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.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Fact or fiction?

Literary journalism loves lists, and lists are (usefully for literary journalism) always controversial. Robert McCrum's 100 best non-fiction books in The Guardian will be no exception, I'm sure, but what immediately puzzles me about the enterprise is the inclusion of a handful of poetry titles.

Anyone who, like me, spends a good deal of their time browsing second-hand bookshops will know that the classification of poetry can sometimes pose problems. Really, the best solution is to have a section marked 'Poetry' and leave it at that. However, poetry titles do sometimes get lumped in with the 'Non-Fiction' section and even (oh, horror!) with the other books on a shelf marked 'Literature' (I think 'literature' is being used here in the sense of 'to be read out of a sense of duty, not for pleasure').

I can just about understand McCrum's inclusion of Hughes's Birthday Letters or Plath's Ariel, given that they are on some level autobiographical works. I was recently re-reading Plath's poems in the Collected volume edited by Hughes and was struck by the way that Plath re-cycles experience almost immediately into poetry; she goes into hospital and writes hospital poems, then she starts bee-keeping and writes about a visit to a meeting of the local bee-keepers' association, etc. So far, it could be argued, so 'non-fiction'.
'Reading' by James McNeill Whistler
(Metropolitan Museum)

The case seems less clear for Eliot's The Waste Land or Edward Lear's nonsense verse, however, which also make it onto the list. McCrum offers the justification that, whereas the novel is easily defined, non-fiction includes just about everything else. I'm not really convinced by this, but there is a more important point here about the perception of poetry and the limitations that critics and readers impose upon it if they understand poetry as belonging to that over-arching category of 'non-fiction'.

This perception is common with many people who are starting to write and share their own poetry. When I work with writers new to the form, suggestions for changes are often resisted with the insistence that 'it really happened like that!' My (perhaps rather heartless) response is normally 'I don't care!' What matters is what works for the poem, not what really happened. This practical aspect of writing poetry tells us something about what poetry is trying to be.

In the 1970s, the critic Phillipe Lejeune proposed the notion of the 'autobiographical pact' as a way of distinguishing autobiographical writing from other kinds. Lejeune argued that autobiography was characterised by a conventional understanding between author and reader, namely that what the reader was being presented with was an account of a real life, which had been lived by the person whose name was on the cover of the book.

To extend Lejeune's notion of such a pact between author and reader, I would argue that non-fiction operates with a different implied understanding. Non-fiction books are those which, however artfully, want to say something about the reality of the world, or to reveal some aspect of how that world is in fact. They are asking the reader to share in an interpretation of the social or natural world as it can be found outside of the text.

This is not, to my mind, what poetry does. To adopt and somewhat adapt a notion from Niklas Luhmann, I would argue that what poetry does is to announce to the reader that it is not the world. The poem claims its own space, apart from the world, and leaves the question of its relationship to the reality of the poet's own experience, and that of the reader, open.

In other words, the poem is an aesthetic object that challenges the reader to make sense of the it in relation to their own experience. How they make that sense, and how the encounter with the poem might enrich their understanding of the world, is deeply personal. In this respect, reading a poem is an act of creative imagination.

To return to the example of Plath, the poet might easily have written a memoir detailing a spell in hospital, living with small children and a difficult husband, her experience of depression, and so on. Instead, she wrote poetry, which is not simply 'non-fiction' because the material she worked with was her own experience. Her work may get pigeon-holed as 'confessional', but it is the transformation of life into poetry, not into reportage.

Why does this matter? It has been observed often enough that the 'I' of lyric poetry tends to make us think of the poems as confessions, that is to say as accounts of personal experience, and therefore as somehow 'real'.

I remember being at a reading by the brilliant Jonathan Edwards when an audience member expressed shock that many of the poems that Jonathan had written about things that had happened to his family were, in fact, completely invented. Jonathan's straightforward response was that he was writing poetry.

Without putting words into Jonathan's mouth, what I think he meant by that was that he wanted to write something that would move people and that would open up their own thinking about what the experience of family might mean to them. The poems were not there to tell them what family is, but for them to find out what it means for themselves.

When we reduce poetry to 'non-fiction', then, we miss something fundamental about what reading poetry could be as an experience for readers, leaving us with an impoverished understanding of this art form. Let's hope The Guardian now does the decent thing and creates a list of the best 100 poetry titles. I have plenty of suggestions.