Tuesday, January 30, 2018

PnReview, Rebecca Watts and Ignorance

Pn Review and Rebecca Watts have expressed an opinion.

you can read Watts' article here.

I think she has a case, though I wish obviously intelligent people would stop making silly claims for poetry: apparently reading good poetry will save us from people like Trump and Farage. Really? How? If writers can't refrain from such obvious silliness they should at least be obliged to offer some evidence that poetry can do this. A dangling quote from the self-serving wishful thinking of Eliot, or Shelley, or Sydney, or Ezra Pound or Dana Gioia does not count as evidence.

For what it's worth I also think she states her case in a way that almost invites the kind of response she's received. The willingness of critics to make an unpopular case is one of the pleasures of reading Pn Review. But the tone here sounds like she's trying to keep the undesirables of her patch of finely manicured lawn.

I haven't read Plum and after Watts' article I admit I won't. I've been more interested in mainstream journalistic responses to Milk and Honey (which i have read) and its author.  It's been fascinating to watch journalists attempt to explain a publishing phenomena. The attempts have been almost universally woeful.

So here's a related thought:

Ignorance is the new Elitism.

This is about poetry in English.

 1) A potted cultural history of Ignorance:

There was a time when Ignorance was unavoidable.

Education was a lottery and access depended on your parents’ race, class, income, social standing, and geographic position. For most of history, for the majority, there was no chance of bun fights in the dorms, fagging, Latin classes, school songs and cold baths, and certainly no possibility of spending three years at a university behaving badly while complaining about how bored you were.

For those who belonged to that majority and wanted to participate in poetry, resentment was a logical outcome. It was almost impossible not to feel that there was an elitist edge, and culture was being exploited to keep the plebs out. So the temptation to assault the culture was understandable.

As the 19th century progressed and poetry became increasingly marginal, print opportunities increased and there was the beginnings of a strange inversion: anything popular could not be good, and anything good could not be popular.  The fact so few people read your poems was not due to your unreadable poems but due to a failure of the masses to appreciate your genius. As Pierre Bourdieu pointed out, only those who do not rely on their art for their income can hold such an attitude. Ezra Pound opined that anyone with an audience over five hundred could not be a true artist.

For ignorance things improved with the advent of the public library and compulsory primary education. If you were determined and had access to a library, you could educate yourself. It was the way generations of the working class discovered reading. Even so, it’s hard to find time to read when you’re grinding a twelve-hour shift, six days a week. Or working as an Agricultural labourer. Ask the ghost of John Clare. 

Access to publication was controlled by an old boys’ club.  While women were not excluded, no matter how good they were at their art, social constraints limited their subject matter and its treatment. It’s easy to forget that female authors wrote some of the most popular poetry of the 19th century. They have been forgotten before their male contemporaries.  

2) The situation has changed.  

As far as poetry in English is concerned, those days have gone. True,  there’s an ugly strain in modern educational thinking that would like to see them back. In publishing the old Boys network now contains old Girls and an ability to parrot the fashionable ideologies and adopt the acceptable positions are the new equivalent of the secret hand shake.  

However, Today, NOW, if you have internet access, if you’re reading this, you have effortless access to the largest poetry library in history. Yes, there are still people who do not have access. But I’m thinking about the Instagram poets, the bloggers, those who post their poems to facebook or any other online platform.

Today, perhaps for the first time in history, for an English speaker with online access, ignorance of poetry in English is entirely optional. Anyone who can read this blog can, with a little patience and a bit of effort, read Chaucer. That means he or she has access to 7 centuries of poetry in English and it’s all online and can be accessed for free and you don’t even have to get out of bed to read it.

3)    I don't understand you when you say you’re ‘interested in poetry’ or you’re a ‘poet’ but you don’t read poetry.

I have never met a good guitar player who didn’t listen to other guitar players. 

How long would it take to read one poem a day? If you read one poem a day, written before you were born and if you did it for a year, and then went back and reread the 12 you remembered, or liked, you’d have encountered more poems than generations that preceded you ever did. You don’t need to read critics, just poems.

If you can’t be bothered, or you’re not interested, why do you think you ‘like poetry’? How can you call yourself 'a poet' when you have no idea or interest in the possibilities of your art? Unless you are so arrogant that you believe that whatever you produce cannot be improved? 

Not only do you have access to the poetry of the past, you have access to publication and you don’t need anyone’s approval or permission to post your poems. The days when the old boys club and the academic elites could turn you down because you were the wrong gender or race, or class, or you didn’t write in FSE or you wrote about things they didn’t want to know about, have effectively gone. Today, the opportunity is there for any poet to build an online following. And your online following, even if its only measured in hundreds,  is liable to be larger than the sales of most books published by the  'poetry establishment'. 

4) Therefore my question is: Why is ignorance not only so popular but seen as a positive attribute?

Ignorance of the art you claim to practice is not a mark of courage or a revolutionary flag to march behind. It’s not a move in the class or gender war. You're not sticking it to the man. It’s now a choice. And if you choose; it’s self-centred, arrogant, narcissistic laziness. Narcissus never lead a revolution. ignorance never lead to a rebirth of anything except the crass the brutal and the ugly. And there’s enough of those around without anyone needing to add to them.