Tuesday, June 05, 2007

What happened to poetry?

Baroque in Hackney's post about a new "poetry war" (between the young and the old) made me think that in the last few months, blinking, or not taking notice, or something like that, I've somehow lost sight of poetry. Not my own, (its mostly shy, but not extinct), but other peoples. Perhaps I've just disengaged again - but, on the other hand, what is there to engage me? Is it just that poetry only comes alive in the autumn - with festivals and prizes - or is that there's nothing particular interesting happening out there anyway? The magazines seem to be the same as they've always been. Local upstarts like Lamport Court and Parameter have new issues out but the poetry scene has a familiar look to it, The North, Poetry Review, PNR, Poetry London, Ambit et al, with, inevitably some (or alot) of familiar names. Poetry Review under Potts and Herd was an interesting beast, but under Fiona Sampson, I don't know, it seems to have reverted to its usual eclectic but non-polemical past, unthreatening to a dowager in Devon or a schoolteacher in Swindon. As Katy says in that Baroque in Hackney piece, she's not hearing anything particular interesting on (or under) the grapevine, and I doubt that she will in the near future. Too many poets perhaps, who'd become part of the education system over the last decade, probably frightened to death at across-the-board Arts Council cuts? (And nothing rhymes with "Olympics" anyway.) As she adds in the comments, those young firebrands of the past didn't just snap away at the heels of older poets, but compete, threaten, dominate, kill... The Faber-Carcanet-Bloodaxe axis is still there, but older, not necessarily wiser - and despite valiant work from Salt, and some others - Seren perhaps - it's not like there's anyone finding diamonds in the mine (and when they do, Daljit Nagra perhaps, he's on a transfer to ChelseaFaber FC before you can say broken pentameter.) I'm not sure that poetry MAs at universities have had quite the same impact as Oxbridge magazines and old boys' networks. Also, perhaps as female poets have rightly gained more of the audience (and become more of the audience), perhaps a whole different set of conventions have grown up. I'll be honest here, there's quite a few female poets, Carole Ann Duffy for instance, who I can admire, but don't really interest me with either their subject or language. This surprises me, I guess, in that I don't really believe in a feminised poetry as being gender-specific in any real way; yet there's clearly some connections between (some) female poets and some female audiences. (Yes, there might be the same man-to-man, but I don't think its necessarily so eyeball-to-eyeball.) More vitally, I think, where are the contemporary poets - male or female - who reject that easy audience? I stopped performing poetry live in no small part because I began writing poems that could get a laugh, could be easily read live. I still value the "voicing" experience that reading poetry live can give the poetry, but reading poetry live is different than a live poetry reading. All to say, in other words, is there someone there I'd get out of bed to see - who would be worth getting out of bed to see? (Or even buy the book...the pamphlet...) I had a feeling a few years ago that we were just in a bit of a dip, where we had decent poets, but of the more reflective variety, now I just wonder if our short attention spans, our performance culture, our litfests and prizes, our internet vagrancy, our regularly funded magazines, our reality TV shows (they're not allowed to take any books into Big Brother! Let them take poetry, I think...what harm would it do?), our veneration of the famous-seamuses and the like, our universal university education and probably a number of other cultural signifiers that I haven't enough E numbers in me to remember have all combined to turn a downturn into a permanent slide. In the future, all poetry will be mediocre. I do hope not.


Ms Baroque said...

Hi Adrian, God! I hope I wasn't as negative as all that! I was just having a bit of a rant, anyway, about the youth thing, in responbse to a couple of specific incidents or remarks.

Anyway, while I did say that here wasnt much work of real interest being produced by poets of ANY age - I think that's what I said, ish - I think I meant it proportionally. I mean, Daljit's book is very good. I've been loving Ian Duhig's new book. And "Idylls," the series of prose poems in Maurice Riordan's new book, moved me nearly to tears on the Victoria Line this afternoon.

I don't know if it's fair to say that all the good ones are nsnapped up by Faber, either, since Daljit is something like their first first-collection in 100 million years.

Admittedly unless you have a hell of a hook - and, most likely, a mentor pushing for you - you may find it harder to get into the big houses, but I'm not sure they are really where it's at anyway. One problem I think is that it is simply so damn hard for people to get books published - and that's where the independent presses come in. ("Big" means "backed by a major press or conglomerate" - they actually publish less poetry than the "small" presses.) Bloodaxe is publishing loads of fabulous writers, and the list is quite international. I've been reading Ruth Fainlight, and while her work is "quiet" it is trenchant. I really liked Sinead Morrissey's book, from Carcanet, last year. And Salt is currently making a sweep of the best of the current generation besides Daljit. Jane Holland is really interesting with her Boudicca poems, and Tobias Hill's book is fab too. Off the top of my head.

Oops - just reread your post - when I say the Big Three I mean Faber, Cape, Picador. Bloodaxe and Carcanet are independents.

Maybe one problem is that it is hard to actually find the poetry, to find what to read.

I agree, the magazines can be tame. Too tame. I myself have better luck publishing abroad, or on the internet. Maybe I don't "write English" - whatever that is.

Who would be worth getting out of bed to see? I went to a reading the other night that was fabulous. Maurice Riordan read from his new book and read very well - Chris Hamilton-Emery read wonderfully well, & I'd hardly read any of his work before - I really enjoyed it - and he is not afraid of a joke on stage! Neither is Maurice: talking about poetry as "stand-up tragedy." Two poets I'd never heard before: Elizabeth Cook and Anne Routh, both enjoyed. And Daljit reading with his mixture of Punjabi accents. Fun evening! Washed down with a dry white!

Anyhow, I'm not trying to disagree with you but I also don't like it to sound like I hate everything!

And yes, I confess to knowing a lot of these people but I have not bandied praise around where it is undue.

Adrian Slatcher said...

Didn't mean to misrepresent you Katy, you're never negative! - just to use your comment as a jumping off point. Good to have your list of names - I liked both the Tobias Hill and Daljit Nagra books, and look forward to Ian Duhig's. I'm sure that poetry is "happening" as it always does/did - without permission, in particular places - maybe its a good thing that all the people you mention are pretty individual, certainly not part of a scene or movement or a style.

Ms Baroque said...

Hiya, glad you like those two. I do think these are all very individual poets!

And thanks for saying I'm never negative - I certainly try not to be, even when I'm complaining.