Leaving the poetry mainstream (Draft)
When meeting those from other arts are you ever embarrassed by poetry's
mainstream - its readers and writers? Do these quotes sound fair?
To dismiss mainstream poetry as naive would be wrong, but equally one would
hope for more than nostalgia both from readers and writers.
In Staple 63, C.J.Allen points out that when mainstream readers read Ashbery,
they find that "everything they're used to in a poem
is left out - the meaning, the music, the sense of resolution and so
on. But, for [Ashbery's] admirers, what he'd left out were the tired poetic
conventions, the dull patter, the stale, confessional voice full of
- "The fact is that the British poetry scene is reactionary, nostalgic and prejudiced. The reputations of many of its star turns depend on an exclusivity that maintains an embargo on true diversity. Experimentalism is beyond the pale, as is pretty much anything that amounts to a conviction.", Gregory Woods, Magma, Autumn 2003
- "Those who are not very concerned with art want poems
or pictures to record for them something they already
know - as one might want a picture of a place he loves"
(George Oppen), An Adequate Vision: A George Oppen
Daybook, ed Davidson, IR 26:5-31, p.29.
- "Poems very seldom consist of poetry and nothing else;
and pleasure can be derived also from their other ingredients. I am
convinced that most readers, when they think they are admiring poetry,
are deceived by inability to analyse their sensations, and that they
are really admiring, not the poetry of the passage before them,
but something else in it, which they like better than poetry",
A.E. Housman, "The Name and Nature of Poetry" (lecture), 1933.
- "The public, as a whole, does not demand or appreciate the pure expression of beauty. Its cultured members expect to find in poetry, if anything, repose from material and nervous anxiety; an apt or chiselled phrase strokes the appetites and tickles the imagination. The more general public merely enjoys its platitudes and truisms jerked on to the understanding in line and rhyme; truth put into metre sounds overwhelmingly true", Harold Monro, "The Future of Poetry", Poetry Review, January 1912
Mainstream readers often mention the emporer's new
clothes. Look long enough at anything and you'll eventually see something of interest
(after all, it's hard to admit to yourself that you've wasted so much time).
features are interesting; it's just that in avant-garde writing,
features aren't masked by meaning or narrative - nothing's in the way. Of
course, mainstream poetry has the same secondary features but readers (even avant-garde
readers) can be blinded by the glare of the obvious.
So perhaps both sides
have some learning to do.
Start talking about the avant-garde and you'll be challenged for a definition.
Is it a relative term? Is it merely non-mainstream? Or is it a time-limited
term meaning "New and Shocking"? Is "The Wasteland" still avant-garde? Is
it anything that that can't be explained/paraphrased?
It's easier to mock the mainstream than propose ways to expand sensibilities.
But how does one offer new directions to mainstream reader? Giving
them Prynne is no solution, and theory (even in watered down forms) is
unlikely to get them moving. Is there a gentle path to enlightenment or is
shock therapy the only way? Whatever the pros/cons of non-mainstream poetry
I think mainstream
readers can benefit from questioning their tastes, which may
initially require a devaluing of what they like before they can acquire
new tastes. So I'd say start with the stick - it's more
likely to provoke action.
It can be done piecemeal - if they like rhyme, or confessional
(exhibitionist?) poetry, encourage them to say why, then challenge them,
using quotes from famous people.
Or one can
query more generally the source of their tastes, and how conditioned
they are. Non-victimising ways of doing this involve
If people can handle a discussion about "What is Beauty" so much the better.
Is beauty "Eternal"? What are the differences between Beauty Competitions
and Poetry Competitions?
- Relativism - if we're not conditioned then how come tastes in other
times/places are often different? How are the avant-gardists
- Analysis of environment - (i.e. distance oneself from surroundings). "There's
no such thing as society" said Thatcher, but what about the Poetry
World? What's it made of? Who decides what "Poetry" and "Good Poetry"
- Other arts - The changes in visual arts (for example) might provide
useful analogies. If fidelity is their touchstone then presumably they
dislike Constable and prefer the hyper-realists. If they say they like
van Gogh, try to transfer that aesthetic approach into words.
Avant-garde poetry may have the same features as the poetry that people
usually read, but the proportions are different. In extreme cases
some prided features of mainstream poems may be absent altogether. Sometimes
one feature (e.g. sound effects, or repetition) is taken to the extreme.
Topics that merit discussion are
You need to have at your disposal some arguments (devil's advocate or
otherwise) against some traditional poetry features
- Subject Matter - Avant-garde poems are less likely to be anecdotal,
about people, or about one thing. They may try to shock or borrow material
from non-art contexts.
- Unity/Completion - Avant-garde poems have more gaps, and changes in style. They
may have several "centres". The beginning or the end might be missing. The
piece might not be held together by a voice. It might look more like a
draft/sketch than the finished article
- Language - One's more likely to notice the words in avant-garde poems,
and they won't necessarily be in sentences
- Narrative - With Avant-garde poems readers may not be able to
acculumate meaning sequentially, clause by clause. "modern poetry asks its readers to suspend the process of individual reference temporarily until the entire pattern of internal references can be apprehended as a unity", J. Frank,"Spatial Form in Narrative"
If they're still resisting, look at corruption or back-scratching within the
Poetry Establishment. Look at who puts anthologies together and who's left
out. Look at the work of those who claim to write Real Poetry. Somehow try
to unsettle them.
- Beautiful art needn't depict beautiful people, happy events or even
- Beautiful things needn't have beautiful components - medieval religious
art used gold-leaf, some poems use "rainbow" and "gossamer"
- Poetry doesn't have to rhyme - see "this poem doesn't rhyme", G. Benson (ed), Viking, 1990. (a collection for children)
- Poetry can be about things and ideas, not just about people falling
in love and dying.
- Beautiful things need not be hard to produce
Once you've chipped away at preconceptions it would be useful to be able
to suggest scouts; poets whose work has widened out from the mainstream.
In the UK, candidates are hard to come by. Eliot reverted back to late
classicism after a brush with modernism. John Kinsella keeps a foot in both
camps. Maybe it's easier to refer to Picasso.
Then offer them an avant-garde poem. The chances are that if you succeed in
getting them to like it, they'll say it's not really avant-garde at all.
I'm not sure what to offer though! "The Wasteland" is old, but it's probably
avant-garde enough and it's widely available - see Exploring The Wasteland.
Typical responses include
- It doesn't mean anything - if you've done your groundwork
and have picked the sample poem carefully, you should be able to cope
- It's too intellectual. It doesn't relate to real people. Why should
I need an English degree to understand a poem? - people who depend on
old-fashioned aesthetic theories often think that they are theory-free,
that they use innate, instinctive sensibility.
Challenging their assumptions can bring their theories into the open,
but you may have to articulate their theories on their behalf.
Of course it's also worth pointing out that there are many types of
poem (just as there are many types of music, maths, etc) some of which are
aimed at those who know their subject inside-out and enjoy theory.
- Why does it have to be so obscure? - there isn't always a good
answer to this. I don't think that avant-garde poetry is any more
allusive than mainstream, but I think it's fair to admit that nowadays
allusions are harder to detect than they used to be. 500 years ago most of
the people who read poetry had read the same books (including the Bible).
Nowadays there are fewer cultural sources that the reader and writer might
- If it's so good why isn't it popular? - previously discussed.
- Does anyone actually read Finnegan's Wake? - I agree with Keston Sutherland that textual experiments seem cut off from language
in general - they're not usually precursors even if written by famous
people. They don't "take" in the way that new Art fads do. I think "The Wasteland"
and "Ulysses" are enjoyable, important works, but I don't like "Finnegan's
Wake". Though even if experimental works don't open up further possibilities
they at least give the mainstream room to expand.
Updated October 2005