Saturday, 9 October 2010

Critical Close-Up: Felix Dennis

I've been (indirectly) challenged to explain exactly what I see is wrong with Luke Wright's poetry and I think I can understand where the commentator is coming from. Last month I appeared to be making broad swipes at Wright under the banner of 'telling it like it is' but without going into any specifics. Not very useful to the average reader in working out whether I had a point or not.

But while I see the force in a request for proper 'critical' reviewing, I'm not going to start with Wright - for one thing, it's silly to keep on at him as if he's some kind of poetry bogie man, and for another, I had to walk out on his performance the other night to catch a train, so it isn't really doesn't feel right to follow that up with a dressing down. Instead, I'm going to give Felix Dennis the once-over, since there is (I hope) a suitable distance between us, and I'd like to start with something easy.

Before I do that, a short word on why I think the 'critical review' is not very popular. Leave aside everything I said in the last post but one about negativity not making you many friends. There are two main problems: firstly, why waste time deconstructing something you don't like? We only have limited resources for critical analysis; surely these should be spent making positive cases for work that is criminally underrated or ignored?

Secondly, how persuasive can one hope to be? Without playing on an audience's predispositions, positivity is less suspicious, more appealing, more influential, than negativity. At worst, an overly critical piece will galvanise supporters of the derided work, actually increasing its popularity.

That said, I think it's important to discuss what we don't value in poetry as much as what we value. I've found that people are usually quite ready to talk about what they dislike at social gatherings or in small groups, but that this doesn't translate to written or recorded words. Perhaps that's because we're aware of how easy it is to expose our opinions as ultimately groundless or highly personalised. Perhaps. In any case, I think it's worth a shot every now and then.

Felix Dennis is the millionaire owner of Dennis Publishing, and his poetry has been critically endorsed by the likes of millionaire Stephen Fry, millionaire Paul McCartney and millionaire Tom Wolfe*. He claims to be one of Britain's best-loved poets, and in an interview with the BBC on National Poetry Day, he had this to say for himself:

"I'm a popular poet in the sense that my books tend to sell in the thousands, and sometimes in the tens of thousands, rather than in hundreds. Technically, I attempt to integrate structured poetical forms into modern day poetry."

His website also allows you to 'browse a timeline of Felix Dennis' life' and construct a playlist out of the several thousand poems he has uploaded. He's the author of 'How to Get Rich', which contains such sage wisdom as:

"I am convinced that fear of failing in the eyes of the world is the single biggest impediment to amassing wealth."

His wikipedia entry is remarkably similar to the biography in all his promotional material, citing his recovery from a mysterious illness as preceding his entry into the world of poetry. The poem I'm going to talk about is called 'A Sonnet for "Whores"'. It begins like this:

A ‘whore’ they call you in their spite. For shame!
Should men not importune you, (fools and boors),
Who then would stand to shoulder half the blame —
And more than half? God bless, say I, all ‘whores’.

Read the full text.

What's good about it?

As with all Dennis' poems, he knows his way around iambic pentameter and pure rhymes, which enables him to tackle the sonnet form with some success. This is evidently what he means when he says "I attempt to integrate structured poetical forms into modern day poetry". Let's give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he means that, like Glyn Maxwell, Tony Harrison and countless other modern poets, he aims to marry traditional forms with modern themes and syntax. This is fair enough, so long as he's not suggesting that there's anything particularly radical about this.

The inverted commas around 'whores' at least prompts the reader to reflect on the way the word is used, its particular application to women and its use as a tool of oppression. 

What's bad about it?

It may be the most patronising poem I've ever read about prostitution, simultaneously romanticising the whole sorry industry and affecting a kinship with the abused women at the centre of it via the final line's 'we shall'. Genuine empathy is conspicuous by its absence; in its place we have mere unctuousness, a faux-rousing clap on the back for our ladies of the night for 'shouldering' first half, then 'more than half', then 'this world's' blame.

The rhyming is incredibly heavy-handed and dull, with not a single pairing anything less than done-to-death. The twice-repeated 'shame' and 'blame' is particularly wearying.

And is this really 'modern' poetry at all? Who still says 'For shame' with anything but a measure of pantomime? 'Fools and boors'? 'God bless'? 'Come, Aphrodite's daughter'?!? This is pure poncing/strutting/clowning about in a blazer. There's no sense whatsoever of a concern with making language new, or engagement with a difficult subject, or even a joy taken in the words used. Instead it amounts to thin pastiche of 19th century Romantics.

The only image or sensory element the poem seeks to plant in the reader's head is the 'tigers at the kill'. I don't think I've ever seen tigers at the kill, so I thought instead of something out of The Jungle Book and tried in vain to relate this back to what Dennis is talking about. Who or what do the tigers represent exactly? Our lives' drudgeon? Reality? 'Murderous strife'? It seems rather melodramatic to suggest that prostitutes - and not wives or lovers - manage to save us from being torn apart by wild beasts. Rather unfortunately, it also appears to hint that sex workers provide some sort of service to society by being easy targets for Jack the Ripper-types.

Finally, the idea that the word 'whore' is used out of spite rings false. I would say it's generally used in a casual and dismissive sort of way. That's why it's such a powerful weapon of sexism - because it's available to those who are merely unmoved and insensitive, rather than actively aggressive.

(* Some of these may be multi-millionaires or even billionaires.)

No comments: