Friday, December 30, 2011

Some Possibly Wrong Things I May Have Learned This Year

Poetry is a rhizome, a root system, a web of connections. It's not a tree with the best at the top and the worst at the bottom and lots of rather indifferent branches in between. It springs up in all kinds of ways and in all kinds of forms. It isn't just the Faber/Cape/Picador hegemony, nor is it just the experimental/post-avant. It takes in the visual and the sentimental: a Christmas card verse is still a poem, even if it isn't what many of us would choose to call 'good poetry'.

To say it's only poetry if it's 'good poetry' is to put a fence around certain kinds of poetry and say 'this is poetry and this is not' and poetry essentially had no fence. It includes Bob Cobbing and Helen Steiner Rice whether we like those poets or not.

That doesn't mean that all poetry is 'good' and there is no such thing as 'bad poetry': but what is considered bad cannot be rationally decided upon. A 'good sonnet' is not necessarily the most metrically correct; nor is good free verse just chopped-up prose. A good visual poem is aesthetically and visually pleasing; but isn't necessarily the one with the most paraphrasable meaning. If one writes a piece of 'inspirational verse' one isn't terribly interested in the subtlety of meaning, or even getting the metre absolutely correct. One is interested in inspiring certain sentiments.

No one anthology of any country's poetry can represent the whole range of poetry in that county. I'll believe that's possible when Wendy Cope sits next to Keston Sutherland in an anthology. Nobody can like everything. I've met people for whom doggerel is the only poetry worth reading, performance poetry the only poetry worth hearing, and others who generally confine themselves to avant garde, sound poetry, visual poetry, and everything in between. People who think if it doesn't rhyme it ain't poetry.

Poetry is a meadow. In a meadow, there are many kinds of plants, all fighting for attention from the sun (the reader?). Will we please everybody? Probably not. There is good and bad poetry (poems that survive and poems that do not may be one way of distinguishing) but not good and bad poetries. And survival isn't always the point: sometimes a poem is meant to be thrown away when read, or even written.

A Happy New Year to all poets.

10 comments:

angelatopping said...

and I have realised that when you were grouching about mainstream you were NOT getting at me. I can't be mainstream as I can't get into Poetry Review, PN Review, Stand or Poetry London. And you don't see any avant garde in any of them either.

By syllogism:

PR and other such are mainstream
Angela Topping can't get into these mags
Therefore Angela Topping is not mainstream.

The avant garde is not mainstream
Angela Topping is not mainstream
therefore Angela Topping could be avant garde.

Oh it's it fun to be excluded from poetry cabals.

Keith Lander said...

Isn't this simply a case of one man's meat is another man's poison: it can be said of all the arts can't it? Or, as Bob Dylan says Abraham Lincoln says: "Half the people can be part right all of the time/some of the people can be all right part of the time/but all of the people can't be all right all of the time".

Happy New Year.

Steven Waling said...

Well, it would be, Keith, if there weren't a bunch of mandarins up there in the mainstream journals/publishers deciding what is and isn't 'proper' poetry. Like Helen Vendler deciding you can't have as many as 175 good poets in a country as large as America, or the pontifications of such as Sean O'Brien and Don Patterson...

Keith Lander said...

I'm not sure it's a simple as this. I assume you mean, by mainstream, the stuff published in PR, Poetry London, Rialto, The North, Smiths Knoll, and....

The editors of these magazines have every right to publish the poetries that their readers want to read. If they don't, and start publishing a lot of what I assume you regard as avant garde work then I suspect they would start to lose subscribers, which most can ill afford to do. That said there are plenty of magazines that publish experimental/avant garde work that wouldn't publish work from, say, Smiths Knoll. The Wolf comes to mind here.

And isn't some of today's avant grade tomorrow's mainstream?

Steven Waling said...

They can, of course, print what they like. It's when they make spurious claims that what they write, and approve of, is 'just poetry', whereas everything that isn't '(label) poetry' (and therefore not 'real poetry' that we have reason to complain. And when the mainstream media don't even acknowledge the existence of other poetries so that all most people know of poetry is the bland pap of the mainstream, we also have reason to complain.

Milo said...

Let's be honest, most people no nothing of any kind of poetry, much less experimental poetry, and could care less. It certainly doesn't sell newspapers. I hate labels such as mainstream, avant garde etc.

Over the weekend, for example, I spent hours re-editing and uploading the Poets & Players 2008 event that featured Adrian Mitchell, and to this I prepended a clip of him reading at the Albert Hall in 1965 as part of the Wholly Communion event. He was then and remained a firebrand and many would say avant garde poet. He certainly had strong views about how his work should be used in education.

It so happens that both he and Geoffrey Hill were given Eric Gregory awards in the same year (1962 I think). As you doubtless know Geoffrey Hill was recently elected professor of poetry at Oxford and many (mainstream?) critics say he is the best thing since sliced bread. I doubt Adrian Mitchell would have be so lauded had he still been alive.

Now I reckon that Geoffrey Hill would be considered avant garde by Joe Public and Adrian Mitchell deemed to be mainstream if accessibility is the usual criterion used to differentiate the avant garde from the mainstream.

So here are some syllogisms:

Geoffrey Hill is a mainstream poet.
Geoffrey Hill is a difficult poet.
Therefore mainstream poetry is difficult.

Adrian Mitchell is an avant garde poet.
Adrian Mitchell is an accessible poet.
Therefore avant garde poetry is accessible.

Joe Public likes accessible poetry.
Avant garde poetry is accessible poetry.
Therefore Joe Public likes avant garde poetry.

Just what you wanted isn't it (though there might just be a logical fallacy here) :-0

Steven Waling said...

Some more sylogisms:

a) Geoffery Hill is frequently derided by mainstream poets for beiing too difficult.

b) Therefore Geoffery Hill is not mainstream.

c) Geoffery Hill must therefore be avant garde because we all know there are only two choices in these games.

d) Therefore avant garde poetry is difficult.

a) Adrian Mitchell is accessible.

b) Mainstream poets want desperately to be accessible.

c)Therefore Adrian Mitchell is the mainstream poet de jour.


a) The problems with sylogisms is that they're always a choice between two alternatives.

b) Poetry is far too various to be a simple choice between two alternatives

c) Therefore, it is entirely possible that Geoffery Hill and Adrian Mitchell are neither mainstream nor avant garde.

Milo said...

I love it.

Anonymous said...

Re: where we 'place' magazines - PN review does publish some avant-garde poetry, if you count Jphn Ashbery and Tom Raworth. I wouldn't quite put it with the other 'big' poetry magazines - the critical writing, though it may be drier, is much more focused, and the poetry is different in all sorts of ways from what one reads in Poetry Review

which sort of
goes likes this a lot of the time
in a kind of not taking risks
sort of way and is
from one point of view harmless
but from another reading it
is a bit like drowning in quicksand
with occasional crude emotional bursts
to convince us of its reality and importance.

A PN Review poem is more likely to be from an interesting foreign place or at least mention one, it will often do something genuinely interesting with language. Dry, yes, even a little self-satisfied, and the list of contributors tend to be academics - but it does, on the whole, stand out.

cwardpoet said...

"Poetry is a meadow. In a meadow, there are many kinds of plants, all fighting for attention from the sun (the reader?). Will we please everybody? Probably not."

Quite possibly one of the best observations on poetry today I've read in a while.