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Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Is Poetry a Subculture?

written by the Judge

Is poetry a subculture? It might be worth asking ourselves that question. I’m not a sociology student and I’ve never been part of a subculture myself, so my point of view can only be partial. (But then isn’t a monocular focus only on one’s own field itself characteristic of subcultures? Isn’t my failure to represent perspectives on poetry that originate outside of poetry a fact symptomatic of subcultural hermeticism, and evidence that I belong to this subculture – for the good and for the bad?).

A subculture is more than just ‘a group of people with common interests’, like a bridge club or bungee jumping. It has codes, beliefs, clans, heroes. For me, the term is one I most readily associate to music. The two words that immediately spring to my mind when I hear it are ‘punk’ and ‘goth’. There are others, of course. There are also many subcultures that are not really defined by music, though they may be related to it in some ways or another (hippies, to name a big one). And there’s supposed to be a whole world of sexual subcultures, especially in the gay community, but I’m even more ignorant of those than I am of the musical ones.

Here’s the thing though – there is a substantial difference between the way these groups are perceived and represented in (popular?) culture and the way that poetry and poets are (or are supposed to be). Not to put too fine a point on it, all of the above are understood as peripheral to our culture, as living in the margins, as colourful but – at least when taken individually – not essential to the workings of society. They allow for the kind of vocabulary that everyone else can use to crack a mild joke: Cartman’s celebrated phrase, ‘it’s all a bunch of tree-huggin’ hippie crap’, is funny because it’s so easy to relate to it (no offence, hippies).

But poetry is supposed to be central. It’s meant to be one of the barometers of a culture’s vitality; poets encapsulate and represent an age for the generations later to come; they define and shape the identity of nations. Surely something’s a bit off when you put them in the same category as your neighbour and the four nerd friends of his who get together every Saturday night (!) to play fantasy role and/or board games about dragons fighting unicorns.

So what exactly is a subculture? Ken Gelder identified six key ways to recognise them:
1.     Their often negative relations to work (as 'idle', 'parasitic', at play or at leisure, etc.);
2.     Their negative or ambivalent relation to class (since subcultures are not 'class-conscious' and don't conform to traditional class definitions);
3.     Their association with territory (the 'street', the 'hood', the club, etc.), rather than property;
4.     Their movement out of the home and into non-domestic forms of belonging (i.e. social groups other than the family);
5.     Their stylistic ties to excess and exaggeration (with some exceptions);
6.     Their refusal of the banalities of ordinary life and massification.

(In passing, I don’t have a clue who this Gelder guy is – I’m only using him because his was one of the clearest of the quotations I found onWikipedia – but what he says seems to make sense, so until a real sociology student comes along, let’s roll with it.)

I’d say that one, two and six are pretty obviously true of poetry. Three is plainly off – though it’s true that poets do not associate with property, I wouldn’t say they do so with territory either. Four and five are a bit more debatable, but I’d say poetry flicks the switch for both. Poets do, on the whole, display a movement out of the home and into non-domestic forms of belonging, notably when they first go to university and start forming ties with other aspiring poets; it’s at that point that they first come in touch with the community, one which does not speak to / with their family or their other social circles. In brief, the literary community does something that is typical of subcultures – it assists its member(s) in the formation of a new, non-domestic identity. This process usually starts in the academic arena, and it works so well that many poets never even leave it – witness the number of artists who work in universities. But it is certainly not limited to that territory (hence, I don’t think #3 holds).

Number five, the stylistic ties to excess and exaggeration (note on the run that Gelder allows for ‘exceptions’), revolves around the word ‘stylistic’, and brings us to one of the primary differences between the poetic subculture and the others I mentioned (the music ones in particular). The latter appear to be much more interested in external appearance and clothing; their codes are embedded in the way they dress. Superficially, this doesn’t seem to be the case with poetry – I say superficially because I’m of the opinion that there is such a thing as a dress-code common to poets, too, it’s just much harder to pin down. Since the leading principle is that of rule number six (see above), clothes are used to reject mainstream codes; they are therefore used – not necessarily in a conscious manner – to go against expectations. The problem is that while a fan of goth music has the common and relatively transparent codes of mainstream music that s / he can simply turn on their head to express his / her rejection, poets each respond to their own societal codes. So it is perfectly possible – and consistent – for a poet to ‘go against expectations’ by dressing in seemingly shabby clothes while another does the same by wearing a gala suit. This does not mean that their identity as poets may not correspond to the same societal construction, and therefore not share a drive in terms of social expression – but I digress.
Ginsberg's outrageous head-wear
 To return to the initial point, though it is true that you can find a great deal of excess and exaggeration in the haberdashery of poets if you look for it, you can hardly make of that a consistent rule. But hear me out – while there may not be so much excess and exaggeration in terms of clothes, there is in terms of ideology. Ultimately, the two things are not even that distant. The fact that poetry can express itself directly through language – and the fact that all members of this subculture are poets, while not all punks are musicians – makes the self-expression allowed by clothes a bit redundant. And yet extremity is very common in terms of the statements made, the positions held and the emotions expressed in the actual verse.

So yes – if Gelder’s little list is anything to go by, poetry does have a lot in common with subcultures. In sociological terms, it operates in much the same way. It also has some traits which make it differ. One example is the effort, within the poetry subculture, to expand its borders and get poetry to more people and wider audiences. This contrasts with the attitude taken by more traditional subcultures, which are rather content with the marginal state in which they subsist (though they too can be flustered and frustrated when the media misrepresent them). It might be the result of poetry’s inability to recognise itself as a subculture, insisting instead that it is more ‘central’ to society. An identity crisis, if you will, but on a grand scale. Or it might be one of the individual characteristics of this subculture, the same way that a drive towards political anarchy is (I think) one of the drives of punk.

And here is my point. Poetry is central to society, just not this poetry. Not the community. Not the subculture. Attempting to expand poetry in these terms means attempting to get more people be like us – while a more effective strategy would be that of having your poetry speak to those who are not like us. This is not as obvious as it sounds – there are some people out there who genuinely do not deserve being spoken to. Furthermore, it might involve letting go of just those values that we hold so dear about our community, like our point number six, the ‘refusal of the banalities of ordinary life and massification’. Most people don’t refuse these things, and are not interested in investigating the possibility; communicating with them, therefore, might involve relinquishing this refusal. Is this something you are ready to do? And if poetry really involves non-conformism, then here’s the thing – could it be that the best way for you to write it is to do what others don’t do – and stay the hell away from this community, and not even read this article in the first place?


  1. There is definitely a question of territory among poets, especially in the sense of "turf", usually a state of mind but often getting pretty geographical. I was struck by this when Peter Riley (who seems a pretty sensible character) posted this on the highly subcultural British-Irish-Poets email list, when Carol Ann Duffy was setting up a bunch of residencies in Cambridge:
    'She's masterminded a plan for ten "leading" poets to take up residencies in Cambridge, attached to various institutions, and there to create. Actually I think the idea is to finally stamp out "the Cambridge school of poetry" for ever. In which case they're going to the wrong town.'

  2. There very much is a territory thing - the hip and happening people think that it is centred in certain fora in London. Bu that's not enough to make a market for poetry that will pay. We have to get to the whole country.

    Also I liked your observation that there is an "effort, within the poetry subculture, to expand its borders and get poetry to more people and wider audiences." Hmmm... evangelising? That makes it less like a subculture and more like a cult, maybe?


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