Friday 30 November 2018

The state of UK poetry

In a recent Guardian article Sandeep Parmar noted the poetry concerns of some writers -

  • "contemporary poetry is in a rotten state,” according to Rose Tremain in the TLS. “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. I’m fervently hoping for something better soon.”
  • In a recent interview, poet and editor Robin Robertson also railed against current poetry, which for him divides into two extremes: “light verse” or “incomprehensible”

These are time-worn moans. I have some sympathies with them but no more so than decades ago. Here are some extracts from poetry publications I've recently read -

  • "it's not until we quiet again that we clock the car we're in is not in fact the thing we thought was moving" (Sam Buchan-Watts). Not even good prose.
  • "Like others/ you wait/ in queues/ for the drought to end" (Arundhathi Subramaniam). Four line-breaks disguise nothing
  • "And love grows angel in the gloom/ with your calls through resistant stars" (Ishion Hutchinson). Eh?

To those complaints could be added

Poetry's commonly attacked from without for being prose chopped up or for being difficult. Are these criticism from within more worrying? (Tremain may not be a poet, but she's been part of the Literary and Creative Writing scene for years). I think they signal a shift in the nature of the literary world, and of the mainstream.

  • The eco-system - As more Creative Writing students graduate, the number of potential literary readers and writers increases. Thanks to the internet, they no longer form an archipelago. Members of a minority need no longer live in the same geographic community to sustain each other.
    Readers and writers are more in touch with each other. Writers run workshops, attend festivals, and engage via social media.
  • The poetry - The notion of "mainstream" has often been contested. Here are two attempts to describe it
    • "The conventional or mainstream poem today is a univocal, more or less plain-spoken, short narrative often culminating in a sort of epiphany. Such a form must convey an impression of closure and wholeness no matter what it says", Rae Armantrout, "Sagetrieb", 11.3 (1992)
    • "the [mainstream] work appears spoken in a natural voice; there must be a sense of urgency and immediacy to this 'affected naturalness' so as to make it appear that one is reexperiencing the original event; there must be a 'studied artlessness' that gives a sense of spontaneous personal sincerity; and there must be a strong movement toward emphatic closure", Charles Altieri, "Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry", CUP, 1984, p.10
    If by "mainstream" people mean accessible poetry which has literary credibility, then I think the old mainstream has been squeezed. Perhaps once upon a time there was (as viewed from within) a majority style and several minority styles, but now more than ever that "mainstream poetry" is one style amongst many others.

So I can see why writers might feel that poetry has changed, that mainstream poetry is under attack. It would be an exaggeration to claim that there is a new mainstream, but a new shared set of influences may be leading to a loose consensus. For a start, the building blocks of poetry have changed. These books indicate the shift -

  • Close calls with nonsense (Stephen Burt). An unpreachy look at the factors and fashions involved with recent North American poetry.
  • How to write a poem (John Redmond) A book for beginners that provides building blocks more in keeping with contemporary poetry - a Jori Graham poem is successfully discussed

The new mainstream has more styles, and is written by more types of people. I see this as enrichment rather than dilution. It's as likely to involve Oulipo wordplay as Confessionalism (and one person is more likely to write either). It may have one foot in academia, though the other might be on local radio for National Poetry Day. I don't think "The Poetry Review" represents it. Magazines like "Under the Radar" may.

Saturday 24 November 2018

The state of the UK/Eire short story

Suppose you were asked about the state of sport rather than short stories - what would be a reliable indicator? How many gold medals were won in the Olympics? How many people jog? How many people watch football? How many pages of media are devoted to sport?

Judged by these sorts of criteria, stories aren't doing well. When did you last read one? When did you last buy a story book? Can you name any living story writers?

Every so often there are articles about the revival of the short story. They're soon followed by articles about false dawns. Alice Munro's Nobel win didn't turn things round. Nor did Tom Hanks' book.

Why are there so few outlets? I asked a publisher about this and he said that short-stories are like poems - only people who write them read or buy them. His magazine's guidelines say "Our preference is for literary fiction". Ambit Magazine says "We’re not afraid of genre fiction, but it should probably have an interesting relationship to the genre at hand – a straight-ahead detective or horror story probably won’t appear." Maybe it’s only literary short stories that are suffering. When demand for them slackens, so does supply. Why write stories if nobody reads them?

All is not lost. The BBC is trying to generate interest with the £15,000 National Short Story Award and the Young Writers' Award. Hensher in the introduction to his latest anthology suggested that competitions would be ok if the rest of the story eco-system were healthy. A few more story collections are being reviewed - see Fen by Daisy Johnson (Vintage, 2017). More small presses are dipping their toes into story collections. And Flash is a growth sector, though surely one can't really compare a 250-word piece with an Alice Munro story. It's like comparing Twenty20 cricket with test matches.

But is England the best place to be? Dublin has "The Irish Writing Centre" at 19 Parnell Square with a shop and many events. Edinburgh's Scottish Storytelling Centre is along the Golden Mile. England's catching up - the National Writing Centre has recently started in Norwich - see Its NCW Podcast is worth subscribing to.