Thursday, 25 October 2007

George Ttoouli - Come on Guys, Give it a Rest (response) (response) (response)

This reminds me of a discussion I had with David Hart about whether (and how) poetry, or any creative writing, could be 'taught'. After batting the ball back and forth a few times, he 'closed' the conversation by responding with a poem. The nerve.

But yes, "directionless breeds demagoguery". At the same time, I'm starting to see the benefits of manifestos, perhaps because of your poem. In a way, you write that poem to the agenda, 'Manifestos are False'. And, as Infernokrusherism also shows, manifestos can be a source of creative output, just as any kind of form can be a release on the imagination.

What I'm getting at here, I think, is that there are good manifesto groups and bad ones. Some are hollow, like the ones that attack, deconstruct other poetries and return only with "we are better, we are the best" without defining why. Meanwhile the poetry produced is not fresh - it relies on a conservative approach to taste. Whereas a positive force - "we will do this" - constructs a new centre and uses the creative energy to produce new poetry. (That's possibly part of the reason centres move: as positive movements grow, they mutate, lose sight of their original focus - the doughnut theory of ideological spread.)

Tom's article celebrates the poetry world changing its marketing tack. Embracing Johhny Greenwood, the internet, modern celebrity. But let's not hope we end up with a thousand Luke Wright cut-outs (i.e. stand up comedians who rhyme). He also argues that "The traditional place of the established poet is academia". Actually, that's a fairly recent phenomenon. Poets go where the work is, traditionally, and recently (past thirty years) that means the exploding Creative Writing industries. Before that, libraries (those scummy insular places where nobody goes), banks (ditto), insurance sales (an insular profession if ever I saw one), medicine (all doctors are self-interested parasites), etc.

It winds me up that people think this is a tradition, when we've barely started to map the impact of having university departments chock with poets. In fact, in ten years time we could see a massive shift towards a reading public better able to decide for themselves what they like, reshaping bestseller lists to some other ends, non-Faber centres. It's still a lump, not a doughnut. Dana Gioia, who put this argument forward most eloquently (I'm being sarcastic) based his attack on a misreading of Virginia Woolf and traces things back to the modernists. Who he blames wholeheartedly for a lack of creative vision of his own.

The mainstream and avant gardist movements that are most established and get the most media coverage as a result have doughnutted (this possibly by default: they need to have been around for long enough that they start to spread from their corners and get noticed, so their centres are turning hollow). Look at Prynne's peers spreading about - John James, Andrew Crozier, Barry MacSweeney, the Pickards. And look also at the mainstream coterie - the New Generation poets of 1994, plus hangers on. They've splintered up, spread out; probably some aren't even on speaking terms by now. The more successful create new bases, or pericentres. The less continue to repeat, rant and hark back to halcyon days of artistic energy. (Or more likely, a mix of the two, depending on their mood.)

Aren't we really talking about the public displays of affection or hatred. The point where someone uses a slot in a journal, or other public space, to moan, bitch, denigrate, in order to secure their place and destablise others'. Tom's article points to "unfair but sometimes justified criticisms that poetry is elitist". Where do these accusations come from and where are they directed?

For example: Neil Astley's wild ranting about "the poetry police" in his spate of public appearances a few years ago (the 'Staying Alive' introduction, the introduction to the catchily titled 'Bloodaxe Poems of the Year: 2003: Celebrating the 25th Birthday of Bloodaxe Books', and his StanZa Festival 2005 lecture). Now, what side of the fence was (is?) Astley actually on?

He attacked shadowy cabals of poets around the country, but rarely named names. He was hardly attacking the avant garde - he, more than anyone, knows the damage his and Bloodaxe's credibility would suffer were he to start laying into poets like JH Prynne. (In fact, hasn't he just released an extended version of the 'Collected'? Maybe we can get a review copy. Or someone can write a review for us.)

Astley's rhetoric at the time was incredibly vehement, but really, didn't take any direct casualties. He indirectly implied that certain lists - Carcanet's, Potts and Herd's, etc. - may have lacked diversity, and favoured experimental, alienating poetry, but anyone with half a brain could do their own research and see that the accusations were distorted, or plain untrue, or too generic to be more than wild ranting at the world. Hence the lack of legal suits following what was essentially polemic.

But what Astley did do was adopt the rhetoric of mainstream and avant garde tribalism, laying into the poetry world's infrastructures, editorial lines/tastes and close-minded attitudes. What Astley did do was mimic the only thing that most largescale media channels tend to care about in poetry - the infighting and divisiveness that makes for a few column inches of scandals. It's like the East Coast/West Coast hiphop ruck. Something that the media latches onto because it's an easy angle to follow. But it's all very '70s, just like the "all poets are academics" line. The ideas are hollow today.

So, Neil Astley, doing what he does anyway: marketing. That's a creative mind at work if ever I saw one - media hijacking, in fact. Frozen lightning off the page. What this highlights for me is the sense that some arguments, some battles within the avant garde/mainstream debates and so on, are very hollow. Whereas others are charged, driven by a positive creative spirit. And a lot of the rhetoric boils down to marketing, because it appears in media spaces that are increasingly geared to PR or marketing. Which doesn't make for a healthy critical atmosphere.

But enough already. (And don't expect a bloody poem out of me either.)

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