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Sunday, 22 June 2014

Five Fixes For Contemporary British Poetry Culture #2: Character & Flavour

THE NUMBER of poets writing today, it's frequently argued, is reaching a kind of critical mass. Our finest are being buried in mediocrity, and the bulk of what is being written is 'landfill'. Who gassed the gatekeepers? What blunts the blades of the critic-gardeners, so that our flowerbeds are choked with dandelions? How will future generations pick through the mess?

Another way of looking at it

This angst over the quantity of poetry being published is really the result of the limited way we've come to talk about poets, poems and poetry. As the number and diversity of its practitioners flourish, still we repeatedly fall back on the trope of the giant among men, the axe smashing the ice, the quality of 'greatness', to describe the value and appeal of what is being written. I don't mean in one specific mode of exchange either - this need to elevate is a common denominator in publicity, criticism and casual conversation. Elevate, that is, in lieu of meaningful differentiation.

The result is the appearance of multitudes laying claim to the same tiny throne, with no point of reference for what is described beyond other, weaker variations of itself. You do not expand your audience by saying, "This is the best kind of what it is" without saying what 'it' is. You simply create the impression of a mass of sameness.

The marketing of poetry in particular reveals that we struggle to move beyond the comparative, and come armed with only limited ways of illustrating its effects. Too many book blurbs deploy a smorgasbord of stock traits while simultaneously laying claim, through bare assertion, to uniqueness. This runs through to our reviewing culture as well, which frequently constitutes an ever-more finely balanced game of using different words to convey the same message. Think, for example, how many poets reportedly fit a description along these lines: ceaselessly inventive and original, utilises precise, finely wrought language, deft musicality, addresses themes of identity, place, change in luminous, startling lines, often wry and funny, unafraid to take risks - in short, the real thing.

Yes, this goes beyond claims to grandeur and eminence, but the repetitiousness of such depiction doesn't get us very far.

The fatigue felt all round is, therefore, not a reflection of the sameness of the poetry itself but its presentation, and we're fooling ourselves if we ignore how much of our own impression is informed by that consistency of presentation. This accounts for a range of apparently small-minded behaviours - from the self-styled representative of 'ordinary people' who dismisses whole generations for abandoning formal conservatism, to the finely articulated manifesto as to what constitutes 'real poetry', to the frustrated avant-gardist who disavows anything with a narrative pulse. All means of avoiding tangling with the unruly cosmos of poetic possibility, most of which lies unknown and threatening beyond the shallow sweep of our descriptive language. To know much of it well requires a dedicated and thorough immersion that is beyond most of us. Instead, we tend to find our own corner of a friendly star system, settle on a hospitable planet, and turn our telescopes inward, while the public at large clings tightly to the safety of school-taught verse.

Taking cues

What we should be doing is making our cosmos navigable, not just for ourselves but everyone outside of poetry - so not merely to the person who is prepared to burrow through hundreds of academic papers but also (and more importantly because these are more numerous) the person browsing a bookshop display or events listing. I may have poked fun at the clichés of poetry selling five years ago with Vitally Urgent: The Game of Blurb, but I'm not for a moment suggesting it's easy to find ways of articulating the individual qualities of a poet or book so that they can be understood at a glance. Look across, however, at some of the mediums and genres whose audiences have expanded exponentially over the last few decades: manga, anime, games, science fiction and fantasy. These are areas - if not industries - which afford roles and employ to thousands of creators, filling large convention halls with fans who will queue for autographs from writers of all ages. It would be somewhat delusional to imagine that poetry could transform itself into a similar model of success, but we might at least pick up a few lessons in breaking out of a niche.

One such lesson is what I'd call the Character Select Screen Principle. Character select screens have appeared in certain genres of computer games since the days of arcade cabinets, typically proffering an array of protagonists, one of which the player must select as their avatar. They are designed to convey, in as immediate a manner as possible, the fundamental traits of each character, so as to help the player identify one which suits him or her best. Posture, expression and clothing, as well as numerical statistics and brief biographical information, are employed as suggestive devices - broad strokes that serve to make a memorable impression.

What the character select screen appeals to - and what, in their different ways, so many pop culture properties make use of - is our need to explore, develop and demonstrate our identity through the choices we make. We pick favourites - to play, to root for, to fantasise over - as a way of describing who we are, to ourselves and our surroundings. Witness also the proliferation of 'Which ___ Are You?' quizzes on Facebook, the results of which are shared for comment. The significance of a choice shouldn't be apparent only to ourselves but to those who see we have made it.

In other words, people are more likely to buy and read poetry if their choice of what to read tells other people something about them.

❖And where do we start? 

Both cover art and cover copy are already used to accentuate the individual flavour of a poetry book, with varying degrees of success. Publisher livery can serve as an obstacle (all Carcanet books are predominantly red, black and white) or provide a framework. It's fair to say that Faber have at their disposal a simple but effective means of distinguishing their poets (and their poets' books) from each other, by using colour as the major design feature of their cover design, harking back to one of the very first ways we learn to mark our identities as children, by having a favourite colour. Some poets - Luke Kennard and W. N. Herbert come to mind - have a talent for cartoonifying themselves. All of this is good groundwork.

The most successful critical analysis also strives to find ways of describing its subject that make a lasting impression. In fact, I'd go as far as saying that this is the major useful function of a review. In a world where we simply do not have a practice of poetry criticism that is sufficiently removed from the writing and publishing of poetry, memorable description is more important than maintaining the cracked illusion of critical distance. In other words, a bad review that paints a striking portrait of a poet or collection is providing more of a service to the poet, and to readers, than a good review that deals in subtle nuances. To the extent we believe our critical culture is a project of assessment - of holding gemstones to the light and rating their flawlessness - we are mistaken. Its value to us is as a way of generating the ingredients for our own character select screens - simple, stark phrases that colour one poet or book differently from another - even if this function is too often buried beneath politesse and the affected gestures of judgement.

What I suggest, therefore, is a project, building on these beginnings, towards broad-stroke characterisation - of poems, poets, poetries, books - with the measure of success being this: that the person browsing the bookshop display be able to skim their eyes across a range of covers and brief descriptions and, even if they aren't generally a buyer of poetry, be able to pick a personal favourite.


(1) Look, Jon, poetry is about subtlety, the slow release of flavour. This is vulgarisation you're talking about - caricaturing, turning books into fashion accessories.

Answer: Such subtlety can be over-fetishised - it isn't fundamental to the art form. I also think it's wrong to be disdainful of instantaneous appeal or announcement of purpose. It is a great thing to fall in love on sight.

(2) It's not up to us to 'sell' poetry, Jon. People just need to be made less ignorant and less fearful of reading difficult texts.

Answer: Avoid the responsibility if you want, but remember, this isn't just a problem of poetry's public image; most practitioners and critics also seem to struggle to know what's happening in their own art beyond a narrow area of focus. Especially the ones who think they know everything.

(3) What you're asking for is already under way.

Answer: I agree; there are people already on the case. But this should be something many more of us are involved in and thinking about, because it goes to the way practitioners conduct casual dialogue amongst themselves as well. My experience now is that we mostly say to each other that someone or something is 'good', 'interesting', 'clever', 'overrated', 'underrated', and so on, in a way that makes poetry seem like an exercise in merely perpetually impressing each other - exactly what its most acid-tongued critics accuse it of being.

(4) What of the dangers of poets becoming typecast or straitjacketed by this so-called 'broad-stroke characterisation'?

Answer: It's always possible to reinvent yourself.


Since I should practice what I preach, I'm now going to try to sketch some of my favourite poets, on the understanding that I make no claim to critical or objective distance in what follows. You can't trust me as an impassive assessor, but that's not the point of the exercise. The point is: bold descriptions that accentuate individual flavour.

Insatiable collector and exhibitor of curiosities. In person, he's half lion, half mad librarian, fizzing with a seemingly inexhaustible knowledge and excitement that spills into his poems. But you can never be sure whether the specimens he proffers with such wild enthusiasm are genuine finds or brilliant fakes of his own making. Antler, his first collection, is a dusty display case of relic-tales, fragments and charms from lost and imagined civilisations, sometimes crossing into our own. The True Account of Captain Love and the Five Joaquins is his versifying of an Old West yarn about a coward who carries a horse-thief's head in a jar. Or is it?

Monsters and monstrousness is her area of expertise, via sex, lore and sci-fi. She throws herself at her subjects like a fireball - the resulting poems are rough-edged and crooked, like circus freaks or recalcitrant schoolgirls, too thorny and untrimmed to fit neatly among the more rarified species of poetry. They tend to land you in the middle of storm-struck emotional terrain without a map, revealing their context (and their teeth) gradually, through rows of jagged imagery. The giants, robots, cannibals and cartoon characters of her first collection, Never, Never, Never Come Back, aren't jolly pop culture references but portraits of outsiders made beautiful and terrible by what they lack.

For a brief moment in the 80s, Harrison was a notorious poet - the result of a televised version of the sprawling, angry V, a long poem which ventriloquises the expletive-filled diction of a disenfranchised teen as it expounds on decay and societal fracturing. Tories wanted it banned. But for all the rage and sorrow that informs his best work, Harrison is formally conservative, somehow condensing extreme rawness and bitterness into tight rhymed couplets. You want direct? He'll tell you what he thinks, how he feels with the force of someone jabbing a finger at your sternum. You want personal? Much of his oeuvre is effectively an autobiography of working class displacement and the splintering of his own identity.

What the half-Italian Williams makes are more poems than anything else, but they're also hybrids and creatures, the genes of other textual forms (mixtape, diary, screenplay) spliced with those of poetry. It's all gone about with joyous, youthful abandon, so that each piece jitters like a matchbox of jumping beans. Her work so far comprises a string of opuscules - stealth raids made from the territory outside the formal poetry 'collection'. The Jam Trap is a sequence of rapid-fire comic vignettes. Angela, her collaboration with artist Howard Hardiman, is a love letter to Angela Lansbury in the form of a nightmare-ride through her psyche. Epigraphs is a work comprised solely of epigraphs.

The above do not represent a radical new way of writing, and could stand to be sparer and more direct still, perhaps shortened to the length of a cover quote. But as it stands, and to the extent they are effective, this approach is currently vastly outweighed by the glut of writing on poetry that proclaims 'major contribution', 'finest of his generation', 'intense originality', 'unblinking', 'extraordinary', 'remarkable' and so on and so forth, even down to those biographies we circulate which do little but count out awards.

How will future generations pick through this mess? Don't make them test dozens of similarly-worded claims in search of some pantheon. Give them a landscape peopled with innumerable well-drawn characters who are as diverse as any group of people in the whole of humanity. And grant the same to the present generation.


Still not got your fix? Find the full post series here.


  1. Yes, as a reviewer, I think reviewers should try to make the particular qualities of each poet vivid on the page, not least by including a fair measure of the poet's own words! I am well aware that some readers skip the entire review section of magazines... I think reviews have to attract and interest readers (without stealing too much of the precious word count from the poets) I think, too, that you'll be besieged by poets wanting you to write their blurbs!

  2. Mainly I just want to say keep going!

    I don't recall seeing the fridge magnets before. My loss. Yes, review-speak can become homogenized - see http://litrefsarticles.blogspot.co.uk/2009/02/language-of-reviews.html

    I recently read a poetry magazine with about 30 pages of reviews. They were readable and not samey vocab-wise, but I counted only 4 adverse comments, 2 of those veiled. It reminded me of "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way".

    1. Hello Jon,

      This is a great post (as ever), and I eagerly await the next three.

      I think there's a problem in the argument here. The piece seems to conflate blurb with review, to conflate how poetry is represented by its publishers (i.e., advertising) with how poetry is discussed generally, which does a disservice to their different intentions. It also seems to conflate writers with their output, which would limit us to log-roll or risk antagonism. (Could the example sketches, for instance, countenance describing a 'bad' poet?) It attempts to justify this by claiming "we simply do not have a practice of poetry criticism that is sufficiently removed from the writing and publishing of poetry"; it apparently attempts to solve this by adding "so why bother!"

      Especially interesting is when it argues: "In other words, a bad review that paints a striking portrait of a poet or collection is providing more of a service to the poet, and to readers, than a good review that deals in subtle nuances." I worry about how a "bad review" is still meant to be "more of a service[...]to readers, than a good review." Isn't this a little patronising?

      The tonic to bland advertising is surely not Better Advertising. The solution can only be in a functional "critical culture", which I do believe is possible. After all, what are we doing right now?

      Best wishes,

    2. Hi Charles,

      Thanks for the considered response! I move from blurb to review to general discussion in the piece because I feel that there's a common denominator between them, which is this slipping into comparative language or general praise. In many ways, I don't think they're discrete areas - reviews, for instance, are used as part of marketing.

      Regarding "so why bother!" - I see your point. If we don't at least aspire to an objective critical culture, then we lose something valuable, and my sketches are not reviews. I guess I would vary what I say to: within the modes of both reviewing and marketing, finding a way to articulate what is unique about a poet should be a key function.

      Not sure entirely what you mean by patronising. The reason I say a bad (meaning negative or poor in judgement) review that paints a striking portrait does more of service is that it's likely to stay in the mind for longer, and I think people are liable to consider something for longer and be able to make up their mind more decisively the better something embeds in their memory. I've certainly found myself giving undue thought and attention to the subjects of badly written pieces or hatchet jobs because the writing has made an impression on me.

      I would actually say that Better Advertising is one of the ways to your functional critical culture. If you are able to get more people's attention, if more people feel they have a grasp of something, a strong, clearly worded image or idea to begin with, *that* is good grounds for an involved discussion on various different levels. The way most poets, inevitably, end up first being presented to me - as someone I should read because they're 'good' - gives me nothing to get my teeth into in terms of formulating my own response. If I'm told to read something and told it's good, I either nod or shake my head, and doing more than that requires a lot of studious consideration on my part. But if I'm told "So-and-so is doing this particular thing", it's much easier for me to find something to say about it.

      I would say the way Geoffrey Hill is often discussed these days is a case in point. Even though it's been done to death now, and is becoming a tediously obvious recourse, the whole 'Is he too difficult?' question gets a lot of people weighing in.

    3. Hello Jon,

      To the extent to which your argument relates to poetry advertising, to the business of publishers, I entirely agree. (These discussions always end with everyone basically agreeing.) Much of the difficulty of bringing new readers to poetry, or at least readers to new poetry, arises from publishers' (or poets') failures to express how their work relates to contemporary poetry, or indeed to anything! Where I don't agree is where this argument is then stretched out to cover all writing about poetry, as if they have the same intentions or same functions within a literary ecosystem. Certainly, as you say, poetry advertising and poetry criticism should be able to engage its readers, to convey something of the work discussed, but that's where the similarity ends. Publishers, ultimately, only puff, and without criticism, puffery is all we'll get. And I feel it's patronising to say (although I can see this is stretching your words slightly) that puffery is all readers need.

      Best wishes,

  3. Dear Jon

    I remember Don Paterson saying that only thirty British poets per year should be published. He didn't say whether or not he would include himself in that number but I think we can safely conclude that he would. At the moment I am reading 'Stag's Leap' by Sharon Olds. I appreciate that it's very good of its kind but prolix American poetry has never done much for me.

    Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish

  4. In this culture that only seems to value celebrities, some moves to give the poet a bit of character as a person as well as a poet, would seem to be a good idea. I've often thought that publishers' websites could do a lot more of this. Poets with good blogs or a facebook and twitter presence also come to life a bit for those who haven't met them.

  5. I realise I am very late to this, but it seems that what you are saying is basically that reviewers should think like poets, i.e. they should attempt to describe the collection they're reviewing in the same way they would describe something in a poem - by finding the new, startling, unthought-of but completely apposite term. Most poetry reviewers are poets, of course, so this ought not to be difficult for them - or, alternatively, it should be no more difficult than writing poetry (so, quite difficult, then).

    One of the other commenters suggests that you are conflating criticism and puffery. I don't see that, or rather, not the same way he does: both, in order to have any effect, half to be more interesting, and also more appropriate to the text, than they currently are; I think where the commenter's confusion sets in is in not realising that most poetry criticism as it stands is a form of advertisement. Ultimately we want people to read more poetry. This does not mean writing uncritical reviews; it means really making the poetry live in your description of it - if you like the collection, you presumably do want readers to buy it, so go out of your way to say something more interesting than "an accomplished performance" or what-have-you; and if you dislike the collection you owe the readers (and the poet) a considered explanation of what, exactly, is wrong with it. In doing so, you will still be giving a full character of it - an impression which gives readers enough of an idea of the work that they can then make their own minds up. I don't suppose I'm alone in buying a book after reading a 'bad' review of it, if the review gave me enough information to decide that, regardless of the reviewer's opinion, the thing sounded interesting.

    The problem is, that reviews of this sort, as I mentioned earlier, are bloody difficult to write, and unfortunately, while poetry reviewing is even less of a viable 'profession' than poetry itself, reviewers are going to be disinclined to put themselves out when they can get by with "a master of language... an impressive debut... a powerful voice... a unique talent, etc."

    Solutions? Editors being much more demanding of their reviewers (but reviewers are hard enough to come by without scaring them off). Multiple reviewers arguing the toss (a la Sphinx, but in real time), and thereby being forced to explain their judgements (but see again scarcity of reviewers). Quoting as liberally as possible from the work being reviewed, so that, if nothing else, readers have the opportunity to form some opinion of their own (this can be done, but poetry takes up a disproportionate amount of space, so print editors would not necessarily be keen; online does not have this problem, but does potentially run into copyright difficulties).

    Anyway, thanks a lot for the article, I'm really looking forward to the others.


What say you?