Sunday, 28 January 2018

Poetry as Art?

This month an article appeared in PN Review 239, Volume 44 Number 3 by Rebecca Watts and is entitled "The Cult of the Noble Amateur"

Read it here if you don't want my precis.

The thrust of the article is that literary poetry, as an art form, is being subverted and potentially destroyed by the rise of the "amateur poet". This poet is typically young, not educated in literature and representative of a group normally not represented in the established poetry scene. This could be white working class, BME, immigrants for example - she singles out young female poets - the poetry tends to be raw and perhaps more suited to the growing live spoken word scene. It's so easy to self publish these days - blogs are free, YouTube is free and it's fairly cheap to create and print a pamphlet or book if you want to.

Her point is that, while she clearly thinks that some, if not all, of this is not of literary merit, she also believes that the establishment is losing sight of whether work has intrinsic value and longevity and their critical faculties are being compromised either because they have a genuine desire to expand the appeal of poetry or because they are scared of appearing elitist. That good poetry is not just about connecting with an audience and playing to it using your own experiences - it can and should also challenge; ideologically and intellectually.

There. I've just saved you reading what is a long winded, at times rather petulant, piece that is trying to defend poetry as something you have to work at, not just splurge out as a stream of consciousness to your fan base. (As an aside, the conclusion that pure poetry is the last bastion that will save us from Trump and Brexit is just the sort of assertion that makes Joe Public even less interested in the form.)

But does she have a point? It would be easy to attack her as another snob who wants to keep poetry as a cosy, elite club that allows the occasional working class person provided they've got a degree and know how all the correct terminology.

I will now declare an interest before I proceed - as the rest of my blog shows, I am an "amateur poet" whose higher education is in sciences and who last studied English at O-level. My interest in poetry and writing it is after a 40 year gap and some of my poems are a bit ranty and aren't intended to have literary merit. They're just a way of me expressing a view, hopefully challenging perceptions or bringing stories to light that I feel need to be told. I am also trying to create more intellectually satisfying work - studying structure, classic poetry and reading work by as many people as possible.

I have been to a lot of open mic events in the last 6 months and I have heard some very interesting and challenging work from people who you would think are the least likely to have produced poetry, at least by traditional thinking - sometimes it's been brilliant. I've also heard a lot of poor work - one in particular springs to mind where the poet's total lack of preparation, care and respect for his audience was outweighed by the mindless, immature drivel that spewed forth for the next 3 hours - it seemed like 3 hours but was probably 3 minutes. I genuinely wanted to punch him - for his own good. Still, that's open mic and I'm sure some people have been waiting impatiently for me to finish when I've been on. 

I think there is a difference between "Performance Poetry" and poetry that works best on the page, where it can be savoured, re-read and you can take from it what you will. Sometimes, what you take from it is not what the poet had in mind, but he or she cannot control that once it's out there. You can either write very one-dimensionally to make a clear point or you put layers of meaning into your work. Once you do that those meanings are open to interpretation. Anyway, that's a separate issue. If you can pull off both, you're really on a winner. If you can read or perform a multi-layered poem that people enjoy listening to and then want to read, that also stands alone on the page without its author's vocal interpretation, then you've hit the Holy Grail. John Cooper-Clarke's Beasley Street has been around for 40 years and absolutely stands up in print today - and it stills packs an even bigger punch live.

I think that an understanding of form and structure, and looking at poetry that has stood the test of time, is an ideal way to improve what you are writing. If you can blend the words and emotions that speak to the modern generation in a way that also makes it timeless then that's got to be worthwhile, hasn't it? I am very lucky to have found Read To Write in Mexborough - to read great poetry, analyse it, discover what we like and don't like; look at how poetry is "of its time" yet timeless. This definitely helps adapt your work - there's no point slavishly copying Byron or Dylan Thomas but you can improve your poems, both by learning and by allowing people to constructively criticise your work.

I don't care whether the poetry establishment accepts loud, unstructured, spoken word practitioners or not - that's up to them. I know they are powerless to stop it, just as the establishment was unable to stop Rock'n'Roll. Elvis was the brash, scary, threat that was part of the movement that changed music forever back in the 1950s - by the 1970s he was churning out standards in Vegas. I'd rather see the two meet halfway, where people attracted to poetry via the Spoken Word scene feel encouraged to explore other, perhaps more intellectual, forms. And where people with Ph. Ds who work in libraries or for literary publications and spend a year crafting a 16 line poem about a beetle can appreciate other types of poetry.

Tim Fellows
January 2018

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