Monday, 11 April 2011

Traffic Both Ways 1

"Accessibility is a term I consider appropriate for discussion of supermarket aisles, library shelves, and public lavatories. It is not a word I consider relevant to the discussion of poetry."
Geoffrey Hill 

"Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people." 
Adrian Mitchell

The above quotes (apologies for reproducing the Mitchell one for the zillionth time) represent the polar ends of one of those debates that don't seem to progress at all over the course of one's lifetime. The question is thus: does contemporary poetry need to be more accessible? Is it exclusive and elitist (Mitchell's implication), or is too much of it already dumbed down (Hill's)?

Seems a harmless enough question to play with, starting with what we mean by 'accessible', but somehow it's become a war of attrition, with theoretical villains, victims and saviours getting thrown around left, right and centre. When London poetry night Bang Said the Gun promotes itself as 'poetry for those who don't like poetry' (or, more recently 'poetry not ponce') it's riffing off the image of the serious poet as a snob and killjoy. Such is the gamut that runs from populism to obscurity, however, that that Bang crowd's ponce directs his own misgivings not back towards no-frills performance poetry but his very own notion of the ponce. Here's Simon Armitage's famous anti-avant provocation:

"You can probably split poets into two distinct groups. There are those people who want to try and work out the chemical equation for language and pass on their experiments as poems and, very simply, on the other side there are people who want to sing songs and tell stories—and I’m with that bunch."

Hill, here, is the ultimate ponce, the ponce's ponce. Bang are (again, for the purposes of this illustration) the knuckle-draggers - that area of poetry rarely directly criticised for fear of drawing attention to it but glanced at sideways whenever some esteemed character makes a withering remark about doggerel. Armitage is both, depending on which camp you're in. The victims, meanwhile - again, depending on your camp - are either the poor commoner whom pretentious poets deliberately exclude through wilful obfuscation, or the unsung geniuses who die in poverty because our feeble-hearted modern world thrives on banality and spits on innovation.

The whole exchange is just as often roundly dismissed by those taking a broader view of poetry. In this extract from Beautiful & Pointless, David Orr sums up the situation facing all sides of the debate:

"A smart, educated person ... is often not so much annoyed by poetry as confounded by it. Such a reader doesn't look at a contemporary poem and confidently declare, "I don't like this"; he thinks, "I have no idea what this is... maybe I don't like it?" In fact, if more people actively disliked poetry, the news would be much better for poets: When we dislike something, we've at least acknowledged a basis for judgment and an interest in the outcome. What poets have faced for almost half a century, though, is a chasm between their art and the broader culture that's nearly as profound as the divide between land and sea, or sea and air. This is what Randall Jarrell had in mind when he said that "if we were in the habit of reading poets their obscurity would not matter; and, once we are out of the habit, their clarity does not help." The sweetest songs of the dolphins are lost on the gannets."

Performance poetry promotors may retort that their approach breaks the cycle, but let's be realistic - the crowd at such an event are, more often than not, laughing at the jokes and enjoying the spectacle, and are just as indifferent or otherwise to the poetry as they would be at a TS Eliot prize reading. Sugaring the pill doesn't make the drug work; it just makes it go down more easily.

In spite of this, it doesn't follow the debate should just be put on one side. I don't agree with Hill that accessibility is irrelevant to poetry and I don't like what seems to be implied from that - that poets and poetry should have carte blanche to pursue their own course without the need to check how in touch they are with broader culture. It's not good enough to just shrug at the chasm and carry on, certain that, in its own incomprehensible way, what you're doing is important.

On the other hand, the answer to the chasm isn't populism or notions of directness and simplicity. Let me be clear: I certainly share some of the frustration with some forms of experimental/avant garde/non-mainstream poetry, partly out of a sense of exclusion from (and suspicion of) the academic world, where it is more concentrated and more actively embraced, and particularly when wading through some of the attempts to explain its appeal. Here's the Guardian's Robert Potts on reading Prynne:

"Part of the pleasure for some readers, including myself, is the discovery of fresh vantage points on the world, garnered from chasing references in the poems, whether historical, musical, literary, scientific or economic. As one reader has said, 'the experience I always get reading Prynne, going to the dictionary and the encyclopedia, is the excitement I was cheated out of by my education, having it all served up, rather than, like my grandfather, finding it out for myself (after work) with great effort and little societal encouragement.'"

This is, more or less, the experience I get from reading a range of mainstream poetry, or rather, from reading generally, so what is NMS poetry offering extra besides a headache?

Here's where that line of criticism falls down though: I have read NMS poetry that I like, that has, to my eye, the quality of something skilfully done, musical and original. And the vagueness with which I can express that revelation is the real problem here, not just in regards to experimental poetry but all poetry. That is, the struggle I have with the experimental is finding the words to talk about it (see these two recent, troublesome reviews I've written for Happenstance) and it's the same struggle that faces the average reader when confronting any poetry at all. I've mentioned this in previous posts but it remains, to my mind, an extremely pertinent point: to be able to engage with poetry, to be part of its audience, one needs to be able to respond to it. And the kind of development one has to undergo in order to be able to respond to it can be a question of personal or social resources. It isn't wholly the responsibility of the individual, nor is it wholly the responsibility of poets, nor the government and its quangos, but all can (and to some extent must) play a part.

So in short: does contemporary poetry need to be more accessible? Yes. Does that mean we need to stop using big words, innovative forms and complex syntax? No.

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