Monday, June 10, 2013

The Word 'Innovative'

I recently got into a discussion on Facebook in which someone actually declared that Carol Ann Duffy was an 'innovative poet.' Now, I don't want to get into a discussion about the relative merits of CAD as a poet, whether she is good or bad, but I would like to ask, in what way, if the word 'innovative' is to mean anything at all, a poet like CAD can be called that.

One person suggested that it was because she'd written love poetry as a woman to a woman. Hello? Did the 1970's feminist poetry never happen? Or perhaps the people saying this never read past the '80's, and a very narrow definition of the '80's at that? The 'Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry' not the Paladin British Modern Poetry' version of poetic history perhaps? An '80's British poetry without 'Conductors of Chaos' might make Carol Ann Duffy into an innovative poet, just about, but even then I doubt it.

Or: it's her use of the vernacular that marks her out as 'innovative'; and here we get even further into the realms of historical revisionism. What happened to Chaucer, for instance, or coming within living memory, Philip Larkin? Her use of the dramatic monologue is derived from Browning, including even her use of rather unsavoury characters (psychopaths and the like: see Porphyria's Lover and My Last Duchess.) Her use of ordinary working class characters isn't too original either: Wordsworth's Leechgatherer springs to mind, though perhaps she's less philosophically allegorical.

Which isn't to say anything about how good or bad she is at doing these things. There are good things in The World's Wife and Meantime that any mainstream poet would be proud to have written. But none of them do anything but develop forms and methods that were already around; often very well, I have to say. She's a consolidator, and perhaps, due to her exam board status, a populiser, not an inventor of new forms or an explorer of new themes. Which is perhaps what you'd expect from a laureate poet; someone who is always on the outer limits of linguistic daring is hardly going to appeal to your average Guardian reader.

The word innovative would, it seems to me, imply that the poet is stepping out into new territory, trying something new that might not actually be very popular but would prove to be an influence on future generations. Gertrude Stein comes to mind as someone who is still innovative: someone who changed and increased the possibilities of writing both poetry and prose. Are there any truly innovative poets today? I'm not sure there are; even the non-mainstream poets of today are basically riffing off the revolutions of the past.

However, at least they are experimenting and taking things forward. Carol Ann Duffy, whatever her virtues, is not; not that she ought to of course. Many poets are content to develop what has already gone before. That's fine, and nobody should be criticised simply because they don't want to be experimental. We should all be criticised for what we do, well or badly, not because of what someone thinks we ought to do. If I don't think much of her latest laureate poem, it's not because it's not experimental; it's because I don't think it's very good.

There are lots of good poets who are not in any meaning of the 'innovative'. Despite my interest in experimental writing, I don't think I am, really. I just like mucking around with language, rather than just 'having something to say,' like a lot of people in the non-mainstream camp. I use cut-n-paste and collage, juxtaposition and various other 'avant garde' techniques; but I haven't invented a new way of writing.

Carol Ann Duffy is good at what she does; if it doesn't interest me much, that's because of a different approach to poetry and language.  But don't make claims about her that can't be backed up. Carol Ann Duffy has never 'innovated' in her life.