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This article is taken from PN Review 239, Volume 44 Number 3, January - February 2018.

The Cult of the Noble Amateur Rebecca Watts
WHY IS THE POETRY WORLD pretending that poetry is not an art form? I refer to the rise of a cohort of young female poets who are currently being lauded by the poetic establishment for their ‘honesty’ and ‘accessibility’ – buzzwords for the open denigration of intellectual engagement and rejection of craft that characterises their work.

The short answer is that artless poetry sells. In October 2016 The Bookseller reported the highest-ever annual sales of poetry books, ‘both in volume and value’. According to Penguin’s poetry editor, Donald Futers, this boom was due to the emergence of a ‘particularly energetic and innovative’ generation of young poets, who come to publishing with a significant and ‘seemingly atypical’ following. Figures released on National Poetry Day this year confirm this is no fad: sales are up by another fifteen percent in volume. In 2016 and 2017 the bestselling title, which has outstripped all others by a staggering margin, has been Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey. Here is a typical poem from the book: ‘she was music / but he had his ears cut off’. Here is another:

i don’t know what living a balanced life feels like
when i am sad
i don’t cry, i pour
when i am happy
i don’t smile, i beam
when i am angry
i don’t yell, i burn
the good thing about
feeling in extremes
is when i love
i give them wings
but perhaps
that isn’t
such a good thing
cause they always
tend to leave and
you should see me
when my heart is broken
i don’t grieve
i shatter

Following the example of New Zealander Lang Leav (with whom she now shares a publisher), Kaur amassed hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram before self-publishing a collection of her poetry online. Alerted to its popularity, Andrews McMeel Publishing – a specialist in the gift book market, now with a developed (as far as sales revenue is concerned) poetry arm – picked up the collection and issued it in print. By May 2017 it had sold 1.4 million copies (back then just over one per each of Kaur’s Instagram followers). Commenting on the appeal of Milk and Honey, Kaur’s publisher Kirsty Melville insisted that ‘the medium of poetry reflects our age, where short-form communication is something people find easier to digest or connect with’.

Had we time to digest it, the diagnosis might provide cause for concern. The idea that Web 2.0 has a deleterious effect on our attention spans and cognitive abilities is nothing new; internet entrepreneur Andrew Keen argued the case in his 2007 book from which this essay takes its title. A decade on, this autumn, Twitter co-founder Evan Williams registered his dismay at how social media platforms were helping to ‘dumb the entire world down’, lamenting specifically the role Twitter played in Donald Trump’s election victory. In the arena of politics, language has always been the slippery servant of self-promoting, truth-bending, popularity-seeking individuals. In the age of the sound bite, for which social media is the perfect vehicle, we no longer expect the statements politicians utter to convey any meaning whatsoever. From literature we have hitherto expected better – not least because endurance, rather than fleetingness, is one marker of its quality. As Pound put it, literature is ‘news which stays news’. Of all the literary forms, we might have predicted that poetry had the best chance of escaping social media’s dumbing effect; its project, after all, has typically been to rid language of cliché. Yet in the redefinition of poetry as ‘short-form communication’ the floodgates have been opened. The reader is dead: long live consumer-driven content and the ‘instant gratification’ this affords.

Though their reach is nowhere near Kaur’s in terms of absolute sales figures, Kate Tempest and Hollie McNish are her UK equivalents, dragging their significant and seemingly atypical followings into the arena of establishment-endorsed poetry. Both developed profiles on YouTube as an extension of their presence on the slam/performance scene, before being picked up in print by Picador. Both have received the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry. Through them, the establishment – by which I mean its publishers, editors, reviewers and awards administrators – demonstrates its belief that poetry must adapt to changes in the way people engage with literary output. Even McNish has deduced that her ‘poetic memoir’ Nobody Told Me won the Ted Hughes Award ‘because of where the poetry has gone, not for the quality of the writing’.

What good is a flourishing poetry market, if what we read in poetry books renders us more confused, less appreciative of nuance, less able to engage with ideas, more indignant about the things that annoy us, and more resentful of others who appear to be different from us? The ability to draw a crowd, attract an audience or assemble a mob does not itself render a thing intrinsically good: witness Donald Trump. Like the new president, the new poets are products of a cult of personality, which demands from its heroes only that they be ‘honest’ and ‘accessible’, where honesty is defined as the constant expression of what one feels, and accessibility means the complete rejection of complexity, subtlety, eloquence and the aspiration to do anything well. As Kaur’s editor has explained: ‘The emotional intensity of Rupi’s message of self-empowerment and affirmation, combined with her passionate audience really resonated and we could see through sales of her self-published edition that her readers were really responding to her message.’ Similarly, Don Paterson, the editor of Tempest and McNish, says McNish appealed to him because of her ‘direct connection with an audience’ and the ‘disarming honesty of the work’.

When did honesty become a requirement – let alone the main requirement – of poetry? Curiously, the obsession doesn’t apply to all literature; there is no expectation that the output of novelists or playwrights should reflect their personalities. Yet every one of the reviews and articles relating to McNish in the press in the past two years cites this feature as her work’s main selling point. Reviewing her new Picador collection Plum in The Scotsman, Roger Cox writes:

It’s not that she doesn’t care about things like scansion and simile; more that, in her personal list of aesthetic priorities, immediacy and honesty matter more. […] Much of what McNish has to say urgently needs saying; and if form follows function in her poems, well, that’s as it should be.

Honesty as an aesthetic priority? The function of poems? BBC presenter Jim Naughtie delivered similar non sequiturs when interviewing McNish for the BBC News channel’s Meet the Author broadcast on 15 June 2017. Asked what audiences like about her poems, McNish answered: ‘they like the honesty in them’. Naughtie elaborated:

They want poems that don’t seem too artificial or contrived, that actually hit you in the solar plexus. […] With any good poetry there’s nowhere to hide for the poet – I mean, it’s all there, isn’t it?

When we don’t expect linguistic precision from poets, perhaps it’s unfair to expect it from arts editors and broadcasters. Still, people who do not know that poems are deliberately created works, not naturally occurring phenomena, should not be paid to pass judgement on and host discussions about literature.

If, on the other hand, these cultural commentators do know that poetry is an art form, why are they lying? One explanation is that they are pandering to a strain of inverse snobbery that considers talent to be undemocratic. In acting thus, they are playing a part in the establishment’s muddle-headed conspiracy to ‘democratise’ poetry.

It was against precisely this ‘inadvertent’ trend that Paterson argued in his 2004 T.S. Eliot lecture ‘The Dark Art of Poetry’ (the full text is available online at A comparison of his standpoint then with his more recent comments about the new poets he has elected to publish reveals an astonishing U-turn. In 2004 Paterson denounced ‘the populists, who have made the fatal error of thinking that feeling and practice form a continuum […] those self-appointed popularisers, who, by insisting on nothing but dumb sense, have alienated poetry’s natural intelligent and literate constituency by infantilising our art’. Such writers, he argued, ‘purvey a kind of straight-faced recognition comedy, and have no need either for originality or epiphany’. In the Guardian on 16 June 2017 he identified the same characteristic as a cause for celebration, claiming that McNish’s work ‘gives me the kind of feeling you get from recognition comedy’.

Feelings aside, the analogy is problematic. Recognition comedy is the art of provoking laughter by making an audience recognise absurdity in the familiar. Its effect, when done well, is the cultivation of humility through self-awareness. McNish’s poems consist of assemblages of words that relate to familiar topics. Their effect is limited to recognition, which merely reinforces the reader or audience member’s sense of selfhood. As McNish and her critics acknowledge, her fans are drawn to the poems by the themes – sex, relationships and perceived social inequalities – as well as by McNish’s ‘unpretentious’ presentation, where unpretentious means abundant in expletives and unintimidating to anyone who considers ignorance a virtue. Again, these are characteristics Paterson derided in 2004:

To take a risk in a poem is not to write a big sweary outburst about how dreadful the war in Iraq is […]. This kind of poetry is really nothing but a kind of inverse sentimentalism – that’s to say by the time it reaches the page, it’s less real anger than a celebration of one’s own strength of feeling. Since it tries to provoke an emotion of which its target readers are already in high possession, it will change no-one’s mind about anything; more to the point, anyone can do it.

In 2017 he asserts the opposite:

Hollie takes on subjects that we don’t talk about as much as we think we do. People may think it’s easy writing as spontaneously as she does, with no artifice, but it’s really not. It only works because it perfectly suits her personality.

Paterson is right in this: Plum is the product not of a poet but of a personality. I was supposed to be reviewing it, but to do so for a poetry journal would imply that it deserves to be taken seriously as poetry. Besides, I was too distracted by the pathological attitude of its faux-naïve author, and too offended by its editor’s exemplary bad faith, to ignore the broader questions it provokes.

In 2015 I heard McNish speak on a panel at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, where she was also a main performer. Two things she said struck me then as bizarre, both in themselves and for the fact that she chose to admit them publicly. The first was that her publisher (presumably by then Picador) had sent her a pile of books to read, because they thought she hadn’t read enough poetry. The second was that the poems she was writing presently were the same as the poems she had written in her childhood diaries. It must have been around this time that she hit upon the idea for Plum, which treats us to the ‘first poem I wrote down, aged 8’, along with poems ‘written aged’ 9, 10, 13, 14, 16, 17, 18, 24, 25, 27, 29, 30 and 33 (as indicated in subtitles). Sometimes the childhood poems are explicitly paired with poems written in adulthood, with an introductory note by McNish highlighting their similarities. Via this novel format she curates her self-image as a writer in possession of her full talents from the start.

Poetry as an autobiographical project is nothing new; we could credit Wordsworth for inventing the expectation that a readership should be as interested in ‘the growth of a poet’s mind’ as the poet is. Ignorant of any tradition out of which poets write, McNish has inadvertently penned a Prelude for our time. Where Wordsworth’s lifelong poetic project explores the development of the poet’s particular sensibilities – development brought about through a combination of emotional experience, education, philosophical reflection and personal engagement with events, and debates whose implications extend beyond the poet’s sense of his individual identity and importance – McNish’s slapdash assembly of words (‘scribbled in confused moments’, as she says in the acknowledgements) celebrates the complete stagnation of the poet’s mind.

The first double-page spread of the collection presents ‘Meadows yellow, brown and green. / Rainbows in the sky. / No litter on the grass or fields. / Butterflies flutter by’ alongside ‘i think of strawberries in the summer / firmed and ripe and juicy / and how perfectly dandelion seeds / are made to helicopter breezes / procreating across fields’. The first is standard eight-year-old fare, suggestive of neither backwardness nor literary promise. The second, ‘written aged 30’, is a response to McNish’s mother’s assertion (McNish calls it ‘advice’) that ‘I love you to the moon and back, Hollie / but you are no more important than a tree’. McNish’s philosophising (‘and i wonder why we’re here […] and i wonder what the point is […] and what the fuck we’re on this rock for’) leads her simply to ‘remind myself / this is not all about you, hollie’. Unfortunately the thought, like a tweet, is no sooner expressed than forgotten.

The eight-year-old’s poem is printed twice: it bookends Plum’s first section, which consists of seventy poems grouped under the heading ‘(mind)’. While the second section consists of eight short poems categorised as ‘(body)’, the majority of poems in ‘(mind)’ are concerned with sex, anatomy, physical appearances, dancing, animals, food, or some combination thereof (‘Hiccups’, ‘Sweat’ and ‘Nipples’ are all classified as ‘(mind)’). If this feeble attempt to convince the reader that McNish’s infantile outbursts carry some philosophical significance seems preposterous, the use of parentheses to shield the terms from scrutiny is plain insulting – defensive and pretentious, meaningless and attention-seeking all at once.

In ‘(mind)’ we find the poem ‘MIDSOMER MURDER’, which attempts an analysis of the contemporary penchant for TV detective dramas. It begins:

there’s so much blood on the streets
why do we love to wade in it?
behind the safety of tv screens
we dip toes wet to the limits

it’s the underside of life
we like to lick a little for some reason
obsess over lips, spill, red, kissing death
camera shots zoomed
into actors’ faces screaming

A few stanzas later ‘we’ are caught red-handed, ‘lusting over shadows to stand in / where we can idolise the blame’. And what are we to learn from ‘our own grim fascination in this / in the details of the crimes / in the thorns piercing rose-red flesh / into other people’s chalked outlines’? The poem concludes:

it’s a human obsession, perhaps
to look beyond the fairy-tale glory

but when roses are painfully laid
on real graves every day
why do we so love a murder story?

In a sense it is unfair of me to single out this poem, because it’s the one in which McNish most obviously attempts to be poetic. Certainly it’s a departure from her usual style of garbled literal statements with the odd approximate rhyme thrown in. Did she actually read some of those books her publisher sent, notice that other people’s poems contain imagery and metaphor, and decide to give these a go? If so, should we judge the outcome more favourably, preferring the noble amateur’s efforts over the practised artist’s achievements? I keep reminding myself of the facts: this is published by Picador; Don Paterson edited it; the book costs £9.99.

Open Plum at any page and you will find writing of equivalent quality. Another perplexing example is ‘NO BALL GAMES’, the message of which (all the poems have messages) is that as a society we shouldn’t vilify young people when we don’t provide them with places to go. Lines such as ‘like ghosts / the “youth” now shuffle round / youth clubs closed / for lack of pounds’ could have been lifted straight from Alan Partridge’s magnificent poem about the working classes in the North ( For lines such as the following there is no explanation:

so now
stinks of shit
from sewers, seeps to streets to poison kids
preaching, it lies in gutters lined in teenage kicks
deflated footballs, mud and teenage sick

with stomachs thick and sagging centres
minds left numb and fun repented
it snatches fire-filled beating teenage hearts
pours water over bursting teenage sparks

till nothing’s left, nothing to do
towns now turned to teenage zoos
caged and locked, their pathways blocked
left only cock or trudging shops

as the young poor wait and rot
labelled yobs by headline cops

If only Schopenhauer could have read Plum! It would have distracted him from his hatred of Hegel. It is such stuff as madmen tongue, and brain not; the product of a ‘(mind)’ with a limited grasp of denotation and the ways in which words can be combined to form meaningful phrases. Yet in the Times (23 July 2017) Jeremy Noel-Tod claimed that McNish ‘can be verbally deft over long stretches, and is seriously interested in how language shapes the world and our emotions’. (He also says McNish writes with a ‘passionately insistent voice that seems to look you in the eye’, which perhaps explains his indifference to her tangled attempts at metaphor.)

Another misconception among – or deception practised by – her celebrants is that McNish’s ‘bold’ (Scotsman) and ‘fearless’ (Scotsman, Times) inclusion of poems by her younger self in the book is both generous and admirable – that her ‘willingness to let it all hang out’ (Guardian, Scotsman) should inspire us to greater honesty concerning our own failings. ‘As part of her fearless, funny and inclusive campaign against “armoured adult thoughts”,’ asserts Noel-Tod, ‘it makes perfect sense’. Can anyone really have been hoodwinked by such faux-humility? Rather, by making a virtue of her arrested development McNish shields herself from accusations of puerility. The book is deliberately bad: it is predicated on the defiance of all standards by which it could be judged. Here lies absurdity. Proud of their imperviousness to literary influence, the personality poets would have us redefine poetry as whatever the poetic establishment claims it isn’t. Ignorant of Shakespeare, Burns, Rochester, Dickinson, Rossetti, Harrison, Ginsberg, Larkin, Plath, Rich and a thousand others (including their contemporaries – Addonizio, Capildeo and Lee-Houghton, for example) they regard themselves as taboo breakers, as though no poet before them had ever written about sex or motherhood, highlighted inequalities or deployed obscenities.

While in person McNish admits her desire for establishment status – telling the Guardian that she ‘never would have got in’ if she’d ‘just sent [her] stuff off to traditional poetry publishers’, and, now that she is ‘in’, resisting the appellation ‘spoken word poet’ because ‘it can be a bit of a derogatory label’ – her writing is predicated on a truculent anti-establishmentism. In fact, in Plum the entire project of poetry – of invocation through language – is overturned. ‘I tried to capture it here, but I can’t’, McNish says, introducing a poem about her first bra. ‘I would say they are some of the worst poems I have ever written’, she smirks in her commentary on ‘extract from Désirs’, one of her ‘many terrible teenage love poems’. It is a twisted sort of vanity that leads a person to crave applause for what they believe to be their worst creations. Yet as McNish understands, the cult of personality that social media fosters works precisely this way: once you care about the person you’ll consume anything they produce – especially if it makes you feel better about your own lack of talent. ‘the poems tumble out my mouth / like our learnt school lines / people seem to like it’, she writes in ‘Oasis’. Despite her wholesale condemnation of aspiration, McNish aspires to be admired for her talents, as well as liked. ‘People often come up to me at gigs and tell me that they didn’t think they could write poetry until they read mine,’ she has lamented in the Guardian. ‘It’s not really a compliment, is it? Saying that anyone could do what I do.’

There is an upside to poetry becoming something that ‘anyone could do’. The art form can no longer be accused of being elitist – an accusation that until recently has precluded its mass-market appeal. In other contexts, elitism is not considered an evil in itself. We frankly desire our doctors, hairdressers, plumbers and sportspersons to be the best: to learn from precedent, work hard, hone their skills and be better than we are at their chosen vocations. Even in the other arts, the line between amateur and professional is clearer than it is in poetry. As Paterson argued in 2004: ‘Poetry is a wonderfully therapeutic thing to do at amateur level; but amateur artists and musicians don’t think they should exhibit at the Tate, or play at the Wigmore. (Serious poets, I should say, don’t start off amateurs, but apprentices – just like any other vocation.)’

Perhaps because poetry is taken to be the loftiest of the literary arts it is the most susceptible to invasion by those intent on bringing down all barriers on the grounds of fairness. McNish is one such warrior. In her commentary on ‘Politicians’ she claims that her mother’s warning ‘not to become an inverted snob’ is ‘one of the most important and difficult lessons I’ve tried to learn’. Her poem ‘Aspiration’ (subtitled ‘After watching Grand Designs on telly for the last time’) is revealing in this regard. After stereotyping those with ‘highly paid jobs’ and ‘workmen’ equally (she’s nothing if not egalitarian in her refusal to engage thoughtfully with others’ experiences), she compares the Grand Designers ‘sarah’ and ‘tim’ (or ‘jim’ – his name inexplicably changes halfway through), who ‘nibble on nuts from a vintage glass ashtray’, with herself ‘nibbl[ing] on nuts eaten straight from the packet’:

and i think how those nuts might taste from a bowl
on a dining-room table carved straight out of a tree […]

and then i get bored of this dream
and i realise i do not like tim
and that soon enough
we die

It’s not clear what’s stopping McNish from putting her nuts in a bowl. But having set out to lampoon the paraphernalia of an upper-middle-class lifestyle, she concludes with the nihilistic flourish that any aspiration or application of effort is futile.

Whether socially or as a writer, admitting pride in an attitude of slobbishness is a way of shielding oneself against criticism or condescension. Yet McNish needn’t worry. The middle-aged, middle-class reviewing sector is terrified of being seen to disparage the output of young, self-styled ‘working-class’ artists. In fact, it is terrified of being seen to criticise the output of anyone it imagines is speaking on behalf of a group traditionally under-represented in the arts. Time and time again, the arts media subordinates the work – in many cases excellent and original work – in favour of focusing on its creator. Technical and intellectual accomplishments are as nothing compared with the ‘achievement’ of being considered representative of a group identity that the establishment can fetishise. This is reflected in headlines such as ‘Vietnamese refugee Ocean Vuong wins 2017 Forward Prize for Poetry’ (Telegraph), and phrases such as ‘oriental poise’ and the ‘ragged sleeve’ of ‘ordinary working people’ (Kate Kellaway in the Guardian, on Sarah Howe and William Letford respectively). Such attitudes are predicated on the stereotyping or caricaturing of ‘audiences’, rather than an appreciation of the existence of individual readers. Just as McNish insults those she expects to buy her books – condescending to an uneducated class with which she professes solidarity, while simultaneously rejecting her spoken-word roots – the critics and publishers who praise her for ‘telling it like it is’ debase us as readers by peddling writing of the poorest quality because they think this is all we deserve.

We might ask: how is it? Life, as good poetry attests, is complicated and infinitely various. Just because something is ‘what I think’ doesn’t mean people en masse should be encouraged to listen (Trump and Farage should have taught us that much). It is the job of poets to safeguard language: to strive, through innovation and engagement with tradition, to find new ways of making language meaningful and memorable. Eliot noted in 1932, ‘the people which ceases to care for its literary inheritance becomes barbaric’. Though he wrote before Orwell, Eliot knew that to embrace Newspeak is to relinquish the only tool we have for communicating and defending civilised values. If we are to foster the kind of intelligent critical culture required to combat the effects of populism in politics, we must stop celebrating amateurism and ignorance in our poetry.

This article is taken from PN Review 239, Volume 44 Number 3, January - February 2018.

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