My purpose in writing this is to propose better habits. ‘Better’, in that they advance our knowledge of ourselves, one another and everything in between, and will on the whole leave us less lonely and frightened. Some of our present habits are, I suggest, antithetical to those aims. Initially I was thinking just of the poetry community – a community to which I, in some sense at least, belong – but the more I wrote, rewrote and edited, the more I realised what I was discussing was a microcosm of a wider predicament. I will, however, use poetry as the exemplar.
1. The Trap
There’s a kind of artist – perhaps more accurately, a persona worn by artists – who seems always to be lurking on the periphery. He (it’s usually a he) is tired of modern faddishness, of the onslaught of blither and glim beneath which lies no depth, no intellectual or emotional substance. Brutalised by it all, he retreats into the arms of past masters of his art, with whom he feels a great affinity. The ambit of his interest narrows to his own work and that of this small band of heroes – all unfairly maligned or forgotten, he feels, by the blustering doyens of contemporary culture.
I notice the affliction because I understand its draw. I feel it, to some extent, too. There is so much, so much that is new and loud and shrill. The delicate map of ideas that has served as your guide to life on Earth is ripped and churned in a torrent of novelty, the propagators of which are pushy, impatient and immodest. Your instinctual response is to cling to what you know, or to what closely imitates and adheres to that pattern – to stick with the old magic and practise faith in its resilience.
This is the conservative impulse, and there’s no doing away with it. We struggle to accept – we deny, even – that our deep engagement with all that we consider true and lasting in culture is largely incidental. We meet our icons and heroes when we are still moulding ourselves, still looking for material out of which to build our own sense of identity. Very probably they are delivered to us by mechanisms we trust – institutions we haven’t yet learned to doubt. We’re romanced by the stories that surround them – of rebellion or innovation, triumph and audacity. We don’t see the strings. We overlook the blemishes.
Then, at some point, we have enough to work with. We are full. We are all made up. And from then on, most of what comes our way seems extraneous. We mistake this change in ourselves for a change in our surroundings, and decide the world has lost its mind.
This is a relatively benign example of conservatism. In its uglier manifestations, it produces hostility toward anything that even gently troubles the order to which a person has grown accustomed. It arouses rancid, bilious contempt for all aspects of reality that don’t accord with a person’s preferred schema, and inspires total retreat into dangerous fictions. We must acknowledge, however, that it is not the preserve of a specific group; different people are conservative to different degrees about different matters.
And then there is that other very normal, very human inclination – a sister to what I’ve just described, in some ways its opposite. It is a constant craving to be shaken, to be exhumed, to be swept away by a powerful new force. Such a craving is easy to exploit through fanfare and razzle-dazzle – and this is why the propagators of novelty are so pushy, impatient and immodest. They know that we are drawn to a sense of occasion, a spectacle of strength. We want this new, shiny stuff just as much as we want the old, cosy stuff.
Why do these weaknesses exist in us? I suggest because awareness of our individual peculiarities makes us feel lonely and vulnerable. We invest heavily in what is grandiose and ostentatiously, juicily framed, or in what seems sturdy and well-established and almost parentally nurturing – or in both at once – in order that that loneliness and vulnerability melt away. We feel safest in the midst of the great explosion or behind thick castle walls.
What argument is there against this tendency? The same argument which is made against conservatism more generally: that we miss much and are poorer and meaner for it. We heap our affection, like so many comestible offerings, on the already glutted while neglecting that which needs nourishment, and which would in turn nourish us. In doing so, we sustain an epicentre of power and plenty. We accommodate the moral and psychological corruption of those enthroned in that epicentre and we prolong the pain of those who immiserate themselves trying to reach it.
Shall I go further? At their most extreme, the craving for some fresh, flashy, splendid thing and the zealous fondness for the familiar knit together into fascism – hatred of our messy, overcrowded present, belief in an impossibly sleek and glorious past and future. And because our reverence for those we appoint as bulwarks goes on long after their death, we make immortality seem possible for would-be tyrants, whom we also convenience by massing around the same few, brightly lit spots. Notice how often one of them makes the play to ascend, by offering what they think to be the right violent promise at the right time? Notice how close some of them come to succeeding? In order to feel less vulnerable, we make ourselves, in actual fact, more vulnerable.
That, as I see it, is the situation, and it would be unrealistic to think that we could cure ourselves entirely. We could, however, be much more resilient. We could learn to respond to our anxiety and fragility by attending much more assiduously to all those neglected, minor opportunities to better know one another. That means transferring as much of our attention as we can spare from the already-feted to the overlooked. It means building fine, complex networks of mutual understanding and tentative trust.
To do this, we must learn to search more widely (around us), and look more closely (at what is in front of us). There are artefacts scattered near and far which afford the opportunity to make and strengthen connections, if we’re of a mind to put the work in.
2. Talking of poetry
I make this argument, to some extent, in defence of the artform I practise. Poetry is the means by which a great many people labour to be heard, to make an offering, to reach out to others. Not all but many do this with extreme diligence, and most of what they produce – carefully, skilfully, in all manner of styles and guises – goes almost untouched. Its neglect is the most obvious symbol, for me, of the fact that we fail to properly value, or even acknowledge, one another’s complexities.
And yet, as is often pointed out, poets themselves conspire in this neglect. Some read less than they write. Some come across as wanting to be heard while not all that keen to listen. This is not just a matter of individual character flaws; it’s the result of the way even successful poets habitually talk (or rather, don’t talk) about poetry, which in turn is due to the poetry world being a microcosm of the world around it.
Talk of poetry is choked by talk of greatness. It is sloshed on it. As if the purpose of poems is not to communicate, but to astound. Not just marketing copy for new books either – supposedly critical appraisals of dead poets with very secure reputations still suffer, routinely, from outbreaks of hyperbole. I’d go so far as to say that in poetry criticism there is a centripetal pull toward the preposterous contention.
Why? In part, it reflects genuine, struck-silly excitement. To declare something ‘great’ is to give voice to the energy generated by a stimulating encounter, and for those who do read poetry fluently and seriously, there is much that excites.
But that’s something of a side-story; by far the greater factor is the perceived need to compete with all that is big and glitzy, to turn a poem or poet into an event. We say something is great in order to imbue it with greatness, to summon others to it and thereby make it into a social or cultural occasion. For all that literary types profess dismay at the stranglehold of celebrity, we are easily intoxicated by brushes with fame, and we flock to those members of our group with the biggest clout. Or at least this is the clear impression I have, and it tallies with the tendency toward overstatement. There is, in short, a tremendous drive to both invent and wallow in greatness.
This is all of a-piece with those counterproductive impulses I’ve just outlined – poets, like everyone else, are afraid of being alone. To seek celebrity, to grab at its coat-tails, to treat poems as miniature temples and appoint poets to positions of priest(or even god)hood, is to strive toward a place of community. Even those solely invested in their own status pursue this; it’s just that they can’t imagine belonging to any community where they are not at or near the centre.
And to some extent, the alchemy of talking up the greatness of poems works. If someone is told – confidently, insistently – that an object is some kind of sacred relic, then they are primed to receive a vision upon touching it. Their mind performs most of the magic. What we call ‘recognition’ is, therefore, really a kind of coronation; the poet that mounts the stage to receive the award, or whose work is swaddled in psalm-like words of praise, is armed with symbols of power, and these operate in concert with the work itself to induce awe. It is a shrewd operation.
Except for this: awe is cheap. The world is stuffed with dazzling treasures, creatures and feats, and the experience of greatness in a poem or poet is more-or-less the same as the experience of greatness in a circus act or TV star. To come upon things in this way is to commune with nothing much at all – the real value of a poem or poet lies beyond the veil of dazzlement.
Not only that; by implying – as we do with all this talk of greatness – that the test of a poem is whether or not it produces unforced reverie, we set up the vast majority of poems to fail in the eyes of the vast majority of people the vast majority of the time. In the main, poems do not fast-track readers to a point of wonder. In the main, wonder is sought after and discovered only by readers with the ability and the inclination to do so.
In setting expectations thusly, we disavow the poem which, in its effort to communicate, is just as liable to disturb, wrongfoot, provoke, tease, fox or needle as it is to satiate – that is to say, most poems. We make it less likely that the uninitiated reader will know what to do when they encounter this work, since he or she will look for fireworks to start manifesting out of the page, and turn away disappointed when they do not.
We disavow also our own experiences, which are more often than not that of a journey toward admiration, an undertaking to make something of the poem, to work on it in our minds until we apprehend it in a way which affects or excites us deeply. It is this journey, and the understanding it elicits, which is valuable in poetry, not the sensation of amazement. More broadly, it is insight that will connect us to one another, that will make us less lonely and vulnerable – not splendour.
We should be attentive to the journeys we make. We should understand that even when they seem effortless, that is the result of what we ourselves come armed with, and that others may need help to make the same journey. Talk of poetry – and literary criticism in particular – is at its best when it supports readers in this way, at its worst when it settles for mere persuasion, which far too much of it does.
Most of our celebratory rituals too, however innocently we might engage in them, are in the service of awe rather than insight. We think that by being so casually, wildly effusive we are fighting elitism, but the truth is that our corner of the literary world feels more unfair to more people than ever before. This is because effusion is not real attention; it is a brief excess of good manners that produces a comedown shortly after the high. Instead of seeking to be read – a modest goal with long-lasting benefits to both writer and reader – a poet today is tasked with causing people to swoon uncontrollably, is muscled into displaying whatever piece of themselves elicits the most ardent gasps. I realise, of course, that sometimes awe acts as the prelude to insight – that this is what many, in good faith, are counting on – but much more assuredly it blocks it. It is an endpoint. It turns the poem into a demonstration of wizardry.
Here, by the way, I will make one concession to cynicism: some people would not have it any other way. Some are in their element vying for attention. Some are content that poetry, and art in general, should produce nothing but an endlessly unfolding amazement, because they’ve fought hard to be treated as minor nobles and don’t want to be displaced. Or because what they enjoy most is provoking that sensation – it is a kind of power, after all. Or else the possibilities engendered by insight – the changes in themselves and others it might bring about – are troubling to them. Some people do not want to know, or be known; they are happiest in the midst of a soft, sparkling vagueness. And even as much as it is proven to them that insight, or inclusivity, or innovation, or ambitious complexity are things to strive for, they simply take those words and pin them as medals on work that is only intended to affirm status.
For the rest of us, I repeat my main contention: the reason we applaud and desire to be applauded is because greatness seems like it will heal or release us – especially, perhaps, if we can attain greatness ourselves. But these behaviours are part of the mechanism by which we preserve and deepen our estrangement from one another. Amazement freezes us in place. As long as we’re gazing through the dark at the magic performed on stage, we’re neither seeing nor talking to one another. If we want to live in a world where our own work is read, our own selves loved, then we must not only read others but reflect on the ways we read, the better to guide each other in our reading. The bombast we inflict while trying to turn each poem, poet or poetry book into a singular sensation harms the interests of all but a few.
3. Lastly, seven precise suggestions
I have, of course, turned from a wider argument to focus entirely on poetry. However, with a little imaginative grease, the following principles can be loosened to apply to the general way we live.
1. Talk and write more about poems. Find ways to make your reflections on them inventive and expressive, rather than merely evaluative.
2. Do not settle for being overawed. Strive to understand, and to be able to share your understanding.
3. Do not limit yourself to art that affirms your views, feelings or sense of identity. Explore and make sense of that which provokes a much more complex array of emotional and intellectual responses. Otherwise we silo ourselves off in ever smaller tribes, sometimes making ourselves totally alone.
4. Resist the fierce attraction of that which has already drawn a crowd. Look for what has been missed. The greater number of poems (or any other artefact) we extend and enhance through thoughtful engagement, the more places there are for us to meet. And that is what we need: many, many more places to meet.
5. Reflect on the way you navigate poems, your experiences of finding them knotty, full of contradictions and seeming dead ends. Acknowledge that you tussle with them, chase ghosts through them, contend with their strangeness and their physicality.
6. As much as possible, talk about poetry and art in conjunction with other matters. Do not treat it as something sequestered, something which has a primary relationship and commitment only to itself, or to some principle established by other poetic or artistic works.
7. Make it a conversation. Understand that when engaging with art we are always entering into, becoming a part of, an active conversation.
Search more widely. Look more closely. Talk more openly. All of this takes practice, I know. But it will become easier the more of us do it.
recent articles with similar concerns:
Avoiding Poetic Ecological Collapse by Jonathan Davidson
Beyond Submissions by Naush Sabah
The Poetry Publishing Machine by Matthew Stewart
Shepherds at the Gate by Jeremy Wikeley
read next: Ludokinetic Literature
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