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Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Very Short Essays: Political / Travelator / Abundance

To an extent, these pieces refine views I’ve already aired, either here or on other forums. You could think of this as a progress report.

On political poetry
I wonder how many people today know the name and figure of Castlereagh for anything more than a cameo in Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy.

I’ve read and heard good examples of political poetry, including polemics. But I’m still wary of it, and particularly wary of writing it myself. I’ve tried various angles of attack, ‘attack’ being the operative word here. There’s an undeniable attraction to using words – art, even – in an offensive/defensive capacity. I would like to see my moral rage and discomfort transformed into a weapon for myself and others to wield. I’d like to feel that some pure lava of truth had flowed through my fingers onto the (electronic) page, and that it would never cool.

But in taking up arms in this manner, don’t we always cede the choice of battleground? The enemy has set the agenda for political debate and conversation, and always so that the ground tilts in its favour. Arguing over Thatcher’s legacy, for example, already admits the reach of that legacy - which I, for one, would prefer to contest. Do we really want to shore up politicians’ dreams of immortality, achieved through demagoguery and unapologetic bullishness?

Every poem begins in a white space, not preceded by a question or demand, and asserts its authority over the world it chooses to reflect, recognise or invent. The author does not have to answer ‘strivers versus skivers’ rhetoric. There is no burden of proof. Surely, here is the chance to reset the playing field completely. While recognising that political timidity can be a symptom of decadence in poetry, we should also realise that art has the potential to outlast the fashions of its era, encasing in amber the figures it elects as representative or principal players. I would not want Thatcher, or Blair, or Cameron to survive in this form.

On the travelator metaphor
Writing about sexism and misogyny in gaming culture, Anita Sarkeesian used the image of an airport travelator to describe the inexorable pull towards anti-women attitudes in an industry dominated by men, marketed mainly to male players. The point of the metaphor is that if you stand still, you still drift towards a morally undesirable position, and only by actively walking in the other direction do you actually stay in the same place, let alone make positive progress. A position of apparent agnosticism, therefore, is actually one which allows itself to drift to one extreme.

This is the perfect metaphor for many other things in life, but I’d like to suggest it particularly as a way of understanding the issue of the erosion of critical integrity in contemporary poetry. It is fairly pointed out that the scene is too small for the judged and the judges not to frequently know each other, whether we’re talking reviews, prize committees or publishing. The idea of cabals and conspiracies, of log-rolling and traded favours, however, is rejected on the grounds of personal testimony. “These are decent, scrupulous people. I know them.”

However, the reason independence is often regarded as crucial in making qualitative judgements is that even decent, scrupulous people are prone to the subconscious influence of trusted sources. A poem is always more arresting for having been written by a friend or person of some repute. Any judgement made without a conscious examination of one’s own biases is almost undoubtedly influenced by those biases. All of us are on the travelator, moving slowly toward the point where our actions as judges are merely to confirm and reconfirm what we already know, so that the already crowned are crowned again, all that is comforting relentlessly cradled, all that is threatening shunned.

Each of us has to resist, particular those with the most influence, or else the conclusion is clear: recognition for being eminent, critical praise for being well-liked, prizes for repeating variations of the same poetic tropes. There is no artistic movement, no revolutionary force, no generational uprising or watershed moment that will save us from this – only constant motion in the opposite direction.

On the abundance of poetry
There is too much of it, runs the complaint, or else too much of it is mediocre. Sturgeon’s Law is invoked - most of it must be crap, because most of everything is crap. It’s all ‘landfill’, says Geoffrey Hill (I know, I’m always rolling that one out).

There’s an overlap here with anti-capitalist argument. Too much of too much – consumer-zombies feeding a habit for spending and owning, ever unsated. People read widely but shallowly. Production goes up, quality goes down, and all poetry blends into one advancing agglomeration, along with the rest of culture.

But the idea of ‘too much’ in this case is itself grounded in consumerist principles. The abundance of poetry, mostly published in freely available formats, makes ever more difficult the maintenance of central figures and the pretence of evaluative legitimacy. “One of our most important poets” – how can you know, oh critic, when you’ve probably only read the most miniscule fraction of the poetry being published?

This in turn affects marketability, because the narrative on which most reputations in poetry turn is one of smooth ascendance to the very highest branches of the tree, and of a uniqueness that can only be described in abstract terms. But with so many poets making that claim across countless similarly worded book blurbs, backed up by review copy, whom does the consumer trust? Who is the real Spartacus?

Thus, the cry of ‘too much’ is really an objection to an overcrowded marketplace and the strain that places on our publicists. Perhaps we should accept that while the ‘new’ is intensely fetishised, the constant flow of it is nevertheless a sign that we are actively interested in shaping our own future, and that the real moral deficit in consumerist culture is the unthinking rejection of the not-new. If we regard poetry not as product, but rather as evidence of the exercise of creative faculties, of attempts to address directly what left-brain-thinking merely skirts around, of unmonitored channels of communication and linguistic development, how can there ever be too much of it? The mistake is surely is to believe too readily in a common front – that we are all in the same place at the same time in terms of the progress of the art. Really, we're not even all going in the same direction.

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