worth paying attention to are those that rise up from the general mass and make themselves impossible to ignore. We all, to some extent, want to believe this, I think. I know I do.

But this solution doesn't work for two reasons: firstly, what rises up and is impossible to ignore is, more often than not, powered by money, desperation and good timing. I seem to find Twilight impossible to ignore, and yet it is shit. The Apple bookstore's number 1 bestselling e-book was recently revealed to be badly written erotica. We know that, really, its tawdry crap that gets our attention better than what we really should be paying attention to.

Secondly, when there isn't enough tawdry crap, or when the medium is not readily conducive to tawdry crap - a la poetry - 147 books mean that a tiny readership is split 147 ways and no poet superhero emerges - no household name who shines above all the others. This leaves Williams and Robertson rightly fearing that, if no one is standing out, the world in general assumes that poetry is doing nothing exciting. It would be that much more comforting to have seven or eight bona fide poetry superstars whose fame carries them continually into the newspapers and onto television. But that would actually require the rest of the 147 to write very badly, so that there is wall of grey for the stars to stand out against.

The real problem with the poetry scene, therefore, is that there is too much good poetry.


CoirĂ­ FilĂ­ochta said...

Robertson is blurbed (on the as a 'poet of austere and meticulous diction, tempered by a sensuous music', who speaks of the pool of poetry being 'polluted' by pple who write poems in, he clearly assumes, inferior to his own, 'austere and meticulous diction.'

The problem with these old timers is, they came up thro the Soho Bovver schools, where everything was sticked up in the Pillars of Hercules. Robertson himself en editor and London personality enmeshed in the tut-tut male, middle-aged poet fear and loathing of anyone rubbishing their poetry as they rubbish the 'lesser', untalented pple polluting the exclusive pool his imagination has deemed to be what poetry is all about.

There's lots of them, and it all stems, I think, to the fact that few (if any) of these blokey poets whose glory days of twenty to forty are gone, and their poems of alpha male arties struggling thro the hell of contemporary publishing, sell in any great number, or are gonna be remembered.

You can listen to the austere diction of Robertson speaking his verse at the poetry archive, and hearing his voice, the priestly hierophantic tenor is obvious. The guy thinks he is saying something incredibly deep and serious, when, to my ear, it's just bland identikit, sub-martianesque stuff polluting the pool.

Without their jobs in publishing, no one to keep out, their power gone, would they go sell their poems on the streets? I doubt it.

Helen Beaton said...

I read this nodding all the way through. Not nodding as in falling asleep. Nodding as in yes, yes, yes.

It's true. Of course there's loads of bad writing. But there's loads of good. I read poetry all the time and I can't keep up -- but there's something exhilarating about that, even if it's daunting.

The prizes do award good work. But lots of really good work doesn't get prizes. You can't see the wind for the breeze.

Another factor (it seems to me) is the way people are pushing the boundaries of text, sometimes using the Po word and sometimes not. And they're trying to do very different things often, so it's hard to compare. I'm constantly reading things I don't know how to approach. That means it takes ages, and it means new ways of paying attention.

I'd be surprised if there are not over a hundred books, at least, of good quality poetry published each year. And if there aren't, there could be.

But if you want to market a book, you need it to stand out from the crowd. It's tough going marketing a crowd, and not very attractive for new poets either. Come along and join the crowd, bruv an sis.

If the word 'poetry' means anything at all, it means 'special'. Join the special crowd. Come and be special like us, all five thousand of us. Oh hell . . . .

Sheenagh Pugh said...

This is very, very true. Most collections I read now are at least competent and many are better. Ironically I think it resulted in large measure from the kind of writing workshops that poets ran (and that reviewers invariably disparage from a standpoint of lofty ignorance). There really is a lot of good, readable stuff out there.

I would say this was not completely new, rather a throwback to the time a couple of centuries back when any reasonably educated gent or lady was expected to be able to turn out a bit of light occasional verse to a fair, and sometimes high, standard. Now, thanks to universal education, it doesn't only have to be gents and ladies. But the likes of Robertson are clearly uneasy that so many folk have got into their enclosure. Well, as the KIribati gent said when the missionary told him off for building a pagan shrine to Jesus, God is not like the mission-house; there is no fence around him to keep out the unworthy. No fence round poetry or talent either.