Sunday, 12 September 2010

Children's Drawings

Hopefully this'll be the last polemical post for a while but I'm not really satisfied that I really got at the heart of what's bugging me over the course of the last two, even through my extended discussion with Luke Wright on the tail end of the 'Poetry/Popularity' one. In fact, I think I went off in completely the wrong direction from the get-go - it's funny how that can happen when you try to analyse your own emotions.

At the root of it, I'm frustrated - as, I think, many people involved in poetry are - with a world that struggles to acknowledge what I do as a relevant (or even interesting) art. I'm frustrated that I can't talk in much depth about what I do because most people don't have enough of a grasp on the fundamentals to follow what I'm saying. It's like the cliche of the scientist who can't convey the importance of his latest findings to anyone outside his field - except that art is supposed to be communicative. I get frustrated with knowing that if I show what I do to people, there's a fair chance they'll react with the same pained indulgence as a parent does to a child's drawing.

"That's lovely, dear. What is it?"

Or rather: "What is it about?"

I get frustrated with the not uncommon opinion that this is the poet's fault for 'obfuscating' (ie. not pandering to a lowest common denominator, ie. not repeating hoary old sentiments, ie. not slavishly imitating older, more accepted styles, ie. being individualistic and interesting).

Now, I don't say the media has any duty to change this state of affairs. But it does bug me that when they actually do discuss poetry, they convey a very limited awareness as if it were the result of considered journalistic investigation and insight. Luke Wright argues that people aren't stupid and are fully aware of the different choices of poetry that exist. I just don't share his confidence. I think there must be huge numbers of people who inherit their general cultural awareness from newspaper reports and, in practice if not in theory, put a certain amount of trust in newspapers to accurately report on what's 'happening'.

For these people, poetry is little more than a few older guys releasing 'serious' books every now and then (inevitably reviewed in a fawning and over-elaborate fashion), a couple of prize shortlists featuring said books, and then the 'youth' movement of poets like Wright, his Aisle 16 fellows, Kate Tempest, Polar Bear et al, who, while by no means identical in style, do represent a very narrow band when set against the full range of what's being attempted.

What about the dozens of diverse poets (younger and older) represented by publishers like Salt, Donut, penned in the margins, Eggbox, Nine Arches, Happenstance, pighog, Templar and many more? What about live projects like Roddy Lumsden's Broadcast series of events, continuously uncovering new poets, or Todd Swift's Oxfam fundraising series, The Cellar, Days of Roses, Clinic Presents, or the dozens of other shows (and festivals!) up and down the country? What about Jack Underwood and Sam Riviere's Stop Sharpening Your Knives anthology series, or the consistent and diverse output from Silkworms Ink? And much more besides that hasn't occurred to me as of this moment.

Maybe some of these have earned mentions in the national press and I've missed them. Maybe my failure to scan the papers every day means I've come by a skewed vision, but it feels all they have time for is that end of the poetry scale that ensconses its poetry within the general field of live performance. Wright calls this 'blurring the boundaries' but while that might be a fitting label, it's stylistically shrewd rather than ambitious - giving the press and the crowd a comedy/improv/cabaret lens through which to view the poetry.

So to the poor Guardian blogger who called Tim Clare a 'bona fide poet'. Two things here: I mistakenly focused in on the word 'poet' instead of the phrase 'bona fide', which is what really irked me, because it suggests primacy. Secondly, I'm only honing in on this as symptomatic of a trend, rather than being any kind of outrage in itself.

I know 'bona fide' doesn't strictly mean 'first and foremost', but in the context of the article, I thought this was its clear implication. And what I should have argued from the start is that Clare is not, 'first and foremost', a poet. He's actually a poet, performer, musician, comedian, non-fiction writer and novelist who fuses different elements of each in his writing and stage shows. In this respect, he simply isn't an example of "a poet trying their hand at comedy" - the words used in the article.

Bear in mind that this was an article about a festival where Richard Tyrone Jones' Utter! series boasted performances from a range of 'first and foremost' poets (Tyrone Jones himself having programmed the schedule while still recovering from a serious heart condition). The journalist couldn't find space for even a cursory mention of any of these shows, instead reporting with surprise that Tim can employ very basic poetic technique without people throwing rotten fruit at him:

"As does the blank verse he manages to slip in between the standup. "If I said we were poets and young, would you hate us?" he demands in one outburst, only for comedy fans who might have cried "Yes!" at the start of the hour to applaud loudly and queue up to shake his hand."

Yay, great. The 'comedy fans' like poets ... as long as they only 'slip' the poetry 'in between the standup'. What a shift in standards!

Now, Luke has, with reason, taken me to task for laying into Tim here, when he's supposed to be my friend. I can only say that I take no pleasure in sticking the knife in at all in this case, but when one of your friends gets a huge scoop of bangers and mash while the rest are sitting around the table with empty plates, I think it's fair to say that congratulatory sentiment is sometimes difficult to muster. If it helps, Tim, this is probably my default reaction to any positive piece I read about poetry in the national media these days ("Why are they only talking about him/her?")

(I also realise, just in case this is what everyone's thinking, that this whole post could be construed as being in the vein of Morrissey's 'We Hate it When Our Friends Become Successful' - "You see, it should've been me" - but come on, I didn't have a show at Edinburgh, I've not got a book out yet and we're already stressed by orders for Fuselit exceeding the speed with which we can produce it.)

Final point, I think, and probably the most difficult to make without sounding partial: it would be one thing if my complaint was simply about over-emphasis on one area of poetry at the expense of all else. But it's not just that. Tim, Kate Tempest, Jack Stannard, Polar Bear - successful performers all, poets all. But none of them has half of the genuine poetic talent of, for example, James Midgley and James Brookes, both of whom won Eric Gregory awards straight out of University and are still in their early twenties. Brookes, who has a nearly book-sized pamphlet out, has earned a couple of sentences in the TLS. Midgley, who until recently ran an ambitious poetry journal and is plugged into a genuinely international poetry scene, hasn't been noted by any journalist, to my knowledge.

Yeah, sure, these are mates of mine, but I was struck by their output before I'd even exchanged words with them. I defy anyone to put a segment of their work alongside that of the aforementioned performance-orientated poets and tell me it's the latter who have made a string of words look more beautiful and striking and charged with meaning.

I could use a number of other examples, who could probably, in their turn, each nominate another set of poets. It's a fairly normal view to take, I think, even if most people keep it closer to their chests than I do. And I'd like to think this really isn't about knocking poets I don't like or telling them to get off the lawn but asking why so many others who do fine work, who are pushing the boundaries, can apparently be pigeon-holed in the 'obfuscating oldies' category or ignored altogether, while those whose poetic skills are, in many cases, far more rough around the edges, are picked up on more readily.

I guess there's no way to make this case without inviting distaste for my negativity. But I have this need to get it out of my system right now, whereupon business on this blog will, we can only hope, return to normal.


Todd Swift said...

Jon, I think now you beginning to understand the frustration and sometime negativity of some of my eyewear posts of yore. I entirely agree with you - the bangers and mash the emdia scoops out is so poorly distributed as to be laughable; and those older me with their serious books can also be a stumbling block. I feel the problem is that for the most part, poetry is about as understod as religion, philosophy, math, or chess - it is a coterie act now, and all attempts to make it relevant rely on squeezing out from it what makes it poetry. keep up the good fight!

Tim Clare said...

I must confess to admiring your succession of posts, Jon. It's a disturbing spectacle but there's a kind of rococco majesty to it - like watching a splendid bird of paradise self-immolate then crash through a stained glass window during a wedding.

I agree with the positive side of your argument here - which I would roughly paraphrase as 'there is much in the UK poetry scene worthy of attention'. But you do little except perhaps briefly sate your temper by blatantly mischaracterising imagined detractors' position then attacking the resultant strawman.

To say that 'obfuscatory' is code for: 'not pandering to a lowest common denominator, i.e. not repeating hoary old sentiments, i.e. not slavishly imitating older, more accepted styles, i.e. being individualistic and interesting' is ridiculous. And do you really find clarity so arid?

Be very wary of erecting impenetrable bulwarks against criticism around the work you enjoy by pre-emptively accusing anyone not enraptured of being some indolent, knuckle-dragging philistine. This is not the way to win new audiences, a goal about which you appear somewhat ambivalent anyway. Whether you realise it or not, the implied underlying message of all your posts seems to be: 'If you don't get it, it's your fault.'

By your own admission, your knowledge of the performance poets you discuss is scant at best. I don't really disagree with the meat of your characterisation of what I do - although, as I say, I could count the number of times you've seen me perform in the past half-decade on one hand, after some kind of farming machinery accident.

I'd suggest that the best thing you can do with all this pent up frustration is to channel it into the positive work you already do promoting poetry that you love. Let it speak for itself.

I get your frustration, I really do. I devote a whole chapter in Astronauts to Steve Aylett, who I think is one of the most talented, interesting writers alive, critically acclaimed, yet criminally under-read. His work isn't first-glance easy. I know plenty of people who've put it down, baffled. But perseverance unlocks some of the richest, most technically-dense prose I've ever read. The number of ideas and image per page is mind-boggling. He's very articulate in his interview about the problems with trying to sell what he sees as true 'originality'.

I can't deny there are artists out there more deserving of press and acclaim than me - Steve Aylett chief among them. But I don't think a paragraph mention in an online Guardian blog is likely to suck all the oxygen out of the room and leave all other UK-based purveyors of the written word crumpled and asphyxiated. Although that would be kind of cool.

Jon Stone said...

Uh, Tim, I don't think you're being very fair. Maybe that's because I haven't been very fair but still...

I'm not the one punching the straw man here; you are. I don't have any problem with clarity at all - I'm a huuuuge fan of it. But the accusation of 'obfuscation' and its synonyms, almost every time I've seen it come up, are directed in a very generalised way at the poetry world by people who show no evidence of having read much of what's on offer.

Of course some poets can be properly accused of 'obfuscating' but I can count the number of times someone has deigned to identify a particular culprit, with examples to back them up, on the fingers of your self-same machinery-ravaged hand. Instead, it's a general sweep at a perceived 'class' of poet who is sometimes 'all poets', sometimes 'all page poets', sometimes 'all poets apart from this one I'm currently giving the nod to', depending on the commentator.

And yes, it is very frequently 'their fault' they find something difficult to follow if they haven't taken the time to get to know the fundamentals of a medium. People do go round with the expectation that everything should be intuitive for them to work out, failing to acknowledge that such intuitiveness is the result of a close similarity to something they have already learned to engage with. See Will Self's experiences of playing computer games, where, after one session of *watching* (not even playing) Grand Theft Auto 3, he concluded that he would never understand their appeal. People who approach poetry in a similar fashion are going to be similarly baffled.

At no point do I claim to be some kind of expert on you or other performance poets, but as long as I have some familiarity with your style (and I do) I'm not sure I see the relevance of your point. Do you honestly believe that if I went to another five Kate Tempest gigs I'd change my mind? I think you misunderstand how big the dividing line is in my eyes.

Finally, no, a one paragraph mention on the Guardian blog is not hogging the limelight. But the modern miracle of Facebook+poet's egos permits me a vague sort of awareness of how often and where people get mentions in the national media, and I think it's fair to say your team are out in front. I completely understand you feeling you totally deserve this - even that it's scant reward - for the work you've put in, but I also see a parallel with high earners who're convinced they've worked for every penny they've got and why should the government penalise them for it? I think most people feel that every minor advantage they manage to accumulate was hard won. I certainly do. And the person who tries to take that achievement away from them, or who even hints that it's unearned, is obviously not going to be popular.

One more thing though: please put all that nonsense about birds of paradise crashing through windows out of your head. I knew what I was risking and how I will look to some people by posting this stuff. It's not that I don't care but that I care about putting these thoughts out there a little more. It has very little to do with my gameplan for the future.

Jon Stone said...

Another thought, Tim - I think you might like to reflect on the fact that even negative publicity (especially criticism as ham-fisted as you're making mine out to be) is only going to increase awareness of what you do, so I'm not entirely sure I'm doing you such a disservice. Getting to the stage where people who aren't convinced feel the need to chime in, rather than simply failing to acknowledge you, is surely something of a career milestone. The next will be when you don't even feel the need to respond to such criticism because you know it's meaningless. By that stage you will have surpassed Anne Rice.

Andy said...

Hi Jon

I've been enjoying the posts over the past few days, and people's responses to them as well - It's good to see such passionate dialogue about the subject.

I thought rather than address your posts here I'd write my own blog entry - you're welcome to read it here:

though I appreciate you may be sick of the whole thing by now. Still, thank you for the interesting read...


Tim Clare said...

I don't think that your criticism is meaningless, Jon. I think you raise some valid points, and I've done my best to highlight them. You say yourself that these posts have been part of an attempt to get your thoughts on the subject in order, and that's the spirit in which I'm trying to chime in with a countervailing voice. Hopefully I'm providing grist for your macabre intellectual mill.

I take your point about getting to know the tropes and conventions of a medium - invoking the idiocy of trenchant prejudice against video games is a good way to get me onside in any debate! On the other hand, video gaming is a bad example, because it is one of the most financially successful entertainment industries on the planet. Poets don't have the same luxury of cocking a snook at outsiders unless they want to dress up such posturing as a kind of tough moral stance against fairweather populism.

I never said 'I totally deserve this' regarding any praise I've received - in fact, I rather thought I'd said the opposite, or at least made it clear that I know that there is a whole seething plethora of literary talent out there, some of which would doubtless make for good arts press fodder. I'm not sure I'm keen on your comparing me with a wealthy Tory, adopting a self-congratulatory philosophy of personal entitlement. If and when I'm rolling in dosh and acclaim, then by all means wheel out the big guns, but for now, maybe just accept that not every article will cover every single practitioner of the artform it discusses. Bear in mind it didn't mention John Cooper Clarke either!

I just feel like there is some inconsistency (or, less charitably, intellectual dishonesty) in your argument. On the one hand, you complain about critics taking a 'general sweep' at page poetry, and on the other, you see no need to have anything more than a cursory knowledge of a few performance poets in order to take the whole, diverse live scene to task.

In any case, I'm not in any way offended or put out by your criticism, which for the most part is thoughtful and is prompted, I believe, by positive aims. The stuff you get right provides me with useful feedback, and the stuff I disagree with I can quite happily dismiss as a product of your ignorance of the genre.

Jon Stone said...

Tim, I'm not comparing you to a Tory (their wealth is all inherited!) but a self-made man or successful professional who may feel that they've made sacrifices to get where they are. In any case, if, as you say, you don't feel that sense of entitlement, then it's moot.

I don't think I am taking 'the whole, diverse live scene to task'. For one thing, there are poet-performers who I've deliberately not mentioned here because I think their work does succeed purely as poetry (as well as Tim Turnbull, who I did mention). For another, I don't argue that any of you necessarily need to change what you're doing. But with the extra prominence many poet-performers get comes the questioning of that position of prominence. It's not as if I'm taking anyone to task for merely being mentioned in the same breath as 'my' kind of poet, or for achieving equal prominence. It's not: why are they in the papers at all? It's: why are they in the papers seemingly at the expense of others?

So I feel justified in observing that the little I have seen of some of these poets doesn't answer that question, as it surely would if they were obviously so much more exciting and original than the poetry world around them.

In this case, the questioning goes further, in that I feel (and if you don't see this, I guess I can't prove it) that the article casts you as a 'representative' of poetry in its narrative of a meeting and mixing of two worlds. This is against a background where Luke has been repeatedly, in my opinion, held up as a kind of figurehead character. Again, sorry, I can't point to specific examples. I haven't been collecting them - the impression has just gradually gathered in my mind, with the accompanying sense that this is effectively a kind of history being written.

To rail against this continuing 'story' as it's being written isn't the same, I don't think, as dismissing the relevance or point of a whole or most of a medium. I'm not saying no one should go and see you, or that the only people who do are jerks.

Not sure what you mean by 'video gaming is a bad example'. The fact that people in that industry can dismiss its critics because they make money neatly contrasts with the fact that poets can't so airily wave away prejudice and have to speak up against it, which is what I'm doing. I don't think it translates to stubbornly refusing to make one's poems more accessible, but actually sits right alongside that effort.

Jon Stone said...

"because I think their work does succeed purely as poetry" is a very poor way of phrasing what I meant. I mean that primacy thing again.