Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Pop-Poetry Will Eat Itself

  A work-colleague asked recently "What kind of poetry do you write?" and I was stumped for an answer. Not only did no coherent response come to mind, but as I hemmed and hawed I was confused as to the kind of reply that might be expected. On a Lit History level, of course, there are generic categories of poem (lyric, narrative, elegy, satire etc.) which are still often employed by poets and critics, although in many cases they feel inapplicable to the hybridised, mashed-up forms we now write in; but surely this wasn't the kind of answer she was looking for (eg. "Well, my work flits puckishly between the ode and the dramatic monologue, with occasional forays into the epic.") 
    It's difficult to surmise the kinds of poetry that exist in what is sometimes bizarrely called "the popular imagination", but the teacher gave an inkling of one of them when she rescued me by saying "Is it the really heavy, depressing kind?" (presumably shorthand for any poetry written with serious or, broadly speaking, literary or artistic intent.) For want of any better designation (and almost detecting a kind of back-handed compliment ie. at least I'm not a flippant rhymester in the mould of Purple Ronnie or Pam Ayres), I said "Yes, probably" and we left it at that.
   What this odd exchange brought home is our lack of meaningful terms for the large array of subtypes at play within the field of poetry, in comparison, say, to music where there's an abundance of different styles each with its own name, tradition, values and audience. Some (classical, jazz, art-rock ) are more artful and crafted than others at the pop end of the spectrum which tend to be both more immediate and more simplistic but are also usually more commercially successful in terms of their reception. Other musical styles dwell somewhere between these poles, striving to attain a level of popularity while also maintaining some semblance of artistic integrity.
     Is there a kind of "pop poetry", as well as (again, very much for want of a better word) a "literary poetry" whose practitioners align themselves with the making of something akin to art? I'm straining the analogy here in reference to the rather heated discussion that arose the other week after Rebecca Watts' essay in PN Review in which she inveighs against several female poets, in particular Hollie McNish and Rupi Kaur, for "the open denigration of intellectual engagement and rejection of craft that characterises their work". It's hardly a balanced work of criticism, and the somewhat lofty, de haut en bas tone does run the risk of accusations of a snobbish condescension (as its detractors have been quick to point out). I found myself thinking of that old Alexander Pope line "Why break a butterfly upon a wheel?"
    I do, however, find myself in agreement with many of Watts' points. I have to admit to a sense of bewilderment whenever I go into Waterstones and approach the poetry shelves only to discover that a proportion of the ever-dwindling book-space allotted is taken up by small decorative volumes you might expect to see in a twee gift-shop, their pages adorned with wistful line-drawings of flowers and snowflakes amid which brief clusters of lines nestle, each a sentimental cliché or banal pseudo-profundity you might be more likely to find on a poster in a morose teenager's bedroom or perhaps biro'd on the back of a doodled exercise book in a moment of angst. This, in case you haven't encountered it, is Rupi Kaur's "Instagram poetry" (now there's a genre for you), a "short-form" production which seems to exactly conform to a public perception of what poetry should be - emotionally tortured, introspective, "spiritual", romantic with a small r. If you think of the word "poetic" within everyday parlance, these are the connotations it invariably evokes. (It would perhaps be an intriguing study to look at why The Dictionary for Received Ideas' entry on Poetry is stuck somewhere between post-Georgianism and watered-down Confessionalism and seems to omit from its definition the rest of its richly heterogeneous history.)
   The first time I read some of Hollie McNish's verses - and indicatively I think it was in The Guardian - I thought they were a parody or post-modern ruse cleverly aping a gauchely rhyming, agit-prop type poem of the kind (again) that many of us wrote as moody adolescents. I had to read it several times before deciding with a mixture of mirth and perplexity that no this was an actual poem and The Guardian was actually printing it. And Picador is publishing her new book and now she's won the Ted Hughes Award!
    Rebecca Watts' argument that the literary establishment's acceptance of McNish in a kind of disingenuous Emperor's New Clothes consensus is a valid one and seems to say more about the ever-looser criteria some publishers and promoters are holding to in an age of shrinking readerships and depleting returns than it does about any genuine new impetus towards populism. Populism, after all, is nothing new; as I suggested above, there has always been a vein of what used to be known as "light verse", often written by specialists who are far more skilled and indeed often artful than McNish or Kaur. Some will remember a few years ago (ok I just looked it up and it was 20) a somewhat analogous controversy being sparked when the unfunny comic poet Murray Lachlan Young reportedly signed a contract with EMI for £1m in 1997 (for recordings of performances rather than against his book-sales) - the ludicrous soundbite "Poetry is the new rock'n'roll" was widely touted at the time and many more serious poets (such as Michael Horovitz) waxed wroth about Young's sudden acclaim, saying that this was not real poetry and that he was debasing the art-form etc. 
    The point I'm attempting to make in a laborious way is that poetry continues to be as multifarious as music, yet we often lump it together as though it didn't contain diverse strands each with their different audiences and different channels of exposure: inevitably these will overlap and rub each other up the wrong way at certain points. The positive "takeaways", perhaps, are firstly the huge potential book-buying readership for poetry it shows at a time when, as I say, "literary" poetry seems to be selling less than ever - Kaur's Milk and Honey has apparently sold over half a million copies, which is incredible in the context of the tiny sales of most UK volumes. I'm certainly not saying that we should all embrace "Instagram poetry" and write like Rupi Kaur in the future - far from it - but just that we should perhaps consider all those readers who are showing a perhaps new or reanimated interest in poetry. Secondly, the debate which Watts' essay has provoked demonstrates an appetite and need for informed critical discussion about the status of poetry in the UK; it implies we're a broad church and that there's a great deal of scope for the interaction and cross-pollination of voices within this bustling community.

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