Thursday, 2 September 2010

Dancing and Stamping Out Fires

I have to admit to a near splutter of indignation the other day when I read a Guardian article describing my old UEA mate Tim Clare as a 'bona fide poet'. Tim is a talented writer, a natural showman and probably as fine a crafter of comic verse as there ever could be, but one thing he definitely isn't is a bona fide poet, and to my mind he's implicitly admitted this in the past when describing himself with the qualifier of 'stand-up' (ie. 'Tim Clare, stand-up poet').

Why bring this up here and now? Because when I narrowly avoided that indignant splutter, I knew I had to justify it to myself and in justifying it, I went through a process of reasoning that touched on the old dispute of page poetry versus performance poetry - is there any true divide? - and came close to a new understanding of what it is about poetry that makes it, in my opinion, poetry. I'm well, aware, for instance, that a typical reaction to my above cavilling over terms is to think of me as elitist, or of mistaking personal taste for objective criticism. There is a line of thinking that says that popular peddlers of rhyming verse are sniffed at by 'proper' poets merely because they are more successful, with a more obvious talent for engaging the general public, which, it is argued, should be poetry's job above all else.

While there may be some truth in this, I think there is a clear distinction to be drawn between Clare (and, for that matter, his close friend Luke Wright) and another Tim, Tim Turnbull, who has been said to bridge the divide between stage and page and thereby disprove it. At this year's Edinburgh festival, Clare was one of a number of poet-performers who offered to write a poem on any subject within a short time (ten minutes, I think) for anyone who asked. The result would always have been as much a Clare poem as anything he performed over the festival. Why? Because Clare's art is 100% style. On more than one occasion in the past, he has responded to the classic problem of 'style or substance' by suggesting that he sees no distinction, or, more accurately, that a style with enough verve is all the substance one needs. He has honed his style performing to crowds for years, dropping jokes from pieces if the audience didn't laugh. He has done it all for you, his audience, so that you may enjoy his work and not find it difficult or dull or distasteful.

A Turnbull poem, on the other hand - and this goes, to some extent, to what I think defines 'bone fide' poetry - is a Turnbull poem because of its precise mixture of style and subject matter. Turnbull would have difficulty, I think, producing a poem on a requested subject within ten minutes that wouldn't be a hollow parody of his real work. He has specific concerns which are balanced - I would think evenly - with his desire to please an audience. A poet can be forgiven for lacking in either polish or pith, but not for lacking either entirely. However deludedly, a poet labours under the belief that they have something that must be conveyed whether the world wants to hear it or not - and if this causes a ruckus, all the better. This is not necessarily one big idea or argument per poem and it is not necessarily easily parsed from the style aspect - in fact, you could argue that the aim of poetry is to make style and substance, in this respect, inseparable and that any big idea or argument that could exist as completely outside of the poem isn't worth writing a poem about.

Somewhat ironically, it's the precise, difficult, out-of-touch page poets who are derided for 'showing off'. An audience who lacks the will or ability to properly digest their work explains to itself the apparent inpenetrability by thinking it must be some sort of oneupmanship game not intended for their eyes and ears - something like a group of guitarists performing increasingly long and fiddly solos. But as that comparator demonstrates, a general audience actually has a preference for showing off. Pop stars, comedians and all manner of performers all earn their pay from showing you they can do one thing better than everyone else. We don't mind that it's meaningless or insubstantial as long as they impress us with difficult tricks or sheer exhuberance. Without their 'presence' on the stage or as a recording - without their ego - we are nowhere near as interested. Stand-up does not transfer to the page.

Poems, meanwhile, exist without their author and without fashion accessories  - everything that is important about them is within the poetry itself. What is actually so offensive about supposedly 'difficult' poetry (and there are, in fact, hugely varying degrees of difficulty in contemporary poetry) is that it presumes to have something important to say, and the human mind in search of escape and entertainment baulks at the idea of having to take something seriously.

Tim Clare the poet would not want you to have to struggle in this manner with his pieces. He is therefore - and I don't mean this pejoratively - Pam Ayres for a modern, edgier generation. I would go so far as to say that he has consciously molded himself into that very thing. I am not, I have to emphasise, making the argument that this is an invalid or lesser form; it is just different. I also note that Clare's talents, possibly unlike Ayres', extend well beyond the ability to compose the verse he performs.

For some people, it might be good enough to have one term, 'poetry', that covers all wordplay or short poetical text, however frivolous, serious or other. For me, though, the distinction I'm drawing here is as important as one between dancing and stamping out fires. Maybe it's wrong to take the term 'poetry' for the latter; perhaps what's needed instead is more clearly defined subgenres of poetry. What's not satisfactory, to my mind, is when the media talks about the return of poetry or the issue of poetry as if the success of the Wright/Clare model signals some kind of change in attitude towards my kind of poetry. There may well be change on that front, but not because these two and others are continuing the fine tradition of Pam Ayres, John Cooper Clarke, Murray Lachlan Young et al in using verse as a delivery tool for light entertainment.

Now I really must have some breakfast.


Niall O'Sullivan said...

You seem to be dealing with a divide between populism and artistry rather than a divide between page and stage. Stage poetry can also be difficult and aimed at a connoisseur audience, much like some aspects of theatre aren't necessarily populist and have bags of literary merit (Beckett springs to mind). Luke Wright gets a bit of a bum rap here too, some of the poems in his latest collection such as Mr Blank work very well on the page and veer a lot closer into Turnbull's ballpark than the supposedly clear cut page/stage divide would allow. As for the style/content dichotomy, I still remember the advice given to be by one of the most respected published poets in London today: "Style is everything."

Richard said...

I wasn't there for Clare but was for Cooper Clark and some others at the festival, and think more and more audiences are "getting it" when verse is used in light entertainment.

There may be a gap widening between what culture pigeon-holes as entertaining, what is dramatic, and the wee Venn pocket in between.

There was a time when poets were tragedians and entertainers were bards, and we might be seeing a return to that.

To lend from a clever dick's blog: "Perhaps there is no way to modernise our concept of what has become a very old-hat kind of writing; perhaps it doesn’t deserve to survive into another century."

Jon Stone said...

Niall - populism and artistry may well be it, although there is art in populism and wooing of the audience in artistry. I don't think the distinction I'm trying to draw is page/stage at all, which is why I chose Turnbull as the example, since he is both. What I'm arguing pertains to that long-running debate, however, because I think the supposed page/stage divide is actually a misfired attempt to identify the real divide that exists.

I think I've said this before on your forum but from my point of view, if I have to judge the work of people like Wright and Clare as 'poetry', as I understand poetry, it is (largely) very bad poetry. What I would rather do is say that they are actually very good at something else. Or perhaps we can all share the term 'poetry' but I want concrete subgenres that recognise differences in approach. Of course there will still be a few who stand on the border and make it as fuzzy as possible (as with the distinction between prose and poetry, or music and poetry) but I still think it's a helpful distinction to draw.

"Style is everything", but then you could just as well say "Substance is everything" and it would be just as true, because both terms are ambiguous enough to be interchangeable. In order for what I'm saying to make sense, one has to focus on the narrower meaning of the words envisaged by the phrase 'style over substance'.

Zoë said...

I think Niall has a point with the populism/artistry comment - and this divide can and does exist within 'page' poetry, like comparing Pam Ayres with Geoffrey Hill.

However, I do agree that "you could argue that the aim of poetry is to make style and substance, in this respect, inseparable and that any big idea or argument that could exist as completely outside of the poem isn't worth writing a poem about."

Poets, or enthusiastic amateurs, or even readers, have an interest in championing what makes their discipline - the discipline of poetry - unique and worthy of attention. This is an argument that poetry says something which prose, drama etc can't. Part of that argument goes that the way in which poetry works - the style (in a general sense and also possibly specific to the author) gives a new understanding to the substance. So you can't have true poetry which is stylish without substance (by this, perhaps I mean something which sounds good but says nothing, leaves no impact on the reader), or substantive without style (this would just be not-particularly-good prose!)

I'll admit to not liking spoken verse, if only because I like to re-read and appreciate the effect that is created by linebreaks - neither of these is really possible with performance poetry.

Zoë said...

A further point on categorisation/delineating 'types' of poetry- this has benefits in that it makes it much easier to champion the virtues of each - which, if we're poetry defenders, is useful.

But from another perspective, do we want to encourage this sort of pigeonholing? Maybe it encourages people to work within the genre they identify with, which could lead to staleness. I'm not sure how wide you'd envisaged the subgenres being.

Jon Stone said...

Hi Zoe,

When it comes to categorisation and subgenres, yeah, too many or the wrong sort leads to pigeonholing - fitting square pegs into round holes - but this is the nature of language. People talked of performance poetry and page poetry, and that distinction has been proven, to my mind, to be flawed and thus to lead to ungenerous pigeonholing. But I think the need to come up with some kind of categorisation that gave rise to this flawed terminology was keenly sensed and still exists.

I just think that mixture of style and substance we're talking about is so absolutely central to poetry that it really does make Ayres, and now Clare/Wright, glaring outliers on the diagram, to the point where the media treating any of them as representatives or figureheads of British poetry is rather absurd. They're figureheads of their own movement, which happens to share some things in common with poetry. Of course it doesn't help my argument that I *would* classify other Aisle 16 members like Ross Sutherland and John Osbourne as 'bona fide' poets.

Zoë said...

An interesting comment by Wright when talking about Aisle 16:

"Quite a lot of comedy is about lying, about making that work; poetry is often about telling the truth,"

Another way to distinguish light verse, I suppose...does it aspire to, or touch on, a truth? (mostly, I guess not, though it'd probably be possible to argue comedy is funny because it's true on some level)

Though to my mind, someone like Billy Collins confounds that way of thinking...! Would you consider him a true poet?

Jon Stone said...

Collins = definitely a poet. Someone who is more difficult for me is Wendy Cope, who I think is mostly a parodist but occasionally a poet.

And that's an astute comment from Wright.

Tim Clare said...

Tim here! Hello. I don't actually have much of a problem with what Jon says here. I think he's taken pains to be even-handed while being honest, and, as he makes clear, he's not calling me an idiot, just suggesting that we work in different areas.

I definitely position myself closer to the 'entertainer' end of the spectrum than the 'artist' end, although those are two polarities that don't accurately reflect the majority of what takes place under the colossal umbrella of cultural discourse these days. I'm not keen on your ringfencing of poetry as output exclusively on the 'art' half of that scale, but I don't really mind. I don't wear the appellation 'poet' like a badge of honour - it's just proven to be a useful shorthand for a lot of what I do.

I guess the only point on which I would take issue is that Jon has only seen me perform once or twice in the last three years, and he hasn't actually seen the show to which the article refers, so I would respectfully suggest that he has a very limited grasp of my current creative output. Also, though I'm flattered by any comparison to Luke, I suspect he'd prefer it if you didn't so glibly lump us together as 'Clare/Wright', like this double-headed doggerel-spewing Barnum-esque monstrosity. There is plenty of daylight between our respective approaches, just as much, I would argue, as between me and Ross.

Broadly though, I agree with what you say. It's a bit tricky for me not to when I'm currently writing a uke song called 'Mr Silly Bum'.

Jon Stone said...

Hi Tim - you're right that lumping you and Luke together is a bit of an unfair shortcut. I get lazier in my phrasing with every paragraph and reply. And I also admit I'm only going by the occasions you mention, rather than the show the journalist was actually reviewing.

The shorthand thing is also a fair point and I certainly don't regard everyone who calls themselves a poet as having made some outlandish claim. This is really about media coverage and my concern that journalists talk about a general 'poetry' as if occasionally covering the rise of poet-performers like you and Luke is akin to talent-spotting the next generation of TS Eliot prize winners.

Jane Holland said...

No poet ever tells the truth. Not genuinely. The truth is largely un- or anti-poetic and needs to be heavily shored up with other stuff before it can succeed as a poem. (This is why political poems are nearly always unworkable as poetry.) Though a poem may give the reader an illusion of perceived truth, having been based on tiny scraps of reality that their imaginations can hook onto for some kind of bearing. Which is not the same thing as absolute truth. Not a bit of it.

For what that observation is worth.