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This item is taken from PN Review 240, Volume 44 Number 4, March - April 2018.

NATALIE TELIER writes   I am writing to you about the recent review of the work of Hollie McNish by Rebecca Watts in your journal. I am a long-term fan of PN Review and usually love the incisive writing, excellent selection of poetry and its promotion of diversity. On this occasion, however, I was extremely perturbed. The debate about the validity of a range of poetries – and how poetry should be defined – is both necessary and important. I applaud the courage of tackling this difficult topic in print. There were two areas, however, that caused me concern. The first was the use of the term ‘pathological’. This is a term with a very specific meaning: to (mis-)apply it to a poet in this way diminishes the work of all in the mental health profession and all those who battle with genuine pathologies – either their own or within the family. Let us not forget also that the question of the correct application of the term ‘pathology’ has taken on huge resonance in respect to its use for – arguably – the world’s most important leader. It is not a term to be used lightly, nor is a comparison with said leader. The second area of concern was the description of the poet’s readers as the ‘uneducated class’. Quite apart from the fact that I do not believe the readers of a particular poet should be under review (surely it is more useful to engage with the text?), this is the kind of class commentary that displays an equal level of prejudice as overt racism or misogyny. I do not believe any of these belong in a poetry review.

Will Harris writes   I’m a fellow of The Complete Works, an Arts Council-funded programme that has sought to develop the writing of poets from bame (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) backgrounds. Why did it choose to foreground poets of colour? Because ten years ago fewer than one percent of poets published by major presses were from minority ethnic backgrounds, despite at least fourteen percent of the population being non-white. Even now, the work of these poets is massively under-represented in prize shortlists, reviews and amongst reviewers themselves (as highlighted by the research of Dave Coates). So is it really true, as Rebecca Watts suggests in her recent article in PN Review, that the media 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’? Given that silence is the usual response, the terror seems to be Watts’s own.

When I started writing – against a literary background as white a ski slope – a big problem was just imagining myself as a writer. Watts quotes T. S. Eliot: ‘the people which ceases to care for its literary inheritance becomes barbaric’. But ‘the people’ that care too much for their literary inheritance – or their version of it – can come to treat anything outside of it as ‘barbaric’. I remember that feeling of being on the outside and knowing that, if I wanted entry, I would have to speak like an insider. This was where craft came in. Craft, according to Watts, is about ‘technical and intellectual accomplishments’. It’s all too clear, though, that technique and intellect can’t be separated from their political and social contexts. A culture predicated on exclusion will create an exclusionary literary culture. For a long time, and this article continues the trend, craft has acted as the bulwark – the beautiful excuse – for dismissing work by socially marginal voices. Behind its technical veneer lies an implicit threat: adapt to the rules of ‘literary inheritance’ or face exclusion.

There is an irony to this line of argument. Watts cites Sylvia Plath (all of her approving examples, I should add, are white), who Harold Bloom once attacked for her guileless and over-emotional verse, saying: ‘Poetry relies upon trope and not upon sincerity’. Sound familiar? Then, as now, the espousal of craft grants entry, while ‘sincerity’ or honesty (Watts’s preferred term) bars the way. Perhaps this has something to do with the nature of those experiences being written about? I don’t know if the work of Hollie McNish and Kate Tempest – whose work Watts takes issue with – will be read alongside that of Sylvia Plath in fifty years’ time, but I know that the opposition between honesty and craft is false. Worse than that, it’s in bad faith. It converts one person’s taste into a moral or technical fault on the part of the accused.

As with so many defences of inheritance and tradition, Watts’s essay also strikes a constantly fearful note. Peeking through the crenels of Fortress Craft, she seems scared at the prospect of it being overrun by youths with funny accents who’ll tear up the Shakespeare and Eliot. More terrifyingly, she suggests that they may already be inside, scribbling on the tablecloths and stealing all the awards. Why is no one among the ‘middle-aged, middle-class’ reviewing guard saying anything? I don’t think it’s because they’re terrified; I think it’s because this is a fiction. Literature doesn’t need to be seen in Bloomian terms, as an arena for agonistic confrontation. Art doesn’t need to be defined by exclusion. Our language isn’t a prize diadem, and our role to ‘safeguard’ it. Whatever the case, poems will go on being made and spoken in ways exceeding any one definition of craft. And as society changes – hopefully for the better – so too will poetry. In the meantime, those who hold onto a singular idea of craft will only have succeeded in buttressing themselves against the world and the possibility of changing it.

MARILYN HACKER writes • There has always been one-dimensional ‘popular’ poetry, just as there are trashy thrillers and saccharine or titillating romances. No one thinks these latter endanger the next Toni Morrison or Salman Rushdie.  Admittedly the bad popular poets used to have to know how to use meter and rhyme… but there was Rod McKuen and, what was her name, Jewel? I haven’t yet read Holly McNish, so I can’t venture a critical opinion.

U.A. (Ursula) Fanthorpe had a poem called ‘Patience Strong’, which was the unlikely pseudonym of the author of ‘inspirational verse’ in a local (Gloucestershire) newspaper… in the persona of a hospital nurse (Fanthorpe worked in a hospital) who is told by a male patient how much strength and courage he gets from reading said newspaper verse. She, the nurse, is not going to question his judgment in this situation, even as she thinks about Wordsworth and Blake.

If Picador makes enough money out of a popular, or even populist book – caveat, not populist in the sense of racist, misogynist, or bellicose rabble-rousing! but that isn’t the question here – to publish two good and possibly difficult, erudite or experimental books by other poets, so much the better.

There are people coming out of the spoken word scene who are fine poets by anyone’s definition, like the fantastic Patience Agbabe. Patricia Smith in the US got started there too. They both have a formal expertise, a virtuoso use of both demotic and elevated language, and a sociopolitical acuteness to which any poet might aspire. Which the young woman writing the angry essay must know.

I’d recommend readers having a look at the American poet and critic Kazim Ali’s reaction to the similar phenomenon of Rupi Kaur on the US Poetry Foundation site.

ANDREW BISWELL writes • I read the Rebecca Watts article with great admiration and assent when the magazine was published last year. It struck me then, and still strikes me now, as a fair-minded piece which makes its case strongly and persuasively.

I am unimpressed by the self-pitying response from Hollie McNish on her blog. As Alice Goodman pointed out yesterday, poets have been getting bad reviews for thousands of years, and it’s inevitable that not everyone will be delighted by what they write. It saddens me to think that younger poets expect a never-ending stream of admiration, or feel that their work is beyond criticism.

As McNish does not write the kind of poetry likely to appeal to readers of PN Review, she should not be surprised when a reputable poetry journal articulates clear judgements about the nature and quality of her work.

I will look forward to hearing more from Rebecca Watts in future numbers of PN Review. Our culture of reception badly needs critical voices like hers.

This item is taken from PN Review 240, Volume 44 Number 4, March - April 2018.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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