Five Fixes For Contemporary British Poetry Culture #1: Prize Culture

General introduction: What are we ‘fixing’?
I WOULD characterise the major problem with contemporary British poetry culture like so: I have, on my shelves, a growing collection of  intensely idiosyncratic, vibrantly multifarious books, almost resonating with the small power of their grimoire-like content, connecting me to myriad lived experiences, intelligences and lives of the mind. They’re filled with play and dance, wisdom and strangeness, violent shifts in temperament and technical virtuosity. It’s a relatively modest treasury, but there is enough wealth there that I don’t expect I’ll bleed it dry in my lifetime. And that’s assuming I don’t keep adding even more books. They are talismanic; to carry one with me on a jaunt, or into work, is to shield myself just a little against the creep of anxiety and despair. They do not all agree with each other. They do not all agree with me. Some of them are vexing. Some are frightening.

At the same time, beyond my bookshelf, in the public sphere, there is this thing called poetry. Supposedly it is the same thing. When you look at the individual words and names and titles, by god, it is the same thing. But in the public sphere, where it is acknowledged and talked about, it seems to amount to the vague and unaccountable indulgences of the sentimental and the terminally comfortable. It dithers. It all looks the same. It is oddly pleased with itself, at the same time as squirming with insecurity. It constantly insists that it is Important and Brilliant, but when asked why, it sulks and storms off to its bedroom. It doesn’t want to surrender its stories or dirty its dress; it simply wants to be gazed at. The warlocks become burghers, the cosmonauts streakers. It looks like an isolated empire in opulent decline.

I don’t see any natural reason why this stark disconnect between realities should exist, why it can’t be changed. It isn’t to do with the quality or health of the art itself; it is entirely a problem of how poetry chooses to present itself to the world, a collective failure to grasp that what makes a medium rich, what draws multitudes to it, is not its common character but its genetic complexity, its resistance to easy summary. Every time poetry tries to tell the world what it ‘is’, or boasts of its vitality, or proposes its practitioners as a ‘type’, or elects a representative, it further closes itself off.

I say at the outset that the purpose of this exercise is not to assign blame, and certainly not to suggest that no one else is aware of the problem or trying to do anything about it. Systemic, cultural problems are the sum of millions of unintentionally complicit individual behaviours. In The Man Who Was Thursday, the entire anarchist council turns out to be composed of spies who are trying to destroy it from within. Similarly, I’m prepared to believe that most of the individuals comprising contemporary British poetry culture are allies in the same struggle.

So with that in mind, the first ‘fix’ on my list is

1. Acknowledge prize culture for what it is and what it does, and make it do its job better.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that prize culture features first on my list, but since it’s such a tediously contentious and oft-visited area, I’ll need to be exact about what I mean. Prize culture is poetry as a spectator sport, but one which takes place through darkly tinted glass, goes out of its way to avoid spectacle and advertises itself fraudulently as an evaluative process.

The effect of the fraud is to cause practitioners to discuss the problems with prize culture in an entirely confused way, forgetting its real purpose. The effect of the opaqueness is to make rancour out of the healthy conflicts that exist within poetry because practitioners are left guessing – or piecing together rumours – to understand a decision-making process that refuses to account for itself and its powerful aftershocks. It’s WrestleMania held at a secret location, with most of the contestants absent.

Starting further back, no poetry prize exists merely to reward ‘the best’ of anything, even if such a function could be scrupulously performed. Smaller prizes exist to raise funds for their organisers. The big ones, however – the Forward and the Eliot in particular – are primarily a service to what we might call ‘the poetry industry’. They are mechanisms for publicity, and for pot-stirring. One of the remits of the Forward Prize is “to make people who don’t usually read it more aware of poetry” (quote attributed to one of last year’s judges).

It’s important to understand this, firstly because it’s a waste of time, therefore, to spend too much time worrying about whether the selections really represent the ‘best’ of any given category. Even if you believe such objectivity is possible, that mission is completely overridden by the more measurable purpose. If the Forward or the Eliot mysteriously stopped producing spikes in sales for shortlisted books, a serious reform would be undertaken immediately, as a matter of emergency, no matter if the entire world agreed on the correctness of the selections.

The second reason it’s important to understand this is because the prizes should be much better at this task than they are. The shot in the arm they give ought to be longer-lasting and felt across the wide field of contemporary British poetry. In other words, they should be creating more readers of poetry. They are not.

Prizes could better work towards achieving this purpose, however, if the debate about strategy were more inclusive and not held behind closed doors. It’s clear to anyone with their ear to the ground that judges and officials regularly wrangle with the politics of their decisions in private, and it doesn’t take a powerful intellect to guess that part of the reason so much of a shortlist is composed of books by non-independent publishers is that these publishers are best able to supplement the resulting publicity with their own marketing muscle. Even if individual judges swear blind that this didn’t cross their mind for a moment, the panel itself will often represent a bias towards the range offered by these publishers, with at least one representative from their lists.

Strategy is certainly something that needs to be urgently revised. There is a fundamental crudeness to the way the prizes attempt to make news (and, therefore, readers) out of their processes. The appeal of any contest lies in the narratives that spring from it, but year on year, prizes return to the same tired plots: eminent poet cements reputation. Or: hotly tipped young poet still on a roll. That’s it. These are boring stories, and that’s why, in recent years, we’ve seen the announcement of shortlists flavoured firstly by weak proclamations of ‘a great year, a mammoth task’, then by controversial statements. Where are the upsets? Where the uproar that X would have won but for a quirk of circumstance? Where the rivalries between different houses, or movements, or ideas of poetry?

In answering this last question, it becomes obvious that one of the major strategic failings of prize culture is its disavowal of the fracturedness of British poetry, its aspiration towards a smooth meritocracy, free of tribal conflict. But there’s a reason why movements are remembered, why they are born, beyond generational tensions, and it is this: movements make for stories, with characters, with success and failure, and stories make for contexts in which – or through which, rather – poetry can be discovered by readers. This also helps explain why a proportion of poetry readers turn away from the present with a sneer but embrace the often more difficult poetry of the past, long-dead poets having settled into their narrative/mythological bedding.

Contrast with Fiona Sampson’s approach to current day poets in Beyond the Lyric: A Map of Contemporary British Poetry. The subtitle tells all: a ‘map’ presumes a static landscape. The nomadic tribes that move across it, meeting and mixing, are left undocumented. That is to say, clearly, our poetry is fractured, and battles are fought in key territories, but considerable effort is made to draw a veil over proceedings, to manufacture instead the image of a wholesome family perpetually engaged in warm celebration. Is it any wonder no one finds this interesting? The real story of British poetry – one of passions thwarted and rewarded, of new challengers, blacklists, alliances, ambitions, affairs and mad hopes dashed – is relegated to the realm of pub gossip while the official account reads: All calm, no ships sighted, everyone lovely. The carefully managed events surrounding the prizes, meanwhile, are designed to be condensed down into a single line in a poet’s biography. Look at what was of markedly more interest to journalists and other commentators over the last two years: the fallout from Christian Ward’s multiple plagiarisms, or the shortlistees John Kinsella and Alice Oswald withdrawing books due to ethical misgivings. Both times too many poets were eager to wave away stories which, unlike the well-worn narrative of wholesomeness, piqued people’s interest. (Here’s a joke for you: is poetry brown bread?)

It ought not be this way. The staged contest should be a mechanism for revealing the variety and energy and, yes, obsessiveness, that lies behind this art form. It should be a chance for those normally interested in poetry to find something or someone to identify with and cheer on amongst the flinting of differing ideas and ideals. The objection I sense bubbling up goes something like this: But it should be about the poetry, not personalities, not egos. What you’re suggesting is that the poetry itself be subsumed by scandal and cheap theatrics. I don’t believe, based on the lively discussions I’ve seen poets engage in, that it need be like this either. There must be something in between theatrics and fixed smiles, something which offers a wide open window to the poetry behind the posturing. And how many readers discovered Rimbaud through his reputed scurrilousness, Catullus through his obscene gossipmongering? The zealousness in dismissing drama and histrionics as beneath our contempt speaks of a failure to recognise that one of the sources of such embarrassments is deeply felt passions being diligently, ritualistically stifled. Only some of that passion is egotism; the rest is artists’ passion for their medium.

“Why isn’t the story ‘UK poetry in great shape’?” poets often ask when a journalist alights on some grubby escapade. Because that’s not a story; that’s a press release.

So to bring this section to a head, I’m calling for this:

(1) that the organisations behind larger prizes express their purpose more openly and straightforwardly, and instigate contributions and discussion around achieving that purpose;

(2) that the affiliations of all judges be loudly announced – the better to provoke them to account for any decision which may appear overly partial, the better to quell rancour that such partiality is kept hidden;

(3) that judges openly admit to and discuss the political or strategic element of their decisions – whereby a newcomer is pitted against an old hand, or a poet is included to ‘represent’ a certain strain of poetics, and so on – so that these decisions can be further discussed, and more enticing narratives can come out of the contest;

(4) that we anticipate and welcome the conflict that comes with our choosing who and what to promote and reward, instead of valorising a politeness that borders on the obsequious.

In finer summary: poetry already tries hard to be a spectator sport. It just does it badly. Do better, and people will then come on to the poetry itself.

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Glyn Maxwell’s ‘On Poetry’ (Part 1 of 2)

written by the Judge


I was uncertain whether to write about Glyn Maxwell’s On Poetry in the form of a review or in a feature article. Ultimately I went for the latter, and this for a number of reasons. One is that our reviews section is dedicated to poetry, not to essay writing, even when it is an essay on poetry. Another is that I wanted to discuss matters that extend a little beyond Maxwell’s work, and a more general article gives me the space to go a few yards (or a few miles) out on a limb.

The final reason is that I still haven’t made up my mind what I think about Glyn Maxwell. When I first read Hide Now, one of his most recent collections, I thought I was faced with a genius. I still think of that book as the best contemporary poetry in English that I know of. But then I went on to read another of his works, The Sugar Mile, and I was left rather cold. Of course, these are only opinions – the Guardian’s critic Adam Newey sees things exactly the other way round. He also says about On Poetry that it is “the best book on poetry I have ever read“.

I’d love to meet this Newey guy, because his opinions are so limpidly antithetical to my own. I imagine a dinner together would see us discussing how he likes jazz and I like classical music, he likes sushi and I like pizza, he loves cricket and I enjoy meaningful pursuits. Chances are he’d even tell me that he prefers the new Star Wars trilogy to the old one – but I digress.

For those who haven’t read it, On Poetry collects a number of thematically related essays in which Maxwell attempts to outline a theory of poetry. The titles of the various essays are, in order, White, Black, Form, Pulse, Chime, Space, Time. These are all, in his treatment, essentially aesthetic categories. The ‘White’ is the whiteness of the page where nothing is inscribed, while the ‘Black’ is that of the ink upon it. In his own words:

The nine sheets are nine battlefields. The black will win some, the white will win some, it will be silly as war and bloody as chess. If you get any poems out of it, any lines at all, pin them to your breast. If you get any white sheets, bury them with honours. Remember where you won, remember where you lost.

The paragraph pretty much encapsulates the style of the book as a whole. Maxwell relies heavily on metaphor to get his points across. He frequently brings up extracts from famous poems and proffers readings in a metaphorical form; since Maxwell is a fine poet, the metaphors work well and are colourful and enjoyable – indeed the whole book is very readable and pleasant.

So what’s the problem? Well, I wonder how many of my readers I’d alienate if I were to put it like this: none of what he says is true. I suppose a more diplomatic way of putting it would be ‘these arguments make no sense’ – I can settle on that, if you prefer. Maxwell says that ‘your meeting with a poem is like your meeting with a person. The more like that it is, the better the poem is’. That is – I really can’t find any other way of saying this – not true. It’s not a matter of my opinion or his opinion or your opinion, it’s just not true. Meeting a poem (which I assume means reading a poem for the first time) is nothing like meeting a person – except, of course, in metaphorical terms, and very abstract ones at that. It works as a poetic image, but it fails as a critical proposition.

It may be objected that I am being deliberately obtuse. Right, perhaps I should be more accommodating. But then again maybe what prompts me to be so obtuse is that I’ve seen this particular trick before, and I am getting a little tired of it. TS Eliot’s essay What is a Classic?, which Maxwell cites here with palpable admiration, is an example of the same train of thought at work. You make up your own aesthetical category (Maxwell goes for ‘black and white’, Eliot goes for ‘classic’), then you are allowed to draw the connections that you like and build a castle in the air that looks exactly how you want it to look. Since these aesthetical categories are neither verifiable nor quantifiable, and since they are not given any precise historical grounding but only one that is convenient and selective, you can pretty much say anything you like about them, and you will always be right. You can even contradict yourself, if you’re clever enough to present it as a ‘symbolic paradox’ or a ‘dramatic tension’ or what have you. I used to make use of this kind of sophistry myself back when I was into writing football journalism, precisely because it is so irresistibly seductive, and because you can look like an expert while saying almost nothing at all. A touch of good prose, or a clever use of metaphor, and you can describe the difference between Italian and English football in terms of the differences in these two countries’ drinking culture:

Like beer, English football is attractive because it exhausts and justifies itself in its own isolated turn of the wheel. It consumes itself as we consume it. Like wine, Italian football is at heart referential, never fully understood or explained, always subsisting under a shadow thrown by a shadow. 

These articles were enormously successful – one of the sites I wrote for still features a permanent link to them in the front page. But they were never meant to be true. And neither is Glyn Maxwell’s On Poetry.

Maxwell’s type of criticism has enjoyed a great deal of popularity in the twentieth century. Personally, I think the finest example remains Italo Calvino’s American Lessons, which is essentially the same book as On Poetry, but a bit more elegant and subtle in its presentation (instead of ‘black and white’ Calvino has ‘heaviness and lightness’, and you can imagine how the rest of the book goes). I use the word ‘criticism’ to describe this type of writing, but with a little reluctance. Given that the readings, connections and historical interpretations they draw are fictional and arbitrary, they have less in common with the work of someone like Walter Benjamin, Mikhail Bakhtin or Northrop Frye than they do with the genre of occult literature represented by the likes of Aleister Crowley, Madame Blavatsky or Dion Fortune. Try reading some of the texts by the latter authors, and notice the parallel in style – if anything, the attempts by the magicians are much more schematic (if more poorly written).

The problem with this line of thinking is not that it isn’t pretty, it’s just that it’s circular. I am going to borrow a phrase from Cormac McCarthy: “A man’s at odds to know his mind cause his mind is aught he has to know it with.” You cannot analyse your analytical abilities for the same reason that you cannot bite your teeth. Likewise, you cannot hope to use ‘poetic’ means to analyse poetry, because all you do is produce more poetry. And indeed Maxwell’s work, like those I quoted above, is frequently and peculiarly beautiful. No-one could deny his ability with words. What’s lacking is the willingness (perhaps even the courage) to look outside of his own ranch, at animals different than his own stock. (Rats. I used a metaphor).