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 highfalutin metaphor".

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). The secondary features are interesting; it's just that in avant-garde writing, those secondary 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.

The avant-garde

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?

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 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.


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
  1. It doesn't mean anything - if you've done your groundwork and have picked the sample poem carefully, you should be able to cope with this.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 share.
  4. If it's so good why isn't it popular? - previously discussed.
  5. 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
Tim Love