There has been something of a controversy recently in the poetry goldfish bowl. I don’t want to get into the McNish versus Watts debate, because I can see both sides, but from a range of comments on the offending article in P.N.Review, an interesting discussion has been going on about what the ‘rules’ or conventions of poetry are. There are people who feel only poems which rhyme can be called poems. Others extol the virtues of punctuation, learning about scansion and metre, and being well versed in the reading of poetry by other people. This is the debate that constantly rumbles on. What IS poetry?
A poem is not defined by the toolbox it uses. A different poem by the same poet might be conventional, with rhyming, scanning quatrains, or it might be loose, open field, intertexual, or anything at all. For my money, I let the poem get involved in its own form. If it wants to be a sonnet, who I am to deny the poem what it needs. A good poem is far more than the tools it chooses.
My avant garde poetry friends tell me they are fed up with their school of poetry being seen as ‘not proper poetry’. It is true that prizes and awards often go to poets who have come down the more conventional route or write within the tradition. There is a plurality of poetries but some are definitely more in favour with the grander publishers and the prize culture. Performance poems vary from stonkingly brilliant to barely disguised rants or stand up, with different skill levels, and performance counts more than the words on the page. Poets are at different stages of the skill. I for one constantly seek to develop and improve my practice.
It’s been good to see some poets break through these establishment barriers. Poets like Pam Ayres are followed by Hollie McNish and Kate Tempest, and now Rupi Kaur, into the popularity charts, not because they are approved of by the literary establishment, but because the public, READERS, want to buy their books. Pam Ayres was on the telly, and McNish and Tempest have also broken through the glass ceiling because they get out there and get attention for the work, often using social media. Getting exposure for the work leads to finding a good publisher, who then makes lots of money from these big sellers. What doesn’t happen, but should, is that more poetry should be published by these presses, who can afford to take a risk, but instead it falls to the work of the small presses to fill that gap. Book chain stores like Waterstones still have dreadfully thin poetry sections despite the clear evidence that poetry DOES sell, provided the public get to hear about the poet through TV or other media.
For me, there is room for McNish (who does a lot for poetry) and for Watts, who herself as a book with Carcanet. Lots of people are writing poetry these days. If only they all read it too! It is a pity that the media are only really interested in poetry either as adverts or when controversy is stirred up. Really, it’s like a quarrel in the kitchen about the right way to bake a cake. If the result tastes good, it doesn’t matter how it’s made.
Eat a poem a day.