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.

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