Five Things I Want From Poetry In 2012

It can be tough defending poetry from its critics.

Self-indulgence, pretension and arrogance are all common in the poetry world at all levels, from the local poetry open mic all the way up to the legends in their own lifetime.

The poetry world has many problems, and these are some that I hope to see lessen, or perhaps even disappear, during 2012. There are also some good things that I’d like to see more of, of course, but we’ll start with a few of the problems…

1. (The Wrong) Poems Being Taught To Schoolkids

Many poems, poems that are famous, poems that are forced down schoolkids throats as soon as they’re old enough to think, are technically competent — and that’s all that can be said for them.

You finish these poems, at that age, and you don’t think to yourself “Huh, well I disagree with the point, and they clearly know nothing about the subject matter, and the thought behind the poem is both dull and trite, but I like the cheeky subversion of traditional meters they achieved in the 12th line.”

You’re told to think that, by your English teacher, but you don’t actually think that.

This is many people’s first encounter with poetry, and almost as many people’s last. The poetry that is chosen to represent modern poetry as a whole is bafflingly shit and, which is worse for most teenagers with bright eyes and lively minds, it is unforgivably bland.

If poetry is to be taught, and I think that it should be, it cannot be taught in this way. It is not sustainable to pay lipservice to poetry by choosing the most blandly mainstream poet of the day, hoisting them up on an awkward pedestal, and leaving them there as an example to others. People will just lose interest and wander off.

The works on the curriculum need to be chosen by somebody genuinely interested in poetry, and cover the complete diverse spectrum of poetry ‘types’, from the academic ponderthon to the witty and brash, but often very tender, work of the Def Poetry poets. That shouldn’t be too hard, right?

2. People Should Start Confronting Douchebags At Poetry Nights

It’s not “polite” to sit there in silence and listen to some shiny, perma-tanned stoner complain about the working classes and women, and why they’re all such nasty little shits. And yet I have done exactly that, in a crowd of some twenty-thirty odd people all doing the same thing, coughing nervously and trying not to meet each others’ eyes.

Being the other side of the microphone doesn’t give you the right to speak uninterrupted if what you have to say is hateful bullshit. For some reason that magical mic attracts a whole load of distinctly obnoxious individuals, who now feel that their idiotic and poorly thought-out rants about why they’re incredible and everyone else is just a bit thick, really, deserve a thorough and public airings.

As for who is to do this confronting? Well, ahem, after you, I insist.

No, but seriously, the next arsehole I see at a poetry night gets a stern talking-to. And no biscuits.

3. No More Squabbles, Infighting And Blatant Careerism

Hahaha, just my little joke. You guys go nuts, I’m past caring.

4. More Principled Stands

Stands against what?

Heh, I honestly do not care. It was simply edifying to see a poet stand up to the establishment in an age when, in the writing community, “laureate” is not universally considered a snide term of abuse.

A friend of mine pointed out that a Tory government (or perhaps any government) is hardly a worthier benefactor of the arts than a hedge fund. Indeed, renowned investor Warren Buffett is something of a philanthropist, one of the most generous the world has seen in quite some time, whereas the same cannot be said of any Tory that I am aware of  (Lords don’t count, they have naff-all else to do but philanthropy and snoring loudly).

I’m certainly not sure that rejecting cultural aid is the best way to get hedge funds to behave in a more socially and culturally responsible manner, not that I seriously believe that any such action will have much effect on the hedge fund in question. Nor am I sure that it presents poetry in a particularly great light to a casual reader of the story.

It might seem like a move typical of artists, perhaps naive, perhaps a knee-jerk reaction: and I’m sure that the move’s been misrepresented in the more bloodthirsty of the baying tabloids by now.

Whatever the finicky details, the gesture was, and remains, fundamentally noble. Poets standing up for what they believe in makes poetry look as good as it’s supposed to.

Unless they’re Nazis, obviously, but I don’t know of any Nazi poets, so that shouldn’t be a problem.

5. Poetry With More Blood And Boldness To It

Poetry sometimes seems like a neutered sort of beast. Whimsy and the bizarre can only substitute for really meaty ideas, striking imagery and abyssal emotional depth on a very temporary, ad hoc basis.

My favourite poets are the ones who take risks with language, who infuse their work with genuine feeling rather than words, who include the body and flesh and blood even in their most abstract thoughts. In this I have been strongly influenced by one of my tutors from the course I took at Bath Spa University, but I feel it myself too: it’s a big part of the reason I love metal so much, too.

Some of the most intellectual and difficult poets succeed at this, too. Intellectual and difficult does not have to mean dry, not by a long shot.

Sometimes it seems as though these “bloody” poets are neglected for the very biggest prizes in favour of poets who are more restrained, or who paint nice little stereotypical idylls of various parts of the world (mostly bits of Great Britain, in terms of what I personally come across), or who are so utterly entrenched at the top of the poetry world that they cannot be shaken from their perch by any means.

So there you have it. The lowdown on what some guy thinks poetry as a big amorphous blob should somehow conspire to do over the next twelve months. Now celebrate, and dance for me.

In case anyone’s interested, I would try to put Simon Armitage, Janet Sutherland, Robin Robertson and Sekou Tha Misfit on the curriculum to represent modern poetry. That’s just off the top of my head, of course, and partly it’s just people who I like at the moment.

Oh, and 6 — anyone who tries to make poetry COOL, or worse, RELEVANT by chucking swearwords about like candy, shouting, saying poetry is like textspeak or instant messaging, saying poetry is like hip-hop, or generally acting like an embarrassingly lame supply teacher are to be subjected to scaphism until they are very, very sorry.


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3 thoughts on “Five Things I Want From Poetry In 2012

  1. lucysixsmith says:

    An excellent plan for the year for poetry.

    My memories of school English are somewhat different to what you’ve described, but equally riddled with irritating things. As far as I remember, the main if not the only method of reading that we were taught at GCSE was to look for the Hidden Meanings in the poem — a dodgy business, which I’m pleased to say that we saw through when we got to a John Clare piece that we decided was just a nice poem about clouds and wasn’t hiding anything. (Although maybe we missed something, who knows…) And actually, some of the poems were good ones, I thought… though not all of them, I admit.

    • Mmm, the hidden meanings hunt was thankfully short-lived at our school. I think a great deal of it has to do with passing exams. Finding a ‘hidden meaning’, allegory or conceit in a poem instantly doubles the amount you have to write about the thing in your essay…

      I read your blog! I thought the posts (especially on Cameron’s KJB speech) were very thoughtful and interesting, but I didn’t have anything particularly informed to say on religion or language, and so I kept quiet.

  2. lucysixsmith says:

    Thank you! I hope that there will be posts in future on a wider range of subjects, too. Actually, make that “I hope there will be posts in future” — having a suitably wide range of ideas is a secondary hope to the hope of actually having any ideas at all…

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