Sunday, March 4, 2018

Hobbyism and the poet

The recent brouhaha over Rebecca Watts' essay for PN Review, 'The Cult of the Noble Amateur' , re-drew the battle-lines between the worlds of 'page' and 'performance' poetry in ways that were not always helpful. What interested me about Watts' essay, however, was the author's perception of the need to defend poetry from the idea that it is something done by amateurs rather than artists. While I sympathise with much of what Watts says about the elevation of artlessness to a measure of sincerity, this struck a chord with many of the conversations I have had with other poets.

I have heard writers describe themselves as 'professional poets', but most who write seriously, without actually making their living from it, bridle when anyone tries to tell them that what they are doing is 'a hobby'. Instinctively, most poets would feel that this reduces what they do the level of a trifling pastime, like building model railways or putting miniature ships into bottles.

Arguably, this resistance to the idea of hobbyism or amateurism seems snobbish. It seems to imply that all of those people growing prize-winning roses or carrying out conservation work in their spare time are doing something somehow less noble, less creative, than people who write poetry instead. It elevates poets to some higher plane, even above practitioners of other art forms that are carried out on a non-professional basis, like making music or painting.

Then again, the term 'hobby' itself is inherently demeaning. Its origin is found in the Late Middle English word 'hobyn', referring to a robin, but then later applied to a small horse that could only be ridden for pleasure, as opposed to being economically productive as a beast of burden or a means of transport. By the 16th century, it was used to describe a child's toy horse. Is that what poets are doing? Footling around with childish things? Surely there is a strong implication here that doing grown-up things is about earning some money.
Jean Renoir on His Hobby Horse by Pierre-August Renoir
Metropolitan Museum

For me, the only way out of a defensive stance, which rejects the notion of poetry as 'hobby' while seeming to denigrate the (often very creative) things that other people do with their time, is to embrace the idea that poetry is, at least to some extent, an activity which, for most of its practitioners, exists outside an economic rationale.

We have to ask very serious questions about a culture that has come to see the grown-up stuff as being about earning a living and anything else as childish mucking about. As the number of paid jobs in the Western world is likely to decline in the coming decades, the creation of identities in terms of what we get paid to do will increasingly come under threat. Poetry shows those of us who write it and don't earn our living from it that there are some things that human beings do that are valuable on their own terms, which have a 'use value' even if they don't necessarily have an 'exchange value', as Marx would have said. If that makes them 'just a hobby', then maybe it's time we embraced our amateur status. After all, an amateur is someone who does something for the love of it.


  1. Your comments are interesting, but I can't help feeling that you've misinterpreted the thrust of Watts' argument. As far as I can tell, Hollie McNish is making an excellent living (several collections with major publishers selling well, endorsements from the top poets and editors in the land, spots on radio shows, major awards, basically being accepted by the "establishment") by writing poetry that may stand up as "performance" work, but simply doesn't stand up on the page. Her work would never have been published by a top poetry publisher if it had been written by an unknown. It is not good enough and it's not even close. You could argue that "amateur" isn't the best word for Watts to have used, but it's clear to me that she is unhappy about the fact that mediocrity is being celebrated (and I happen to agree with her). Watts is not running down McNish because McNish is just doing this for the love of it and not benefiting in any other way. She's criticising McNish's work because it's mediocre work (at least by the standards of "page poetry", which is how it's now apparently supposed to be judged) which is being celebrated.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Clarissa. You've got me there. Yes, I'm making a point about something actually quite unrelated to what Watts was saying about Holly McNish, but desperately trying to make it sound topical by hanging it on the controversy over Watts' essay. And I nearly got away with it, too!

    1. I definitely and very much agree with you (assuming I am interpreting you correctly...) that there often seems to be a privileging of those who "earn a living" as poets (meaning they teach creative writing, run workshops, work for literary organisations etc...because virtually no one can earn a living only by selling poetry collections) over those who have other day jobs, and that annoys me a lot. It certainly has nothing to do with the quality of the work.