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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.


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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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