June 26, 2005

The Empire Strikes Back (weakly)

It turns out that the website ‘interview’ with me, reproduced here 13 April 05, was a little disingenuous. By chance I stumbled on the site and found that it was something of a set up; although the questionnaire was published as written, it was contextualised with mocking criticism with a link to a Bloodaxe poet who irritably attacks my position. In the spirit of Silliman’s analysis of the fate of so-called ‘School of Quietude’ poets doomed to be forgotten, it doesn’t really matter which poet it is. But to paraphrase Socrates – a wise man can learn from a fool so it’s worth considering his arguments - some which is interesting.

First the criticism: how can the Text Festival claim to be anti-establishment and have some funding from the Arts Council. The tongue-in-cheek response is that this was acknowledged prominently in the opening exhibition with the display of four poems from Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Death to the Arts Council series. But the actual answer rests in the misunderstanding of what the Festival means by ‘establishment’. It is self-evident that the Arts Council is a wing of Government cultural policy and is therefore potentially/bizarrely dangerous to the innovative arts. But one wonders why the Bloodaxe poet misses the somewhat bigger ‘establishment’ issue of the festival being run by a local authority – galleries, theatre, and public art commissioning. The point is the festival is not aiming to bring down the apparatus of the state (not in its first year anyway); its critique is the established form of Poetry – not the infrastructure of corporate/state control.

His other non-poetry point is the way the Guardian sensationalised the event. I share his disappointment as I spent a good hour briefing the journalist on the issues and it was their idea to get quotes from Andrew Motion – to which I replied I wasn’t really interested in anything he had to say.

This leads on to the Bloodaxe poet’s next point: that the festival is too keen to say what it is not. Guilty as charged: The dominant "poetic" factor of established poetry is absolutely embedded in self-reflexivity, the first person, the voice of the poet, sharing an epiphanous moment, his or her narrow emotional life or simply a wry anecdote. Definitively its strength has not been in its writing but in its ability to establish itself as synonymous with the term ‘Poetry’ - so the Festival has to declare what it is not otherwise people will think that it is yet another tired promotional event of the mainstream. (The website expressed the concern that someone might stumble into the Text and be put off poetry forever. This made me smile, since someone is more likely to stumble across the poetry section of any high street bookshop and be put off poetry.) For the last 30 years, it’s only mechanism of renewal has been the rotation of regional dialects (hence the Liverpool poets, the Yorkshire accent careers of Simon Armitage and Ian MacMillan). This Bloodaxe fellow claims that there is no 'dichotomy' in UK poetry – apparently his 'mainstream' is too large, too fractured and too diverse but the US is allowed such a division “because there they have a much debated theory of a 'parallel tradition'.” Another aspect of the UK establishment – its complacent isolation.

I’d never heard of this writer until I saw his review so I needed to look him up to check his poetic credibility – after all the Festival’s agenda is to bring innovative language artists together and he may be someone we inadvertently missed. Here is the first stanza of a representative work from 2004 found on the net:

Since you ask, lass, this is how I get to sleep:
I've imagined a string of numbered planets
which loop and dip out towards the husk
of our universe; pretended to be a wren
tucked in a leaf, safe from the peril of sleet;

Oops. (doesn’t even pass the line-break deletion test: Since you ask, lass, this is how I get to sleep: I've imagined a string of numbered planets which loop and dip out towards the husk of our universe; pretended to be a wren tucked in a leaf, safe from the peril of sleet;)
Somewhat embarrassing - It’s clumsy writing even within its own terms. And surprise surprise: self-reflexive wry anecdotalism in a north of England accent – actually not even a very convincing one either.

According to him around 5 million adults in the UK write poetry from time to time within this number he guesses that only a few thousand are ‘interested in innovative poetry’ – sorry individuals on an island with no contact with the rest of the world, of course. Whether these guesses are true or not, in the UK we have the equivalent of Sunday painters and I-know-what-I-like Merchants running and defining contemporary art. In this environment it is difficult not to enjoy the pleasure of being “a wretched snob” as he calls it.

Bloodaxe man’s conclusion returns to the attack that collaboration is a government agenda to get better value for money out of its poetry subsidies. This is a wrong headed attack on the Festival because we have not promoted or programmed collaboration. There are artists who have collaborated but that was up to them not us.

But the final admission of ill-thought out cliché is:

“For me, poetry is a musical art form first, a linguistic one second. “

Absolute nonsense. Music is the musical artform, poetry is a language artform. On top of that what really irritates me when people trot this out is that they mean tonal music.

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