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.