Sunday, 30 January 2011

Talking About Poetry

As someone who tries, more than occasionally, to review poetry books, I've spent a lot of time - much of it in some sort of face-clutching intellectual agony - trying to work out how to best articulate my response to the work. 'Best' here meaning that people (a) know what I'm talking about, and (b) are able to believe me. The latter, you might think, wouldn't be a problem, but it is. With criticism, it really is. If you sound hazy when it comes to the details, inexact, or flood your prose with grand, overblown assertions and generalisations, you come across as a salesman or politician, not a critic.

And it's not easy to avoid. I know that. Poetry is hard to talk about. That may be (I think it is) one of the main reasons why it's regarded as 'difficult'. What's missing isn't necessarily a person's ability to enjoy poetry, but rather to explain their enjoyment - or the lack of it - in terms that allow them to hone in on what they like and block out what they don't. Pop music is conveniently divided into genres. Imagine if, instead, no one could instantly articulate the difference between, say, Hallelujah and My Name Is. Think of the perennial (albeit diminishing) distance between the younger generation, who are tuned into the latest terminology surrounding music, and the older generation to whom all modern sounds blend into one uncomfortable mash.

Even if we ignore genrefication (or rather, write it off as ultimately undesirable, for different reasons) the fact is that a wide range of people are able to comfortably discuss the differing qualities of film, fiction, art, computer games, television and comics, both in the national media and in every corner of the internet. They can debate it. They can rage about it. This is the kind of engagement that gives these arts the feeling of being public, of being owned by everyone, rather than elitist and out of bounds.

Meanwhile, on the poetry front, discussion is too often limited to 'the state of things' or general feelings about form, the 'mainstream', publishing, performing, et cetera. While there are many who will put their back into writing reviews, those reviews rarely elicit so much as a passing comment from anyone else, and then it will be: "Good review." Kirsty and I recently received a polite email back from a book blog saying they didn't feel able to review our books because they had no one who was properly able to engage with poetry. In the age of the internet, when a 15-year old can set themselves up as a film reviewer, a literary blog doesn't feel able to talk about our books. I'm not admonishing them - this is simply how it is.

And then I look at recent articles by prize-winning, much respected poets in national newspapers and realise the problem goes all the way to the top. This is Don Paterson, explaining what it was that made the winner of the inaugural Picador prize - which has received a ton of press coverage, by poetry standards - stand out against the shortlist:

"But there was something in Richard Meier's turn of mind, the precision of his ear, the quiet strangeness of his imagery, the tenderness and clarity of his address ..."

This is his new star, the future of his list, and this clutch of incredibly vague and cliched assertions is the best he can do? What does Richard Meier write about? What's his 'thing'? What sorts of techniques does he employ? The best Paterson can give us is 'something'.

Next comes Jackie Kay, in the wake of Jo Shapcott's Costa Book Award victory, explaining how poetry is enjoying 'a beautiful renaissance'. What is it, then, about Shapcott's book that tells us the event us truly upon us? 

"... a rare thing, an uplifting book about death and mortality ..."

Okay, fair enough - Kay isn't attempting to sell us the book. This is only part of the picture, the rest of which will be built up over the course of the article:

"Christopher Reid's heartbreaking tribute to his wife ... Derek Walcott's remarkable White Egrets won the prestigious TS Eliot prize .... Carol Ann Duffy ... has reinvigorated the poetry world... a buzz in the world of poetry, showing that poetry is a force to be reckoned with ... the age of generosity is spilling out of the world of poetry ... the poetry pamphlets handsomely produced by ... small presses ... are flourishing ... Faber has just produced some extraordinary poets ... This might have to do with the poet's uncanny ability to speak for us and for our time ... From the pamphlet and the small press to the lit fest, new things are happening in the poetry world ... a proliferation of authentic and original voices, chiming with the voices of the entire population ... These readings are unique events, in the sense that they are electrifying ... There is no doubt about it, whatever the convergence of reasons and coincidences: poetry rocks."

She quotes others, including the Poet Laureate, to the same effect:

"People are coming at the poetry world from all different perspectives. Just last week I met a neurologist who said he had a great poetry reading group at work ... Poetry is very confident now, and it does feel like it should be a guest at the table."

Amid her article, there are some salient points about the rise of women poets and black poets. Why this isn't the subject matter of the whole piece is slightly beyond me, since the rest reads like a full page advert aimed at investors, hyping the poetry industry as a new mover and shaker. Figures are cited that supposedly prove an upswing in attendance and enthusiasm. The Picador prize is mentioned again, for no discernible reason except, perhaps, to reinforce the fact that people think it's worth mentioning. What is absolutely glaring in its absence is any articulation of what the poetry in question is actually doing; what it's embracing, rejecting, brawling with, studying, deconstructing, destroying, reinforcing. All that matters, apparently, is that people are 'getting it', even though neither Kay nor the Guardian can explain to us what exactly 'it' is.

The problem here is this: all these blandishments and upbeat noises cover up real issues, debate and conflict within poetry that, were the separate strands to find their voice, would be far more enticing to the average Guardian reader (and others beyond), since they invite negotiation and navigation. The soft sell results in nothing but the reader noting, perhaps with a warm feeling, that poetry is doing all right for itself, before moving on. The idea that these sorts of articles are, as presented on their face, news items is laughable; everyone involved knows it's vital publicity, but it's publicity done badly. Covering up the struggles within British poetry and passing it off as a happily united front is the exact opposite of what its advocates should be doing.

So why do they do it? One could ungenerously conclude that, given Duffy's surprising assertion that "there's little competitiveness in the poetry world" and Paterson's unsubtle put-downs of nay-sayers, that this is the old guard reinforcing their ivory tower by denying the existence of alternative poetries - or rather (this is more my theory) are guided by their own vision of a coherent, all-encompassing texture of contemporary poetry that naturally ignores the many ill-fitting jigsaw pieces.

But the best explanation, to my mind, is that people just don't know how to talk about poetry. They don't know how to make it a proper subject for discussion. So they flail around for figures and bold statements, hype up contests and events and name-drop, name-drop, name-drop, in the hope that all this will provoke someone else to kick off the real talking for them.


theTsaritsa said...

I dunno if it's that people don't know how to talk about poetry, or if poetry is just that interpretable and thus it's hard for us to communicate what exactly moves us within when we read poetry.

I know that it's sometimes difficult for me to express clearly just what it is about certain poems that create that fluttery feeling in my chest, but that's how I know when a poem is good. It just stirs me.

Jon Stone said...

"I know that it's sometimes difficult for me to express clearly just what it is about certain poems that create that fluttery feeling in my chest, but that's how I know when a poem is good. It just stirs me."

Yeah, this is the situation we're in, as I see it. But if we can break down and understand better that fluttery feeling in relation to other art forms, why not poetry?

Silkworms Ink said...

I think that a lot of it can often come down to a fear of sticking ones critical head above the parapet only to find out that you've "got it wrong" somehow... the fear of being shown up as a 'mis-reader' of a poem means that literary critics deal in undisprovable vagueness...

Which is what inevitably gives birth to that godawful trend in high-brow lit-crit... the poetic paradoxes. "'X' is a poet who deals in the super large, and the wonderfully miniscule... this is poetry that will scream its lungs off and whisper intimately... these poems are incredibly accessible, yet somehow obscure and esoteric... his work is both romantic and unsentimental."

Bloody review-filler.

The Judge said...

I think in part it's the fact that poetry tends to contain its own commentary - no other art form is so metatextual and bent over itself - while simultaneously deconstructing those very conventions of language which allow for commentary.

Anyway, an absolutely brilliant article, and one of your best. Keep up the good work.

Jared said...

Thanks for this. I think how we talk about poetry really is a problem and that you've succinctly nailed the crux of it. I would, however, qualify in this way: the problem with much talk about poetry, as opposed to talk about other art forms, is the predominately specialized and/or technical nature of much of it. When we do talk details, the details are not related to content but to theory and corresponding disagreements about poetics, often related to "schools" of poetic thought. Most potential readers of poetry are not interested in these conversations, and we poets know this but, as you say, we don't know how else to approach conversations about poetry. Thus, the fluff that gets written in prefaces and afterwords, as blurbs and in reviews. I think you nail this.

In my opinion, then, it is time to start having two types of conversations about poetry. We should not, as poets, stop having our critical arguments (sometimes squabbles) about theory and poetics, but we should add to this a more detailed discussion of content and topicality that will appeal to general readers. We should focus on drawing out the meanings of works that especially speak to our times. Not necessarily works that are "easy" but that are applicable. And you're right, this would require a sharpening of apparently dull faculties.

I tell my humanities students to not ignore their "flattery" like/hate feelings but to go deeper in understanding them. This has to be possible in poetry.

Roddy said...

This is not the first time that CAD has boldly gone to say that UK poetry is not competitive. I believe it may be a stance whose subtext is that a lot of the competition is not even to be acknowledged as competition. This is a poet who is supposedly top of the tree, representing UK poetry, but who recognised less than 50% of the names of poets in my Identity Parade anthology.

Moreover, the last time Duffy made such a point publicly was during her erm somewhat tipsy acceptance speech at the TS Eliot Prize in 2005 when she made a similar claim that UK poetry was uncompetitive and friendly and then, unbelievably, within minutes, said that she was pleased to win because she felt two three of the other books might have been judged as good as hers! Two or three - from a shortlist of ten! Apparently, that year the judges didn't actually consider Rapture the best book but felt they had to present it as a mainstream icon against the very temporary shift of emphasis which had been happening in Poetry Review and the Guardian.

Richard said...

Poetry works like music for me. There's no right or wrong about whether you like it or not, or whether it's good. Another valid question is, "Did you understand my intention?" Most reviews are "Can I get this person to endorse my poetry/creative job application in turn?" It's self interest squared. I'd like to think readers are smart enough and opinionated enough to make their own minds up. Re Don P's comments: He's not a scholar but he is a very good musician and a nice enough fella. He stays down the road from me and plays a mean jazz. Just don't ask him to get a round in.

Joshua Jones said...

One of the main problems, as I see it at least (or as I'm coming to see it), is a general lack of engagement by poets with other discourses and disciplines. Creative Writing culture enables a writer, for a good part of a their development, to 'study' Creative Writing pretty much in isolation. One of my main gripes with the degree I'm currently doing and a lot of similarly aged poets, including, worryingly, a lot of MA poets, is that they don't seem to engage with or know a thing about or, worse, actively and naively dismiss 'theory' (philosophy). Understanding the massively important philosophical concerns of the 20th century, from Heidegger onwards, instils a much wider vocabulary and grounding in ways of interpreting/understanding/expressing. These texts are often 'difficult' in the same way poetry is, and reward the kind of reading and thought poetry needs. I think if more poets were reading more widely (and these texts are, essentially, about what poetry is or 'should' be about: what it is to be and how one *is* being) then they would find it a lot easier not only to understand some of the difficulties of poetry but to express them.

Ross said...

There are examples of illuminating and thoughtful reviewing and discussion out there. A very good example is the review of Rick Mullin's book-length poem, Huncke, in the most recent Shit Creek Review. This examines content, tone and form and, crucially, discusses what the marriage of those is attempting to do and whether it succeeds.

Jon Stone said...

Josh - I agree with much of what you say here, but I wouldn't want to confine 'other discourses and disciplines' to theory. Of course you're right that properly studying theory will open door ways to discussing poetry in new ways, but I would be slightly concerned that this would still result in a language of discourse that would exclude most people (philosophy is a vast and difficult subject), in the same way that discussing poetry in highly technical ways (say, by avid students of prosody) makes it difficult for everyone else to jump on board.

I am, I have to say, more in favour of finding ways of talking about poetry that don't depend on any kind of specialisation of advanced study. One thing I've noticed, in my own reviews and others, is how tempting it is to drop in the word 'Oulipo' because, unlike so much poetic terminology, it refers to a school of writing which is easy for any newcomer, armed with Google, to quickly get the measure of.

Terms like modernism, formalism and postmodernism are, in contrast, still a little hazy and difficult to grasp exactly, even (or rather, particularly) for those who have been through UEA's literature courses.

Andy said...

It seems to me that this argument runs in a rather circular fashion -- reviews of poetry tend to be too generalised, but you don't want to specialise your terms for fear of alienating people.

I think there needs to be due consideration given to the fact that the sort of person who reads poetry reviews will have an assumed interest in poetry. While the Guardian reader (particularly the reader of Jackie Kay's recent drab 'state address') will have a fairly casual engagement, one can assume that the reader of 3am (or similar)will be relatively committed and enthusastic. The writing reflects that I feel.

Jon Stone said...

"... reviews of poetry tend to be too generalised, but you don't want to specialise your terms for fear of alienating people."

Only if you discount the obvious third option - developing a language for discussing poetry that is both effective and accessible.

I personally find I can talk about what I liked about a film or a computer game with almost anyone who has an interest in either form, using language that's both simple and specific. When it comes to poetry, we seem to largely flail around between emotional reactions we can't ground or substantiate and the kind of discussion that can only be had between learned students of literature.

It's hard for me to accept that the Guardian article and others are specifically tailored for an audience's level of engagement when that not-yet-existing third option would be the desirable one for reaching out to most audiences - those in between the extremely casual and extremely engaged.

Andy said...

Ah, see I would argue that the Guardian doesn't do game reviews with any particular flair. It is moderately better with film reviews, though I think part of this lies in a readership that feels comfortable with the rules of engagement as it's perceived as a more 'populist' art form. It's a foolish thing, but the nature of the beast. I have distinct memories of being taken aback in the contrast between the engaged and enthusiastic students in first year film-studies modules at UEA, and the same students becoming wallflowers in literature modules.

As regards to your third option, I think it exists. Just not in the pages of a national newspaper.

As a pleasant aside, I caught you reading at the SSYK launch yesterday. Good stuff.