Friday, 1 October 2010

Friday Pickle: To Diss or Not to Diss

Some time ago, the editors of the newly revitalised iota toyed with the idea of inviting submissions of articles which would be published anonymously. The response was an immediate heated debate of what this would entail - much-needed serious critical analysis of poetry from commentators now freed of a fear of black-listing, or lunatic hatchet-jobs and hate tirades from people too cowardly to put their names to their opinions? And is the distance between the two merely a matter of perspective anyway?

One of the biggest stumbling blocks contemporary poetry faces is its lack of an independent critical community. Most who know enough about poetry to form a cogent argument about it (or write about it in any fashion that doesn't expose crushing ignorance) are already practicing poets. Even those who begin with no intention other than to write critically will likely give in to the temptation to give the actual art a go at some point, if only because the distance between writing critically and writing creatively is so small - nothing like the distinction between writing critically about film and going out with a movie crew and several million quid to shoot a movie. The old line about the critic as failed artist fails to ring true with anyone but the most stung creator - critics are, in the main, trusted by the general public, while poets writing about poetry are not (and often with good reason).

Without this independent critical community, the very idea of reviewing negatively (or over-critically) in poetry is taboo. It's unthinkable to the young, aspiring poet because the author of the book they're reviewing could later turn out to be the person who decides whether or not they're accepted onto a course, or published in a journal, or up for an award. It's awkward for longstanding members of the poetry community because if they haven't met the person whose book they're reviewing, they're almost certainly a friend of a friend. And it's a serious risk for anyone because to utter real criticism from any position outside of permanently assured critical and commercial success might well earn you the reputation of a sore loser (not least because there are any number of genuine sore losers out there). Anyone who waded through my recent unsatisfactory attempts to land a shot on the performance poetry scene will have noticed that while the responses were generally mature, I was still accused of sour grapes.

Finally, it's a problem for poetry as a whole because all fracases, however intelligent or good-natured, can be regarded as bald men quarreling over combs. We have enough trouble getting poetry taken seriously on any level - why cavil over which is better or worse when nobody else cares?

Then there's the issue with negative reviewing itself. Nearly all poetry requires a certain degree of open-mindedness, and arguably the more genuinely original and groundbreaking it is, the more it demands the critic leave their expectations at the door. Thus, while Hollywood dross can be comfortably savaged by the serious critic, it's extremely difficult to do the same to a poetry collection without sounding like you're just not engaging with the material properly or fairly.

I'm not just talking about reviews here, mind. This applies to all levels of critical discourse, however informal. Think about how often we take a swipe at a terrible TV programme or articulate what we think about certain politicians. For some people (I'm not sure how many) enthusing endlessly comes easy, but for (surely) most of us, not being able to make a dismissive jibe or poke holes in something makes it difficult to talk about at all with any real gusto. Maybe it's because I'm British or something, but I find I'm at my most florid and unselfconscious when taking the piss. I have a huge number of genuine enthusiasms but somewhere between my heart and my mouth, they mostly dissolve into trite, workmanlike recommendations and thumbs ups.

And to be honest, I get rather tired of the trite, workmanlike recommendations and thumbs ups that seem to be the only way most communication about poetry can take place at all. There is an awful lot of work that needs to be congratulated and deserves wider recognition - that I do wholeheartedly believe. But there's a sense of muted desperation about how frequently we have to lightly applaud it, perhaps because sometimes it's the only indication we can give that something exciting is occurring. Imagine if this week's Milliband furore had been confined to a round of hearty congratulations to Ed and commiserations to Dave - would anyone really give a damn what happened next?

There are two broad philosophies that are often extolled (or rather, quietly recommended) in the world of poetry when it comes to behaviour: that is, kicking against the pricks and leaning a bit of humility. I've found myself leaning, at various times, towards one or the other, but lately I've been finding both equally dissatisfying. The prick-kickers seem destined to get nowhere, forever engaged in personal disputes only they care about, drawing up battle lines that make no sense to anyone else. The humility, meanwhile, is too often false, and on a larger scale only works in favour of those poets who are best at networking, since they end up with hundreds of mates all happy to do their PR for them and no one prepared to voice the opinion that they're not all they're cracked up to be. Where on earth can one sensibly stand?


Anonymous said...

It's not negative reviewing that's needed but 'critical' reviewing. Basically there's no-one writing reviews who's actually thinking critically about poetry. In fact there's precious little (that I can find) being written in any form that's breaking new ground in terms of how we read poetry, and what it we think it should be doing. We've been landed with unambitious poets and that makes us unambitious readers.

Anonymous said...

I should say: basically I agree with you. :)