Hands up everyone here who gives a fuck about poetry.
Hands up if you seek out new poets and buy their collections from the teeny tiny little section in Waterstones? If you get excited when Carol Ann Duffy or whoever releases their latest gem? Hands up if you sit and read poetry for pleasure, actual pleasure.
Some hands. Some fierce, proud hands.
But not many hands.
And my hand?
Well, it came up for the first bit, tentatively. I do care about poetry. I think about it a lot, I sometimes write it, or at least I used to, I often listen to poetry playlists on Spotify to help me get to sleep (totally works), now and then I read poetry in the bath. But do I seek out new poets? No. Do I get excited about new releases? Nuh. Do I read poetry for pleasure?
But there is a caveat: I have to be intoxicated. Or the poetry has to be a bit shitty.
There are many reasons for the decline in the masses’ appreciation of poetry but if you want a concise, well-articulated rundown of these reasons, I am not your woman. However, I can talk about my own reasons for feeling sometimes ambivalent about the state of current poetry.
The Prevalence of Subtlety
Do you ever find yourself flicking through a book of contemporary poetry and thinking, God, this is so bloody subtle. So delicate and polite and safe. I’m not getting any emotion, any fire. It’s not even pretentious, it’s just . . . nothing. Am I too stupid to see it? Am I missing something? Well, frankly, I’m bored. Time for Bargain Hunt.
Look – I don’t want to come across like an ape here and shit all over contemporary poetry with some ill-informed and ham-fisted generalisations.
Actually, you know what? That’s exactly what I’m going to do. If this was an academic essay I would attempt to do some real research (in fact I wouldn’t touch this in an essay – it’s got ill-informed, ape-like generalisation written all over it) but this is a blog, my blog, so I’m just going to go right ahead and be the gobshite I was born to be. Sorrynotsorry.
I find contemporary poetry just too darn subtle. To be more specific, I find well-regarded, prize-winning poetry too subtle. Because there is lots of new poetry out there which gives you plenty of bang for your buck, I just don’t see it winning many prizes.
I’m not saying that subtlety in poetry is a bad thing, no no no, in fact it’s a thing of beauty in the right hands; it’s powerful, often necessary and all would-be poets should learn how to do subtle. What I’m saying is that its prevalence is a bad thing, as well as its overbearing cultural dominance.
See, the more undetectable a poetic device, the more subtle its machinations, the more educated a person has to be to appreciate it. Did she just infer elitism? Yes, I do believe she did.
Here for example is why it’s a bad thing for, say, black people:
“The words had no subtlety”—The Editor Explained
The words had no subtlety
‘cause when the L.A.P.D. bashes brains in
they do not do so politely.
There is nothing subtle ‘bout being
fucked over, no matter what
position you get it in, it is still getting fucked
when you don’t want to be fucked.
There is nothing subtle ‘bout
being the national testing ground
for the democratic distribution of crack.
There is nothing subtle ‘bout being black.
“Strange Fruit” could never be subtle,
never in Macon, Georgia.
Billie Holiday wombs out the song:
“Southern trees bear strange fruit.
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze,
strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”
Have you heard her voice
distort with elongated pain
at the end of that sad-ass song?
“I don’t care how many Negroes are
in trees, or prisons, or the Supreme Court.
I want subtlety,” the Editor whined,
from his mountain desk in Tibet.
“Where is the confusing metaphor,
you are not meant to understand?
Where the puzzle of enigma
challenging our vast Protestant wisdom?
Where the Sunday New York Times‘
crossword puzzle style of poetry
to decipher over bagels,
before throwing the answer away?
The poetry is too emotional, too moral,
too correct, too pedantic,
Children splattered over burgers.
Time to be frantic before you run out of time.
“Strange fruit” hanging off street corners.
This is not the time to be subtle.
This is the time to be loud.
This whole ‘Poetry Is Elitist And The Canon Is A Load of Bollocks’ argument has been done to death, and by better thinkers than myself. So why is widespread subtlety a bad thing for me specifically? Old Whitey McWhiteFlaps?
Because I find it boring.
Unless I have imbibed. And then, the most dull, nothing piece of poetry is suddenly transformed into a work of profound, searingly beautiful genius. I’m lying there in the bath going, ‘Oh wow,’ re-reading the same gorgeous line ten, twenty times, trying to absorb it through my eyeballs into my brain.
But what is that saying about poetry, that I have to be stoned or pissed to find it interesting?
Or is it saying more about me?
Charles Bukowski (who I will probably mention in almost every blog I write) had a real problem with contemporary poetry (contemporary for him – he wrote between the ’50s and ’90s). He felt it lacked backbone, that it was all airy fairy bullshit written by privileged dullards, with the exception of a choice few (Ginsberg, Norse, Pound, Corrington), and he missed no opportunity to bitch about it.
So You Want to Be a Writer – excerpt
don’t be like so many writers,
don’t be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers,
don’t be dull and boring and
pretentious, don’t be consumed with self-
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to
over your kind.
don’t add to that.
don’t do it.
unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don’t do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don’t do it.
– Charles Bukowski (From, Sifting through the Madness for the Word, the Line, the Way: New Poems)
Rather dramatic, don’t you think? A person can’t just sit at their laptop and have a lovely cup of tea and write something nice about sunsets; it’s got to be all brimstone and blood and madness. I get it, kind of. But it’s very limiting and Bukowski could be a real dick about it sometimes: judgey, small-minded, offensively subjective and coming from a place of such toxic masculinity, it’s a miracle he didn’t end up choking on his own balls.
I don’t want to be like that about modern poetry. I won’t dare say that the poetry I find boring is bad and I’m not waging a war on subtlety. Because in some cases, the opposite – in yer face intensity – can be too much of a good thing.
I bring you Federico García Lorca.
Landscape of a Vomiting Multitude
The fat lady came out first,
tearing out roots and moistening drumskins.
The fat lady
who turns dying octopuses inside out.
The fat lady, the moon’s antagonist,
was running through the streets and deserted buildings
and leaving tiny skulls of pigeons in the corners
and stirring up the furies of the last centuries’ feasts
and summoning the demon of bread through the sky’s clean-swept hills
and filtering a longing for light into subterranean tunnels.
The graveyards, yes the graveyards
and the sorrow of the kitchens buried in sand,
the dead, pheasants and apples of another era,
pushing it into our throat.
There were murmuring from the jungle of vomit
with the empty women, with hot wax children,
with fermented trees and tireless waiters
who serve platters of salt beneath harps of saliva.
There’s no other way, my son, vomit! There’s no other way.
It’s not the vomit of hussars on the breasts of their whores,
nor the vomit of cats that inadvertently swallowed frogs,
but the dead who scratch with clay hands
on flint gates where clouds and desserts decay.
The fat lady came first
with the crowds from the ships, taverns, and parks.
Vomit was delicately shaking its drums
among a few little girls of blood
who were begging the moon for protection.
Who could imagine my sadness?
The look on my face was mine, but now isn’t me,
the naked look on my face, trembling for alcohol
and launching incredible ships
through the anemones of the piers.
I protect myself with this look
that flows from waves where no dawn would go,
I, poet without arms, lost
in the vomiting multitude,
with no effusive horse to shear
the thick moss from my temples.
The fat lady went first
and the crowds kept looking for pharmacies
where the bitter tropics could be found.
Only when a flag went up and the first dogs arrived
did the entire city rush to the railings of the boardwalk.
Federico García Lorca
I was first introduced to this poem by a friend, and my first reaction was, ‘Holy moly.’ Subtlety? Where are thy? Where off have thou fucked? So I ordered his collection, A Poet in New York, and looked forward to its arrival, thinking, Finally, a new fiery poet for me to give a shit about (the last was Anne Sexton, another poet who wiped her arse with subtlety). It came in the post and I waited until night time to run a bath. I got in, sober (don’t need no doobie for this shit) and started reading.
After eighteen pages I was done.
It was too much. It was beautiful, affecting, vibrant, sure, but the intensity didn’t slacken; it kept right on up. It was like on every page Lorca’s hand was bursting out of the paper gripping a soggy chunk of spleen and he was rubbing it in my face.
Calm down, love.
Subtlety, come back, I bid thee.
As any poet in the know will tell you, you need subtlety to give the bang more bang because otherwise it’s just an onslaught and soon all those bright and beautiful explosions will make the reader feel that they are staring into the sun. You have to restrain yourself, hold something back, keep it back, keep it back and then, when they’re least expecting it, Whammo! Right in the kisser!
Are We Enjoying Ourselves?
There are many different ways to judge a poem. You know – is it crisp? Is it powerful or subdued? How is its musicality? Does it have layers? Blah blah emotional connection blah?
But here’s one set of criteria that I rarely see mentioned: did you enjoy it?
It’s almost as if poetry is not made for enjoyment. Like it’s some foul-tasting turn-of-the-century tonic – good for you, but don’t expect to take pleasure in its consumption. And why should that be? Why shouldn’t people be encouraged to enjoy their poetry? Is it too low-brow a requirement? Us toothless commoners with our shitty daytime TV and our Xbox, perhaps we focus too much on enjoying things. Here, you pleb fuck, read this Snodgrass sonnet and down a pint of cod liver oil and consider yourself bettered.
When I read a poem, my first question is, Am I enjoying this? And what I’ve found is that there is a correlation between the quality of the poetry and my enjoyment of it.
I enjoy reading shitty poetry.
Back to Old Big Balls Bukowski. I adore his prose, I’ve read everything he’s written twice and even based my MPhil research paper on his short stories and novels. But I feel like his poetry is shitty. Don’t get me wrong – the man was capable of writing the kind of poetry I regard as ‘good’, but he refused to.
‘This they consider poetry because it’s pretty and it’s a con game and they think that we can’t write it, but we can, we simply refuse to, we simply refuse to give more to an age that already stinks like an old garbage can.’ (Bukowski, Letters Volume 2)
He wanted to do it his way – thump out poems with fire and gut and cock-blood. He was a rebel like that. Throughout the years, the results of his poetic hammerings have been greeted variously – he has his detractors and his fans. I am a detractor. The man was lazy. I don’t care if it was deliberate, lazy writing is lazy writing.
But here’s the thing: I love his lazy, shitty poetry. I can sit down and read it sober. I enjoy it.
I once bought a collection of poetry written by someone who I will not name (poets have got it bad enough without being bitched about) but to give a rough impression: she was poor, black, British and working the edgy angle. I found the poetry to be shitty and in fact I balked as I read (‘Oh dear me, so heavy-handed!’). But I read that mother from front to back in one sitting, stone-cold sober, and I didn’t feel cheapened afterwards. And that never happens. Could it be that it was my pleasure in judging (Mmm, judging – scrumptious) that swept me along from first to last poem? Possibly, but I like to think that it was just a nice read. I admire TS Eliot and Adrienne Riche but you won’t find me reading their collections in one sitting – it takes me six pints and a bump of K just to get through one poem.
So therefore, can this poetry still be regarded as shitty?
Well, yes. Celebrity Big Brother doesn’t stop being shitty just because I enjoy it. Pot Noodles don’t stop being shitty just because I enjoy them.
But if you enjoy something it has value. It’s a different kind of value, but value nonetheless.
Let’s introduce a points system.
You’ve got your high-class fancy pants poetry, your good, well-esteemed cerebral poetry that, reading it, makes you feel like you’re looking up at the stars while wading through thick mud: Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, John Ashberry, H.D etc. You, ladies and sirs, get one point.
You’ve got your shitty, enjoyable, populist poetry, your Bukowskis, your Dorothy Parkers and Ogden Nashes. You, guys and gals, get one point.
Oh look! You are equal!
Isn’t that nice?
When a poet can write something good – aka, critically well-received – and also enjoyable (dare I say Billy Collins? Carol Ann Duffy? Heaney? Plath? Hayden? Frost? Ginsberg?), then finally, we’re getting somewhere. But the world of poetry is vast. There is plenty of space for all kinds, be it prosaic, inaccessible, formal, super-pretentious, funny, angry etc, and people who moan about what is and what isn’t poetry are a bunch of bitches. It’s just a shame that those who bestow value on it are such a small group.
Fuck the canon, people. Celebrate your shitty poetry! Spread your shitty poetry like the diarrhoea it is, splash it around the open mic nights, flick it at the bookshops, spray it in the old white faces of your poetry professors!