Any argument about poetry is one worth having. So it’s been equally thrilling and disappointing to see recent debates decrying the proliferation of “artless” poetry in a market irrevocably changed by social media. A particularly scathing review of Hollie McNish’s Plum has now further inflamed the debate. Rebecca Watts’s article in the PN Review’s latest issue has inspired some heated responses. There isn’t much in the original piece that hasn’t been written or insinuated before, especially concerning the poet Rupi Kaur’s meteoric rise. If I had a bitcoin for every time I heard social media is dumbing us down, I could buy shares in Amazon. What really caught my attention, however, was something else; the refashioning of a longstanding brand of exclusivity as a minority position. Repeating age-old prejudices while casting oneself as a beleaguered truth-teller is truly a feat to behold. As an admittedly “young female poet” hell-bent on destroying poetry, I felt it was only right to respond to the sentiment behind Watts’s piece.
I write poems. Sometimes I get paid for them. Sometimes I read them and get paid for that too. Sometimes they are published months later in a journal or magazine or anthology and I get paid for this too. Yes, there isn’t much money in poetry but there is still money behind it. Poetry is as transactional as any other form of work. This means it is also dramatically stratified according to the gendered, raced, and classed social antagonisms that organize our world. Some poets clarify these antagonisms, in a variety of subtle and unsubtle ways. Some poets choose to maintain a critical distance. All remain a part of the game. Any poet who tells you they have transcended this political economy is lying. In its desire for imagined freedoms, some poetry aims only for what Theodor W. Adorno termed the “aesthetics of redemption.” For some people, that means a solipsist Instagram sound-bite of a poem that appeals to both the specific alienation of young women of color and the common experiences of a wider audience. For some people, that’s enough. This is what they need to get through their day. For many, this is what they choose to enjoy in whatever little leisure time they have amidst the generally intolerable conditions that make up their daily lives. This generates a lot of attention/readership/money for Instagram poets, who become symbols of everything that is wrong with audiences and not everything that is wrong with the conditions of this world. As Watts argues, cults of personality are constructed around these young women. But we already have a wealth of personality cults within the Poetry (with a capital P) world. Except we call it a canon. Our personality cults are endorsed through policy and propaganda and have been as globally exported as any post with thousands of likes.
What Watts disparages as the “dumbing effect” of social media is really the creation of new markets, and as a result, competitors. Honesty and accessibility are the currency of this new market and those who don’t trade in these affectations can expect to be shut out. That’s fine. They have their own market, propped up by centuries-old institutions, faculties, presses, awards, and networks. The reader is not “dead,” as Watts declares. The reader just has more options. It was through the web that I discovered the poets who changed my life. I found rare archived poetry journals from L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E to the Black Arts Movement’s Black Dialogue, tracked passages through forums, listened to Mutabaruka performances on SoundCloud and even accessed PDF collections to share among those of us who could not always afford the hard copies we wanted. Through social media, I and so many other poets I know have connected internationally and met people we would never have come across offline. Those who cannot attend readings or performance can now stream them. There are forms of sociality found on the web that extend beyond a few hyper-visible poets who generate as much backlash as they do praise. If these poets shift millions of copies, well then, the market has spoken.
There’s something to be said for the poet-turned-brand whose aestheticized presence enables literary institutions to absolve themselves, maintain relevancy and, of course, push sales. Marginalization becomes a kind of raw material. Brand building and unbridled commodification can foster an unambitious and reactionary poetry culture. All of that can’t be denied. It can also do the same for criticism, as seen in the uninspired shoe-horning of Donald Trump into any critique of poets from “under-represented” backgrounds. Predictably, Watts falls into this trap. We are told to think of the “middle-aged, middle-class reviewing sector” which enables these young female poets by showering them with praise. Please think of them, for they are too terrorized to critique these women properly. No one is too terrorized to critique Rupi Kaur’s work, as they have shown across various platforms, from BuzzFeed to The Guardian. No one is too terrorized to imply that even poets like Claudia Rankine and Vahni Capildeo owe their success to consumer-driven moralism or favoritism by prize judges who share similar ethnic backgrounds. Think back to the furore surrounding Sarah Howe’s 2016 T.S. Eliot-Prize win, which incidentally gave us the #derangedpoetess hashtag.
Still, Watts laments the denigration of “intellectual accomplishments” for the sole purpose of championing a “representative of a group identity that the establishment can fetishize.” That’s an interesting choice of words. Fetish; as derived from the Portuguese feitiço, meaning charm or illusion, originating from the Latin facticius, or artificial. This term emerged from the supposed attachment of Africans to material objects considered to be lower art forms. Unlike the Holy Cross or communion rite symbolism, the objects used in religious ceremonies by West Africans were seen as intensely alien, primitive, and ultimately worthless. These same objects would later fill the museums of Europe. I include this only to stress how established this chronology is. First, non-European expression is devalued, then rapidly commodified, and finally derided once again when its original practitioners choose to reclaim it. Karl Marx likened the accumulation of commodities to fetishism, in the original, mystical sense of the word. “A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties,” he once famously wrote. Today’s personality poets lend a likable and honest veneer to the commodities they sell, like all public figures. Their meticulously honed image is what makes them so approachable. They’re just like you and me, with the same concerns and insecurities. Except they can distill it all into simplistic yet relatable bitesize verse. In that sense, they serve their function.
Watts, and many others, are not members of an embattled class. Their anxieties are echoed everywhere from The Times Literary Supplement to Private Eye. When they speak of terror, they mean the tyranny of bad taste. When we speak of terror, we mean something else entirely. Here is where the confusion lies; these young female poets are fashioned into representatives due to the relative novelty and scarcity of poetry stemming from their subject positions. There is often very little choice in the matter. Sure, some play up to it more than others. But that’s a problem Watts and others have to take up with the publishers, reviewers, and journalists who insist upon their predetermined angles (most of whom do not belong to the same backgrounds as these poets). Toni Morrison writes, “Black Literature is taught as sociology, as tolerance, not as a serious, rigorous art form.” The imaginatively bankrupt criticism and scholarship these poets are faced with is a result of many factors, one of which being their historical condition. My own work is often reduced to newsreel topicality when I am just writing about existing. For the next four years at least, it will be critiqued against Trump or Nigel Farage or Brexit or Marine Le Pen or something else I haven’t actually written about. I’ve made my peace with that. As Nikki Giovanni reminds me, “they’ll probably talk about my hard childhood and never understand that all the while I was happy.”
Exceptional individuals aside, most of these predominantly performance and spoken word poets are seldom published, reviewed, promoted, or awarded as often as the critics that fear their encroachment. There’s no use mourning the death of a critical culture when such poets are hardly reviewed in prestigious journals and magazines, least of all in the PN Review. Until they are, their critics could try learning to discern between the superficial optics of representation in the marketplace of liberal identity politics and the genuine structural changes which would actually threaten them. Better still, they could say what they really mean. These “debates” are often poorly disguised attacks against poets who are seen to have monopolized on a kind of literary affirmative action (this definition of affirmative action clearly doesn’t extend to the incestuously nepotistic “highbrow” circles that determine quality as we understand it). Critique made in bad faith (most of what has been written on InstaPoets) sounds as elementary and petty as adults belittling teenage girls for their love of boy bands.
I’m against anti-intellectualism. I’m also against the delusional dream of a pure poetry, much less the banality of a “civilized” one. I struggle to take seriously anyone who defends the neutrality and objectivity of governmentally subsidized institutions and claustrophobically narrow-minded academic cliques. Tradition shouldn’t be used as an excuse for provinciality. Different traditions hold differing understandings of craft and its implementation. The same bastions of “critical culture” are the MFA poetry workshops molded by the Cold War and the CIA’s resulting cultural operations. We see another example of this supposed objectivity in the 1970s British neo-Movement’s purge of innovative poets from important magazines and publishing houses during the New Poetry Revival. Such a closely guarded consensus is not in any position to sneer at the populisms of the spoken poetry world. “Against Bourgeois Art!” Amiri Baraka once declared, railing against poets who were “as safe as old toilet paper.” Hyperbolic as that may be, he was right about one thing. The world is heavier than they know.
Kate Tempest, Hollie McNish, and Rupi Kaur have their respective audiences. Watts has hers. I dare to think I have mine. How we master the forms we choose to write in and speak back to our own traditions is a personal choice. We have the right to our own specificity. For some, Instagram and Pinterest will serve as a gateway drug into more complex and messy renderings of the human experience. This is especially true for younger, budding poets who are already hyper-aware of the feminized and racialized biases they will have to contend with. Young poets who want to experiment and grow don’t need to be patronized or lectured to about Real Poetry™. They don’t need to be handed a scroll of revered poets to go off and read as if all those names can’t be found on any reputable first year English Literature undergraduate syllabus. If anything, their online education may lead them to newer and less travelled roads. To “safeguard language” is to draw borders. I can’t speak for all young female poets, but I for one am not remotely interested in the defense of borders.
To bring something into being is an act of poiesis. Poems are composed in classrooms, empty buses, busy squares, public parks, dressing rooms, and prisons cells. They are written at the crack of dawn, between shifts and at the end of long days. Poets are the older women I know who recite traditional epics at weddings. They are the young women who disseminate passages from out-of-print anthologies via Tumblr. They are the bloggers who workshop their poems with a global audience. Once, I took an Uber home after a poetry event. In conversation with the driver, I discovered he was a veteran of the decades-long Eritrean liberation struggle. Before that, he had studied in Russia, learnt the language, and fell in love with Russian poetry. He had even written his own. I still had some unsold copies from my earlier reading. He had lost his verse-filled notebooks long ago and had nothing to share with me. In that moment, it didn’t matter. We were both poets. Leonard Cohen once called the poem the “constitution of the inner country.” We are all entitled to our own poetic homelands, wherever we may find them. It’s a big world out there. So let’s write some poems.
Image Credit: Instagram/Rupi Kaur.