Watts slams ‘amateur’ poetry of Kaur, McNish and Tempest

Watts slams 'amateur' poetry of Kaur, McNish and Tempest

Published January 23, 2018 by Heloise Wood

Poet Rebecca Watts has criticised the new wave of high-selling female poets such as Rupi Kaur, Hollie McNish and Kate Tempest in a literary magazine, saying “we must stop celebrating amateurism and ignorance in our poetry”.

In a piece entitled ‘The Cult of the Noble Amateur’, currently the most popular article on the PNR’s website, Watts has compared the poets to US president Donald Trump by arguing “ability to draw a crowd, attract an audience or assemble a mob does not itself render a thing intrinsically good”. She also claims that social media has dumbed down poetry and that the “honesty” and “accessibility” of these writers compromise the “aspiration to do anything well”.

McNish has claimed the article is an “extremely one-sided piece” in a response on her blog.

The poets under attack have made around £2.4m from their work according to Nielsen BookScan. McNish has sold 20,715 copies of her poetry amassing £196,327 while Kaur has shifted 183,044 books making £1.6m. Tempest has sold 67,465 titles including her debut novel, The Bricks That Built the Houses (Bloomsbury) accruing £626,627.

“Why is the poetry world pretending that poetry is not an art form?,” Watts wrote in the January/ February issue of PNR. “I refer to the rise of a cohort of young female poets who are currently being lauded by the poetic establishment for their ‘honesty’ and ‘accessibility’ – buzzwords for the open denigration of intellectual engagement and rejection of craft that characterises their work.”

The Cambridge-based poet asks “what good is a flourishing poetry market, if what we read in poetry books renders us more confused, less appreciative of nuance, less able to engage with ideas, more indignant about the things that annoy us, and more resentful of others who appear to be different from us?”

Watts compared Kaur, McNish and Tempest to Trump and argued that “like the new president, the new poets are products of a cult of personality, which demands from its heroes only that they be ‘honest’ and ‘accessible’, where honesty is defined as the constant expression of what one feels”. She wrote that this “accessibility means the complete rejection of complexity, subtlety, eloquence and the aspiration to do anything well”.

The Carcanet Press-published writer laments how the popularity of social media has led to a “dumbing down” of poetry. “Of all the literary forms, we might have predicted that poetry had the best chance of escaping social media’s dumbing effect; its project, after all, has typically been to rid language of cliché,” she wrote. “Yet in the redefinition of poetry as ‘short-form communication’ the floodgates have been opened. The reader is dead: long live consumer-driven content and the ‘instant gratification’ this affords.”

She is also concerned that “the middle-aged, middle-class reviewing sector is terrified of being seen to disparage the output of young, self-styled ‘working-class’ artists” but that “to foster the kind of intelligent critical culture required to combat the effects of populism in politics, we must stop celebrating amateurism and ignorance in our poetry”.

McNish, whose collections are published by Picador, has responded with a blog post, tweeted to her 22,000 followers, in which she wrote “I normally don’t reply to these sorts of articles, because I am happy to have my writing critiqued in any way” but went on to say that the literary nature of the magazine and the assumptions made in the article had encouraged her to respond.

She said that “when something like this is printed in a very prestigious literary magazine which goes further than any writing critique to make assumptions about my (lack of) education, my love (or not) of language and my personality, as well as patronising and insulting a whole swarm of other writers who I love and admire and who I know love poetry as much as anyone, I feel it’s nice to be able to reply”.

She revealed how she felt “like this is an extremely one-sided piece and if it’s going to be used to prove how shite and attention-seeking I am, I’d like a space to stand up for myself”.

According to the Guardian, the PN Review article has “split the poetry establishment” with editor Michael Schmidt sharing various positive responses.

Poet Don Paterson, who publishes McNish and Tempest at Picador, told the Guardian: “If you’ve ever seen Hollie perform, the suggestion that she doesn’t know exactly what she’s doing is pretty funny. You don’t have to like what people do, but I think you measure it against its own ambitions. Otherwise it’s like saying TS Eliot was a terrible hip-hop artist. True, but so what.”

Watts, who was reportedly prompted to write the piece after being asked to review McNish’s Plum (Picador), told the newspaper that she only intended to use the book “as a case study in order to examine the intricacies of a wider cultural phenomenon”.

Writer and Host of “Poetry Unplugged” at Covent Garden’s Poetry Café, Niall O’Sullivan, tweeted that he did not believe Watts’ “hatchet job” was due to bitterness or jealousy but that the problem is “more about the values of the academic mainstream, how they are passed on through workshops, prizes and certain codes of conduct that must be observed in order to progress”.

He wrote: “When a group of young women go on to individually outsell entire shortlists, this suddenly renders the values of the workshop culture as inconsequential within the wider world.”

Spoken word artist Melanie Branton responded to the “somewhat inflammatory article” in a blog titled ‘Accessibility vs Elitism’. She said: “Don’t read it if you’re a spoken word artist – it will make you very cross, especially if you’re an admirer of Hollie McNish, whom Watts repeatedly misrepresents, in an oddly personal attack.”

Branton believes that Watts “does make some valid points” but that she “repeatedly makes prescriptive assertions of what poetry ‘is’ or ought to be, ignoring the fact that, even within the ‘establishment’ there are competing schools of poetics”.

Picador, which publishes McNish and Tempest, and Simon & Schuster UK, which publishes Kaur, has been contacted for a response.

My Mother’s Day

My Mother’s Day

Nights are the worst: dark acres of time are
unfilled with anything but low noise
as cars burr along the northbound carriageway.
Mum is cold, anxious in unsettled grief.
There’s no point getting up: without him there’s
nothing to do. Days see diversions but
now, why does sitting there beat lying here?
Wide awake in darkness she heard herself
say: “Dada?” and reach out her hand. He used
to take it and warm it. This cold, Dada-less
night, as she reached for him again, he
warmed her again. The sheets softened, the noises
dissolved and she stopped thinking. She felt
him, she knew he was nearby and she slept.

Westminster People


Westminster People

Look, over there, it’s the Village people
bursting through doors of burning perceptions,
lost in the trappings of process and protest,
spinning in self-serving circles of wishes,
prowling, confusing and failing to listen
with convictions they want to believe in.

With convictions they want to believe in,
look, over there, it’s the Village people,
prowling, confusing and failing to listen,
bursting through doors of burning perceptions,
spinning in self-serving circles of wishes
lost in the trappings of process and protest.

Lost in the trappings of process and protest,
with convictions they want to believe in,
spinning in self-serving circles of wishes,
look, over there, it’s the Village people,
bursting through doors of burning perceptions,
prowling, confusing and failing to listen.

Prowling, confusing and failing to listen,
lost in the trappings of process and protest,
bursting through doors of burning perceptions,
with convictions they want to believe in,
look, over there, it’s the Village people,
spinning in self-serving circles of wishes.

Spinning in self-serving circles of wishes,
prowling, confusing and failing to listen,
look, over there, it’s the Village people,
lost in the trappings of process and protest,
with convictions they want to believe in,
bursting through doors of burning perceptions.

Bursting through doors of burning perceptions,
spinning in self-serving circles of wishes,
with convictions they want to believe in,
prowling, confusing and failing to listen,
lost in the trappings of process and protest,
Look, over there, it’s the Village people.

Listen to people in burning confusion,            
bursting, believing, protesting and trapped. 
Look at their wishes, their circles of want.

March 2019

The End of Winter

Crocus, Hilly Fields, London.

The End of Winter

All of a sudden, the bitterness is gone.

The air is still bare, the grasses grey,
the leaves sheathed,
and the blossoms’ eyelids closed

but there’s warmth in the pale afternoon
and for the first time since September
the light is surprising.

Aye, At Philippi

J A Cole (1920-2005)

“Why, I’ll see thee at Philippi,”
my Dada said to me. Me?
I dodged in alarmed bewilderment
the stag-ey words filled with sure intent.
Dada looked me straight in the eye.

I’d just joined the family crowd. “Hi,”
I’d offered and nothing else. Why
was I addressed? This satisfied lament —
all the stuff about Philippi —

ward-sick Dada gave to me. I
got it two days later but by
then he’d died. It was my moment:
to his famous last words I was meant
to reply: “Aye, at Philippi.”

He’d have been 99 today, 10 Jan 2019.


Dartford 11nov18

Silence falls on the sunlit square of turf
outside Dartford’s library. A soldier
with a rifle, all plinth and age-stained bronze,
looks on. Poppy people stand with closed-eye stares.
November colours shuffle in the trees.

The silence is the thing: the unfilled gap
between. I think of dugout silence,
the fire step, the Woodbines whiled away;
the rat-lice trench-foot days that screwed the minds
with silent screaming shells of wasted fear.

I think of letters written to and from;
the scareful hope of waiting for the post;
the silence in the reading of the words.

I think of silence in the unlived years;
the stories that cannot be forgotten
because they did not happen. I feel cold.

I walk back up the hill to where young George
is playing Sunday morning football. There is
no silence here. Teams of boyish men
criss-cross open fields, fighting foot-to-foot,
attacking and defending, launching volleys,
and firing shots on goal. Then, as a cloud
bursts, an arch of rain-refracted light
crowns the shouts of peace and freedom.


No prayers nor bells: we shoot in scuttling shells
up and down the line. We go and return,
passing Arras, Béthune and Neuve Chapelle,
the Bois de Noulette, Messines and the Marne.

From Calais, past Flesquieres and Verdun,
with only the Alps in mind, we hurtle
through demented days, dusks gilded by sun
and black rain, in skirmishing battles
of the road. Through grey-day pallor we see
the brown, wide-open acres where they fought;
and sense the eerie emptiness reploughed.

At night, headlamps flare and brake lights bleed
sudden fear of hasty death into my heart,
spearing the tensioned tedium like a dart
whose aim is true, then redirected, then gone.

All around here they died for us;
now they lie under stones etched and erected
to the left and right, at Mametz and Loos;
at Langemarck, Vendhuile, Cambrai and Lens;
on either side of this paid-for auto-route,
dotting countryside, cresting horizons.

Between Le Touret and Richebourg L’Avoue,
on land once used by field ambulances,
thirteen thousand men of no known resting
place are remembered. It’s ground holding
my great uncle Jack, too. There, inside a fence,
under mown lawns, lies John Wesley Davies,
31, of the Royal Welch Fusiliers.

Further on, teams of gleaming windmills now stand
where once cold trenches were dug. In place of mud
and bloody hell, turbines mourn in silence:
generating clean warmth, dry light, hot food.
These are monuments also: testaments
to doomed youth on euro no man’s land.

In volleys to and fro, we, the fragments
of dead men’s shattered futures, pass fast and
glide, stuttering only at péage
queues. In our comfortable distress, our health
and holidays, our years, we have the breath
they did not have. In our petty rages
we drown the fading echoes of their cries,
their tender patience, their lingering goodbyes.

The lunatic, the lover, and the poet


The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
are of imagination all compact.
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold—
that is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,
sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt.
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven.
And as imagination bodies forth
the forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
a local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
that if it would but apprehend some joy,
it comprehends some bringer of that joy.

William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Act Five Scene One.