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Poets Can’t Do Anything Right. And Maybe That’s Their Own Fault.

In one of the many memorable exchanges in the BBC’s I, Claudius, a grovelling senator congratulates John Hurt’s Caligula for chewing out his colleagues. “How right you were, Jove,” he says, “to think of punishing them for celebrating the Battle of Actium.” “Well you see, Marcus, I had them both ways,” Caligula replies. “Because if they hadn’t, they would have insulted the God Augustus, my grandfather who won the battle.”

Caligula’s little stitch-up came to mind when I first read Private Eye’s coverage of Sarah Howe’s victory at the Eliots. In the past, the same organ has criticised the awards – with good reason, I think – for apparent nepotism. Only last year, it wondered at winner David Harsent’s relationship with some of the judges, while here is a typically scathing round-up of poetry awards culture in general from 2002:

This year’s judges [for the Forward Prize] include two poets published by Picador (Sean O’Brien and Michael Donaghy), who have shortlisted two other Picador poets (Peter Porter and Paul Farley) for the £10,000 top prize. Last year’s judging panel also included two Picador poets – Donaghy (again) and Peter Porter. Last year Porter gave the main prize to Sean O’Brien. […]

Last year the £5,000 prize for “best first collection” went to another Picador poet, John Stammers (a product of Donaghy’s poetry workshops), and the £1,000 “best single poem“ prize was given to Ian Duhig for a poem – you guessed it – from his forthcoming Picador collection. The same poem earlier won Duhig the £5,000 top prize in the Poetry Society’s national poetry competition, judged by a three-man panel including his mate Don Paterson, the foul-mouthed Scottish bard who also happens to be the poetry editor at, er, Picador.

This year’s five-poet Forward shortlist includes two other chums, David Harsent and John Fuller (winner of the Forward prize in 1996, when one of the judges was again Sean O’Brien). And Sean O’Brazen was one of three judges of the 1997 T. S. Eliot prize (worth £5,000), which was awarded to … his own editor, Don Paterson.

Duhig, Donaghy, O’Brien, Harsent and Paterson all have the same agent, TriplePa, aka Gerry Wardle – who just happens to be Sean O’Brien’s partner. And Donaghy, Duhig, Farley, Fuller, Harsent, Paterson and Porter have all received fulsome write-ups from the Sunday Times’s main poetry critic, one Sean O’Brien.

This year, however, the Eliot went to a young poet with no obvious connection to the presiding fraternity – or at least none that Private Eye could root out. Turning their own reasoning on its head, this in itself became a cause for suspicion and sneering cynicism. How could a poet not previously feted suddenly win the most prestigious award on the circuit? Something must be up, was the upshot. The Eliot judges, it seems, are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

Of course, sneering is Private Eye’s self-appointed duty. Jonathan Miller, the target of their merciless lampooning for years, once asked of them: “What are you for?” The answer is: nothing. Private Eye subsists on the presumption – all too rarely inaccurate – that there is shadiness and shamefulness behind everything that filters through to the public consciousness.

Sneering is also a Great British pastime. But there is an unwritten (or possibly written, or at least documented) rule that as long as it is directed at the powerful and pre-eminent, it serves a moral or culturally useful purpose, but when it is directed at soft targets it is contemptible. And poetry is surely the softest of all targets. Softer even, I would venture, than women and minorities, since we live in an era when the liberal backlash against overt sexism, racism or homophobia is often vicious and swift. I hope that comparison isn’t too glib – needless to say, contempt toward women and minorities has much more serious repercussions and should accordingly be treated more seriously. I only point out that poetry is the easier target for sneering because it has very few vigilant defenders. The kind of person who feels they are oppressively policed, censored and intimidated by social justice hit squads can freely practice their impression of serene imperiousness by snorting in the general direction of practising poets.

What is particularly galling about the kind of sneering that is directed at poetry is that, as so aptly demonstrated by Private Eye, it is adaptable to all possibilities. No conceivable form of poetry can escape it. If the language a poet employs is complex, they must be obfuscating pretentiously. If it is simple, then surely anyone could do it. Poets who write for the page are timid and old-fashioned. Poets who write for the stage are failed stand-ups. Poets who are subtle in their political engagement are toothless. Poets who are less subtle are ranting lefties. Traditional forms are dull. Innovative forms are gimmicky. Poetry should be ‘authentic’, not clever, but nobody wants to hear you talk about your feelings all night. And so on.

Now and then, a voice in the electronic wilderness implores poetry to rejuvenate itself, to prove its detractors wrong. But what can be done that isn’t already being done? Countless poets have tried being young and sexy. Countless have tried being old and wise. Many are poor. Many are wealthy and glamorous. Many write from experience, many delve into the fantastical. Most, I think, have ‘something to say’. Poets double up as their own underground promoters and presentable ambassadors, reach out to other artforms, collaborate, eviscerate, tend, trend, jump through hoops and pointedly refuse to jump through hoops. They work for free and they take the work they can get. But nothing can impress the practised cynic with his lovingly cultivated pitying frown.

What is perhaps worse is that, as Paxman might say, poets themselves have conspired in the development of this supremely effective cynicism. Poets, I suspect, are the originators of most or all of the most sweepingly dismissive criticisms levelled against them. Praise, in the poetry culture I consider myself a part of, is visible and plentiful, but it is also stultifyingly dutiful and functional. The lexicon of judges’ reports and favourable reviews enjoys considerable overlap with that of the advertising industry. It is depressingly uncreative. The negativity, on the other hand, is born out of natural passions relentlessly seeking new forms of expression. It is mischievous, sly, funny, pointed and frequently insightful. Because poetry works like a spell, and a spell is easily broken, such negativity is also very potent, and perhaps for this reason, it is kept mostly at a low whisper, drowned in a sea of perfunctory praise. But because it is so potent – a potency also derived from its honesty – it also, I think, seeps into the cultural atmosphere more readily than praise, which is willed and hence weak.

I’m basing this both on direct experience (with particular regard to the words I hear coming out of my own mouth) and on second-hand tales of what judges and editors say to each other at after-parties. And here I mean praise as distinct from congratulations, encouragement and comradely enthusiasm. These are sincere and in abundance. Perhaps too much in abundance – they are relied on, arguably, to fill the hole left by an absence of meaningful praise. The sorry state of the awards system documented in the quote above looks an awful lot like the pre-social media equivalent of coordinated ‘likes’, ‘shares’ and retweets as enacted by men in positions of influence. The problem with congratulations, encouragement and comradely enthusiasm is that they centre on the individual, not the work, and so we have a country full of garlanded poets whose faces and book covers are fetishised over anything they have written, while the writing itself is lazily trashed.

I am, of course, talking at a high level of generality. One of the reasons I value the reviews of The Judge on the Sidekick site is that while he is frequently scathing and sometimes ungenerous, his positive remarks seem to come from the same place as his negative ones, and so seem to me to be more effusive and meaningful than the average artfully worded fluff piece. When I lived briefly with Roddy Lumsden, my one-time editor at Salt, I found his passion for certain poems and books completely spontaneous, genuine and unflagging, even if he could never really articulate to my satisfaction what it was he liked about them. I could give more examples of exceptions, but I’ll stop there.

There are two lessons I draw from these observations. Firstly, as I’ve argued before and as has indeed been said elsewhere, there ought to be an ongoing effort toward a robust, flexible and playful language of positive criticism within poetry, so that sincere praise has many more channels through which to flow. The pool has been stagnant for a long time and is only lately being reinvigorated.

Secondly, I think that negative criticism needs to step out of the shadows, in part so that it can inspire spirited defence. It’s notable that Oliver Thring’s bored swipes at Sarah Howe’s poetry in The Sunday Times brought out more in the way of a passionate account of her work than anything that had been written to date. Don’t get me wrong – I’m very sceptical about the merits of a tough love approach. But at the moment, let’s face it, poets are not preparing each other for a life above the parapets. The good-hearted mutual encouragement and flattery needs to be backed up with critical weaponry, and you can only really forge this weaponry in the heat of critical disdain. But once it’s disseminated, one would hope it will be considerably harder for armchair emperors to feel they can make their mocking jabs without inviting withering responses. Which in turn may well greatly improve the quality of the mockery.


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