On one side of the argument is Rebecca Watts, (whose website can be visited at http://www.rerebeccawatts.weebly.com) and on the other is Ted Hughes Poetry Prize-winner, Holly McNish.
Watts wrote an article for PN Review 239 called The Cult of the Noble Amateur in which her opening line was “Why is the poetry world pretending that poetry is not an art form? I refer to the rise of a cohort of young female poets who are currently being lauded by the poetic establishment for their ‘honesty’ and ‘accessibility’ – buzzwords for the open denigration of intellectual engagement and rejection of craft that characterises their work.” The article went on to denigrate the success of American poet Rupi Kaur and two British poets Kate Tempest and Hollie McNish. It was her statement that “poetry is a wonderfully therapeutic thing to do at amateur level but amateur artists and musicians don’t think they should exhibit at The Tate or play at The Wigmore (serious poets, I should say, don’t start off amateurs, but apprentices – just like any other vocation.)” which I found to be downright patronising
While having never heard of Kaur or McNish, I was familiar with Kate Tempest’s work and have a great deal of admiration for her performance of it. The overall tone of Watts article was that poetry was being diluted by allowing these poets who have arrived on the wave of social media (this is indeed how I came across Tempest’s work) and are not practised in the art and sullen craft of poetry.
The whole piece (www.pnreview.co.uk/cgi-bin/scribe?item_id=10090) came across as the curmudgeonly whining of someone who has been writing poetry for some time in the closeted existence of some university and was resentful that these young arrivistes were having a great deal of money poured into promoting their work. When I finally checked out Rebecca Watts, I was quite surprised that she was a contemporary of the other three poets in the matter of age. With only one published collection to her name The Met Office Advises Caution (Carcenet), she was by no means the bitter old poet I expected her to be, which made her reaction somewhat surprising. She graduated at Cambridge and completed her masters at Oxford…perhaps the expected route to poetry greatness. I have read a number of her poems and they are excellent.
On being asked to review McNish’s collection Plum (Pan Macmillan), Watts decided not to. “I was supposed to be reviewing it, but to do so for a poetry journal would imply that it deserves to be taken seriously as poetry.”
I suppose the argument Watts is making is that the poetry world was being knowingly ‘dumbed down’ by the publishing world in the chase for more sales. Kaur, Tempest and McNish are shifting units and I guess the number-crunchers in publishing see this as the means to the end. I just think she let herself down by likening the issue to the rise of Donald Trump in America. The people who are reading these new poets would not have bought The Met Office Advises Caution but because of the work of Tempest and McNish, one day they might do…and I think that is a good thing.
For me there are too many people out there who find poetry unappealing just because they perceive it to be elitist and somewhat smug. I once took part with three other poets in a show with the sub-heading of “Poetry for People Who Don’t Think They Like Poetry.” There is definitely a market for it.
McNish, (www.holliepoetry.com) is herself a graduate in French and German at Cambridge was not going to take this criticism lightly. On her website she wrote, “A clever retort using high-register vocabulary is fine, but really it is simply saying that the author thinks I’m a shit poet and fucking stupid, too, and that Picador should not be publishing shite like mine. So why not just bite the bullet and say that.”
Rebecca Watts has her opinion and is entitled to air it. The implication of ‘dumbing down’ however, is an insult to both Tempest and McNish. The Wikipedia reference to Kate Tempest shows her to be a playwright, poet and novelist of some accomplishment. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kate_Tempest.). Maybe the words of American poet Lucille Clifton are worth giving some thought to.
“I think that we’re beginning to remember that the first poets didn’t come out of a classroom, that poetry began when somebody walked off a savannah or out of a cave and looked up at the sky with wonder and said, ‘Ahhh.’ That was the first poem.”
Tempest, McNish and Watts are all poets. I recommend that you check all three of them out. They are all very different. Poetry, like all art forms is a broad church. Jazz, rap and thrash metal are all valid as music because there are people out there who want to hear them. So it is with poetry. It is not up to poets to decide who should be allowed to read poetry.
Perhaps I should let Philip Larkin have the last words
“One doesn’t choose the writing one writes…one writes the poetry one can write.”
“Poetry is nobody else’s business but the poets, and everybody else can fuck off.”
might be more appropriate here.