10 things wrong with poetry

This is the kind of thing that I do as a personal indulgence because it enables me to put some structure on things that bother me. The following seem to need to be addressed if we are to rescue poetry from the poetry game:
1. Phillip Larkin, John Ashbery and flarf, all for quite different reasons;
2. The intense mediocrity of the discourse relating to verse in the ‘quality’ media, especially the BBC, the Guardian and the NYT;
3. The teaching of creative writing;
4. The tendency of poetry to take itself far too seriously;
5. The failure of poetry to adapt itself to the current marketplace;
6. The grubby relationship between poetry and the academy;
7. The sad fact that the circus is more unwitty than it was in 1971 (I am that old);
8. Old-fashioned bourgeois complacency (or learned helplessness) in the face of the above;
9. The failure to learn anything from the producers of other forms of creative expression;
10. Eliot.

This is entirely personal and subjective but is probably clearer than a long digressive rant. Any additions, amendments, means of escape?

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9 responses to “10 things wrong with poetry

  1. Pingback: World Spinner

  2. I wondered idly how you might propose to “fix” Philip Larkin, before deciding that I can’t really play the game. A lot of these are things I sure enough dislike (creative writing), but more seriously I have to wonder what a “fixed” poetry world would look like. Would we have as many good poets as we have poets today?

  3. Larkin is first on the list because he occupies so much of the discursive limelight in the UK and because he’s not very interesting as a poet and his work is dishonest (a case of form over content). I don’t care too much about fixing our evaluation of Larkin but we do need to reduce the space that he occupies.
    The point about good poets is that most of them are currently marginalised by this discourse which is uncomfortable with notions of complexity and difficulty. The reputations of great poets (and poems), David Jones being a prime example, have suffered because of what I see as the Larkin-fuelled rush to mediocrity.
    In terms of a “fixed” poetry, I’d like to see a poetry that is adequate to the task of expressing both what it’s like to be alive in these difficult times and one that is less afraid of its strength. Neither of these objectives will be achieved unless we challenge the above.
    Fixing poetry would also bring to the fore poetry that is both interesting and useful. We both know that this stuff exists but it is used by only a tiny minority.

  4. In my own list I would include the simplistic anti-capitalist rants of those poets who are among its main beneficiaries…i.e. tenured academics, i.e. Schumpeter’s spoilt generation. It’s not that there isn’t plenty to criticise about it, there is; but it tends to function at such a complacent, self-congratulatory level. At its worst it reads as vacuously as Pound’s fascist rants in the Cantos. Perhaps this wouldn’t matter so much – to me at least –
    if the same poets were not also the most gifted and innovative in Britain at the moment.

    • As an ex-member of the ‘complicated’ faction of the CPGB, I’m in complete agreement with you on this but one of the problems that I have is that this stuff doesn’t get ignored because it’s complacent (which it is) but that it’s difficult and our current cultural complacency doesn’t countenance the difficult.
      Most of the factors that I’ve listed relate to the second problem rather than the first but I am thinking about the relationship of innovative and gifted poets to the political sphere – I’m firmly of the view that you can’t knock good poetry because you find its political point disagreeable. Can you?

  5. Is poetry purely formal in its merits?
    The problem is that – for me at least – too often the political stance in some contemporary poems strikes a false note and seems so lazy, trotting out the same tired old positions. It has the same deadening effect as Larkin’s lyrical ‘I’ – the little man who missed the party – or Late victorian metrics.
    It’s just another banality dressed up in smarter clothes. Here we go again on the hegemony merry-go-round.
    Also, is it so important that poetry reach a wider audience? Most serious poetry has always been a minority interest – I remember Joseph Brodsky saying this somewhere. One of the many reasons I admire J H Prynne is that he doesn’t lose any sleep over this and has continues to write brilliant poetry. When poetry does adapt itself to the marketplace you get Andrew Motion and Yevtushenko. No thanks.

  6. I’m not suggesting that changing the nature of the current aspect of the ‘information order’ will improve sales, what I am saying is adding a few more adjectives to the ones currently used about serious poetry (opaque, fearsome to quote two of the most recent epithet) and by finding ways to break up the unwitty circus – either by means of the work or its dissemination might be beneficial.
    It cannot be good that brilliant poetry is read by the very few, incidentally Prynne’s latest view is that readers will “catch up with” serious poems in the end. I wonder…

  7. I’d be interested to hear chapter and verse on the dishonesty in Larkin. (Not a rhetorical challenge; I expect it’s there to be shown. Though “fuelling” a rush to mediocrity by others can’t really be charged against him.) Over here, there’s no comparable figure, because the people who tried to keep that “I” and those metrics alive into those decades were incompetent. (Lowell perhaps did more with the persona, but less with the medium, and seems to me now to have dated worse.)

    I’m firmly of the view that you can’t knock good poetry because you find its political point disagreeable. Can you?

    Your insertion of “good” there may have made the claim impregnable — after all, to the extent one can legitimately knock a poem (for its political point or any other), it’s not good. To take a familiar example from Empson, the political message of Gray’s Elegy is pretty disagreeable; it takes a determined aesthete to say that doesn’t matter. I’d like that beautiful structure even better if didn’t teach wise resignation to the stunting of the lives of our inferiors.

    • This is not the place to do ‘chapter and verse’ on Larkin. I was an early admirer because of his obvious skill and then read one of his later poems (can’t recall the title) which announced that readers would never know the ‘real’ poet because of the things he withheld. This then caused me to read the rest of the work and decide that each poem is more contrived than an ‘honest expression of thought and feeling.
      I fell out of love with Lowell when I bought the Collected for the same kind of reason although the early stuff is still, to my mind, very strong.
      The ‘disagreeable’ political point isn’t just about aesthetics, it’s also about the way the thing is made. I vehemently disagree with Hill, Milton, Spenser, Pound, Eliot on politics, religion and history. I find Hill’s attempts to do ‘ideology’ absurd but I can’t deny that he expresses them well.
      Many critics get worked up about the racist “rivers of blood” reference in Hill’s ‘Mercian Hymns’ but that doesn’t stop it being one of the best poems in the last fifty years.
      Tom Paulin has made the point that Larkin has become a national monument in the UK which is a major problem for how poetry is perceived because he was never that good, the list of better British poets from that era is fairly endless and they get ignored because of that monumentality…

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