Sunday, January 24, 2016

Why Do People Hate Poetry?

The recent controversy over the coverage of Sarah Howe's T. S. Eliot prize win has highlighted again the problems the British press has in discussing poetry. Katy Evans-Bush has analysed the sexism of much of the coverage in an article for the Guardian here, and that is clearly the central issue which needs addressing in this context.
However, apart from Howe's having dared to be young, female and of Chinese heritage, the portrait of her in The Sunday Times also chimes in with that strain of cultural journalism which turns a defensive attitude to poetry into a kind of passive aggression, with cliches about difficulty, elitism and lack of commercial viability to the fore. Poets will be familiar with these assertions, which are offered to them all too readily when they are outed as practitioners of the art in polite company. 'Oh, I've never really got poetry. All too clever for me. And I don't suppose you can make a living out of it, can you.' Sometimes, this is prefaced with a sorry, as if not liking poetry was a mild personal fault; at other times the tone is defiant, as if the very fact of appreciating and even creating poetry was an implicit criticism of all of those who don't.
Imagine substituting poetry for some other minority art in these exchanges. Would your first reaction on meeting a person training for the ballet be to tell them that you don't really get it, that you found it too elitist, that the dancer was never going to make a living out of it? I'm guessing that this would not be the case. Some polite questions about how it was all going and what the dancer's prospects were, perhaps, but nobody would feel it necessary to issue a statement on their own personal distaste for what is, after all, an art which only a small proportion of the population appreciate.
Ben Lerner has written very interestingly here and in a recent book about what he calls 'the hatred of poetry'. His argument, however, focuses very much on poets themselves and intellectuals of various stripes, exploring the notion that, compared to what it ideally wants to achieve, poetry is always to some extent a failure. His argument is a fascinating one and picks up on a neglected strain in thinking about poetry in order to launch a defense of what poetry can do. However, I'm not sure he helps us to understand the widespread hostility towards poetry in a society largely made up of people who do not think about it very much at all. Why is it that it is fine to mention going to the opera or an exhibition of video installations, but any hint of a visit to a poetry reading invites an open declaration of hostility. Most people aren't that bothered about opera or video installations, either (you certainly won't fine me sitting through the Ring Cycle) but nobody feels the need to feel defensive about their lack of engagement in those cases.
My own personal explanation is that other minority arts are not encumbered with the perception that they are educational. Poetry never lost its place on the school curriculum, despite a decline in its public profile, a situation which some poets have benefited from in terms of royalties and paid work with schools. However, when school is the only forum in which young people encounter poetry, the individual poem becomes a kind of test, a sort of overly-complex crossword clue which has to be decoded in order (literally) to make the grade. The novel arguably suffers from this treatment, too. But the young people are exposed to novels in other ways -- they can read Harry Potter or The Hunger Games for pleasure of their own accord and separate that pleasure from the grim accumulation of points in a school test. This, I think, is the reason for the defensiveness many people feel. Not only might you read poetry at them, they might well have to answer questions later about what it all meant. The idea that you might enjoy a piece of art without being able to discuss its deeper meaning in the appropriate academic terms -- as we manage to do every day reading novels, watching movies and listening to music -- does not seem to be extended to poetry.
Reading at a TableThis is clearly a shame. Contrary to many of the authors discussed by Lerner, I actually enjoy poetry. Reading it gives me genuine pleasure, and is certainly easier than writing it.
I don't always know exactly why I enjoy it, either. Reading Matthew Caley's new collection, Rake, recently, I was struck by just how much joy it brought me. Not necessarily because of anything Caley was saying, but because of its wit, its euphony, its ability to surprise, because of all of those things which, put into the dry language of criticism, are not adequately communicated. Let's just say that, on reading (and re-reading), I smiled. I probably couldn't write a decent exam answer on any of the poems (thank heavens I don't have to), but that's not what the poems are there for.
My experience has been that, when exposed to good poetry without the threat of a written test, most intelligent people enjoy what they hear. And most people I have met are certainly intelligent enough to experience that enjoyment. Yes, perhaps our education system could do more to allow people to engage with poetry, so that they could experience that enjoyment for themselves, but until you can get an A+ for having a good time, poetry might well benefit from being taken off the curriculum.


  1. "My experience has been that, when exposed to good poetry without the threat of a written test, most intelligent people enjoy what they hear" - that's not generally my experience.
    After a round of comments on a poem at a little meeting, a non-poet attendee said something like "none of you have mentioned the most obvious thing about the poem. It's shaped in boxes. Why?" None of us could give an answer that satisfied him.
    I distrust Costa-shortlisted Neil Rollinson when in Talking Dead he begins "Ode to a Magnolia Tree" with "Impatient/ as always,/ you blossom/ in the cold/ March air,/ even before/ your leaves/ have set" rather than "Impatient as always, you blossom in the cold March air, even before your leaves have set". Nathan Ellis (London Magazine) when writing of the same book, thought "The Coffee Variations ... a particularly ham-fisted poem which never really subverts its banal and bourgeois archness. So too does ‘Ode to a Piss’ do nothing to assuage its title’s lack of deftness". Agreed. And if we defend such practises and poems when non-poets express bafflement, no wonder their distrust can turn to something more cynical.

    When "The Poetry Review" prints stuff like "These poems speak in a voice of resonant mystery, detached yet tender" wine-tasters might feel they're being parodied. At least with opera, people can tell whether a performer can hit the notes or not.

    Observational stand-up has to survive a more testing reception than poetry books often do, which may explain why stand-ups sometimes appear to me to be more insightful, poetic and amusing than your average "witty, thoughtful" poem.

    And my wife doesn't like my poetry. It makes her angry :-(

    1. Thanks for your comment, Tim.
      I think you have pointed to another issue related to people not liking poetry which, for reasons of brevity, I didn't discuss in my original post. Here again, I think we may be in danger of approaching poetry in a way which would seem odd if applied to any other art form.
      For example, you may ask me if I like music. Yes, I like music. But I have definitely heard music I thought was unpleasant, tedious, badly performed, offensive even. Nevertheless, I have never heard a piece of music that made me think I didn't like music as a whole.
      You seem to be arguing that, because there are artistically unsuccessful poems which individual readers fail to connect with, this will mean that they decide to dislike any poetry which might exist. I think some people do think this way, along the lines of 'I read a poem once and I didn't like it', but why have we have accepted the idea that the 'poetry lover' has to be someone who likes it all, and that poetry one doesn't like is not only unacceptable, but also that it damns a whole genre. It also seems curious to me that anyone should be called upon to defend poetry they themselves dislike in the name of defending poetry itself, as you suggest in relation to Neil Rollinson's work. I enjoy his poetry, and I know plenty of other people who do. But faced with someone who reckoned it was a load of old rubbish, I would be inclined to say, 'fair enough, why don't you try something else?' I certainly wouldn't think the future of poetry itself depended on a spirited defence of one poet.
      On your point on poetry reviews, I moan about them enough myself. However, why does it surprise us that reviewers have different opinions of poetry, even rejecting titles which have been singled out for high praise elsewhere. It happens in every other art form I can think of. Ultimately, there is plenty of poetry of all kinds which individuals can take pleasure in. They don't need the authority of a reviewer or anyway else to enjoy it, or even not to enjoy it.

    2. I don't think all the other Arts are so different. I've heard people (on R4's Saturday Review, for example) slam grand Opera as a whole. I never go to music concerts - that classical music stuff all sounds the same to me. Friends of mine never go to poetry readings. "Art Cinema" films are avoided by many people. At least Modern Art provides a topic for conversation. Walking around the Tate with mates can be fun. Reading Prynne ain't.

      People don't often see much "poetry". It erupts in the media every so often. When it does, those poems have an exaggerated effect on people's perceptions of what poetry is. I can easily believe people thinking "Well, if that's really the best poetry can offer, I'm not going to fork out 9.99 to read more." They might not see poetry again for a year.

    3. I agree with you, Tim, that the publicity machines behind major prizes do have an unfortunate effect, showing us only a narrow range of the stuff that is out there for people to explore. It is incredibly difficult if you don't know contemporary poetry to negotiate your way around it. Even if you find a good book shop with a decent selection, how do you know what you are going to like if you are not already part of the 'scene'? This is where literary journalism has to do better, I think. As with prizes, the coverage is so limited that it isn't really helpful to readers who want to find their way through the mass of available publications. It also isn't helpful to readers if literary journalism spends most of its time telling them not to bother, because it's all too 'difficult' anyway.
      Having said that, I don't think prizes serve us too badly in terms of what you might call 'acessibility' or potential interest to the public. Looking a the TSL shortlist this year, there's a book of sonnets by Paterson, Marc Doty's moving autobiographical poems about aging and bereavement, Sean O'Brien skewering our contemporary society and politics with his usual sardonic wit, Rankine's blistering account of racism in America. No shortage of quality or range of approach there. Pretty much something for everyone. And last year's Costa winner, Johnathan Edwards' 'My Family and Other Superheroes', apart from being really great, has lots of witty and relatable poems about family and belonging which I think anyone could 'get'.
      As for Prynne, I know quite a few people who enjoy reading his work immensely. While I can't share their passion, I don't begrudge them it.

  2. Just want to say I have often met with the hostility, or a sort of defensiveness, observed in David Clarke's excellent blog. and that I personally have spent this grey Sunday afternoon curled up on the sofa visitng and revisiting my favourite poets, nothing more pleasurable.

    1. That sounds like a lovely way to spend the afternoon, Anonymous. Pure pleasure!

  3. I retired age the age of 69 years, lost for something to do, I joined a reading group. There I heard the phrase 'Readers are writers and writers are readers'. I was told about a Creative Writing group in the next village, run by the WEA. I joined, not expecting much as I had not written anything since I left school. To my delight, that first day I wrote a poem, was told that it was good!

    Since that day, I have written hundreds of poems and stories. Five years ago,I started a poetry group at my own Library, it is still going strong. One of the members has just began a poetry group in a nearby town - she had expected half a dozen people but, twenty three turned up.

    A lot of people I talk to, admit to writing poetry in secret, never showing it. I think maybe, among ordinary people more people read and write poetry.

    I am now happier to read a poetry book than a novel, my latest purchase has been Complete Works of Robert Burns (to coincide with tomorrow's Burns Night.

    My experience that studying poetry and writing poetry I have found respect and admiration. Only a few of my poems have been published, perhaps I do not qualify on the level of winners of big competition prizes. I am just telling you my experience.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Marge. The fact that so many readers of poetry are also writers of poetry, whatever their ambitions in terms of sharing their work, is something we should celebrate. Happy Burns Night for tomorrow!