Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Two Literatures

I sometimes think there are two literatures, becoming ever more distinct; and if they're not quite the oppositional mainstream and avant garde of the past; their divergence does seem to be at least partly about ambition. What it seems is that there is somehow now an "establishment literature" that I never perhaps realised existed in the past. It has, of course, little to do with literature; alot to do with reputation, and perhaps something to do with demographics.

I'm almost surprised to hear there is such a thing as the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry, yet apparently it's been awarded most years since 1934. It appears that it's not been awarded for a couple of years so maybe the press coverage of it's award to Don Paterson is a fashionable "reboot" of the award under the new laureate. Looking at the winners since 2000, he looks a little young for what appears to be a bit of a long service award. Nothing wrong with that of course, poets do, of course, grow old. It's a very white, British list the last few years, strangely so, given Commonwealth writers are eligible; though I have a sense that the old "empire" writer, born abroad, and if not educated in England, certainly come of age in literary London, is perhaps not there any more. 

Poetry has been in the news a bit recently - and the new laureate seems at the heart of it all - whether finding room for Ted Hughes in poets corner, the awarding of the inaugural Ted Hughes prize, Paterson's receipt of the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry. The Guardian on Saturday made the point that some poets are at the heart of our public life - part of the establishment in other words. I sense its because of the increasing links between poets and the universities. The latter, with their professors of business, logistics and media studies, perhaps realise that having a "professor of poetry" who is also a leading contemporary poet is more than just a useful addition to the English department, but someone who can be easily rolled out for ceremonial occasions and the likes. It is hard to imagine a Ginsberg or an O'Hara (or even an Ashbery or Rich) in that role, but then again, English poetry has always been a little cosier than it's American cousin.

Hughes, by virtue of his old fashioned pursuits, his hunting-and-fishing north country Conservatism (more big "C" than little "c" in Hughes's case, I always think), seems as anomalous as the shy, retiring Hull-based librarian. Perhaps it was Hughes as laureate, with his country kinship with the royals, that makes it seem a little easier for poets to be part of the establishment - though isn't that what an Oxbridge education has always been about, whether you join Monty Python or the Cabinet? I'm minded of Josephine Hart's admirable and popular readings of classic poets by popular actors; she is also, of course, "Lady Saatchi."

Paterson, and Duffy, I imagine, will perhaps smile a little at their engagement with the establishment - and, in their various roles, use it to ensure that it is not just "establishment" poets/poetry that find a voice**. Yet, I do wonder, nonetheless, whether the audience who wants to hear the establishment poet - preferably talking anecdotally, reading something funny, or touching on "classic" subjects such as death and nature - is really anything to do with poetry at all? It is comfortable event art - with a poet being a reasonable second choice if, say, Victoria Wood hasn't toured recently. Though you can imagine difficult subjects (e.g. the Iraq war) being allowable in these contexts, I somehow find it hard to imagine difficult poetry.

If there are two literatures, I don't think we need to think of it now as between the commercial or the literary - the commercial writer will, I imagine, find their way, and either be good enough to retain some literary acclaim (the Robert Harris's, the Nick Hornby's) or they won't particular miss the loss - but between the establishment writer and the outsider. Whereas the outsider would once have been a "beat" writer, with a lifestyle almost guaranteeing a short life, I think the outsider now might be very different - in some ordinary job, certainly outside of the literary department of the university - and probably as likely to be immersed in the city as in the countryside.

More important than that, of course, an outsider literature has to be about literature. I'm personally not very interested in the "established" literature - and even a new Amis or McEwan novel is hardly likely to be any sort of literary rather than social or promotional event these days. I'm not talking about intellectualism, so much, as a mindset. Pinter, for all his connections, remained distnictly non-establishment to his dying day in his writing. Andrew Motion, on the other hand, despite being attracted to the outsider in his biographical work, remains an establishment writer.  Though you might see a crossover occasionally - Alice Oswald winning the inaugural Ted Hughes prize, whilst also being included in "Identity Parade" - it is perhaps because of poetry's innate conservatism; "The Wasteland" has yet to be properly assimilated by the establishment.

Though the Queen Mother was a friend of Ted Hughes, I prefer the famous story about when Eliot read to the royals during World War II.-:

We had this rather lugubrious man in a suit, and he read a poem... I think it was called The Desert. And first the girls [Elizabeth and Margaret] got the giggles and then I did and then even the King.

Poetry has come along way since the greatest poem of the 20th century was seen as being a bit of  giggle by the Royal Family, yet in moving so close to that unchanging establishment, perhaps it runs the risk of travelling in entirely the wrong direction.

(*meant to add that there's an opportunity to see this put into practice, with Carol Ann Duffy hosting a series of nights of poetry and music with guests including Don Paterson and Gillian Clarke; taking place shortly in Manchester.)


Tim Love said...

My guess an explaining what you observe is that when poets purified their work they removed some elements that readers wanted, elements that helped bridge the gap between mainstream and avant-garde

"Poems very seldom consist of poetry and nothing else; and pleasure can be derived also from their other ingredients. I am convinced that most readers, when they think they are admiring poetry, are deceived by inability to analyse their sensations, and that they are really admiring, not the poetry of the passage before them,
but something else in it, which they like better than poetry", A.E. Housman, 1933

"The public, as a whole, does not demand or appreciate the pure expression of beauty. Its cultured members expect to find in poetry, if anything, repose from material and nervous anxiety; an apt or chiselled phrase strokes the appetites and tickles the imagination. The more general public merely enjoys its platitudes and truisms jerked on to the understanding in line and rhyme; truth put into metre sounds overwhelmingly true", Harold Monro, 1912

"poetry is now more quintessentially poetical than ever before; 'purer' in the negative sense. It not only does (like all good poetry) what prose can't do: it deliberately refrains from doing anything that prose can do", CS Lewis, 1961

"the insistence that poetry partake of the lofty and sublime ... meant that poetry abandoned large areas of subject matter as 'unpoetic'. These areas were eagerly seized on by the newly enfranchized medium of prose .. In essence [the free verse reform] took away from poetry what had always been its distinguishing and defining characteristic, metre, and offered in metre's place nothing which prose could not already accomplish much better", Dick Davis

Adrian Slatcher said...

I like all the quotes - sign of a debate that's not exactly new, I know. I'm perhaps also trying to highlight that the relevance of poetry is not the fame of the poet, but the quality (and, yes, innovation) in the work. Its true that poetry has abandoned some subjects and themes to prose, but also, which interests me, that poetry is everything that is not prose - a very wide and exciting space to fill.