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Opinion Running scared of popular poets

TIM WELLS takes issue with a bilious attack on ‘working-class’ artists in a high-end literary magazine

THE JANUARY issue of PN Review contains a hatchet job by Rebecca Watts that has got British poets taking sides.

Nothing unusual there, what is the poetry world without splits and divides? It’s worse than the left. PN Review was described by Simon Armitage as “the political wing of Carcanet Press” and, as much as the hip young poets like social meeja, Professor Plum loves the dagger in the library.

Watts went to both Oxford and Cambridge and those Marks & Spencer ready meals don’t pay for themselves. She takes umbrage at “amateur” poetry, in particular Hollie McNish, Kate Tempest and Rupi Kaur. Hers is basically an attack on “populism,” as she would have it, or access, as many a poet would have it.

Watts fears that “the middle-aged, middle-class reviewing sector is terrified of being seen to disparage the output of young, self-styled ‘working-class’ artists.” Yet it’s telling that neither  McNish nor Tempest is working class. That’d be working class in scare quotes, according to Watts.

It’s also telling that her targets are women, and successful women poets at that.

According to poet Niall O’Sullivan, “The problem with Watts’s article is more about the values of the academic mainstream, how they are passed on through workshops, prizes and certain codes of conduct that must be observed in order to progress.

“When a group of young women go on to individually outsell entire shortlists, this suddenly renders the values of the workshop culture as inconsequential within the wider world.”

The idea that the masses can be happy to read poets that ignore the workshop culture's idea of what constitutes good poetry is of great concern for the social edifice of the mainstream academic poetry culture.

Why Watts's article is so vicious and snobbish at the same time is that its purpose is to simultaneously say "you may be popular but you are worthless" and "we may be invisible to your audience but we are better than them and we are better than you."

Elsewhere on the poetry interweb, elbow patches were worn out trying to get in with the cwitics. There should be criticism and, to be honest, one of my biggest complaints with poetry is that there’s too much bitching and not enough fighting. Martial, in Book 10,  XXI wrote of his poetry: “I am content that they please the Grammarians, provided they please others without the aid of Grammarians.”

No surprise that the “political wing” is so keen to keep us down when poetry is in such “rude” health. That’s rude with scare quotes I’m delighted to add. Both McNish and Tempest have put in the hard graft at gigs. Tempest has ensured that much of the limelight shone on her falls on talented peers and those poets before her who built our poetry scene.

It was built, and it was hard and we fought this same battle with the like of Watts over and over again. While doing so, we were holding down crap jobs, fighting gentrification, raising families and writing poetry.

I never bought into the page/stage divide. It was a false dichotomy that served no-one but arts administrators well over a decade ago. Many a “page” poet was part of creating the spoken-word scene we have today.

We refute that divide best by writing, reading, gigging — all sorts of work from all sorts of people. Helen Mort posed the question, “Why is it that different musical genres can seem to coexist ‘happily’ in the way different poetries can’t? Why do we feel such a compulsion to pass judgement about what should be ‘taken seriously’ as poetry?”

As for my Kinky self (apologies to Ray Davies), “And when I lie on my pillow at night/I dream I could write like Rebecca Watts/Lead the school team to victory, /And take my exams and pass the lot.”

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