What’s wrong with poetry in 2008

Joanna Lumley has been criticised for her views on modern poetry, expressed in an introduction to Liz Cowley’s collection A Red Dress and Other Poems.

Rather than limiting her comments to the book in question, Lumley attacked contemporary poetry, dismissing ‘so much’ of it as maddeningly obscure and, at worst, self-indulgent. At the other extreme, she argued that less demanding poetry risked becoming humdrum and commonplace.

The author supports Lumley’s comments. ‘Poetry is so obscure and inward-looking that it loses people – Carol Ann Duffy, for example, is almost impossible for anyone who has not been well-educated to understand; or it’s material for a stand-up comedian, like Pam Ayres, with plonky metre.’

Lumley is not the first prominent figure to question contemporary poetry. In The Ode Less Travelled, Stephen Fry condemned the ‘arse-dribble’ produced by some modern practitioners. Daisy Goodwin, who has presented poetry on TV, warned that the art was set to become as quaint as Morris dancing. Few poets today enjoy the celebrity status of major novelists.

Predictably, the arts establishment haven’t liked this. Ian MacMillan, a token northerner who sometimes gets wheeled out on Newsnight Review, said this:

I suspect that she hasn’t read very widely because she’s ignoring the fact that poetry in the 21st century is a broad church… It’s sad and frustrating that people can still come up with generalisations like this. You shouldn’t be able to get poems on the first reading. Part of the delight is the time you take with them to understand them. But what’s wrong with humdrum and commonplace, anyway? Frank O’Hara called his poems ‘lunch poems’ because he wrote them in his lunch hour. By the act of writing down his humdrum, it became delightful.

The criticism goes downhill from there. Wendy Cope said that Lumley ‘didn’t know much about poetry’, Dannie Abse said Lumley was ‘old fashioned’ and Al Alvarez said that Lumley didn’t like contemporary poetry because she was too old.

Still, as the report says, contemporary poetry is hurtling into irrelevance. There are only about ten people in Britain who make a living from their verse alone. No poet has that celebrity love/hate relationship with the readers that Martin Amis has. Was not always this way. The Romantics, the Modernists and the Beats were widely known and discussed figures. Poetry is not destined to be a minority pursuit.

Yet today few people read contemporary poetry. Why? It must be something to do with the audience, with modern culture – it can’t be because contemporary poetry is mostly bad. Wendy Cope says ‘the answer is to educate the public’ – the public, mark you, not the poets.

The problems are multitude. They begin with what serious poets call ‘poentertainment’.

Performance poets are made on the live circuit. This circuit is dominated by ‘slam’ nights in which people have three or four minutes to read some poems before getting gonged. The performers are awarded on the basis of applause. Because of this format, attention-seeking and hackery are the norm – a slam is, as a Manchester poet told me, ‘a dick-swinging contest’. The slam nights provide a home for failed stand-up comedians who can’t handle a comedy club audience and prefer to tell their moronic non-jokes in the knowledge of obligatory applause. It’s a weird feature of live nights that although the organisers put the emphasis on interactivity and audience involvement, the most stupid, pretentious and boring routines get a free pass.

Rather than use money to help the development of serious poets, the Arts Council throws money at these nights because they tick all the ideological boxes. But the audiences are small and rarely contain anyone who’s not reading. Serious poets and serious readers avoid them like the plague.

A poet can find an audience through the poetry magazines, building up enough credits to get a collection published. There has been an explosion in this sector in the last few years. But, as with the poetry nights, these have few readers who aren’t writers. Many are wilfully obscure, badly produced, and exist solely to promote a provincial claque of friends and colleagues. There is an ‘old guard’ of poetry editors with a narrow mindset that views new poetry with suspicion. I’ve seen magazines stagnate into the same incestuous rota of names in each issue.

Lumley hits the nail on the head with her comments on the self-indulgence of modern poetry. There are many poets who will write about nothing except their sexuality and mental health problems. Even if they are talented, this narrow focus is a drag. Many others see poetry as a kind of hobbyist thing rather than a craft.

The picture’s not totally bleak though. There are many great contemporary poets – Annie Clarkson, Aoife Mannix, Jackie Hagan, Michael Wilson (I adapted a line of his for the title of this post) Michelle Green, Lisa B, Anwen Lewis, Chanje Kunda and Chloe Poems to drop a few names. There are magazines that are genuinely interested in new writing. Many competitions are basically small-town tombolas, but the Forward Prize has done a fantastic job in promoting great contemporary poets like Eleanor Rees and Luke Kennard. Likewise Salt is giving a good name back to independent publishing. There are a few great poetry nights that attract non-poet audiences: a Manchester one is the Poetry Party, run by John G Hall, who is simply a genius. The diamonds are few, but it’s worth ploughing through the rough to find them.

Update: James D Newman gives us a view from America.

People do not showcase poets (and here I speak as a producer of 200-300 poetry shows) because poets have a TERRIBLE reputation in the entertainment community. They are unprofessional, selfish, self indulgent, boring, insensitive to the venue and they kill the audience. I would love to say that this is the opinion of one or two venue managers — but I have found this to be universal (outside of a small handful of high school teachers, coffee house managers and art galleries — god bless them) and after working with the fuckers (poets) for as long as I have I feel totally comfortable agreeing with the general perception. I have many friends who produce shows, and I have many friends who write — I do not, any longer, recommend the later to the former.

The problem is, quite specifically, the artists themselves — and we need, as a group, to deflate our egos and spend more time READING ALONE.

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12 Responses to “What’s wrong with poetry in 2008”

  1. Pen Me A Poem Says:

    Good article. I sympathise with some of Lumley’s worries about the seeming lack of technical craft put into much contemporary poetry. There is a danger that the relaxed free verse, whilst it can be excellent, is rather drowning out all other forms and rendering them obsolete. Rather like in modern art where a Tracey Emin bed or a Hirst cow is more well known to the public than artists who actually have talent and skill.

  2. maxdunbar Says:

    That’s an interesting point, although I know very little about the technical construction of poems.

  3. irreverently Says:

    It’s true that poetry publishing has narrowed its focus. I’ve only experienced American poetry slams, which were judged by a panel rather than the loudness of the audience’s clapping. At the time (eight or nine years ago), combining poetry with some shenanigans and stunts was fun rather than tired. It also tended to support the quality of the poems. It seems that as the popularity and social cool of poetry slams has increased, the quality of the work and presentation has decreased.

    As a friend of mine often says, it seems that a lot of interest in poetry has been diffused into music. Lyrics (though not necessarily the lyricism of them) have become increasing emphasized in mainstream music.

    Poetry has become an educated person’s sport. It’s really a shame, because beyond the schlock there are good poets, some of who aren’t being published or recognized.

  4. maxdunbar Says:

    I’ve only experienced British poetry slams. The point I was trying to make was that arts administrators try to get bigger audiences by making poetry more like mainstream culture (e.g. having a reality-show style theme) whereas poetry readers generally like the fact that poetry is not part of mainstream culture.

    And yes, musicians are often better poets than real poets!

  5. Jon Says:

    I don’t think there’s anything to this but a broad, unhelpful generalisation based on very limited experience and a repetition of that tired mantra, “contemporary poetry is hurtling into irrelevance”.

    The truth is that contemporary poetry is extremely wide-ranging and multifarious and almost anyone who wades in will find that most of it doesn’t appeal to them while a few bits and pieces do. Who those few are though will vary from person to person – I could come up with a completely different list of ‘exceptions to the rule’ than you, and so could the next person, and so on.

    That’s not to say there aren’t worse poets and better poets, extremely crap poets and extremely brilliant poets, problematic trends, squandered money and pointless competitions. But any proper critical discourse and culture-wide recognition of who is who and what is what will first have to break through this cloud of foolhardy reductionism that you and others insist on propagating.

  6. maxdunbar Says:

    Poetry in 2008 has a very low stature compared to the time of the Romantics, the Modernists and the Beats.

    There are only ten people who can live off poetry alone and virtually no contemporary poets with the name recognition of successful novelists. As Daisy Goodwin says, the art is almost becoming a minority pursuit like morris dancing.

    This is not ‘foolhardy reductionism’ – it is fact.

    What you’ve said about the wide-ranging and multifarious nature of poetry is also true of novels, yet the novel as an art form is doing a lot better with the reading public.

    And I did give some examples of ‘who is who’: i.e. names of good poets, good poetry publishers and good spoken word nights. Critical discourse – isn’t that what we’re doing now?

  7. Rachel Fox Says:

    I read about the Lumley thing in the ‘Independent’. Poor old poetry…the only time it gets in the papers is when someone is saying how crap it is…usually in the intro to a book of…poetry! A ha!

    I’m glad to read some positive comments about song lyrics and poetry here though. Some poetry blogs I read are very much of the opposite opinion (lyrics are not poetry, how dare you etc.). I understand their point (and their defensiveness…they are people who feel passionately about poetry and look how it is getting treated…) but I can’t agree with them. I like poetry but I can’t help but notice how lots of people are taking their poetry most often with musical accompaniment these days. As a huge music fan I do too a lot of the time (listen to the Kathryn Williams/Neill MacColl cd ‘Two’…tell me there’s not poetry in there!).

    I think the harsh split between slams (tried one, not for me, don’t rush me with that hooter you moron!) and (sh!) literary events does not help the current state of poetry. I read at musical events/shows if I can…best of both worlds…and my favourite poets are the ones who fall somewhere in between the slam and the lit. The best place, if you’ll excuse the vulgarity, has always been in the cracks in between…

  8. Rachel Fox Says:

    Bloody emotiwhatsits. I did not put that winking smiley face in on purpose! A smiley face!!! Agh..

  9. irreverently Says:

    “Poetry in 2008 has a very low stature compared to the time of the Romantics, the Modernists and the Beats.”

    I’m not sure I agree with this. I think poetry reading and published books of poetry are largely ignored, but that doesn’t mean people don’t care about poetry. They’re just getting poetry in a different form (music). That has more to do with changes in the speed of life, demands on people, and entertainment available (TV, films, DVDs, streaming everything all the time) than poetry’s worth.

    “Poetry readers generally like the fact that poetry is not part of mainstream culture.”

    Being outside of the mainstream culture is fine and good, but poetry (like painting) has become a kind of incestuous in-club; it seems that there’s a decrease in effort to showcase the good poets in an appropriate but contemporary context where lots of people will encounter their work. Maybe that’s why so few people are paying attention to poetry.

  10. maxdunbar Says:

    Rachel

    Yeah, smileys are a problem with all wordpress blogs and I don’t know how to turn them off.

    I agree with your point about song lyrics, there’s a lot of poetry in there – Leonard Cohen is a good example.

    The kind of literary event I like is where there are no readings at all, and people are just sitting around drinking and chatting.

    Irreverently

    Come on. The Romantics, Modernists and Beats were practically household names. How many living British poets get that kind of name recognition?

    As for DVDs and longer working hours, this doesn’t seem to have affected the contemporary novel.

    I agree with your point about incestuousness – the bad thing about a lot of poetry nights is that they have the unpopularity of the obscure combined with the lowest common denominator of the mainstream.

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  12. James D. Newman Says:

    @irreverently

    I appreciate your sticking up for poetry but you are flat wrong.

    No one writing in America today has the pull (or the weight) of a Ginsburg. Not even close. There are teachers, slam poets and hobbyists. Of them, the hobbyists are consistently the best, although you have to look long and hard in-between the others to find them. The journals are all insider affairs. The slam is almost completely garbage — I say that as something of a fan — I have enjoyed the experience, but almost never the experience of reading over any of the 30 or so books I have bought from Slam performers. I have attended Open mics on and off for 20 years, my best experiences have been random no-bodies here and there who take reading (meaning that thing you do by yourself with a book) more seriously than they take themselves.

    People do not showcase poets (and here I speak as a producer of 200-300 poetry shows) because poets have a TERRIBLE reputation in the entertainment community. They are unprofessional, selfish, self indulgent, boring, insensitive to the venue and they kill the audience. I would love to say that this is the opinion of one or two venue managers — but I have found this to be universal (outside of a small handful of high school teachers, coffee house managers and art galleries — god bless them) and after working with the fuckers (poets) for as long as I have I feel totally comfortable agreeing with the general perception. I have many friends who produce shows, and I have many friends who write — I do not, any longer, recommend the later to the former.

    The problem is, quite specifically, the artists themselves — and we need, as a group, to deflate our egos and spend more time READING ALONE.

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