An Inquisition into Populist Poetry

An Inquisition into Populist Poetry

Paxman’s Inquisition

A couple of days ago, i was listening to the Talking Politics podcast, presented by David Runciman. He was speaking with Jan-Werner Müller on the topic of populism.
As i listened, i wondered if populism had parallels in poetry. i had something Jeremy Paxman said when he judged the Forward Prize, in 2004, on the tip of my tongue. A Google search later & i found it. Paxman had said that poetry

“connived at its own irrelevance”

& went on to say in the same breath that

“it seems to me very often that poets now seem to be talking to other poets and that is not talking to people as a whole.”

i think many poets & readers will have heard something in a similar vein before.
i suppose, thankfully, Paxman is a reader & defender of poetry, at least he’s on our side & believes poetry can be a force for social good. His prescription is that poetry should

“raise its game a little bit, raise its sights” & “aim to engage with ordinary people much more.”

Paxman calls for an

“inquisition” in which “poets [would be] called to account for their poetry, to explain why they chose to write about the particular subject they wrote about, and why they chose the particular form and language, idiom, the rest of it, because it would be a really illuminating experience for everybody”.

i can see Paxman, a sort of Pacman, gobbling up the poet’s missteps, poets, trying to fend themselves against his big yellow face & enormous maw, with iambic pentameter, outworn tropes & quills.
Paxman doesn’t let politicians off lightly, but criticism is part & parcel of the politician’s job. i agree, in some respect, that poets should be at least capable of explaining themselves. Transparency in poetry, is something i believe in. However, an Inquisition is not a suitable word to describe what should take place.
What will be the ramifications of this Inquisition? Will it be to call the poets to account? Will inspiration be judged on how apperceptive the poet was of the line or themes as they were composed? If the poet stumbles on themes founded by philosophers or members of other disciplines, quite by accident, without thorough foreknowledge, will they be penalized? Will they have points knocked off for stating that the poem appeared to them almost fully formed (as Hughes says of many poems from Crow) & little editing took place, thus bringing into focus the question of craft? How about abstractions & ambivalence? What if a line break just feels right, but has no other function? Then what of rhyme; what if the coupling of two sounds is purely sonic, but doesn’t intensify the tensions or themes of the poem further? Not to mention who is this panel of grand Inquisitors: Paxman & friends? & how will they rate, score, deliberate to agree thumbs up or down? Will they have to rely on emotion, pure reason or both, & how will they achieve this? Poetry isn’t a beauty pageant or even a debate contest. In the manner we call our politicians & journalists to account, so too our poets— sound fair? i don’t see why not; however, the reason for writing, is entirely different for poets, journalists & politicians.
Paxman, in the way he raises this issue, assumes that poets aren’t up for this, but they are. i wonder, if people unschooled in the considerations & sensibilities of poets & poetry critics, are really up for it?
There are further problems if we consider the current movements in art as a paradigm; an art that challenges perceptions through ambiguous shapes & forms (not too dissimilar an aim as contemporary poetry), which in addition to its physicality, sometimes attempts explanation & justification, alienating a general audience in the process & risking pretension.
To explain, is to rely on terminology, which is translated to the uninitiated as tangling jargon, as language only a select know. The art is an intellectual product & takes an intellectual language to explain it; so what good does it do for poets to explain? Would it not be something like a comedian explaining a joke? Once it is explained, the delight of its idiosyncrasies becomes deflated; aloofness is part of the appeal. Does it even continue to be a work of literature? i don’t know the answer & perhaps this is an inappropriate question.
What i can’t agree with Paxman about, is a poet under obligation to write for a mass audience. They shouldn’t necessarily avoid it, but if it becomes the standard by which we judge poetry, it stifles the art with all manner of problems. There is room within poetry for all levels of reader.
One way around this, could be for the public & the poet to meet half way; the public making efforts to read better, respecting more the poets role, & the poet responding, by writing more approachable poems. But even this is unnecessary as poetry has a wide reach, if you rummage.
It seems peculiar that because something doesn’t entertain it must justify its right to exist & yet, what good is a blockbuster movie? It costs exorbitant amounts of money, for the majority of people to watch once & fall into obscurity. Why isn’t that being charged with justifying its existence?

Populism = ?

What do we understand about populist politics that offer up parallels to poetry?
There are two events of late that no one can ignore, yet many (even intellectuals) want to avoid using as an example, or even thinking about. They are of course the election of Trump & Brexit. Trump won because of his populist appeal, because he Tweets & speaks his mind. Of course if the Russia business is confirmed, then that cannot be ignored, but for now, we can assume it was his social media campaign & straight talking promises to remedy the problems of the man on the street. He won because he speaks to people with their same dog eared use of the English language. i love it (dog eared language, that is).
It concerns me, that politicians from here on out, in America (but quite possibly aboard, well England), may end up following Trump’s populist strategy, so as to secure the large demographic of people that think a politician who speaks plainly, is worthy of their vote.
Brexit was much the same: “The Poles are taking all your jobs & soon Turkey will enter the EU. On top of that we have to give the EU 300 million quid every week, for what? That could be spent reinforcing the crumbling NHS. Here look at this picture of Muslims in Munich, which we are implying is Britain. Be worried. Panic. AHHHHHH!!!” Everyone with half a brain cell panicked & proudly ticked the LEAVE box. This tells us 1. People are actually pretty irrational & think with emotion & 2. They want something dumbed down because they feel spoken-down to by intellectuals. The easy way to remedy this: read more, become informed, we have all of human history & every major newspaper compacted into a beveled device, at our fingertips, in our pockets; we should use it for something more than watching Fail Army clips & pornography.
i sound acerbic, yes, but it was all lies & prayed on the populist concerns of irrational, nationalistic people. What if these people tell poets what to write? These are the people Paxman is saying poets need to write for. Perhaps we do. But what can we say?
As much as i like Corbyn, i have my reservations about his populism. Yes, it is brilliant that he got young voters into politics. But are they in their naïve, revolutionary mentality any more informed than the Conservative voter who only reads the tabloids & votes out of nationalistic pride?
David Runciman explains in his recent lecture How Democracy Ends (which you can listen to at that it is younger people who, in the great revolutions, Communism, Nazism, Fascism, Islamic State, who started & perpetuated the violence. At a certain age, a population seldom resorts to violence. Due to our population in the west, being an aged population, & wealthy enough to support the youth, Runciman determines that there is less likelihood of any violent uprisings because of Brexit or Trump. By which he means, violent revolution & mass murder on the streets, like the 1930s.
Neither of these 2 events when looked at reasonably are sensible antidotes to the toxic problems that led to them: that for too long politicians have used a rhetorical strategy that evades directly fessing up to or addressing important problems that affect people’s lives &, that we have left ourselves vulnerable to irrational, unmitigated policy making because the divide between educated & uneducated grew too wide & the ways in which they quarreled fell on each other’s deaf ears.
Paxman wants poets to stop talking to each other & address the public, a public hostile to intellectuals (recall Gove during the Brexit referendum: “Britain has had enough of experts”); a public ill informed & unwilling to improve their understanding of expressive mediums, because it doesn’t settle well with the cultural affinities they deem important to their identity, yet they’ll passively digest, silly, high-budgeted films that mean nothing, but entertain.
i’m from middle, racist (though they won’t acquiesce to that nomenclature, it’s always “i don’t mind Pakis, so long as they fuck off back to Paki-land; if that’s racist, then i’m racist.” i am pretty much quoting verbatim & there is nothing you can say to deter their opinion) England & it is a cultural waste land. People are very proud & do not appreciate being looked down upon, they believe in themselves & they all think they are right. It is a majority white population & it is an everyday occurrence to hear racist slurs. For all this, they aren’t actually bad people (i know, i know), they do look after each other & there is community. So populism appeals to them, as they believe that the changes made affect the small community they belong to. So the wider repercussions don’t really matter. Isn’t this the same as poets talking to each other rather than the wider public?
i don’t see it as poetry’s task to stoop itself to gain the favour of this section of society. It may be a noble challenge, but it seems to me that poetry is to be self-discovered & the person who discovers it can be transformed by it, because they found it in their own way. So it is natural for those who discover it for themselves, to seek out others like them. Reading poetry can be a lonely enterprise.

Longenbach & the Underground Poetry Resistance

James Longenbach in his brilliant essay The Resistance to Poetry says

“the marginality of poetry is in many ways the source of its power, a power contingent on poetry’s capacity to resist itself more strenuously than it is resisted by the culture at large.”

People who discover poetry do so because it sets them aside, it makes them feel unique, they receive something, something they feel, which a majority can’t. This is not be ignored. Unlike politics, poetry doesn’t need to be a part of life on the whole, but only for personal transformation.
He explains later in the essay that

“If the assumption of poetry’s relevance can be oppressive to poets, the assumption of its irrelevance can be liberating, especially when a culture threatens either to foreclose or to exaggerate a poem’s potential for subversiveness.”

Ignored, sent to the margins, the poet is free to express variously the pitfalls & wrongdoings in society. In turn, the poetry reader is able to think outside the demarcations of the status quo: how many poets or readers of poetry do you think are duped by the sorts of political charlatans & saboteurs, who engineered Brexit?
Thomas Hardy conjectured that if Galileo had written in verse, he may not have been bullied into silence. & it just might have been what saved Blake after his treasonous utterance about King George. & Milton was able to continue his incendiary critique of monarchy throughout Paradise Lost, old & blind as he was; why else would he give all the good speeches to Satan as in

“The mind itself is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven”.

God never says anything as insane or interesting, he just spoons out, boring, regal commands.
Poetry’s potency lies in its ability to conceal, intensify & protect, whilst contributing to the reasoning faculties. Poetry basks in the fringes of society, involved with the culture, without bleating for recognition, or special significance.
Longenbach goes on to say that “poems do not necessarily ask to be trusted.” Poems are not policy. You may heckle a politician into accountability for immoral acts, for putting themselves first before their constituents or countrymen, they may be put through an inquisition, but the poet doesn’t necessarily ask to be trusted. Paxman is wrong to treat the poet in the way he would treat a politician. & returning one last time to Longenbach, he gives (me at least) a solid reason why in his concluding essay Composed Wonder:

“The very things that resist wonder must also be the things on which wonder depends, or else we could never feel it. Wonder contingent on inexperience and firstness can be easy to feel, and the challenge is to be wounded by “composed wonder”— wonder produced by poetry’s mechanisms of self-resistance: syntax, line, figurative language, disjunction, spokenness. Without these mechanisms, poems would be vehicles for knowledge, explanations of experience that would threaten to dispel wonder. They would be useful then disposable.”

The wonder is the pull of the poem, the poem’s peculiar hold over us, that no matter how many times we have read it, we return to it, it is a constant act of discovery & rediscovery; because of the techniques that are used to compose it. It is not disposable. For poets, the act of discovery is challenging themselves to articulate common processes, actions, moments, environments, ideas, in ways at once unfamiliar & unexpected, but which register nonetheless. If a politician attempts this, they appear to be obfuscating the truth behind a muddle of rhetoric. It is a product of poetry that it commands additional thought, repeated readings to extract more life from it.
Though i don’t deny some people may enjoy & repeat read or watch political speeches, it is not a characteristic that we require of them. English politicians these days are woefully droll & dull when they give speeches, they inspire nothing, it is nothing more than a formality, which everyone receives passively. The best speeches you hear seldom makes the news; i’m thinking here of Dennis Skinner, but the wider public don’t know him, he seldom makes headlines, yet he is one of the most sensible voices in parliament. & yes, poetry’s lack of popular appeal, means it is passively received, but not by those that make it part of their life— it is practiced like prayer.

Noah: Man of Answers—what do you use for clickbait, pal?

Do we even know what a populist poetry might look like?
The Atlantic’s Noah Berlatsky seems to know. He enticed criticism of contemporary poetry with the sexily italicized clickbait tag line

as verse becomes increasingly dry, it’s getting more and more irrelevant.”

O Noah please, i’m all ears pal, it seems you know your Browning from your Glück, like a book. Let’s read on, come on people, here is an expert opinion, he sounds the Man of Answers. Preach Noah, enlighten, dance us back the tribal morn, what’s the antidote to moisten the parched lips of poetry, to crack the sky with a poem of wonder? :

“not one, not two, not ten, but more than 40 different versions of ‘This is Just to Say’.”

Huh!… O… Noah… really pal? My disappointment is palpable. So what poetry needs, is imitation, parody even? Do i need to spell it out? i mean, how is parodying or borrowing the structure of an octogenarian poem, 40 times! going to reinvigorate the apparently, decomposing body of poetry? i don’t need to answer this, it is absurd just to hear it spoken out loud. This is Just to Say is a great poem, but is it the re-boost poetry supposedly needs? It never ceases to astound me, how clever, people think they sound in their own head; when they say such fatuous drivel.
Noah, if you’re reading, take the next job going at yer local supermarket, y’flapjack; you’ll be more useful.

We ‘av 2 stick wiv the txt

A few years ago, a feud took root: Carol Ann Duffy’s comment that “poems are a form of texting” didn’t settle well on the austere, high brow of Geoffrey Hill. This feud made the news— well, it wasn’t really a feud as i don’t recall Duffy responding to Hill; i can’t imagine why.
Hill is a difficult poet (in more ways than one it seems), he says this [difficult poetry] is

“the most democratic because you are doing your audience the honour of supposing they are intelligent human beings” & that “so much of the popular poetry of today treats people as if they were fools”.

This really flips Paxman’s hope on its head.
i think Hill’s defense is partly wishful thinking though. His criticism of why the popular txt is not a good form for poetry is that it doesn’t “condense” but rather “truncates.” When to becomes 2 or you becomes u, nothing is intensified. i don’t think this is necessarily a strong incentive: if it doesn’t intensify, it also doesn’t weaken the scansion, it is only a replacement, it is not the same as a poor simile or trite metaphor, or god forbid, a cliché.
i can’t say as Carol Ann Duffy’s remark set a precedent, she isn’t referred to as the SMS poet Carol Ann Duffy, with people flocking to her style, writing etiolate replicas, which they jot into texts & send to friends or even magazines. Though she’s the poet laureate, which once upon a time may have made her the most popular poet, now, Instagram has set the high watermark. The most popular poet is often referred to as the Instagram poet…

Rupi Kaur & the Instagramization of Poetry

Rupi Kaur is probably our best example of a populist poetry. i personally don’t get along with her poetry, but then her poetry isn’t for me, i am not the target audience. Therein lies a problem: if the most popular poet doesn’t write the poetry i want to read, what kind of poet can be an acknowledged legislator of the world? Should it be a man, woman, a Sikh, Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, a banker, NGO team leader, refugee, soldier, revolutionary, shop keeper, Man of Answers, Boris Johnson (who did write a book of poems for children, in which he instructs them in their moral obligations to family & country— is he a Confucian deep down?), a nurse or prostitute? It could be anyone & yet it’ll never be anybody. Whoever that anyone is, they will always fall short of somebody’s expectations. Some (& i actually believed this with every fiber of my being in my early 20s) believe there is an arrangement of qualities that someone can possess & will, like a messiah, speak the magic words that right all wrongs & suture the wounds of man, bringing peace—(i was heavily into Shelley, especially Laon & Cythna). This is something i abandoned as hopeless & more importantly, useless. It is unnecessary: there can be uniformity in disparity.
Kaur has achieved something remarkable: she has made poetry popular, moreover, she has done so by appealing to a section of society who might not otherwise read poetry. Her fans are attracted to her for her grassroots rise to popularity, for voicing their concerns, for being a unique, earthy voice in a superficial world. My hat goes off to her.
Her popularity began after she self-published Milk & Honey to a warm reception. Her publisher Andrews McMeel reissued it later. They are not a big publisher; they made a smart decision to take on Kaur, & they’ve benefited, much to the envy, no doubt of other presses. She has used social media exceptionally well, especially Instagram & particularly her image to harvest over a million followers, who hang on her every word & move.
It is difficult to give reasons why i don’t think Kaur is a good poet. i can only admit that it isn’t to my taste, it is too pithy; they remind me of a message you might read in a fortune cookie, a meme or birthday card. Undeniably, she treats important issues earnestly, without sounding uninformed, including feminism & the plight of ethnic minorities. Her reach extends beyond the young: she writes about her mother’s sacrifices so she could be successful, at the same time, highlighting the subjugation of women through marriage in Pakistan society.
& yet, though i tried to read her work, it doesn’t land for me. The obstruction being her inclusion of fashion, online. Kaur poses, a lot. She looks no different from the girls who harvest fans with orchestrated photographs of themselves in pseudo-profound acts: sipping coffee, far away stares into imagined distances, sitting at a desk with an open page & pen in her teeth. Poetry doesn’t need superficiality like this. It changes everything for me. It is one thing for a poet to be photographed, it is quite another for them to habitually photograph themselves overanover againannagain. If poetry was in dire need of an ambassador, i’d have no issue with using any means at our disposal to promote a figurehead, but i don’t think there is a need. Kaur just seems to be securing her success. It works.
There are much better feminist & ethnic poets, who cover the same issues. i could read the Turkish poet Gülten Akın or the Korean poet Kim Seung-hee, who are both from oppressively patriarchal societies & write about the subjugation of women in intelligent, unexpected & highly digestible poems. Or Alice Oswald, whose latest collection, Falling Awake is one of the best bucolic collections i’ve ever read. There is a poet whose blog i follow, her name is Zoha B. Khan, she too is from Pakistan, her writing is little known, but her poems are inspired, her energy & the unexpected turns her poems organically take, is something to marvel at. There are countless women poets from all over the world, but because they focus on writing rather than image & fashion, they’re unlikely to become as popular.
Populism invites parody. & parody is stagnation. Kaur has suffered for this. The parodies of Kaur’s poetry have not all been kindly, she has been mocked & so poetry has been mocked. Kaur’s poetry is furthermore, not a poetry that can easily surmount its simplicity; if the audience that has elevated her to success do not expect her to move to more challenging climbs, she risks alienating them, if or when she makes the switch to challenging poetry. If she cannot extend her difficulty, Kaur, if she risks alienating through change, then becomes a starting point for amateur readers. She is a refreshing change as a figure to imitate & follow as a role model, at least.
Her particular rise to popularity, is one i admire, but it also creates a feeling among her readers that they can do it too, or worse still, her competitors, who abandon their own voice for Kaur’s in search of popularity. This saturates the world of poetry with trite mimicry. There is the risk of a hegemonic school of poets parodying each other & setting the formulaic rules for others who shouldn’t have to dabble— a sort of Bossa Nova of poetry, Kaur in the role of Antonio Carlos Jobim. Poetry may be grouped into generations, but into schools it risks becoming a code of conduct; a right & wrong way is established, which is erroneous. We essentially get exactly what Paxman thinks a populist poetry should avoid: poets talking to other poets.
i hope the parallels to Trump’s election are clear: use of social media, use of image, appealing to the concerns of a majority demographic; the concern of a need to imitate in future elections. These are all what made Kaur as popular as she is, in the context of poetry.
It isn’t the end of the world if poetry gains popular appeal, & certainly Kaur & Trump are in no way alike in their moral stance, i want that to be clear. But the stagnation they are capable of establishing through success, the example they set, is something that should be avoided.
Poetry appeals by resisting appeal. It doesn’t have to be one thing or another. It is an act of rebellion which keeps everything on it toes, eager to discover more. Ironically, Populism doesn’t suggest diversity, but rather makes a subject myopic, erecting boundaries, squeezing its challengers out.

“Poems reawaken us to the pleasure of the unintelligibility of the world”

Longenbach tells us, but that unintelligibility is made intelligible with a template set by populism. The poet needs to go at the world alone, figure things out for themselves, then they can say something worthwhile, then, part & parcel, offer up a meaningful contribution to the wonder of poetry.

31 thoughts on “An Inquisition into Populist Poetry

  1. daniel paul marshall: Some […] believe there is an arrangement of qualities that someone can possess & will, like a messiah, speak the magic words that right all wrongs & suture the wounds of man, bringing peace.As in the case of Bob Dylan, whose words fueled a populist movement, I think the idea here is this—Poetry can be used to ignite a community to action. The song Guantanamera started as a poem and later became the Cuban national anthem. It is a stirring ideal: I would rather cast my lot with the poor. I’d rather live in the mountains than frolic with the rich in their beachside resorts. (My paraphrase)

    I think this is where we as poets need to direct our blows. Okaji’s latest Scarecrow is an astounding evolution in his writing, to my understanding. Here, a poet who writes personal impressions based on tone and meter suddenly rages against an enemy of the state in one of his most beautiful and thought provoking pieces yet. It is a direction that merits consideration.

    This is why Homer, Chaucer, Blake, Milton even Shakespeare have had such an influence on our language and consciousness. It’s easier, in a conversation, to quote poetry than to recite a sentence from a tome of letters. Poetry sticks because of the very craft that creates it, as you stated so eloquently above. The method used to choose those particular words gives them a resonance we can quickly commit to memory.

    I agree with you here. It is definitely important in the evolution of modern poetry that we become relevant.

    Postscript: Of course I wrote this before I finished reading your mind opening essay, so please forgive me if I seem to miss the point.

    I very much agree with your view on the direction popular poetry can take with Kaur. Rod McKuen is an example of this, a poet who many of us in the sixties laughed at for his appearances on daytime TV talk shows like Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas despite never reading any of his works. They appeal to a commercial audience and ride the wave of popularity for the money, its apparent. But then there are poets like Allen Ginsberg, who changed the face of popular poetry without selling themselves as corporate shills.

    To create a movement with meaning requires timing and the right circumstances. We may never have the opportunity Dylan and Ginsberg had, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t grasp the most volatile time in human history and write it.

    1. The Longenbach quotes really say what i want to say, so i really recommend you re-reading them.
      My overall point is not a problem with populism over all, but that the problems it poses are something to consider & even avoid. Popularity creates a sort of way to do things that saturates, Dylan did that, & we saw a load of musicians, still do, who want to be the new Dylan. But that isn’t the only way to write a song. Popularity stagnates. Longenbach by saying poetry thrives when it is resisted to, even by itself, means that poetry doesn’t get lumbered in a rigid framework, but stays limber & capable of morphing into whatever it needs to be. Kaur isn’t terrible, but what she has done is something people try to imitate & what we then get is a code of value, which may lead to success but will definitely lead to stagnation. ‘
      i don’t think poetry needs a movement, it just has to respond to what is happening. It doesn’t have to be timeless, it has to respond, regardless of whether it is noticed, especially if it is ignored, but not in hope of recognition. This is the peculiar potency of poetry, to thrive under the limitation of resistance, because when it is discovered by someone, its impact is all the more powerful.

  2. Paxman should be fed a steady diet of Kaur imitations for a year. Let’s hear what note he blows then. I’m much more in tune with Longenbach. The edges may be blurred, but they’re also damn sharp.

    1. That’s it isn’t it: he wanted a poetry where poets aren’t just talking to each other, but what happens with populism is a clique forms around a founder & they all just feed each other so as to maintain the prominence. It is natural, but it isn’t necessary for poetry & i’m not sure if it is even done to consciously maintain the level of success, it is often that they perhaps don’t know how to experiment or that poetry is even an experimental medium.

      1. It’s definitely an unawareness of poetry in general. I occasionally get asked for writing advice from young poets. When I ask who their favorite poets are, they invariably name Kaur and other pop poets. My advice is always to READ!

      2. As i say in the essay, it is good that she introduces readers to poetry, especially young people, it is then their task to keep going, to keep reading & discovering. i trust as they get older they will. i started off reading Douglas Coupland & Bret Easton Ellis & from that i developed the taste. Never looked back.

  3. I think people forget that Kaur’s training is in rhetoric and professional writing. As such her writing holds elements that people find persuasive as much as poetic, things that “ring true” to them, functioning as populist maxims, e.g. “there is a difference between someone telling you they love you and them actually loving you”. The other new “Instapoets” also write about love and loss in a similar fashion, which would explain their popularity. So I think we are seeing a new thing emerging that has poetic rhetoric, online personality, and images combined…something beyond our definition of poetry: an evolutionary branch of words, images, online personality, and such.

    Where the “populism” gets problematic for me is how one is almost forced to become virtual and viral against their will. All the really powerful poets I know live lives centered on their love solitude, quiet, and privacy, which are the opposite of the online life. In the mad scramble for likes and views, the true contemplative cannot engage as such without wildly altering their core personality, the true essence of their being. Thus this new thing is not possible for them and they will inevitably get lost in the noise. One can always write on WordPress, which is great. But I fear that there will be young up and coming poets who are quiet and shy who will feel that they are not legitimate because of the global obsession with getting as much social media attention as possible, at all costs, as the only way to “be” somebody/something.

    It is there that populism will bury poetry, if it has the power to do so.

    1. Luckily, poetry can resist itself & bifurcate over & over. It can be populated by visually appealing people, but scratch the surface of the art & you’ll discover the, i won’t say real poets, but poets who write for poetry sake, not for a ‘like’.

  4. I’ll be brief. There is an inquisition. It’s called putting your poetry out there.

    I write for everybody, as you know, but I’m mostly read by poets.

    Interesting article.

  5. On my main web site I give away Mac and PC wallpapers – also a poster – with a quote from myself. It says “Poetry is whatever prose wouldn’t dare say.”

    I’m rather with Basil Bunting in this respect. To him, prose was a medium for communicating information. Poetry exists for something else. That’s why the worst poet ever in the English language – William Topaz McGonagall, my compatriot and copolitan – is principally a narrative poet. Actually, that’s where his strength lies; his poetry is so dreadful that it’s engaging, but he was a great chronicler and a celebrator. His work is entirely accessible, very communicative. But why do we love it? Because it makes us cringe.

    Buntings ‘Briggflatts’ on the other hand is celebrated for its impenetrability, its resistance to analysis. Bunting himself got really irritated when people tried to fathom it, insisting that what was important was its musicality. Does the accessibility and approachability of McGonagall’s poetry make it ‘better’ than that of Bunting or T.S. Eliot? Or me?

    One of the most easily understood poems in the English language is the one that – unfairly – turns schoolkids off poetry for life. Let me quote the first verse:

    I wandered lonely as a cloud
    That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
    When all at once I saw a crowd,
    A host, of golden daffodils;
    Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
    Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

    It’s not the fact that this is easy to understand that spoils this excellent poem, but the delivery. When someone reads it out and goes…

    dee-DA dee-DA dee-DA dee-Da
    dee-DA dee-DA dee-DA dee-Da
    dee-DA dee-DA dee-DA dee-Da
    dee-DA dee-DA dee-DA dee-Da…

    Okay, we’ll ignore the irregular “diddly dee DA-dee DA-dee-DA” of the last line. It’s that twee delivery that iambic tetrameter lends itself to. Suddenly this is about some poncey git mincing through the countryside and getting all soppy about flowers. But, if you give the same ‘poncey git’ a set of fell-walking boots, set him on one of the Lakeland hills, let him come down from the heights, his feet aching, to the riparian territory of the daffodil, AND if you give him just a trace of a native Northern-English accent just as Wordsworth might have had, AND if you rephrase the verse with the tetrameter as a ripple not a jackhammer blow, thus:

    I wandered / lonely as a cloud that floats on high ower vales and hills / when all at once I saw a crowd / (no, wait a mo, I’ve thought of a better word) – a HOST! – of golden daffodils…

    then you begin to get it. Also you begin to appreciate why Wordsworth monkeys with the tetrameter in the last line of that verse, i.e. to convey the arrhythmic ‘dancing’ of the daffs. Suddenly we have a pretty damn fine poem on our hands!

    Paxman complains that poets are talking to poets and not to people as a whole. What reasonable poet thinks she can be all things to all people? What reasonable poet doesn’t have some kind of target audience, be that fellow poets, a slam club attendance, or someone opening up a Hallmark card? Duffy, as you said, famously equated poetry and tweets. Leaving aside my personal opinion of Duffy (okay, I think she’s tedious, self-important, and humourless) I think that is an interesting statement, though questionable. Conveying something in 140 characters requires a certain ingenuity, more so if, like me, you won’t use ‘2’ for ‘to’ or ‘too’ and ‘u’ for ‘you’; but text-speak has long since ceased to be innovative and has become the hegemonic code in the Twittercosm. People do compose ‘tweeku’, and one of my poet-friends does a kind of ‘tweebun’. There has long been a tension in the debate about whether each use of language, no matter how mundane, is an act of (continuous) creation, or simply bowing before the power of established meanings and ways of expression. One of the reasons I write poetry – one of the reasons I write DIFFICULT poetry – is to tread in that particular fire.

    “As much as i like Corbyn, i have my reservations about his populism. Yes, it is brilliant that he got young voters into politics. But are they in their naïve, revolutionary mentality any more informed than the Conservative voter who only reads the tabloids & votes out of nationalistic pride?” – They could hardly be LESS!

    You ask “what kind of poet can be the acknowledged legislator of the world?” I surely don’t have to remind you that Shelley never claimed we were, nor that we should be. In fact there was a kind of pride, in his statement, of our being in the shadow of public consciousness. If you were to ask me what force may be used to catalyse a general metanoia, then I can only say art. And it does not have to be on a grand scale, it can be a butterfly effect, it can be the first domino falling. Equally it can be a false start, but hey! Fail again. Fail better. As Beckett said. I have always loved this quotation from Karlheinz Stockhausen:

    “New means change the method; new methods change the experience, and new experiences change man. Whenever we hear the sounds we are changed: we are no longer the same after hearing certain sounds, and this is the more the case when we hear organized sounds, sounds organized by another human being: music.”

    In 1959 the novelist C.P. Snow gave a lecture in Cambridge in which he lamented the mutual gulf between the arts and the sciences. It seemed that no one versed in the humanities had even the sketchiest knowledge of science, and no scientist knew anything much about the humanities. The age of the polymath, of the Renaissance Man, of Athanasius Kircher, has passed – there is just too much specialised knowledge out there for any one person to ‘know everything’. But, said Snow, it was vital that we all did appreciate what was going on in fields other than our own – so bother to find out! This is my approach to the arts, as you know. When it comes to painting I can stand gobsmacked looking at a Raeburn or a Rothko. When it comes to music I can listen enthralled to a Cajun two-step or to the Kyrie from Ligety’s Requiem. I regard the barrier between the popular and the canonical as a wall made or rice paper. There is nothing to stop the ‘high-brow’ from chilling to ‘easy’ stuff, and nothing (apart from inverted snobbery, perhaps) stopping the ‘low-brow’ from exposing themselves to something that’s (superficially or actually) hard going. We work out at the gym so we keep our bodies fit, so why not work out at a mental gym? We all OWN the difficult stuff and the easy.

    Anyhow, there is so much more in your excellent article, but I need to go to work.

    1. This is pure gold. A brilliant annex to the article. i particulate like the Stockhausen quote.
      i don’t feel i need to say much as you’ve done a smashing job of bolstering many of my arguments from the article. i’m glad we are on the same page in this.
      Your send off is spot on. Since starting my independent learning life, i have always failed to see why people can’t exercise their minds more, why it is so burdensome. Where i’m from people just don’t seem to want to use their brains very much at all, & you can’t talk to them about why. To try & explain the merits of learning, of investigating their beliefs just a fraction more, invites jeers & the charge of “bein’ too serious”. i am more at ease with it now. i don’t get wound up, i just insult them in the British way, call ’em a thick &*%$ & everyone feels more comfortable & drinks heavily. It’s a coping mechanism. Haha.
      Really enjoyed your mini side essay, so glad to have someone who can introduce me to new sources.

      1. I’m glad I tickled you.

        Just a quickie about Corbyn. He did one very important thing. He reintroduced leftist politics to the national debate. We haven’t had that since about 1980, and it has been like being deaf in one ear. All the political argument was from the right-of-centre. Margaret Thatcher was once asked what her greatest achievement was, to which she answered “New Labour.”

      2. i don’t dislike Corbyn, i’m behind him, it’d be interesting to see what he could do & i agree that he has reintroduced some balance to a politics which most of my life has been saturated by Conservatism. However, i am still critical of politicians on the whole, because of the system they work within. They have to win approval & that means being tactical, which isn’t always being truthful, even with the best intentions. If he gets in, he’ll still have to answer to Tory complaints about his actions, he’ll never be free to work unhindered by the complaint of Tories & conservative voters. Unless he won a landslide getting 90% of the country behind him, but that will never happen. So i am always skeptical about politics.

  6. Daniel, there’s a lot here & like yr best poetry it begs rereading. I’ll add a few scattered things:

    I’ve written elsewhere about how after 9/11 somebody stopped Springsteen in the street & said “we need you”—even though Heaney did some version of Horace to commemorate etc, Springsteen is the poetry people respond to… or see Dylan’s Nobel; also that a few years back the bestselling poet in America was Rumi, via translations of him by Coleman Barks, which even though it’s good poetry, is come to more for spirituality than verse;

    A recent article on Kaur quotes a survey that only 6.7% of the population have even read a poem in the last year; so that sometimes we not only seem like we’re taking to ourselves, we probably actually are. Most of the time I feel like a curator keeping the museum clean for when another generation will come looking for my books. I’m pretty content with that—the personal experience of writing my long poem, & nowadays history poems or rhyming true crime poems, is beyond any other kind of writing I do, & I wouldn’t give it up for anything;

    That said I’d love a larger audience, but nothing I write fits in a tweet, & I’m clueless as to Instagram etc, & I don’t think I’d photograph as well as Kaur, who I guess sells that as part of her poetry;

    You mention Milton, but of course his Paradise Lost was a big hit when it came out; Homer & Dante too, & Snorri Sturlusson & others—& you marvel that the Greek tragedies & Shakespeare also had popular followings; or that the (relatively) more recent Kalevala & other bardic stuff survived as cultural artifacts long enough to be written down; we just don’t have this, & people don’t want it—I can’t think of an American poet who would survive in the folk memory, but we’d remember the plot of Star Wars, & there’s lessons on both sides to be learned there;

    We seem to be in a doubly-dead moment where poets can’t attain this status, & people get their spiritual, artistic & entertainment from elsewhere. So for that reason & more it’s silly to demand poets explain themselves, or force themselves to write differently, since the insincerity wd show; but it’s a reason anyway that I’m still trying narrative forms, or now haunting rhyme or almost nursery rhymes to cover crime & history, since it’s forms like these rather than Modernism, as much as I like it, that carries cultural memory. Heaney talking about the Troubles through poems about Iron Age violence is a way forward, rather than him writing heavily stressed/easily chanted protest songs, but a poet can’t force himself to write either. In a way, perhaps both poets have forgotten what poetry can do, & people have forgotten what poetry alone can offer.

    1. Some good stuff here Tim. i don’t personally count lyricists as poets. Musicians can always far outstrip the popularity of even the readership of several poets combined, even the most popular ones.
      Milton & Shakespeare may have been popular, but they didn’t have a variety of mediums to contend with. They did have literacy levels to contend with though & the fact that books were out of the price range of most.
      i have perhaps fallen prey to Longenbach’s role for poetry. To be resisted to & resist itself & in that limitation to persist, because there it can do whatever it wants & when someone does discover it somehow, then it takes on added meaning for them (i am summarizing). i am very comfortable with this. i know how poetry has shaped me & how it helps me live. i need to see the world to bother to live in it, not everyone does. But if i don’t, i really don’t see much point in living. That’s dramatic, but our peculiar evolution has allowed us to do this. Check Kvennarad’s (Marie’s) mini-essay annex, there are some brilliant quotes in there, which say a great deal about how i feel on this.
      i am essentially comfortable in my obscurity.

      1. One wonders how Milton etc wd have done trying to compete against movies or just talk radio. I go back & forth being content or not with obscurity, but in the moment of writing it’s not a concern at all, there’s no thought of audience. The last poem in my ancient Europe series sums up my final feeling about writing poetry:

        To be summoned by someone is always a surprise, he said,
        and someday I would feel a spade on my skull,
        someday I would stand up and start singing,
        but until then I should love the loneliness and its lessons,
        and he bade me to build it well, to bury it well, and wait.

      2. i reckon he’d be the top script writer in Hollywood & maybe the dialogue in Star Wars wouldn’t be so shit.

        Can’t believe you told me the ending of your book. There’s no reason to read it now, you told me the end. haha.

        The foresight of the ancestor has a marked effect on the reader, you can’t help but marvel at the insight. This is you in one of your most effective modes of feeling. “To bury it well” is emotionally charged for me, to never make the rediscovery easy, to almost take solace in death, something an irreligious world is finding more & more difficult. i am fascinated by Transhumanism for this reason: science’s quest for an afterlife. i don’t remember who it was, but some Transhumanist said “you better not stop me being God.” Not playing , but “being”. i thought those were powerful words. Nietzschean even. i hope to do a lot of reading on the subject when i can.

      3. Ha yeah, now my book is fucked, everybody knows the ancient butler did it. Oh well.

        There’s a nice tradition you find in a lot of places, I think Odin does it, of going to the graves of seers & calling them up to ask questions. & the seer isn’t happy. The resurrection/afterlife wd be hard, I’d guess because the life itself was hard. I try to imagine the white heat of vision Melville wrote Moby Dick in, only for it to be ignored or bashed; but sixty or whatever years later it’s rediscovered, & it hasn’t shut up since. ….I need to look up this transhumanism you mention

      4. Leave the dad be i say. It should be conjecture, makes for better writing.

        Transhumanism is something i know little about, but i am watching lectures & reading what articles i can find. It is in its infancy & all conjecture, which leaves it open to wild speculation, which is perfect for contemporary poetry. The things some of them say is staggering. Max Tegmark is a big name & Zoltov Istvan, who was on Joe Rogan’s podcast, & their conversation is pretty good. That was my first window into it & i think it is a pretty good entry in. Zoltan’s a pretty interesting guy. They aren’t conspiracy nuts, they are scientists who believe in a sort of super human potential or Human 3.0 or something of that sort i think Tegmark is aiming toward. It is sneaking into my recent poems in the form of speech & consideration of man-gods & that sort of stuff. It’s a real movement with lots of money & research going into it.

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