I realise this may be copyright and if so, then PN Review please let me know and I will gladly remove this.
I normally post links if people write nice things about my poems, so I think it’s only right to post the absolute reverse as well. I’ve had my share of hate – both aimed at my writing and also just at me as a person or my face or my voice and accent or whatever.
I am fine that many people dislike my poems – of course they do – I dislike a lot of them. I normally don’t reply to these sorts of articles, because I am happy to have my writing critiqued in any way. But when something like this is printed in a very prestigious literary magazine which goes further than any writing critique to make assumptons about my (lack of) education, my love (or not) of language and my personality, as well as patronising and insulting a whole swarm of other writers who I love and admire and who I know love poetry as much as anyone, I feel it’s nice to be able to reply.
I do not want any comments below against the author of this article, which is why I’ve not printed her name and I am not looking for sympathy. I am very happy. I just feel like this is an extremely one-sided piece and if it’s going to be used to prove how shite and attention-seeking I am, I’d like a space to stand up for myself – as well as all the other writers who this implies are equally shite and also for the people who enjoy my reading and words – – whether those words are shared in books, on instagram posts, you tube videos or live readings – and who are insulted here too.
My comments are in italics. I apologise for any spelling or grammar errors but I’m not checking it again as I have lots of work to do before the school run!
The Cult of the Noble Amateur
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.
It’s a fine intro and all good to have this opinion but why is it only young females being referred to here?
The short answer is that artless poetry sells. In October 2016 The Bookseller reported the highest-ever annual sales of poetry books, ‘both in volume and value’. According to Penguin’s poetry editor, Donald Futers, this boom was due to the emergence of a ‘particularly energetic and innovative’ generation of young poets, who come to publishing with a significant and ‘seemingly atypical’ following. Figures released on National Poetry Day this year confirm this is no fad: sales are up by another fifteen percent in volume. In 2016 and 2017 the bestselling title, which has outstripped all others by a staggering margin, has been Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey. Here is a typical poem from the book: ‘she was music / but he had his ears cut off’. Here is another:
i don’t know what living a balanced life feels like
when i am sad
i don’t cry, i pour
when i am happy
i don’t smile, i beam
when i am angry
i don’t yell, i burn
the good thing about
feeling in extremes
is when i love
i give them wings
such a good thing
cause they always
tend to leave and
you should see me
when my heart is broken
i don’t grieve
Following the example of New Zealander Lang Leav (with whom she now shares a publisher), Kaur amassed hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram before self-publishing a collection of her poetry online. Alerted to its popularity, Andrews McMeel Publishing – a specialist in the gift book market, now with a developed (as far as sales revenue is concerned) poetry arm – picked up the collection and issued it in print. By May 2017 it had sold 1.4 million copies (back then just over one per each of Kaur’s Instagram followers). Commenting on the appeal of Milk and Honey, Kaur’s publisher Kirsty Melville insisted that ‘the medium of poetry reflects our age, where short-form communication is something people find easier to digest or connect with’.
I am not going to comment on Rupi Kaur. I don’t read her poetry that much and I don’t know anything about why she writes or her background or how long her poems take to write etc. I think the above poem however doesn’t do her much justice so I’ll give an example of one I do like and that I would happily print and hang in my daughter’s bedroom to remind her to be proud of her skin tone. There are not too many poems which could do that so simply as this in my humble opinion:
it is a blessing
to be the colour of earth
do you know how often
flowers confuse me for home
Also – if anyone likes illustrations with their poetry, Rupi Kaur’s are lovely.
Had we time to digest it, the diagnosis might provide cause for concern. The idea that Web 2.0 has a deleterious effect on our attention spans and cognitive abilities is nothing new; internet entrepreneur Andrew Keen argued the case in his 2007 book from which this essay takes its title. A decade on, this autumn, Twitter co-founder Evan Williams registered his dismay at how social media platforms were helping to ‘dumb the entire world down’, lamenting specifically the role Twitter played in Donald Trump’s election victory. In the arena of politics, language has always been the slippery servant of self-promoting, truth-bending, popularity-seeking individuals. In the age of the sound bite, for which social media is the perfect vehicle, we no longer expect the statements politicians utter to convey any meaning whatsoever. From literature we have hitherto expected better – not least because endurance, rather than fleetingness, is one marker of its quality. As Pound put it, literature is ‘news which stays news’. Of all the literary forms, we might have predicted that poetry had the best chance of escaping social media’s dumbing effect; its project, after all, has typically been to rid language of cliché. Yet in the redefinition of poetry as ‘short-form communication’ the floodgates have been opened. The reader is dead: long live consumer-driven content and the ‘instant gratification’ this affords.
First of all, haikus. Second of all, I’m not 100% sure why I’m included in this idea of ‘short form communication’. I only put my shorter poems into spaces like instagram because they fit. Those are not poems I have written ‘for instagram’. Before I published the book which is reviewed here, I published a book of poetry and prose which is 400 pages long. It’s not short. Some of the shorter poems from that book, however, I share on platforms like instagram. Perhaps Rupi Kaur – who has primarily risen on instagram – is a fan of the haiku. I don’t know. Maybe she also doesn’t write ‘for instagram’. Maybe she is inspired by a different form of poetry again.
I also find it really patronising in general when social media is constantly spoken about as if it is ‘dumbing down’ the world. If I write a poem and then I post that poem onto social media, it does not mean that the poem was less thought through than if I had attempted to publish it in a book or send it to a journal. The author of this article, I believe, has no knowledge of why any of us have started sharing our poetry online or whether the poems we do share were written simply for that reason i.e. to get followers or whether they were actually (which is more likely for me) just as thought through as poems by someone like herself, who may then send their poetry into a literary magazine such as this one. Also – to suggest someone is after ‘followers’ rather than ‘readers’ I find interesting. Surely a poet who publishes a book is also after ‘followers’ too?
I, for one, this year have decided to put five poems per week onto instagram. On weekdays. This is not me rushing the writing of poems, these are not poems I have written for instagram. It is me sharing poems I have already written, on a platform lots of people use, particularly young people. They are not people who do not read books. I read books, I write essays, I also look at memes on instagram a lot. I like many things.
It is also me being inspired mainly by visual artists who, as well as having finished drawings and paintings that they no doubt worked on extensively and shared in ‘proper’ exhibitions, also share many of their doodles, sketches, whatever you want to call them, on platforms like instagram. I love seeing this process of writing, of any art. For me, I like to share those ‘sketches’. Some poems I do write quickly and for years I only shared the poems I spent a long time on or thought were alright. But I don’t want to do that anymore. It’s fn sharing ‘sketches’ too. And it’s fun sharing poems on different platforms with different people using them in all sorts of ways.
To call someone an ‘instagram poet’ makes me feel similar to the way I have been called a ‘slam poet’ for years simply because I have entered five poetry slams in my life. Or a ‘youtube poet’ because I have put poems onto youtube, which the author of this article has also done. These sort of titles are an obvious and easy way to belittle the writing simply for how it is shared. For me, social media platforms are about allowing people who cannot get to gigs or would not feel comfortable at them, being allowed to have a look at my poetry if they want.
Though their reach is nowhere near Kaur’s in terms of absolute sales figures, Kate Tempest and Hollie McNish are her UK equivalents, dragging their significant and seemingly atypical followings into the arena of establishment-endorsed poetry.
This idea of dragging audiences is really insulting to those audiences and the poets. Most ‘spoken word’ poets or, as I see it, poets who’ve become popular first through live readings before maybe having printed poems or god forbid, self publishing their poems, are surely no more attention-seeking than those submitting to literary magazines and hoping to be published in them and garnered with the praise that then brings. Both are simply making the decision that it is ok to start sharing their poetry with others, that they might like to do this and both seemingly probably hope someone, whether an editor, or a reader, or a person sitting in an audience, might find something in it.
Both developed profiles on YouTube as an extension of their presence on the slam/performance scene, before being picked up in print by Picador.
I think this is a little badly researched and again very patronising and insulting guess work about the poets and the editors of Picador. Kate has done very little on youtube, she is hardly on social media at all – maybe because she doesn’t want to be, or maybe because she is so busy writing and gigging. She has read and written extensively and learns by heart and recites her poetry live in a way I will never do because I am too scared to not hold the words in front of me – and which she is a master of. Hour long live recitals by heart of an entire poetry book by Kate Tempest is a sight to see.
Personally, I started uploading poems onto youtube only once I had quit my day job because I was being offered enough poetry gigs that it was financially viable to do so whilst raising a new baby. I had been writing all my life before then, been reading live for years and only put my poems online at the request of a teacher attending one of my gigs who wanted to know how he could share a particular piece with his class, many of whom would not be able to – afford to / be too intimidated to / have no transport to enable them to – get to a gig.
In terms of the snide comment relating some sort of quick relationship between being viral on youtube and being picked up by an established poetry publisher such as Picador, I’d like to reply briefly that. Plum, the collection this author seems to hate with more passion than I hate anything, is my fourth collection published, fifth if a play script is included. One of those collections is a book of prose and poetry 400 pages long. Sorry, four hundred. I am not saying anything about the quality of these books, I’m sure anyone could find a lot of fault in them all. That two of those youtube videos went viral has obviously helped me to do this work full time, but to imply that the Picador poetry editors are simply scouting for youtube poets in order to sell books is patronising to all of us.
At the opening of Plum, I wrote ‘ as if a million views on youtube / means those poems are the best / if I’d shat into a bucket / I’d have ten million views instead.’ I thought that made clear that I am fully aware that a social media following does not mean that that poetry is of a higher standard than poetry with less of a following, or that the poems of mine that went viral are ‘better’ than those which don’t.
Both have received the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry. Through them, the establishment – by which I mean its publishers, editors, reviewers and awards administrators – demonstrates its belief that poetry must adapt to changes in the way people engage with literary output. Even McNish has deduced that her ‘poetic memoir’ Nobody Told Me won the Ted Hughes Award ‘because of where the poetry has gone, not for the quality of the writing’.
Yeah, I said that. I’m aware that a lot of people who like my poems have been attracted to what is said, not always how it is said. But I am also not going to go around saying ‘oh yeah, I spent months crafting that poem and I’m really proud of it’, or ‘that book took me a really long time to write and I worked on it really hard and I like this bit’ because I am not from the sort of social group where those things are said. I don’t want to sound like an arrogant arsehole, and, to speak about the quality of my own writing in any way other than saying I don’t think it’s very good, is just what I’m used to.
Also, because I know it’s not the best poetry. But, I guess, like when someone slags of a family member you also slag off and you get all defensive – of course I don’t think my writing is total shit that I’ve dashed off in two minutes It’s one thing for someone to read one poem posted on instagram, but that book that won the Ted Hughes award is a very long book of both poems and prose and I imagine if it was dire, or hope if it was, less people would be reading it and passing it on.
What good is a flourishing poetry market, if what we read in poetry books renders us more confused, less appreciative of nuance, less able to engage with ideas, more indignant about the things that annoy us, and more resentful of others who appear to be different from us? The ability to draw a crowd, attract an audience or assemble a mob does not itself render a thing intrinsically good:
Again, none of ‘us’ think that drawing a crowd is an automatic marker of talent. I understand the idea of political populism. But I wish the author would stop implying that my aim, and the aim of all of these other poets on social media and gig circuits is and was always to gain some sort of following rather than just that they love, always have loved, writing poems. Or rhyming scribbles, or whatever you want to call them.
witness Donald Trump. Like the new president, the new poets are products of a cult of personality, which demands from its heroes only that they be ‘honest’ and ‘accessible’, where honesty is defined as the constant expression of what one feels, and accessibility means the complete rejection of complexity, subtlety, eloquence and the aspiration to do anything well. As Kaur’s editor has explained: ‘The emotional intensity of Rupi’s message of self-empowerment and affirmation, combined with her passionate audience really resonated and we could see through sales of her self-published edition that her readers were really responding to her message.’ Similarly, Don Paterson, the editor of Tempest and McNish, says McNish appealed to him because of her ‘direct connection with an audience’ and the ‘disarming honesty of the work’.
I have been compared to Donald Trump! I have no words for this! I have no idea Rupi Kaur’s reason for writing so I can’t comment, but I imagine maybe neither does this author.
When did honesty become a requirement – let alone the main requirement – of poetry? Curiously, the obsession doesn’t apply to all literature; there is no expectation that the output of novelists or playwrights should reflect their personalities.
I get that – but poetry has often been more autobiographical than novels and plays, mainly because many more people write poetry for themselves first off rather than for an audience or reader, which is obviously not the case with a playwright or novelist, which are primarily forms of literature which are, from the outset, intended to be published or put on in a public arena for consumption by others. I am not a fiction writer. I was not an aspiring poet. I was just writing poems about my life for myself, all through my life, because lots of people do that. Sometimes I write about other things, but mainly my relationship with this world. I wrote a play last year about the history of Women’s Football and that wasn’t about me if that helps. And I am working on a short story about slugs currently.
Yet every one of the reviews and articles relating to McNish in the press in the past two years cites this feature as her work’s main selling point. Reviewing her new Picador collection Plum in The Scotsman, Roger Cox writes:
It’s not that she doesn’t care about things like scansion and simile; more that, in her personal list of aesthetic priorities, immediacy and honesty matter more. […] Much of what McNish has to say urgently needs saying; and if form follows function in her poems, well, that’s as it should be.
Honesty as an aesthetic priority? The function of poems? BBC presenter Jim Naughtie delivered similar non sequiturs when interviewing McNish for the BBC News channel’s Meet the Author broadcast on 15 June 2017. Asked what audiences like about her poems, McNish answered: ‘they like the honesty in them’. Naughtie elaborated:
They want poems that don’t seem too artificial or contrived, that actually hit you in the solar plexus. […] With any good poetry there’s nowhere to hide for the poet – I mean, it’s all there, isn’t it?
I can’t comment on this as I can’t determine what reviewers will see as the best thing about my poems. I don’t write for these reasons, I don’t write in order to ‘be honest’, for that, I chat to friends, but if people want to pick up on that in reviews, then fine. Surely there’s space for it all?
When we don’t expect linguistic precision from poets, perhaps it’s unfair to expect it from arts editors and broadcasters. Still, people who do not know that poems are deliberately created works, not naturally occurring phenomena, should not be paid to pass judgement on and host discussions about literature.
If, on the other hand, these cultural commentators do know that poetry is an art form, why are they lying? One explanation is that they are pandering to a strain of inverse snobbery that considers talent to be undemocratic. In acting thus, they are playing a part in the establishment’s muddle-headed conspiracy to ‘democratise’ poetry.
It was against precisely this ‘inadvertent’ trend that Paterson argued in his 2004 T.S. Eliot lecture ‘The Dark Art of Poetry’ (the full text is available online at http://www.poetrylibrary.org.uk/news/poetryscene/?id=20). A comparison of his standpoint then with his more recent comments about the new poets he has elected to publish reveals an astonishing U-turn. In 2004 Paterson denounced ‘the populists, who have made the fatal error of thinking that feeling and practice form a continuum […] those self-appointed popularisers, who, by insisting on nothing but dumb sense, have alienated poetry’s natural intelligent and literate constituency by infantilising our art’. Such writers, he argued, ‘purvey a kind of straight-faced recognition comedy, and have no need either for originality or epiphany’. In the Guardian on 16 June 2017 he identified the same characteristic as a cause for celebration, claiming that McNish’s work ‘gives me the kind of feeling you get from recognition comedy’.
Feelings aside, the analogy is problematic. Recognition comedy is the art of provoking laughter by making an audience recognise absurdity in the familiar. Its effect, when done well, is the cultivation of humility through self-awareness. McNish’s poems consist of assemblages of words that relate to familiar topics.
Ah, this is so rudely put – ‘an assemblage of words’ – but it is her opinion so all good.
Their effect is limited to recognition, which merely reinforces the reader or audience member’s sense of selfhood. As McNish and her critics acknowledge, her fans are drawn to the poems by the themes – sex, relationships and perceived social inequalities – as well as by McNish’s ‘unpretentious’ presentation, where unpretentious means abundant in expletives and unintimidating to anyone who considers ignorance a virtue.
One thing that irks me more than anything here is this attack on readers and audiences. I really don’t mind an article which claims in the title to be about poetry in general but really is then just about how shit she thinks my writing is. What I do care about is the assumption made in this article about lots of other people, those who enjoy the books and gigs and videos online, who this author has absolutely no knowledge of whatsoever but judges in one quick stab.
Another thing; the idea that my poetry is ‘abundant in expletives’.
First of all, it really isn’t. Yes, there are some, but I wouldn’t say it is abundant by all means. Secondly, she’s right. I don’t write poetry after having attended an English Literature course at Cambridge. I was at Cambridge but I didn’t study English and I haven’t read a lot of poetry. I never chose the poetry modules because I didn’t want to study poetry more than I wanted to study philosophy, politics, Latin American cinema and translation, which were the topics I mainly went after. I have therefore not learnt in this way how to write poems. I just wrote.
But using expletives cannot surely still be assumed to mean that that poetry is necessarily of a lower standard? I think in expletives. Naturally, when not being a ‘mum’ or censoring myself out of need in various social situations, I swear. I always have. And as someone who writes poetry in a much more familiar voice, well, in my own voice,the voice I think and speak in, rather than the voice I’d write essays in for example, I don’t then cut out those swear words because then I cut out the way I thought about that poem and I cut out part of my own language. It does not make me stupid or a lesser writer purely for that reason. I may well be a lesser writer for other reasons, but the constant attack on simply using what is deemed vulgar language I find fairly weak an argument. The use of swear words in different languages is also a subject I find totally fascinating as is the invention of swear words. I studied Chaucer as part of my English Literature A-Level. Philip Larkin’s most famous poem is framed on my wall. Perhaps the expletives were from them. I don’t think so but I can’t be sure.
Again, these are characteristics Paterson derided in 2004:
To take a risk in a poem is not to write a big sweary outburst about how dreadful the war in Iraq is […]. This kind of poetry is really nothing but a kind of inverse sentimentalism – that’s to say by the time it reaches the page, it’s less real anger than a celebration of one’s own strength of feeling. Since it tries to provoke an emotion of which its target readers are already in high possession, it will change no-one’s mind about anything; more to the point, anyone can do it.
In 2017 he asserts the opposite:
Hollie takes on subjects that we don’t talk about as much as we think we do. People may think it’s easy writing as spontaneously as she does, with no artifice, but it’s really not. It only works because it perfectly suits her personality.
Paterson is right in this: Plum is the product not of a poet but of a personality. 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. Besides, I was too distracted by the pathological attitude of its faux-naïve author, and too offended by its editor’s exemplary bad faith, to ignore the broader questions it provokes.
That’s fine, although I would call this a review really seeing as the entire article is reviewing the poetry in this collection. In fact, it is probably the longest review that’s ever been written about my writing.
In 2015 I heard McNish speak on a panel at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, where she was also a main performer. Two things she said struck me then as bizarre, both in themselves and for the fact that she chose to admit them publicly. The first was that her publisher (presumably by then Picador) had sent her a pile of books to read, because they thought she hadn’t read enough poetry. The second was that the poems she was writing presently were the same as the poems she had written in her childhood diaries. It must have been around this time that she hit upon the idea for Plum, which treats us…
Quick comment – this sort of scathing and sarcastic tone in the English language I find much, much more childish and weak linguistically than my using naturally occurring ‘expletives’ or swear words as I call them. The fact that this author’s use of ‘treats us’ is meant to be a clever and sarcastic use of language when in reality it is simply a mean, but politely written shun is more vulgar to me than my using swear words openly in my writing.
…to the ‘first poem I wrote down, aged 8’, along with poems ‘written aged’ 9, 10, 13, 14, 16, 17, 18, 24, 25, 27, 29, 30 and 33 (as indicated in subtitles). Sometimes the childhood poems are explicitly paired with poems written in adulthood, with an introductory note by McNish highlighting their similarities. Via this novel format she curates her self-image as a writer in possession of her full talents from the start.
No I don’t! Ah! I just thought it was funny that I was still writing about the same topics. I also think, as someone who is constantly surrounded by children (as a mother) and who has worked for years with teenagers (in my last role pre-poetry as education officer for a small charity for six years), that children and young peoples’ voices are so little heard or given space. This, I think, is mainly because of the way that they write and talk, especially those kids who aren’t confident in how to express themselves. I think I have learnt more from my daughter than I have taught her and she’s only seven. This is why I wanted to include not only poems I wrote about being a kid, but also a few, and there really are only a few, from when I was a child. Not because I think those poems are great!
I also included some of these, probably, because of this sort of brand of article which constantly points to me as someone who is desperate for a youtube following and some sort of false writer who started making youtube videos before she learnt to hold a pen, So, I maybe also wanted to just let people know that I’ve loved writing poetry for a long time. Probably that too if I’m honest.
Poetry as an autobiographical project is nothing new; we could credit Wordsworth for inventing the expectation that a readership should be as interested in ‘the growth of a poet’s mind’ as the poet is. Ignorant of any tradition out of which poets write, McNish has inadvertently penned a Prelude for our time. Where Wordsworth’s lifelong poetic project explores the development of the poet’s particular sensibilities – development brought about through a combination of emotional experience, education, philosophical reflection and personal engagement with events, and debates whose implications extend beyond the poet’s sense of his individual identity and importance – McNish’s slapdash assembly of words (‘scribbled in confused moments’, as she says in the acknowledgements) celebrates the complete stagnation of the poet’s mind.
Thank you so much, that was lovely. Again, more vulgar in writing style than a few swear words I think, no matter how formal it is linguistically. This is one of the central issues I have with such analyses of language. That 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.
And yes, again, some of my poems are scribbled in confused moments. Ofcourse. But some of them aren’t. Surely there is space for both types of writing in one person. Surely most of us scribble and draft and write three line poems as well as ten page poems. Some poems I write scribbled and some I work on for months. But that is definitely not what has stagnated my mind. It is the bill paying and washing up and laundry that is doing that, as well as being constantly told by people who know little about me about my own personality and reasons for writing.
The first double-page spread of the collection presents ‘Meadows yellow, brown and green. / Rainbows in the sky. / No litter on the grass or fields. / Butterflies flutter by’ alongside ‘i think of strawberries in the summer / firmed and ripe and juicy / and how perfectly dandelion seeds / are made to helicopter breezes / procreating across fields’. The first is standard eight-year-old fare, suggestive of neither backwardness nor literary promise.
Oh God, I feel protective of myself as a kid here. I realise the poem is not great, I just thought it was fun to put in. In my last collection I included a colouring page of Tinkerbell because my daughter said the book needed something in it for kids to do. With this poem, again, people have said they’re reading it to their little kids. I made postcards from it that kids could colour the poem on. Jesus, maybe it’s not thought through that well, but the annoyance with this astounds me. Sometimes it’s nice to play with book formats as it is to play with form and structure. Sometimes I even let my seven year old decide my titles. Sometimes those are better than the ones I think of myself.
The second, ‘written aged 30’, is a response to McNish’s mother’s assertion (McNish calls it ‘advice’)
It was advice to me but if you want to criticise even that then go ahead, assertion is fine, but this is a pretty picky point to make in a non-review.
that ‘I love you to the moon and back, Hollie / but you are no more important than a tree’. McNish’s philosophising (‘and i wonder why we’re here […] and i wonder what the point is […] and what the fuck we’re on this rock for’) leads her simply to ‘remind myself / this is not all about you, hollie’. Unfortunately the thought, like a tweet, is no sooner expressed than forgotten.
Like a tweet? Just to compare it to social media again because everything to do with social media is deemed dumb? A little more patronising each paragraph. But yes, I do get that. I did think it was maybe a bit odd saying that at the start of a book ‘this is not about you, Hollie’ in a book which was mainly poems about myself. So yeah, I agree with this bit.
The eight-year-old’s poem is printed twice: it bookends Plum’s first section, which consists of seventy poems grouped under the heading ‘(mind)’. While the second section consists of eight short poems categorised as ‘(body)’, the majority of poems in ‘(mind)’ are concerned with sex, anatomy, physical appearances, dancing, animals, food, or some combination thereof (‘Hiccups’, ‘Sweat’ and ‘Nipples’ are all classified as ‘(mind)’). If this feeble attempt to convince the reader that McNish’s infantile outbursts carry some philosophical significance seems preposterous, the use of parentheses to shield the terms from scrutiny is plain insulting – defensive and pretentious, meaningless and attention-seeking all at once.
Again, really, I didn’t mean to offend. I had a collections of poems that I was trying to bring together and yes, maybe the titles aren’t great and maybe the brackets are stupid and maybe my knowledge of how to use brackets in literature is flawed and I didn’t mean to insult but I have not ever been taught how to format a book or think of titles for sections or use brackets and I apologise if this inappropriate use of brackets was offensive to the poetry establishment. I am not being sarcastic, I genuinely didn’t know it would cause offence. I have learnt many other things in life though.
In ‘(mind)’ we find the poem ‘MIDSOMER MURDER’, which attempts an analysis of the contemporary penchant for TV detective dramas. It begins:
there’s so much blood on the streets
why do we love to wade in it?
behind the safety of tv screens
we dip toes wet to the limits
it’s the underside of life
we like to lick a little for some reason
obsess over lips, spill, red, kissing death
camera shots zoomed
into actors’ faces screaming
A few stanzas later ‘we’ are caught red-handed, ‘lusting over shadows to stand in / where we can idolise the blame’. And what are we to learn from ‘our own grim fascination in this / in the details of the crimes / in the thorns piercing rose-red flesh / into other people’s chalked outlines’? The poem concludes:
it’s a human obsession, perhaps
to look beyond the fairy-tale glory
but when roses are painfully laid
on real graves every day
why do we so love a murder story?
In a sense it is unfair of me to single out this poem, because it’s the one in which McNish most obviously attempts to be poetic.
It’s interesting when someone guesses your intentions for a poem. In reality, this poem was the least thought through of the entire collection and was written as a commission for a tv series about a detective which I wrote to a piece of music in about ten minutes. I decided to include it at the last minute because it felt right for how I felt placed between two poems – one about the death of my grandma and one about the death of a friend. But yes, maybe it is also a crap poem but I am still interested with our obsession with murder mysteries and the likes.
Certainly it’s a departure from her usual style of garbled literal statements with the odd approximate rhyme thrown in.
For this, I need to stand up for my writing. I have never done this before. I don’t ‘throw in rhymes’. I have written in rhyming couplets since I was little because the children’s poetry I grew up on and loved, which was mainly written in rhyming couplets. I have written all of my diaries in, mainly rhyming couplets, since I was about ten and now it is just how I write. I find it hard not to. As a teenager I loved printing out song lyrics and analysing them and re-writing them as a kind of geeky game. Again, they rhymed, so again I was writing using rhyme. I don’t ‘chuck in’ rhyme. I think that that way in which this author is flicking from a much more academic vocabulary in this article when she speaks of her own opinions to then using words like ‘chuck in’ to describe how I write is another quite vulgar technique at mocking me. It also reeks a little of the classism in how we look at what is good and bad language. In my opinion.
Did she actually read some of those books her publisher sent, notice that other people’s poems contain imagery and metaphor, and decide to give these a go? If so, should we judge the outcome more favourably, preferring the noble amateur’s efforts over the practised artist’s achievements? I keep reminding myself of the facts: this is published by Picador; Don Paterson edited it; the book costs £9.99.
I did, yes. I read them all. This is one of the parts of the article I find the most scathing. I asked for poetry books to read when putting together and editing this collection because, like the author, I am aware I am not very educated in poetry. So I asked for poetry books that I might learn from for this fourth collection. Wanting to learn I think is a good thing. And I did read them. I read them and I enjoyed some and I think I soaked up some more knowledge about writing, as you do everytime you read.
But I also realised that these poems were not me, and that I did not want to try to copy poetry which was written from a very different place. I read them and I thought finally – it’s ok to not know all these linguistic techniques and how to subvert them in your work and maybe I’ll slowly learn more and more as I keep reading and writing but for now, work on this collection . I also read those books with a lot of admiration – the metaphors and imagery that I’m aware I don’t write with, as you kindly point out. I learnt that I don’t like capitalisation very much from Emily Dickenson and I did copy that.
Open Plum at any page and you will find writing of equivalent quality. Another perplexing example is ‘NO BALL GAMES’, the message of which (all the poems have messages) is that as a society we shouldn’t vilify young people when we don’t provide them with places to go. Lines such as ‘like ghosts / the “youth” now shuffle round / youth clubs closed / for lack of pounds’ could have been lifted straight from Alan Partridge’s magnificent poem about the working classes in the North (https://www.comedy.co.uk/tv/alan_partridge_scissored_isle/videos/11091/alan_partridge_northern_poem/). For lines such as the following there is no explanation:
stinks of shit
from sewers, seeps to streets to poison kids
preaching, it lies in gutters lined in teenage kicks
deflated footballs, mud and teenage sick
with stomachs thick and sagging centres
minds left numb and fun repented
it snatches fire-filled beating teenage hearts
pours water over bursting teenage sparks
till nothing’s left, nothing to do
towns now turned to teenage zoos
caged and locked, their pathways blocked
left only cock or trudging shops
as the young poor wait and rot
labelled yobs by headline cops
First – not all of my poems have messages. Second, to use the idea that a poem has a message is again to shun it without any consideration of the poem. One of my favourite poems, read to me by my grandmother many times is Wilfred Owens ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’. It has a message and for me remains one of the greatest poems I’ve ever read. If you think my poems are crap then just say that. To say they are crap because they have a message is not a fair point.
She writes: ‘For lines such as the following there is no explanation’. But there is an explanation. I thought of them. They came into my head, I enjoyed them and wrote them down. I worked in an architecture centre for six years running workshops trying to involve young people in town planning and I found (and still find) No Ball Games signs a tragic insult to, mainly poor, young people wanting to play outside. So that is the message, which I wrote in a poem for myself at work initially and then shared with others. As for the language, I actually like the lines she hates. I like the sound of them as I speak them. I like the half and full rhymes, I like them. I like ‘from sewers seeps to streets’. I don’t think it’s the best poem, but I do like the language in this one.
If only Schopenhauer could have read Plum! It would have distracted him from his hatred of Hegel.
I just can’t with this line. It is too much for me to handle without smacking myself in the face. There is too much I could say about someone claiming to know what two great philosophers and writers would think of any of my poems. I have studied a bit of Hegel and Schopenhauer as part of a French and German degree at Cambridge University and I would never claim to know their opinions on a person or a person’s poetry which they have not written about directly. I could guess, of course but I would not write with such certainty as this author has done.
I have so many people assuming that they know everything about the way I think because of what I say in my writing, and I can only assume that the author of this review does not know these Hegel or Schopenhauer personally. But as a piece of intellectual mockery, I guess it is very clever. Well done. It makes me feel like I am back in my Cambridge supervisions being told I am having a blonde day.
It is such stuff as madmen tongue, and brain not; the product of a ‘(mind)’ with a limited grasp of denotation and the ways in which words can be combined to form meaningful phrases. Yet in the Times (23 July 2017) Jeremy Noel-Tod claimed that McNish ‘can be verbally deft over long stretches, and is seriously interested in how language shapes the world and our emotions’. (He also says McNish writes with a ‘passionately insistent voice that seems to look you in the eye’, which perhaps explains his indifference to her tangled attempts at metaphor.)
Another misconception among – or deception practised by – her celebrants is that McNish’s ‘bold’ (Scotsman)and ‘fearless’ (Scotsman, Times) inclusion of poems by her younger self in the book is both generous and admirable – that her ‘willingness to let it all hang out’ (Guardian, Scotsman) should inspire us to greater honesty concerning our own failings. ‘As part of her fearless, funny and inclusive campaign against “armoured adult thoughts”,’ asserts Noel-Tod, ‘it makes perfect sense’. Can anyone really have been hoodwinked by such faux-humility?
Hoodwinked? I like writing poems. If they’re crap, that’s one thing, but to assume some sort of cunning plan to lure people into reading them amazes me. I do not have the time for that and if I did, I would do something more fun with that time.
Rather, by making a virtue of her arrested development McNish shields herself from accusations of puerility.
Maybe so – but don’t we all do this? ‘Oh, I like your dress’. ‘Oh this, oh no, it was only £5’ etc Maybe I am protecting myself by saying my poems aren’t that good but I also know there are great poets out there and I wouldn’t dream of saying anything other than what I’ve already said about my writing for that reason. What exactly is it I’m meant to think about my writing? That it’s fucking brilliant? Well, I don’t think that, I’m sorry.
The book is deliberately bad:
Oi now – no it’s fucking not! How bloody rude is this! That’s too far now. If you don’t like it, fine, but this is an awful thing to suggest! Oh lord help me.
it is predicated on the defiance of all standards by which it could be judged. Here lies absurdity. Proud of their imperviousness to literary influence, the personality poets would have us redefine poetry as whatever the poetic establishment claims it isn’t. Ignorant of Shakespeare, Burns, Rochester, Dickinson, Rossetti, Harrison, Ginsberg, Larkin, Plath, Rich and a thousand others (including their contemporaries – Addonizio, Capildeo and Lee-Houghton, for example) they regard themselves as taboo breakers, as though no poet before them had ever written about sex or motherhood, highlighted inequalities or deployed obscenities.
This, again, is unfair and I think very, very patronising. To say ‘we’ (whoever the we refers to) are ‘proud of our imperviousness to literary influence’ is such an assumption. To talk of Kate Tempest in the same group of writers as those who are ignorant of Shakespeare is point in itself. The poets I have met on the ‘spoken word circuit’ are the most well read (in terms of poetry) group of people I know.
Personally though, yes, I have not read a lot of English Literature. It’s true. And I’m sure my writing would be better if I did. But that is not a pride in being ignorant. It is a choice I made to study or specialise in other things. At A-Level, I took Maths, English Literature, French and German. I got 4 A’s for various reasons – social privilege and hard work being, I think, the top two. If I had chosen to go on to do English Literature at University as this author did, then yes, I would likely have read these works and maybe written differently. Maybe written ‘better’. But I did not want to study English Literature and I still wouldn’t want to if I could go back and study again.
I loved other languages, translation mainly. I was pretty obsessed with this. I got into Cambridge to study French and German and again, did not read much poetry. I wanted to learn to speak and write and communicate in those languages. I have always been more excited to speak many languages alright, than to specialise in one, least of all English. That choice, the fact that I or anyone else has not read the canon of English Literature is not ignorance or stupidity or a reason for us not to attempt or simply enjoy writing our own poetry. There are other passions to have, other interests, other things to do in life. I would love to read all of these authors, but I do not have all the time in the world right now and I have other things I am much more passionate about.
While in person McNish admits her desire for establishment status – telling the Guardian that she ‘never would have got in’ if she’d ‘just sent [her] stuff off to traditional poetry publishers’,
and, now that she is ‘in’, resisting the appellation ‘spoken word poet’ because ‘it can be a bit of a derogatory label’ – her writing is predicated on a truculent anti-establishmentism. In fact, in Plum the entire project of poetry – of invocation through language – is overturned. ‘I tried to capture it here, but I can’t’, McNish says, introducing a poem about her first bra. ‘I would say they are some of the worst poems I have ever written’, she smirks in her commentary on ‘extract from Désirs’, one of her ‘many terrible teenage love poems’.
Less a smirk, more a reality and hoping it might make people giggle as it makes me giggle to read them again. I have been told giggling is unintellectual but I highly disagree with this idea too. in fact, the people who make the memes which I sometimes spend hours laughing about I consider some of the most intelligent folk out there. Comedians too.
It is a twisted sort of vanity that leads a person to crave applause for what they believe to be their worst creations.
Again, was just a playful decision for a book and not an attempt to get applause for bad poetry. No-one has applauded these poems. Of course. Myself included.
Yet as McNish understands, the cult of personality that social media fosters works precisely this way: once you care about the person you’ll consume anything they produce – especially if it makes you feel better about your own lack of talent. ‘the poems tumble out my mouth / like our learnt school lines / people seem to like it’, she writes in ‘Oasis’. Despite her wholesale condemnation of aspiration, McNish aspires to be admired for her talents, as well as liked. ‘People often come up to me at gigs and tell me that they didn’t think they could write poetry until they read mine,’ she has lamented in the Guardian. ‘It’s not really a compliment, is it? Saying that anyone could do what I do.’
There is an upside to poetry becoming something that ‘anyone could do’. The art form can no longer be accused of being elitist – an accusation that until recently has precluded its mass-market appeal. In other contexts, elitism is not considered an evil in itself. We frankly desire our doctors, hairdressers, plumbers and sportspersons to be the best: to learn from precedent, work hard, hone their skills and be better than we are at their chosen vocations. Even in the other arts, the line between amateur and professional is clearer than it is in poetry. As Paterson argued in 2004: ‘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.)’
Well I am fine to be an amateur poet – this really bothers me very little. But if one of those amateur artists spoken about above was approached by someone at the Tate who liked their work enough and asked them to exhibit it, what then? Not everyone in ‘our group’ went around looking desperately for people who will listen to their poems, as this article continuously suggests. I did not send my poems out to publications. I did not ask people to give me gigs. I was encouraged by people close to me and then asked by those organising events. Ironically, after my first open mic I had a rule that unless asked, I would not read out my poems again as I didn’t want to force them onto people.
I do think the comparison to a medical professional is maybe troublesome though, in the ability for their line of work to be judged or graded and also in its dire effects if done wrong. As my mother – nurse manager – said when comparing our jobs: what’s the worst that can happen if you write a bad poem? Someone won’t like it?
Perhaps because poetry is taken to be the loftiest of the literary arts it is the most susceptible to invasion by those intent on bringing down all barriers on the grounds of fairness. McNish is one such warrior.
I really don’t have these aims. I really just like writing and I love language. Invasion is a bit strong perhaps and I feel that this part of the article is verging on ridiculous. I really have better things to do with my life than attempt to ‘bring down’ a literary art form. I’m sorry you think my writing is so very terrible. Please don’t call me a warrior. I don’t like fighting.
In her commentary on ‘Politicians’ she claims that her mother’s warning ‘not to become an inverted snob’ is ‘one of the most important and difficult lessons I’ve tried to learn’. Her poem ‘Aspiration’ (subtitled ‘After watching Grand Designs on telly for the last time’) is revealing in this regard. After stereotyping those with ‘highly paid jobs’ and ‘workmen’ equally (she’s nothing if not egalitarian in her refusal to engage thoughtfully with others’ experiences), she compares the Grand Designers ‘sarah’ and ‘tim’ (or ‘jim’ – his name inexplicably changes halfway through), who ‘nibble on nuts from a vintage glass ashtray’, with herself ‘nibbl[ing] on nuts eaten straight from the packet’:
Jim and Tim was just a typo, these things happen. Annoying but…
and i think how those nuts might taste from a bowl
on a dining-room table carved straight out of a tree […]
and then i get bored of this dream
and i realise i do not like tim
and that soon enough
It’s not clear what’s stopping McNish from putting her nuts in a bowl.
Point taken, but I think it’s fairly obvious that the point here is not about whether I can put nuts into a bowl, it is about the type of bowl on the type of table ‘carved straight from a tree’ that is deemed ‘better’ to eat nuts from by our current lifestyle and image obsessed culture. I think that’s fairly obvious here and that this comment about the bowl was a bit unneccessary.
But having set out to lampoon the paraphernalia of an upper-middle-class lifestyle, she concludes with the nihilistic flourish that any aspiration or application of effort is futile.
It is a poem about our mainly media culture holding up these expensive lifestyles as being ‘daring’ and ‘brave’ whilst often blurring out those workers who are equally skilled and behind the scenes in so many ways. It is also about how this upper middle class consumer lifestyle being so applauded makes many (myself included as well as those who are part of this group) feel shit about ourselves for not having all of these things, which ultimately, I think yes, are fairly futile. The same way that airbrushed bodies are affecting our view of our own flesh I guess.
As someone who engages with social media and who gigs a lot and therefore gets feedback from lots of the people who read my poems, it is in fact mostly people who do have these sort of lifestyles or who aspire to them who have asked me for copies of this poem – three specifically to hang up in their barn conversions and two because their d-i.y loving husbands are called tim. I don’t talk for them all, but I think I talk to more of the people who like my poems than this author does and don’t think they seem to be insulted.
Whether socially or as a writer, admitting pride in an attitude of slobbishness is a way of shielding oneself against criticism or condescension.
I am not a slob. Just saying. I write a lot and some of my writing is rough and scribbled quickly yes. But don’t call me slobbish. I work my arse off writing and touring and parenting and living.
Yet McNish needn’t worry. The middle-aged, middle-class reviewing sector is terrified of being seen to disparage the output of young, self-styled ‘working-class’ artists.
Many people put this on me. This working class or falsely working class label. I have never said I am working class. I have never taken a panel or radio job where I was asked to represent this class because I am not from it. I am not an under-represented group in the arts. I am a middle class white woman who went to Cambridge (albeit from 12 years in state school education – two years on a Primary School scholarship to a local private school) so I can’t really be deemed an outsider in this way. They might, maybe, just like some of my writing. Maybe. Or maybe it is just the way I talk. Not sure. Or the young mum thing. Or maybe they just like my hair.
In fact, it is terrified of being seen to criticise the output of anyone it imagines is speaking on behalf of a group traditionally under-represented in the arts. Time and time again, the arts media subordinates the work – in many cases excellent and original work – in favour of focusing on its creator. Technical and intellectual accomplishments are as nothing compared with the ‘achievement’ of being considered representative of a group identity that the establishment can fetishise. This is reflected in headlines such as ‘Vietnamese refugee Ocean Vuong wins 2017 Forward Prize for Poetry’ (Telegraph), and phrases such as ‘oriental poise’ and the ‘ragged sleeve’ of ‘ordinary working people’ (Kate Kellaway in the Guardian, on Sarah Howe and William Letford respectively). Such attitudes are predicated on the stereotyping or caricaturing of ‘audiences’, rather than an appreciation of the existence of individual readers. Just as McNish insults those she expects to buy her books – condescending to an uneducated class with which she professes solidarity, while simultaneously rejecting her spoken-word roots – the critics and publishers who praise her for ‘telling it like it is’ debase us as readers by peddling writing of the poorest quality because they think this is all we deserve.
I disagree. I don’t think I insult people so much and sorry if I do. This constant obessesion in this article with a person’s level of formal education I find worrying. I came across this snobbery so much at Cambridge – the idea of the uneducated person solely meaning not formally education to higher or degree level as if people cannot read and learn and study things alone at different points in our lives.
I also find this idea of my ‘spoken word roots’ interesting. I wrote poetry down in notebooks for 20 years before sharing them in any sort of spoken form. I do not shun spoken word, I just think that the label ‘spoken word poet’ is so often used to imply all of the prejudices which this article achieves. So I think it is nice to be allowed simply to be called a poet sometimes, or a writer. I have five books published. I don’ t think it’s too much to ask. They are all but one available in audiobook too though, for those who prefer listening rather than reader. Or for those who can’t read well.
We might ask: how is it? Life, as good poetry attests, is complicated and infinitely various. Just because something is ‘what I think’ doesn’t mean people en masse should be encouraged to listen (Trump and Farage should have taught us that much). It is the job of poets to safeguard language: to strive, through innovation and engagement with tradition, to find new ways of making language meaningful and memorable. Eliot noted in 1932, ‘the people which ceases to care for its literary inheritance becomes barbaric’.
I am always wary of the idea that it is the ‘job of poets’ to do anything. I am often told from less literary publications than this that it is the job of poets to discuss current affairs, or to get messages across or to voice the voiceless. I also disagree with that. Surely poets write what they write and hopefully there is space for it all. Also – what language are we safeguarding here because surely spoken language, colloquialisms, even the vulgar obscenities are then part of this constantly changing language which we can record / save / use. I studied indigenous languages a lot, and the loss of spoken languages is one of the many aspects of our lives on this planet which are becoming endangered. I think language is a fascinating concept but this idea of what we are safeguarding seems quite limited.
Though he wrote before Orwell, Eliot knew that to embrace Newspeak is to relinquish the only tool we have for communicating and defending civilised values. If we are to foster the kind of intelligent critical culture required to combat the effects of populism in politics, we must stop celebrating amateurism and ignorance in our poetry.
Well I hope you get what you are after. Thank you for making me feel smaller and more stupid than I have been made to feel in so many literary and academic spaces during my life. As someone who enjoys reading and writing so much I hope I don’t continue to offend you. I feel amateur in most things I do, especially poetry and parenting, the two things I do the most, so am happy to accept that label. But do not call me ignorant. Not about this. I wish you the best.