On perspectives about poetry
I don’t think I’d be able to outline misconceptions about poetry as an art form in a very broad sense – poetry means different things to different people. I think it might be easier to talk about what I have noticed seems to give people the wrong idea about contemporary poetry.
Every so often an article will be published proclaiming that poetry is dead because poetry books aren’t selling or because poets are too insular or poetry was better ‘before’. There was a particularly odd one in Harpers recently, called ‘Poetry Slam’. Ironically, when I tried to find that one, I came across another in the Atlantic (from 1991!) called ‘Can Poetry Matter’, with this sub heading: ‘Poetry has vanished as a cultural force in America. If poets venture outside their confined world, they can work to make it essential once more.’ (This reminds me of the comments Jeremy Paxman made last year when judging the Forward Prize, when he said that poets should stand to an inquisition to answer for their poems and explain them, this was one of his more quoted statements, ‘I think poetry has really rather connived at its own irrelevance’).
To go back to the Harper’s piece, it was odd because it sort of wrote so much poetry off by making blanket statements. It seemed to lean everything up against the ‘unarguable greatness’ of poets like Lowell. Katy Waldman wrote a good response in Slate that sums up my feelings better than I could:
Even after poring over your 6,000-word essay, I’m still not exactly sure which themes you believe are appropriate for poetry—good verse apparently has to illuminate the world post-9/11, or describe the decline of the human race, or something. (At one point you praise Lowell for “looking at the world as though from outer space, like a graying weary seer, and pronouncing judgment.” Not exactly the clearest marching orders.) But I do know for sure that today’s poets are hardly limiting themselves to hermetic introspection (not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
I get the sense that perhaps the journalists or academics writing about poetry in this way (dead, unsellable, irrelevant) don’t actually follow the work being published by presses, or the conversations happening around poetry right now. Or they have read the work and it doesn’t suit their idea of poetry, perhaps rooted in a past idea of relevance or meaning, or at least attached to a nostalgic idea of these things; a kind of unwavering belief in a canon decided emphatically by mainly white men, solidified by treacherous pedelstalling and arbitrary platforms deemed necessary to award certain kinds of writing ‘relevance’. I can’t speak for those who talk about poetry in this way, but I’m unsure if they still follow many of the numerous exciting and vibrant poetry presses working hard to publish innovative and interesting work in the UK & US: Penned in the Margins, Test Centre, Carcanet, Shearsman, Enitharmon, Book Works, Ugly Duckling Presse among others. If this is the case – if they have not read and aren’t aware of the breadth of poetry being published – they can just assume that nothing is happening. Or if they have, and it doesn’t ascribe to their idea of what is relevant, they will conclude as such: that poetry itself is outmoded, or was better in the 50s, or further back than that, which means a huge swathe of contemporary poetry either doesn’t get written about, or gets written about negatively. There’s a kind of general lethargy in some media outlets to give contemporary poetry coverage, or the annual (or so) proclamations that poetry is dead, that I see as what may be to blame if there’s a kind of sluggishness around how eager people are to pick up a book of poems as easily as they’ll pick up a novel.
These articles are obviously wrong, and it is my opinion that the idea of poetry and who is writing and where is diversifying. To be broad, poetry has found an incredible space online. I only have to look at poets like Warsan Shire and Patricia Lockwood, and other poets who have garnered huge followings using social media to share their work – along with the amazing amount of small presses that have been able to thrive or even just survive because of the hard work of the people behind them, and their growing visibility because of the internet. I think there’s a huge audience for people reading poems, and with media and format changing, it means where poetry is, and who will read it will shift and adjust. But then things won’t ever stabilise I suppose because that’s just the way life is!
There are poems I like to read and have impacted my life in the way that I have taken them in – I can sort of chart my life in the poems I’ve read that have changed the way I’ve thought about poetry, and literature, and people. There are a few poems and books I could list off the top of my head running backwards from now – J. H. Prynne’s ‘Against Hurt’, Louise Gluck’s ‘All Hallows’, Lyn Heijinian’s My Life, Mei Mei Berssenbruge’s The Heat Bird, Kate Kilelia’s ‘Hennecker’s Ditch’, Sam Riviere’s 81 Austerities, Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Waiting Room’, Sharon Olds The Father. There are many that act as sort of markers I suppose. I’m not sure there’s a particular kind of style of poem I am drawn towards personally but I feel, without sounding too broad, poetry and how we write or talk about poetry has been a kind of accompaniment to most of my thinking as an adult.
I’m not sure what the perceptions could be exactly for the magazines I work on. Granta has a reputation for reportage and fiction, but not necessarily poetry. I’m trying to put in as many poems as I can, and always a poem in translation. With Clinic and Tender, I’m not really sure. Clinic has been certain things at certain times, we went from hosting a bi-monthly event, to yearly anthologies and themed pamphlets, and I think what we will come to publish in the future will naturally shift; we are already in the planning stages to publish more pamphlets this year and another larger anthology. However I think we’ll always be invested in new and interesting voices. With Tender we’re firmly female-identified only, and we tend towards poetry (and fiction) that is, broadly, and not definitively, experimental, or challenging.
Of my own poems, perhaps, but I trust the judgement of other editors. Of other people’s poems, no. There’s a lot that I wish I could have published, and for whatever reason it is passed up or doesn’t work, all three of the publications I work on with other people so there can be a little push and pull with poems sometimes, but no, there’s nothing I’ve published of other people’s poems that I wish I hadn’t! I’m incredibly grateful for and proud of the work I’ve been involved with.
Rachael Allen is poetry editor and the former online editor for Granta. She is co-editor of poetry anthology series Clinic and online journal Tender. A pamphlet of her poems is published with Faber as part of the Faber New Poets series.
In Two Weeks: Gowri Koneswaran of Beltway Poetry Quarterly