by Alan Morrison
Prosetry or Bust? Towards a New Poetry Dialectic
A sceptical polemic on contemporary poetropolies
Poets, by tradition, tend to lead a ramshackle existence, perennially wracked by the combined ignorances of their times; chiefly, to take the Caudwellian view, the capitalistic devaluing of the arts and all non-material callings, which invariably results in financial struggle, and in many cases, relative poverty – or for those practitioners from the more well-heeled end of the spectrum, a sort of post-Oxbridge shabby bohemianism which niggles at their elective ‘down-at-’ heels with the bashful reek of cliché.
And the poets of today are generally no exception (at least, the vast number who are not in academic employment as creative writing tutors). Not only are most unable to earn a living through poetry– only intermittent splurges of modestly paid commissions, residencies or tutoring – but on top of that, are also sometimes disenfranchised and undervalued by the many outlets ostensibly operative to promote their work.
Common stumbling-blocks cited by poets include: the aloofness of prospective publishers; the often passively aggressive bartering of many journals (some of whom inexorably moan about their often impoverished contributors not also subscribing to their title); that particularly solipsistic breed of editors inhabiting some sort of submissions bunker who simply don’t bother responding at all (not even to acknowledge receipt of submissions); the ‘no simultaneous submissions’ and ‘no previously published’ entries embargos for most journals and competitions – are just some of the many intransigent caveats poets are forced to navigate through today, and without complaint. Add to all this obfuscation some journals who openly discriminate against ‘I’ve-got-no-money bedsit’ poetry – a classist shorthand which echoes the snobbery of John Wilson Croker’s infamously bellicose put down of Keats’ ‘Endymion’ as an example of ‘Cockney Poetry’; legion other titles’ tortuous stylistic cavils; and a widespread academically corralled pecking order – you’d think that must be all of the downside for today’s scribes.
But no, there is, further, the ultimate bane for poets lacking careerist mindsets: the poetry prizes.
Disaffection with the poetry prize culture is rife these days, though one would be hard-pushed to find any related polemic in the public domain (except in some select, mainly left-wing poetry and literary outlets that have long ago accepted a sense of an entrenched predestination of prize recipients –The Penniless Press, The Bow Wow Shop, The Glasgow Review, and this title, house some expertly appropriate polemic). But the apparatchiks of today’s poetry scene should not be fooled into complacency by this very pregnant silence. Largely only vocal through correspondence and email, there is a very ripe, burgeoning number of poets – even one or two ‘names’ – who are growing increasingly sceptical of what is repeatedly appearing to be a predictable species of shortlists in some of the major poetry prizes.
I choose the term ‘species’ here, since 2009 was, after all, Darwin’s centenary year, and one in which one of his familial descendants paid apt tribute through an interesting adaptation to his theories on Natural Selection, by appearing to have rather ham-fistedly undermined her competitor in a cicuitously phrased email to a news hack, in the final leg of the race for the prestige-grail of the Oxford Poetry Professorship.
Apparently the jury are permanently ‘out’ as to whether this was a premeditated tactic, or just a lapse of spectacular naivety: in our ethically upside-down culture, with more than a hint of one-rule-for-one-and-one-for-another in regards status, ASBOs are slapped on working-class miscreants while middle- and upper-class apostates of scrupule are, oppositely, celebritised, in a Bloomsburyesque ‘oh what a hoot’ sort of way. Such episodes of seemingly unscrupulous career-advancement only go to fuel the increasingly suspect nature of the poetry ‘honours lists’.
But more importantly, they serve as symptoms of the increasingly Social Darwinian literary culture of today, where someone as hitherto conscientiously operative within the poetry world as Ruth Padel FRSL, slips up in her ethical judgment in such a transparent manner. Her lapse in protocol smacks of someone buckling clumsily under a build-up of pressures; and, as some Padel apologists asserted at the time, under institutionalised ‘prejudices’, such as alleged sexism. Has Padel indeed been a scapegoat for a deeper literary epidemic of internecine back-stabbing? The aetiological impression from her solecism suggests it is symptomatic of a literary hierarchy corroded by an encouraged atmosphere of egoistic competitiveness and one-upmanship. That such shenanigans are happening at the ‘top of the pile’ does not bode well for any still hoping to find their suspicions are baseless when examining methods lower down in the pecking order. But, as with the example made by politicians, especially today, there’s normally a top-to-bottom trickle-down effect, and one feels immediately alert to the ever likelier possibility that other rumours of dubious protocols elsewhere in the poetry establishment might be equally true.
But the most disturbing aspect to such an example as the Oxford Poetry Professorship affair, is not as much in its evidence of ethically compromised ‘competitiveness’ as in the apparently hasty manner by which it is subsequently swept under the carpet as if it never happened. This isn’t about punishment – Padel quite responsibly punished herself by resigning her post – but it is, or rather, should be about seeking to detect what is most probably a deeper vein of diseased pathology in, in this case, the Oxford poetry establishment, which led to such probable ‘behavioural symptoms’ breaking out in the first place.
The sceptic is also justified in this context in highlighting the very different treatment less ‘established’ poets arguably receive, tacitly naturally, not officially, from various arbiters of the poetry scene, when they choose to speak out against what they perceive as unfairly discriminative protocols and approaches in the ‘accepted’ modes of contemporary poetry representation. Invariably, the professional progress of such a breed of healthily sceptical practitioners who only seek for more thorough accountability in their sphere of practice, trip up at a series of unchallenged hurdles in protocol, policing and politick, and can be, again tacitly and not explicitly, blacklisted by certain influential circles. Judgment and the punishments meted out are seemingly all relative, informed by one’s prestige-credentials or lack of; or, to put it figuratively, tigers without stripes aren’t noticed.
In such a culture as this – of which the poetry scene is just one microcosm – is it entirely surprising then that, far from being plunged into a toxic exile (which this writer, incidentally, would not wish), Miss Padel has oppositely received subsequent literary promotion in terms of appointments to prize panels, journal columns, festival slots, and the like? And indeed, this does tend to echo society’s wider flipside on ‘justice’, which is applied always more favourably for those with ‘status’ and ‘position’ than it is for those lower down the scale. Such penal disparity is indeed at its most marked regarding those at the bottom of the social heap – our country’s ‘untouchables’, some of whom are ghettoised with the Malthusian acronym ‘Chav’ (‘Council House and Violent’) – who feel the full draconic force of the ‘law’ in our selectively ‘zero tolerant’ society; one in which only the poorest and therefore most morally vindicated corner-cutters are pilloried in the public consciousness as ‘benefit cheats’ (with blood-boiling irony, by one ex-Minister who was found out for dishonestly flipping his homes), while MPs on over £60k a year who fiddled their expenses and flipped their homes for profit are classified as having made ‘a mistake’. But such semantic relativism does not alter the facts; society’s true ‘benefit cheats’ are the MPs who milked their positions for private gain without any financial necessity to do so, and, of course, the City Bankers, whose ‘talent’ has practically ruined our economy, but who are being tacitly permitted to repeat their offences, and rather than being punished, are actually being rewarded with further bonuses. One could deduce from such examples that, far from having a meritocracy, we actually have an anti-meritocracy, or, a ‘Satanicocracy’. What’s at issue here, fundamentally, is that we seem to have a society in which many individuals’ actions seem not so much determined by a moral sense of ‘what is right or wrong’, but by a mental balancing system of ‘what am I likely to get away with’?
The sceptic may blame the pathological individualism of Thatcherism on this; a sociologist might point you to Max Weber’s The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism – but whatever way you look at it, such seemingly endemic behaviours among the ‘adult’ population makes hypocrites of any parents and school teachers amongst them, and does go some way to explaining our increasingly ‘broken society’ in terms of morality. Again, the ‘top-down’ effect: if those in privileged positions abuse their privileges, if well-paid MPs milk their positions for profit, if bankers gamble away money that doesn’t belong to them, then how has anyone the right, in all conscience, to condemn the impoverished benefit recipient who omits to mention he’s earned a piddling amount extra through a couple of hours’ undeclared work; or, to go further, the petty thief?
In this cultural light then, Miss Padel has got off lightly, and one could be justified in speculating that her academic and poetic ‘status’ – not to say, scientifically prestigious ancestry – has cushioned her fall considerably. Not being someone who enjoys witnessing punishments on others, of any form, I am quietly relieved on her behalf, even if I do hope she has reflected at length on the fact that such clemency would likely not be bestowed on the vast number of ‘poetariat’, if similarly compromised publicly, who are still expected to bow and scrape outside the ivied quadrangles of her seemingly impervious sphere. Or rather, this is what our hypothetical poet-sceptic might hope.
Poets Win Prizes
Any healthy sceptic would question the meritocratic legitimacy of competitions and prizes, even in the most apparently random of contexts. Isn’t taste, especially poetic taste, ultimately quite a subjective thing? Anyone with any definitive sense of personal ‘poetic taste’ would be forced into concluding this when greeted with frequent shortlists for top prizes that appear, in the sometimes ‘un-obviously impressive’ – for want of a more euphemistic phrase – type of poetry often populating them. For example, a certain prose tendency seems to keep repeating itself, which many poets might argue slightly side-steps the basic purpose of ‘poetry’ prizes. Some might argue that is a subjective quibble; others, that is a fundamental one. But it’s not only a certain stylistic sensibility which seems to saturate many recent shortlists, but also, a repeating pattern of names and imprints. If we lived in a true social and artistic meritocracy, which we unequivocally don’t, then it might be justified to assert that the best imprint publishes the best work and often from those who have been to the best Universities or writing schools because they were the best among equals, those who showed the best ability and thus the highest merit. But in the abject absence of a social meritocracy, which in turn of course ensures an equally absent artistic/literary meritocracy, such claims cannot be made.
While 2009’s TS Eliot went to a relatively unknown younger voice, Jen Hadfield (though with the high profile publisher, Bloodaxe), and has this year refreshingly gone to the least established name of the shortlist, Philip Gross (Bloodaxe again), the fact remains that this 2009 shortlist has still demonstrated a disproportionate leaning towards those whom Alan Dent of The Penniless Press once referred to as ‘The Poetry Golf Club’ (though one could equally call them the ‘Faberdors’, or the ‘Picaxes’). In the same year that has seen brutally disillusioning revelations into our ever-distant and out-of-touch ‘political classes’ – those Right Dishonourable Members – it is perhaps appropriate that this increasing sense of an ‘Us and Them’ monopolistic society should be paralleled in the cultural microcosm of the ‘poetry classes’. This year’s only marginally less predictable Eliot shortlist – replete with three typically aqueous collection titles – has been accompanied by the appearance of a Guardian article which includes some unconvincing rhetoric from judge Simon Armitage, that this year’s shortlist
“…reflects the scope, breadth and vitality of contemporary poetry. There isn’t any dominant school or form of writing, which if you look back through history might appear to have been the case. It isn’t quite anything goes, but it doesn’t matter if you’re writing confessional poetry, or lyrical poetry, or completely free verse – every approach to poetry seems accepted… And within this list, a lot of those bases are covered”.
But there is sadly a dominant school: the prose-inflected poetry that has come to dominate the ‘mainstream’, which has largely been promoted above all other styles and approaches by many of the ‘bigger’ presses, journals and societies and their related media packages (cue Next Gen), and nurtured through university creative writing courses, for well over two decades now.
The comment that ‘every approach to poetry seems accepted’ echoes hollowly to most involved in the poetry world’s less salubrious rungs, where one is frequently greeted with a plethora of Poetic Commandments that seem to constrict verbal flourish and individuality of expression, and frown upon any overly political or ideological sentiment; Commandments which are undermined anyhow by their apparent lack of commercial efficacy. Such a comment seems to merely demonstrate how chronically out of touch poets like Simon Armitage are with the palpable – and internationally noted – insularity of ‘accepted’ British poetics. Such establishment tub-thumping could be put down gauchely as a self-inflating rhetoric from beneficiaries of the prize circuit in support of their fellow beneficiaries; further evidence of an increasing solipsism among those poets who dominate the platform.
But the temptation to indulge in such equal and opposite rhetoric needs to be resisted, since it does not do this issue full justice, nor does it help in demystifying the cloud of ambiguity that still continues to fog the full flower of stylistic representation among the upper echelons of the poetry scene. One might just say that, at least, much of this apparent monopolising can be seen in the fullness of time as more unhelpful ephemera rather than a serious challenge to the rest of us. Posterity will be the judge, of all of us, irrespective of passing fashions and who can grab the fastest.
One could justifiably take particular issue here with Armitage’s clause ‘…if you look back through history (this) might appear to have been the case’. This smacks so transparently of the typical Noughties’ tub-thumping which, through its clear sense of aesthetic insecurity – due mainly to the very derivative nature of contemporary ‘culture’ – tries failingly to assert itself over ‘the past’, an abstracted historicity that is apparently pilloried simply for not being ‘now’. But in so many ways, many of those different past periods demonstrated far more multi-faceted and artistically challenging literary ‘scenes’ than the comparatively anodyne and streamlined ‘official profile’ we are spoon-fed today. Really, I would have expected something a bit better from Armitage than this unsubstantiated spin (and one can’t entirely blame the Guardian’s sub-editor for the baldness of Armitage’s elliptical argument).
A glance at any other period in our literary history, for instance, would demonstrate less heavily policed poetry scenes than the one we have had for the last twenty or more years (though one must clutch to the hope that things will be opening up, as Armitage seems to be claiming, sooner than later). True, each period has tended towards one or two prominent aesthetic takes, but even in this case, one could argue quite objectively that most of those historical schools still produced a more interesting and effective poetic to the largely prosaic and vague writing promoted above most others today.
Even in the late Victorian period, one often cited through critical revisionism as a stale period in English poetry, where Tennyson’s Arthurian threnodies and odes to imperial cavalry fiascos filled the public ear, there was still a rich variety in other styles and approaches of poetry, much of which, while not entirely fashionable perhaps, was being published and read by significant numbers: the regimental but highly distinctive Kipling; Matthew Arnold; the Browning’s; the Pre-Raphaelite Rossetti’s; Swinburne; the satirical Oscar Wilde; the philosophically bucolic Thomas Hardy; and probably most interestingly of all, those who gathered round the Rhymers’ Club, which included Lionel Johnson, and arguably the progenitor of the next century’s English Modernism, John Davidson.
The Romantic period itself was rocked by a constant clash of aesthetic, with what was then the rebel school of Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats et al vying with the Augustan-tinged critical circles; and with a concurrent side-strain of autodidactic poets such as Blake, Walter Savage Landor and John Clare gaining posthumous influence.
The Seventeenth century, particularly around the period of the Civil War and afterwards, was a diverse forum of oppositions: metaphysical exponents (Marvell, Milton, Donne, Bunyan, Herbert, Vaughan) contrasting with the lighter versifiers of the Cavalier school (Lovelace, Waller et al), providing a similarly split aesthetic to that of the sparring Stoics and Epicureans of Ancient Rome. And with even more complexity and nuance than at first glance, one or two contemporaneous poets, most notably Andrew Marvell, often eschewed categorisation due to a flexible application of style and ideology, in the same way that Horace’s poetry often shifted between the Stoic aesthetic (extolling ‘moderation’ in all things) and the Epicurean reverse (‘Enjoy the fleeting hour’).
But probably the most startlingly diverse period of poetics, indeed of literature, in our history, was the early Twentieth century, with the seismic shifts through Georgianism, War Poetry, then into the truly revolutionary vanguard of Modernism, Symbolism, Vorticism – the latter three schools in part galvanised as a direct literary response to the political turbulence of the times etc. To have a period when there were such utterly diverse and distinct voices as Harold Monro, TS Eliot, Robert Graves and Ezra Pound writing just goes to show how Armitage’s line of argument is a veritable Swiss Cheese. (There’s scarcely the need here to project forwards to the late Thirties, when in a thought-action fusion of literature and political ideology arguably not seen since Byron’s taking up arms in the struggle for Greek independence, a whole line of British poets risked – and, in the cases of Caudwell and Cornford, sacrificed – their lives in the Spanish Civil War, their partisan allegiances not only based on personal politics, but also debatably linked to the sides they took on the aesthetic homefront: while Republican ambulanceman Auden’s poetry wore an epigrammatic classicism, that of the Franco-supporting Roy Campbell was notorious for its vitriolic bombast).
Armitage is correct in saying that there is a rich diversity of poetry being written today; but the trouble is, this diversity is not being represented in the type of shortlist he is using as an example.
Apart from the academic-centred poetry enterprises abundant today, there are forms of new corporate-style putsches, or to put it less severely, ‘finishing schools’ for newly groomed voices, by some notable imprints. The latest is the Faber New Poets series, a promising idea in itself, which seeks to nurture some of the new voices of the future through a mentoring scheme leading to a first pamphlet through their historically prestigious imprint –replete with those famous colour-coded liveries. Sceptics would argue that such an initiative potentially marks a further corporatisation of contemporary poetics, following on the heels of the last vestiges of the contentious Next Gen promotions a few years ago. The implication of such a promotion would normally imply some sort of discernable mission, whether stylistic or other, a ‘corporate vision’ if you like. But what is slightly troubling here is that one can argue that Faber’s current aesthetic is rather hard to pin down, except perhaps by reference to a certain ‘prose’ tendency’; what on the whole might be termed ‘poetic prose’ or, in some cases, prosaic poetry – but it is arguably more a form of neo-Lawrentian ‘prosetry’ (replete with figurative figs, and all manner of libidinous fruit motifs, which jostle for supremacy over the emasculated plums of a combined post-Carlos Williams’ aesthetic echo). Not to say there aren’t the occasional flourishes among certain Faber poets (mostly the more seasoned ones), but up until now, an air of two-tonality has detectably flavoured the imprint for some time, not helped by attempts to articulate quite the opposite through a seeming preoccupation with trying to appear, for want of a better term, ‘street’. Perhaps this is inevitable for an imprint with such a weighty history behind it to live up to, to feel it must start reinventing itself in some way – but the evidence so far suggests a vagueness of aim.
And this is just a case in point; many other high ranking presses have appeared for some time to be streamlining their voices. One could, in part, put some of the culpability for this down to the growing dominance of free verse over the past few generations, which in its most boundless of forms, does tend to proffer as many limitations and superficialities as the stricter verse forms it has gradually transplanted. Free verse can be liberating, sometimes startling in the freedom of expression it can afford; but much in circulation today often lacks the rhythmical dynamic that makes its cousin, blank verse, so much more impressing and infectious to the ear, and this want of musical sense arguably accounts for the more recent lapse into prose forms. There’s also a noticeable spawning of that gauche instinct touching a number of more impatient protégés to break rules they haven’t yet mastered, or in some cases, grasped, under the invariably dubious label of ‘experimental’ or ‘avant-garde’. In this case though, one might argue the real gaucheness is in those imprints which publish such writing without seemingly scrutinising its legitimacy sufficiently to filter out any attention-seeking precocity (a pretention-filter perhaps?). Another detectable problem here is that the main swathe of ‘experimental’ poetry today, while noticeably rebelling against the ‘domestic epiphanies’ of the mainstream, still frequently trips into its own sort of prose, but just a more obfuscating form of it.
But to return to such new imprint enterprises as mentioned previously, what does seem instantly perturbing in an ‘equal opportunities’ sense, are echoes of the suggested exclusivity of selection that have undermined such initiatives of the past. The new Faber initiative apparently employs ‘scouts’ to seek out and recruit the most deserving mentees but there appears to be a certain uniformity of ‘scouts’, including many ubiquitous and fashionable mainstream ‘names’, as well as one or two familiar-sounding Arts officials, all of whom, it’s implied, seem to share a common vision of what modern poetry is or should be – although they probably couldn’t articulate this in any strictly unanimous sense. The irony of today’s poetry policing is that it is as vague as it is ubiquitously implicit; almost through omission, through absence of specified parameters – but punctuated by sudden alarms goings off when someone triggers an invisible stylistic tripwire. Of course there are certain Dos and Don’ts that are occasionally spoken, and most of us know these well: ‘no archaisms’, ‘no inverted phrasing to fit a rhyme-end’, ‘no sermonizing’ etc. And indeed, in their very negatively intoned nature, these do very much resemble the Thou Shalt Not’s of the actual Commandments. But again it’s this sense of a general vagueness of poetic aim, both in style and subject, that creates more quandaries than resolutions; a non-specific accepted practice which seems placed somewhere in that ever narrowing ‘broad church’ in the middle, with all its sacred prosaic cows.
In short, if these ‘scouts’ don’t represent the very wide and diverse nature of British poetry today, as many would argue they don’t appear to on paper, then they are unlikely to scout out a sufficiently catholic spread of current poets as any properly representative project would need to do. A probable shovelling up of marginally more of the same as has gone before, then, is potentially on the cards. Indeed, the various ‘quarters’ they are ‘scouting’ in also largely seem to be their own stomping grounds: the UEA and Eric Gregory shortlists prominent among them. If this is the case, it would then seem open to such criticisms as ‘predictable’, ‘unimaginative’, not to say ‘chronically disappointing’, since here Faber might have gone all out to be more egalitarian and inclusive and sought talent in some less salubrious places – community writing groups, for instance, emerging voices in the smaller presses and journals – in other social spheres apart from the proverbially Oxbridge/UEA-upholstered ones. An opportunity missed for what seems to be the easiest option, the most palatable for the media. (The Guardian, ever the ‘arts pretender’, has assiduously covered this new initiative via the unstoppably garrulous Sean O’Brien).
Who then is to say in all objectivity that one isn’t justified in clamouring something to the effect that ‘The old school tie is alive and well, the coat-tails of Eton and Harrow flap on supremely, Oxbridge still calls the shots’, and so on, in spite of spin to the contrary? Such bald polemic is to fly in the face of some current reactionary protests as to how ‘rude’ it is to talk about one’s class background, as demonstrated by the aristocratic buy-to-let apparatChick Kirstie Allsopp on Question Time recently. Meanwhile, many of us might quite rightly retort at how ‘rude’ it is to have a class system in the first place.
Elitism might be marginally more bearable if it were meritocratic in motive – but in capitalist society, built as it is on a system of deeply uneven hierarchical shelves, where inevitably any individual’s progress or mobility through society in terms of career or achievement is in part (if not, in the main) influenced either positively or negatively by their social and material background, any ‘elitism’ more often than not manifests in terms of bloodline rather than ability. Literal and associational nepotisms tend to flourish simultaneously of course. The clichés of the ‘old public school tie’ and ‘Oxbridge’ are clichés because they are perennially true, and evidence suggests today that they still permeate the purportedly ‘meritocratic’ fabric of New Labour Britain every bit as much as they did, more predictably, under previous Tory administrations. (Almost irrationally, there is still a diehard stubbornness among many today to doggedly believe that somehow, in a society as endemically unequal and un-meritocratic as the UK’s, the two top Universities are a genuine and uncompromised filter not just for the most academically brilliant, but also for the most intrinsically talented and intellectually gifted of today’s young; even more bizarrely, as the evidence bears out now and in the past through the unrivalled professional efficacy of the Cambridge Footlights and various Oxbridge poetry groups, that somehow also the most literarily gifted inevitably hallow too from what are essentially academic and scholarly institutions, not explicitly – though perhaps on some unspoken level, implicitly – literary ones).
The poetry scene is arguably no different to any other cultural sphere in regards to its susceptibility to the social and educational disparities perpetuated by a society still besotted with the inalienable sagacity of its ancient institutions. Of course there are growing numbers of established poets today who are state-educated and from a mixture of social and ethnic backgrounds; but on closer examination, it is still fairly apparent that a disproportionate quantity of the highest flyers of the scene, in terms of the prestige imprints (Faber, Penguin, Picador, Chatto & Windus et al), and the highest prize honours (TS Eliot, Geoffrey Faber et al), are still hallowing from those aforementioned ‘clichéd’ backgrounds, sometimes to an almost self-parodying extent (Hugo Mordaunt Vyner Williams, Christopher Reid, Alice Oswald and Nick Laird all graduated from Oxbridge, were taken up by Faber, and went on to win a string of prestigious prizes and awards, by way of just a few examples).
But it is not so much a marked disproportionateness of quantity in those poets today who happen to hail from the ‘classic background’, which indeed seemed once par for the course in any probable British poetical career (cue WH Auden, Stephen Spender, Sidney Keyes, John Betjeman, Philip Larkin, C Day Lewis, John Heath-Stubbs, Ted Hughes, to name literally only the tip of the iceberg of enduringly anthologized names); it is more a detectable disproportionateness in how such backgrounds appear to have ‘passport’ qualities attached to them that, more often than not, prefigure a repeated literary pattern: Oxbridge education; early publication by prestigious imprint (Faber and OUP feature often); a series of prestigious awards (sometimes irrespective of actual critical reception), often including the Eric Gregory, Cholmondeley, Somerset Maugham, Geoffrey Faber; TS Eliot shortlists/awards; poetry editorship on leading national paper or journal (say, the New Statesman, the Spectator, the TLS, the Observer); and later, often, further honours such as a Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, appointments to judge prizes, honorary professorships, and so forth. The domino effect that frequently ensues from beginning at a societally/educationally advantageous starting point is palpable; a pattern of literary progression too often repeated to be easily put down to pure chance. Can we therefore truly say that in Britain today we have social meritocracy in literature?
One can only try and throw open this discussion and ask in all sincerity, is the Oxbridge monopoly truly a figment of the majority ‘non-Oxbridge’ imagination? Are we being duped by double-bluffed coincidences? Naturally, the archaic, academically classist character of this almost abstracted ‘Oxbridge’ is frantically denied by those whom it reliably benefits at the expense of the rest. But sill today, in the 21st century, the majority of our cultural captains – top publishers, newspaper and magazine columnists, academics, politicians and, yes, many ‘top-ranking’ poets – hail from the hallowed halls of top public schools and Oxbridge colleges, or the ‘literary’ equivalents (UEA et al). This is of course an unfashionable view, chiefly because it has the potent whiff of credibility, and the more fanatical could bore with reams of Robespierrean lists by way of evidence.
The other contentious factor in all this arguably transparent evidence of certain ‘passport benefits’ attached to the prestige of one’s social and educational background, is that these are not simply prestige prizes but also fiscal ones; so again, disproportionately, many already socially advantaged recipients are mopping up monetarily where a plethora of less well-off, though arguably every bit as gifted, poets might have more appreciatively benefited. (Here’s to literary redistribution!).
There is, further, the arguable phenomena of ‘passport presses’, in terms of the prizes. This will often occur, in spite of sometimes very mixed critical receptions to, say, a first collection, in connection to a title under one of the ‘top’ imprints; and invariably, it’s just the start before a whole domino-line of other nominations and awards follow suit in an almost obsessive string of official reaffirmations of talent (often focused particularly on the ‘youth’ of a recipient, as if trying to subliminally tap into that Rimbaud-Chatterton archetype of the ‘poet prodigy’, a hypothetical cult that still energises the more hyperbolic of talent-spotters). Of course there are occasionally exceptions but these often serve to only prove the general rule, by the very fact that they stand out so much, and appear often as tokenistic nods to the proles, rather than genuine signs of meritocratic reform. The possible argument that top imprints may in turn act as passports through to top prizes is surely one direly in need of more urgent polemical attention?
Another example of what appears to be an ambiguous approach in terms of ‘equal opportunity’ in the poetry world – regarding particularly the up and coming practitioners, arguably these days largely groomed through creative writing courses such as the UEA– is this snippet from the PBS Bulletin, which, when reviewing (or more hyperbolising on) the latest Bloodaxe anthology, Voice Recognition: 21 Poets for the 21st Century, states with a breathtaking lack of irony:
The well-worn lament that poetry institutions exist only to support the establishment is proved false within minutes: Jay Bernard and Adam O’Riordan have both been PBS Pamphlet Choices; Kate Potts and Sarah Jackson were on the inaugural Michael Marks Poetry Award shortlist; Emily Berry won an Eric Gregory award in 2008 and Toby Martinez de las Rivas is one of the Faber New Poets.
This seems an incredibly self-defeating way to shoehorn-in some assertion of a new social meritocracy operating in the poetry world: by highlighting arbitrarily the fact these apparently hitherto unknown young poets had been talent-spotted and applauded with awards in the recent past by the PBS, and thus had these prize credentials prior to their selection for this anthology, this anonymous commentator only goes to further emphasize the probable validity of the arguments she claims to be ‘false’, stoking up a healthy scepticism among any incisive readers, ‘within minutes’, contrary to her/his/its expectations.
The fact that this anonymous ‘reviewer’ suddenly attacks the common sceptical view that ‘poetry institutions exist only to support the establishment’ is also very telling in the complete absence of any contextual prompt, as if this author is somehow being psychically harangued by an orbiting gestalt of rebarbative fringe poets. Why even the need to assert this? It is, anyhow, a ‘well-worn lament’ because it is a ‘well-worn’ phenomenon. We must take it on trust, it seems, that their previous ‘prestige-credentials’ had no real influence in the selection of the poets for this book. And then there’s the matter of these poets’ considerable youth (most in their twenties): how is awarding prizes to twenty-somethings in any way ringing evidence in general that poetry institutions are supporting un-established poets? Most poets are un-established until well into their thirties or forties in the UK anyway. Most of the poets in this anthology, however, have barely started on their paths in writing before being sifted and tagged with establishment badges, as if this can somehow create a wilful momentum which inevitably buoys them towards future masterpieces; the self-fulfilling prophecies of teachers’ pets.
Poetry Realpolitik: Poetical Correctness?
It seems beyond the pale nowadays to direct one’s poetry too baldly towards social and political concerns, even more so – in spite of Armitage’s comment – to enter into any kind of openly confessional medium. But it is on the other hand still seen as poetically correct to meditate on domestic inconsequence and cod-Wordsworthian nature rambling, of sexual peccadillo and dietary indulgence (so many poems these days eroticising the eating of fruit, for instance), in an epicurean crusade of rather bourgeois ‘light subjects’ for increasingly dark times.
Fortunately, however, we presently have a Laureate who is at least attempting to politicise her position a little: cue her bravely rebarbative campaign of Iraq-conscious poetry for the Guardian; and her recent discursive polemical Xmas card in the Radio Times. Though the latter example debatably carried some of the hallmarks of the kind of ‘naif’ ‘gothy’ agitprop-poetry (rank has its privileges) many editors today mock as ‘amateur’ or ‘naive’, Carol Anne Duffy should at least be applauded for using her public position to slate the unconscionable behaviour of the bankers, as she aptly does in one section of this work. The Poets Against the War anthology was another hopeful rallying cry among the largely apolitical poetry scene.
These are, however, macrocosmic subjects, only radical in the ‘single issue’ sense, and not of any particular political colour. The arguably more poetically challenging issues of, say, the gaping wealth divide in our society, increasing poverty, homelessness, and a correspondingly Malthusian benefits system, are still generally topics seemingly too toxic for most poets’ pens. Instead of ‘political poets’ (bar Duffy, Harrison, and maybe a handful of others), we have in the main ‘politician poets’, which is an entirely different thing. Instead of poets commenting on the issues of the day to any great extent (remember Auden?), or nailing their colours to a particular ideological post, we have poets playing at being politicians: writing and behaving in fits of soundbite, circuitous argument, careerist pragmatism, self-promotion, quid pro quo hyperbole, media opportunism – i.e. Realpolitik. There’s an apparent dearth of political grit among the upper poetry echelons. They mainly pull punches and side-step any issues that might in the future ostracise them in some sense. They are cautious, tactical, and, rather like New Labour and its empty spin, focused on paring down both style and content so as to perpetuate an ambiguity open to interpretation and never in itself absolutely resolute or accountable. The establishment poets are today’s politicians of literature; the prize-givers, their plenipotentiaries. All this, you understand, the sceptic might justifiably say.
Of course there are many political poets out there (Alexis Lykiard, Andy Croft, Barry Tebb, David Kessel, Tom Kelly, Peter Branson, and countless Recusants, to name but a few), an ever-increasing constituency of voices reacting against such ‘poetical correctness’, but any overly vocal among its growing numbers risk self-banishment, the implication of blacklisting as troublesome non-conformists, parodied as maverick militants, or subtly ridiculed through critical drubs. What the establishment doesn’t understand is that the vast majority of readers really aren’t taken in by high profile promotions that appear tailored to tell them what and who to read, but in the main prefer to choose for themselves; or would, if they were given a proper choice. The fact that the majority of established poets fail continually to command the readerships they purport to be capable of, only goes to weaken the credibility of this monopoly, with all its inverted snobberies against experimentalism, emotionalism, stylism and, some might say, poeticism.
The sceptic might paraphrase Bertrand Russell and argue ‘it’s better to be blacklisted than simply not listed’; better to speak out than seem complicit by silence. Arguably one is ostracised from the outset if they are following their own direction irrespective of the recognised trends and protocols of the time. The sceptic would lambast what could be seen as the arrogance of contemporary poetry arbiters who seem to take any divergences from their own aesthetic as personal insults, a knowing ignorance of their dogmas and their wills to perpetuate their own stylistic legacies. And if there is truth in such a view, then one should add that aesthetic self-perpetuation should never be sought at the cost of stifling variety and newer forms and approaches to an art-form which relies on these in order to remain relevant. And by ‘newer’, this should never rule out any pseudo-retro schools, since to do so would denigrate the relevance and importance of such historic artistic movements as the Romantics, the Arts and Craft Movement, the Pre-Raphaelites; and indeed the Georgians and Movement poets who are both so beloved of the mainstream of today. Funnily enough, much of the contemporary mainstream has reverted itself, back to formalist tendencies, almost as if in a bid to pretend that post-Eliot modernism never really got off the ground. Perhaps neo-retro movements happen due to an intense dissatisfaction with the so-called ‘new’ or ‘modern’ trends of the times, that have failed in being anything of much value other than being ‘something a little bit different to the last thing’. In modern art, the Stuckists are a case in point: uninvolving, narcissistic, and, to many, blatantly untalented. Those who speak out, of course, also lay themselves instantly open to Tory-style ‘politics of envy’ accusations so chronically thrown at any socialists worth their salts: the perennial non-argument of ‘sour grapes’ and ‘chips on one’s shoulder’. How trite those labels are too, as are the perennial truths which prompt them.
There’s also the increasing trend towards the ‘ironic voice’, that very contemporary English camouflage for embarrassed emotion and anger, as if some poets today are perpetually trapped in an undergraduate amber of cod-intellectual sarcasm. This side salad of fashionable contemporary poetics gives some license to tackle the more ‘difficult’ and potentially partisan issues of the day, as long as it is always done in an ‘ironic’ way. More naked expression of anger and dissent against the painfully apathetic and self-satisfied nature of our times is of course perceived as rather green (or red) and self-defeating; Old Labourish; ‘unreconstructed’. Seemingly, and in a sort of Lewis Carol-like logic, the more one puts one’s head above the parapets, and takes real risks, the less their efforts are noticed by those on – in one commentator’s idiom – ‘the Poetry Olympus’ (excuse the mixed metaphors!). This ‘celestial’ order also seemingly takes instant umbrage at any poetry which it perceives to be enjoying language too much (Manley Hopkins or Dylan Thomas would likely be outcasts in our time). In short, too overt an individual style is potentially taboo. Instead, the prose poem is apparently lauded as the new contemporary aesthetic, and a plethora of often homogenous columnated prose is rapaciously applauded as the poetry it is pretending to be. Have we entered the post-poetry age?
Our sedulous sceptic probes on: Is it unreasonable, then, to posit the following argument: that the prize shortlists convey very little of the true diversity of contemporary British poetry, mostly only taking in those who conform to the contemporary poetic ‘formula’, or to those who are presently being groomed by the apparatchiks of that formula in order to perpetuate it? That, most insidiously, this often too transparently apparent ‘knitting circle’ (to use a figurative euphemism) of shortlistees is increasingly in danger of undermining its own legitimacy, and that of the prizes themselves?
The proliferating creative writing courses appear to offer potential fast-tracked paths to swifter publication and recognition. But surely such ‘incentives’ are, to any poets writing from a sense of impulsion as opposed to pure careerism, actually disincentives to their artistic authenticity? That is not by any means to say that poetry workshops, especially more impartial community ones, aren’t often highly valid and helpful for many practitioners today; but they do not have syllabuses, nor systems of gold stars or brownie points, all of which one could reasonably argue inevitably encourage a certain degree of streamlining, as all academic mediums do, where there has to be a broad tutorial consensus on what type, style or standard of ‘poetry’ equates with each class of degree pass. Arguably, too, this ‘consensus’ will more than likely converge broadly in what is the current ‘mainstream’ take on the literary form under examination.
But this is no barbed attack on any one style of poetry, nor intentionally a broad jab at the abstracted phrase ‘mainstream’, but more oppositely, is an attempt to petition for a more comprehensive embracing of all kinds of poetry, all styles, all subjects, all voices, for a more satisfyingly varied and multi-faceted poetic culture than the one which dominates at present. No one style should dominate; but arguably for the past twenty years or so, a certain definable formula of prose-inclined ‘poetics’, or ‘prosetry’, has come to monopolise the main arena of British poetry to the extent of streamlining one aesthetic throughout a number of influential presses, journals, societies and awards bodies; and, on the whole, so disorienting the public through a prosification of the form, that growing numbers feel impelled to seek their poetry-fixes in the Wordsworth Classics range.
Poetropolies: Passport Poetry
All the previous possibilities taken into account, it could next be argued that there is practically no actual competition in such competitions. So then what is the point in them?
The words kudos and hubris spring to mind at this juncture: symptoms of a survival of the fittest arena which reduces even some originally well-intentioned practitioners into pathological prize-chasers. Laureate Duffy said on The South Bank Show recently that because there was no money in poetry, it meant that poets were less viciously competitive and ruthlessly ambitious as those handsomely advanced exponents of popular fiction. Well, I’m not sure which poets Ms Duffy hangs around with, but from numerous poets’ accounts this doesn’t seem to reflect the nitty-gritty reality of the sometimes very divisive competitiveness further down the poetry rungs; and one which is fed by those already established. Some poets have a tendency to be, more disturbingly in some ways, every bit as competitive, ambitious – in some cases even unscrupulous – as their prose cousins. The singular lack of money in the poetry world, if anything, seems to increase such heated competitiveness because the only real prize in the end is that most elusive of all: satisfaction of the ego – whether through critical recognition, prize-winning, or a combination of the two. Most poets are prone to these peccadilloes to some extent but some are more, to put it euphemistically, ‘determined’ in their pursuit than others. And competitions and prizes play a big part in tempering the modern poetry community in this counter-productive direction. Even the goal of posthumous recognition, something none of us can ever be around to validate, can drive the best of us poets into a monomaniacal fever – ‘posterity is all that matters’ as one fellow-traveller disturbingly put it. So for those who don’t expect to inhabit the mortal Olympus of poetry accolades, there’s the more metaphysically driven bunch who covet at the very least a place on it posthumously.
In such a counter-context, for instance, my own webzine the Recusant was created in order to provide a more egalitarian forum based on merit, not reputation; on ability, not background; on quality of writing, not quantity of accrediting; a webzine which seeks – however ambitiously – to help in levelling up what we perceive to be a deeply un-meritocratic poetry scene. We are only one of a number of small outlets that are trying to provide a broader alternative to the current ‘mainstream’ (for other like-minded webzines/journals, do check out our Links page, though of course, this article is sitting in one such title).
There is too the rather rigid culture of ‘guidelines’ for entry into most competitions and prizes, which disenfranchises the smaller press considerably – when they are required to sacrifice quantities of their books to seemingly unaccountable panels who operate under the unspoken protocol of never returning – or often even acknowledging, receipt of anything. This in effect means that not only do many presses not get a look-in in the prize shortlists, but on top of that, lose out on direly needed potential revenue – and often only to find through some idle late night browsing on Amazon that some of their titles have apparently begun breeding extra copies for inflated prices from mysteriously pseudonymous – or heteronymous? – sources). In some quarters there have even been rumours of a factory process of slush-pile to shredding machine. There has to be, surely, a fairer and more accommodating way of doing all this which doesn’t entail the continual disenfranchising of smaller struggling imprints? For a start, why not pdfs submitted via email? (Heaven forbid! I hear the establishment doyens cry! Pity our poor throbbing eyes as we scan cursorily through hundreds of on-screen manuscripts).
So what are we to do about this grossly undemocratic, un-meritocratic merry-go-round of a prize scene? Start up a new prize altogether, a democratic and impartial one, in which all submissions are judged anonymously by a randomly selected arbitration of impartial laymen? Perhaps. But to the sceptic’s mind, it is not simply compromised prizes that are the problem, but prizes altogether. They are the carrots of a Thatcherite-style anti-culture; arbitrarily distributed grains in an artistically damaging pecking-order. I say, let pets win prizes, but let poets prize integrity, authenticity, and above all, their own distinctive voices. Prize cultures can only lead, in the end, to increasing artistic homogeneity, fad and fashion, glitter and twitter, distracting poets from what they should actually be doing: writing what has to be written, not what they think will win them a prize. The same, of course, goes for the increasingly exhausted publishers, feeling under pressure to often time publications to suit prize timetables and even in some cases tempering their publication list to reflect the stylistic preferences of the prize-giving bodies– and that route can only eventually lead to a situation where commercial demands dictate actual artistic content (as has been arguably happening for years now in the fiction culture). Only through the prize scene being put back in its place and proper context, and treated by poets and publishers as a secondary issue rather than an all-consuming editorial style guide, can contemporary poetry fully bloom into the flower of stylistic and topical diversity that an ever-diminishing readership demands it to be.