Friday, February 15, 2013

More categories not less?

One of the perpetual arguments in the poetry world is the old old binary position of non-mainstream verses non-mainstream. The most common response is to say that 'I'm just a poet, I don't need categories.' The problem with this is that clearly there is more than one kind of poetry out there. However, the old binaries don't really seem to operate anymore; or at least in the same way.

In the '60's and '70's, there was clearly an official  culture; the stuff published by the major publishers, for instance, the Movement poets and others were in the ascendant. Then there was the 'poetic underground': the experimenters, the beats, various forms of poetry that were shoved together into one block and largely dismissed as irrelevant by the so-called mainstream. This meant that the '70's could be dismissed by Andrew Motion and Blake Morrison as the era of 'nothing much happening'; whereas an awful lot was happening.

Even then, however, it's clear that the binaries didn't really work. How could one put the work of, say, Peter Riley and Bob Cobbing into the same category? They were both poetry, or labelled as such; and they were both seen as being in the 'non-mainstream' category; but in what way do they have anything in common apart from 'not being mainstream?'

We could, of course, just call it all poetry and be done with it. But that's to ignore the fact that it's impossible to assess a poem by Andrew Motion in the same way as you'd assess the poetry of, again arbitrarily, the poetry of Bill Griffiths. And it also doesn't seem fair to so-called mainstream poetry, as if all 'mainstream' poetry were the same.

I've been reading Janet Rogerson's A Bad Influence Girl, a pamphlet of seemingly straightforward narratives that often start off in the ordinary world, and end up somewhere strange, dreamlike, a bit nightmarish sometimes. The techniques are fairly straightforward, but the results are not. Is it mainstream? It seems to have no influence from the Duffy/Armitage school, except in technique. It reminds me of Charles Simic - but also of Russell Edson, whose surreal narratives are placed somewhere between experimental and mainstream.

Younger poets now especially seem much more able to slide between categories, to avoid binary oppositions, than they ever did before. There are many who explore different forms of experiment, and combine it with a much more approachable surface. So are we all justpoets?

I don't want to be the one to make a lot of new categories; but it's always seemed odd that in other art
forms, and even other forms of literature, there are lots of categories, but in poetry, we're all justpoets. Science-fiction, detective, fantasy, thriller, 'mainstream fiction' are all out there. We have cubist, abstract, landscape, portrait, installation, land art etc etc. The major problem with this, of course, is that it further divides readers. A science fiction reader might not look at a good historical novel. Someone who writes surrealist verse might not read formalist verse at all. We all might miss stuff we might otherwise like, or become terribly sniffy about other kinds of poetry to the one we like, the way science fiction readers are all thought of as geeks.

Nevertheless, it is important to remind ourselves that different kinds of poetry require different kinds of attention; you can't read a visual poem the way you read a narrative poem, anymore than you can listen to a heavy metal track the way you'd listen to Monteverdi.


Tim Love said...

I seem to recall someone some years ago saying that the idea of starting a poem in the everyday then slipping into the unreal (so that the reader only realises when it's too late to turn back) was an overused ploy - muted surrealism or even Magic Realism.

In Chicago Review Spring 2007 Andrew Duncan has a diagram of "Styles of British Poetry 1945-2000" (Avant-garde pastoral, New Textual Obscuity etc)). It's interesting to compare it with Fiona Sampson's attempt in her latest book.

Steven Waling said...

Not having read Fiona Sampson, I wouldn't be able to comment on her attempt. However, I don't think of anything as 'overplayed'- I might sometimes have read too much of it at one time, but that's only if I've read half a dozen of the same kind of thing at anyone time.