An Inquisition into Populist Poetry
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 talkingpoliticspodcast.com) 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.