Monday, September 13, 2010

Let a Thousand Poets Bloom

Alison Flood's heartfelt enthusiasm for seeing Seamus Heaney read led to her asking the blogosphere what else she should read. (You can hear what she heard in these podcasts from the Poetry Trust.) Floodgates opened! You'd have thought nobody reads poetry, yet over a hundred responses (mine included) came through; from lists of books/poets to sage advice on websites, poetry lists and anthologies.

It was bit of an eye-opener as well. I've always known that British poetry has a few much-loved big names; Don, Carol Ann, Simon, Seamus etc. - so famous they only need one name - but, in the rarified tropics of the poets I know, nobody has much to say about these writers. It was quite a surprise to see people recommending, in all seriousness, some of these big names - it's easy to forget they have "fans", an "audience", that's not just because they're on Radio 4. All to the good of course, but it's also a little bit worrying; for does that interest in such books filter down into an interest into the wider art? Poetry, more than any other art, should be about "if you like A, you might like B."

I'm a bit used to Guardian blogs being dominated by obscurantists. Certainly in fiction, you'll hardly hear a good word for Amis, McEwan et al, these days. Yet the poetry crowd seems more loyal, or, perhaps, more conservative. I'm sure Alison will gain more from the suggestions to read "The Rattle Bag" or "Staying Alive" than my suggestions (C.D. Wright; Les Murray; Edwin Morgan), as she seems, in her response to Heaney to be responding to the traditional elements of poetry - poetry as elegy, or memory, or even the sound of a classic poet reading well. Yet, I remember reading that other anthology (also mentioned) "Emergency Kit", where the compilers were keen on giving a wider sense of what poetry can do, than those traditional virtues. Poetry doesn't have to be rural; it doesn't have to be sentimental; it certainly doesn't have to be nostalgic.

I guess that I'm genuinely puzzled, not by the conventional choices, but that the rural, the sentimental, the nostalgic should be what we look for in poetry. I look for the contemporary, the surprising, the idealistic, the intellectual leap. I'm sure you'll find these in Heaney, he's written enough, after all, but it seems that these are not the things he's loved for; not the things that his most enthusiastic reviewers praise him for. But this is the nature of poetry enthusiasms -: If I find myself standing up for Armitage to experimentalists ("its not just comedy, not just observation," I'll say, "he uses language brilliantly, his poems take an idea and run with it") or Ashbery to the conventionalists ("the thing is you don't have to try and find meaning in Ashbery - his work is demotic, he doesn't give it meaning, so you can find your own way to understand it"), I should at least admit that these aren't the poets main thrusts. The thing is I like Armitage for his comedy and observation, the other stuff is him doing it so much better than his peers; and I like Ashbery for obscurity, his absurdity, when I find meaning there as well it's a bonus.

It's why there cannot be a single track for poetry. Unfortunately, the desire to widen the poetry audience leads to this single track taking precedence. It probably diminishes the close-reading (and close-criticism) that a presence like Heaney receives (I'm unlikely to read him, never mind analyse him in context), whilst at the same time creating a bit of a league table - where there are poetic Chelseas and Manchester United, and poetic Blackpools and Wigans, with little chance of the top ones falling, or the lower ones improving.

What the response to Alison's request shows is that it is far better to "let a thousand poets bloom" and for poetry to be capable (as it is very capable) of responding to a wider range of human needs and emotion than one poem or poet (however "great" or "popular") can ever hope to fulfil.


Tim Love said...

I've chundered on about this kind of thing elsewhere. I'd guess that the poetry crowd are more conservative that prose readers because non-mainstream poetry needs reading skills that are hard to pick up from reading mainstream prose. If people want to relate to a person (or at least persona) or if they want something that relates to their life or experiences, non-mainstream poetry won't help.

Unfortunately, the desire to widen the poetry audience leads to this single track taking precedence. - alas, I think you're right.

Adrian Slatcher said...

The strange thing is, I can't think of a single poet from the last 20 years who has had any degree of success and is particularly "difficult." Art has democratised so that we assimilate difficulty quickly. There's no need to "dumb down" when the era of difficulty in poetry seems either in the past, or in a ghetto.