The poetry world is abuzz this week in the wake of a controversial essay published in PN Review by British poet Rebecca Watts, denigrating a new generation of ‘amateur’ poets. She takes aim at ‘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.’
Watts’s searing essay accuses the poetry establishment (‘by which I mean its publishers, editors, reviewers and awards administrators’) of selling out for profits, as after all ‘artless poetry sells’. She blames the social media era for producing in readers a taste for simple, immediate fare, and condemns the quick-appeal, entertaining, ‘honest’ poems that succeed in a digital forum. She takes issue too with poetry that gains meaning from an association with the poet’s public persona: think Kate Tempest, Hollie McNish and Instagram sensation Rupi Kaur. And she quotes one of Rupi’s poems:
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
In a rhetorical move that is becoming increasingly inevitable, Watts compares Kaur and co. to Donald Trump, accusing the poetry community of being seduced by the mind-numbing ‘unpretentious’ and ‘artless’ appeal of populism. (Granta’s Law: As an op-ed/political-cultural essay grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Trump approaches 1, also known as reductio ad trumpium).
It might be tempting to condemn the essay as ignorant and elitist. It absolutely is both. However it does touch on anxieties around the effects of technology and the shifting goalposts of poetic/aesthetic fashion, and has resultantly spawned a host of sharp, impassioned critiques, insightful in themselves as a renewed reckoning with what we value in poetry and what we see as art and artful, versus what Watts terms ‘artless’.
The Guardian, summarising the debate, writes that: ‘The essay in PN Review has split the poetry establishment, with some praising it as “stonking stuff” and “brilliant” . . . Other responses to Watts’s essay have been scathing’.
Jack Underwood points to a fallacy in the implication that the quality of art is related specifically to a particular style. Underwood encourages us to confront this kind of entitlement and to remember ‘what narrowness and defensiveness leads to and whose privilege it tends to protect’. Will Harris highlights how ‘craft’ has been used to dismiss work by socially marginalised groups: ‘behind its technical veneer lies an implicit threat: adapt to the rules of “literary inheritance” or face exclusion.’ Helen Mort zooms out to question ‘where our constant need to establish what poetry “should be” comes from’. McNish herself highlights how Watts has made ‘assumptions 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 Chloe Stopa-Hunt addresses another side of ‘accessibility’, reminding us that for disabled writers the internet is a vital tool with which to interact with the poetry community, deleterious effects or not.
Watts even appeared on Front Row this week, with Don Paterson, to defend herself: ‘A rigorous and rational critical environment is a vital aspect of any flourishing culture . . . women have an awful lot to lose from the denigration of critical culture.’
Whether Watt’s essay even resembles the kind of critique she advocates for seems questionable at best. Although some will call this a tired and tedious debate, much like Jeremy Paxman’s 2014 ‘inquisition’ into an art that is ‘connived at its own irrelevance’, perhaps it’s useful to know where everyone stands. The internet’s a big place. Long live poetry, in all its modes and styles!
Photograph © tomo tang