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This item is taken from PN Review 245, Volume 45 Number 3, January - February 2019.Editorial
Some get grumpy about this new diversity of platforms and voices, as they are used to a certain type of poetry being held up as best; to narrow definitions of ‘craft’ and ‘seriousness’. It’s like they love wine so have spent a lifetime memorising the subtleties of certain grapes, vintages, terroir, and suddenly they’re being offered a coffee, a cocktail or a smoothie. ‘But this isn’t a Rioja!’ they bellow. Well, I like wine as well, but not all the time, and, once you educate yourself, you discover there can be as much skill involved in the preparation of other drinks. Let’s raise a cup of whatever you enjoy to the current state of poetry!
— CLARE POLLARD
ON 22 NOVEMBER Sandeep Parmar contributed to the Guardian a provocative think piece. It was shared over 1,200 times on the first day. She was answering Rose Tremain and Robin Robertson, both of whom had spoken disobligingly about contemporary poetry. Tremain told the TLS, ‘Let’s dare to say it out loud: contemporary poetry is in a rotten state. […] Having binned all the rules, most poets seem to think that rolling out some pastry-coloured prose, adding a sprinkling of white space, then cutting it up into little shapelets will do.’ The Big Bake Off language does not amuse Parmar. Overlooking the word ‘contemporary’, she has Tremain reject a century and a half’s poetry, having ‘leapt over the crosscurrents of the next 100 years from Tennyson to Walter de la Mare to Philip Larkin, flat-footing it on their bald, smooth verse to land on some plaintive lyrical bank of our new century’. But she hadn’t. ‘Bald’ is slyly gendered, and to reduce the diverse prosodies of Larkin, de la Mare and Tennyson to ‘flat-footing’ suggests an aural malfunction that needs attention.
‘Detractors of new poetry make judgments about craft based on conservative assumptions about poetic traditions, forms, style,’ she says, but ‘radical aesthetics have their own craft and traditions, formed from intersecting political and linguistic concerns.’ Very well, what are those crafts and traditions? ‘So this isn’t a question of craft at all,’ she non-seqs.
In an interview Robin Robertson said contemporary poetry divides into ‘light verse’ at one extreme and ‘incomprehensible’ verse at the other. Parmar portrays him sitting ‘somewhere in the appalled middle, frustrated by poets seeking “likes” on social media, “driven by self-promotion and shallow narcissism”, who haven’t the time “to bother with all that pesky learning-the-craft business”.’ She asks for names. Certainly Robertson’s would strengthen his case with detail. So could she.
She recounts her experience, participating in a National Poetry Day event entitled PoetryInquisition, ‘which sprang from Jeremy Paxman’s statement as a Forward Prize judge in 2014 that poets should be publicly held to account because, in speaking only to each other, their art had “connived at its own irrelevance”.’ A questioner from the floor ‘began […] by quoting Robertson’s interview to support his own attack on identity politics in poetry’. When she asked him to define ‘identity-based poetry’ he ‘unleashed a misogynist and racist tirade, and was finally heckled quiet by the assembled crowd’. She tells us, ‘identity-based poetry’ is not solely the preserve of the ‘marginalised’. It covers white, middle-class men, too. ‘Indeed, they have been writing identity-based poetry for centuries.’
‘We need to have a meaningful discussion about the value of our changing poetry culture,’ she concludes, ‘one that is open to many voices as well as rigorous and critical. But most of all, it needs to be honest.’ I asked the Guardian if I might respond. There was no space.
Reading Parmar’s piece and other less nuanced polemics, I see how easily clichés that ensnare and silence whole categories of individual can take shape. And how they must be resisted. As a white male in the vale of years with what used to be regarded as a good education and years of service on Parnassus, I become anathematised. I am not welcome in various fora because of what rather than who I am. ‘You would say that, wouldn’t you’, the heckler says, silencing me.
When Parmar talks about the aesthetics of newness and conjures Audre Lorde in 1977, Levertov in 1965, and Creeley and Olson, with their debts to Williams, Pound, Whitman, she’s far from new. And these poets each had long, diverse trajectories and cannot be impaled on the pin of Vietnam or McCarthyism or breath theory or variable foot. There are aesthetics of newness in Hopkins, Pound, Eliot, Moore, Rosenberg, Mew, and in the women modernists of whom Parmar is a key scholar and a subtle champion. But they are not new now.
To include swathes of work emerging now in the same sentence with such linguistically and formally diverse and radical work by individuals, their revolutions in craft (the term valuable still in composing and assessing poetry), is to misvalue the past and the present. When the appreciation of an art form is politicised, the rhetoric has consequences for readers and for writers themselves. The quality of critical engagement (the culture of reception) affects creative culture. Enrichment comes to poetry from the many different Englishes, a diversity threatened when ‘identity politics’ insists that poets must speak not only from but also of their lived experience, in terms calibrated to conform to the politicised aesthetics of the day. The rejection of craft can be enabling if poets know how to do it and why they are discarding it. To discard something because it is too difficult is another matter. In poetry, otherness earns its spurs as poetry, sometimes against ingrained resistance and prejudice. Whitman inventing the American line is a paradigm of earned mastery, writing through to his subjects and his forms. Adrienne Rich diving into the wreck is another.
If you ask for wine and are brought a smoothie, you have a right to be disappointed.
This item is taken from PN Review 245, Volume 45 Number 3, January - February 2019.