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.
Another blushingly nice review….@manandboy2017 @robertcolepoet @thespaceuk @edfringe @edfests @edsamuelcole
“Man and Boy”
The remarkably deadpan Robert Cole has long described himself on his Facebook page as “a financial journalist, a father and a writer. Not necessarily in that order.” In his new book he calls himself a “middle-aged fat English bloke.” To those we can now add “poet” – and what’s more a fine one. The book is “London Poems,” published by Wet Zebra.
The show has Cole reading his verse and joined by his son Maurice who provides the musical interludes. It is the first Fringe for both of them and Maurice has already got an episode of “Dr Who” to his credit.
While the book has an urban title, many of these poems examine rural or suburban life, love and family. This reviewer heard it in preview in London and was most impressed. Cole’s economical poems have a simple beauty and worth hearing in a break from the manic nature of much of the Fringe.
Aug 18-19, 21-26. theSpace @ Jury’s Inn (Venue 260) 6.p.m., 50 minutes.
New ‘Man and Boy’ review @manandboy @1dailybusiness @1terrymurden @thespaceuk @edfringe @jurysinn @robertcolepoet @manandboy2017 #spokenword #newwriting #poetry
My friend Helen posted this earlier today. I don’t know who wrote it but it is brilliant writing. #leo #cancer.
“What’s it like to go through cancer treatment? It’s something like this: one day, you’re minding your own business, you open the fridge to get some breakfast, and OH MY GOD THERE’S A MOUNTAIN LION IN YOUR FRIDGE.
Wait, what? How? Why is there a mountain lion in your fridge? NO TIME TO EXPLAIN. RUN! THE MOUNTAIN LION WILL KILL YOU! UNLESS YOU FIND SOMETHING EVEN MORE FEROCIOUS TO KILL IT FIRST!
So you take off running, and the mountain lion is right behind you. You know the only thing that can kill a mountain lion is a bear, and the only bear is on top of the mountain, so you better find that bear. You start running up the mountain in hopes of finding the bear. Your friends desperately want to help, but they are powerless against mountain lions, as mountain lions are godless killing machines. But they really want to help, so they’re cheering you on and bringing you paper cups of water and orange slices as you run up the mountain and yelling at the mountain lion – “GET LOST, MOUNTAIN LION, NO ONE LIKES YOU” – and you really appreciate the support, but the mountain lion is still coming.
Also, for some reason, there’s someone in the crowd who’s yelling “that’s not really a mountain lion, it’s a puma” and another person yelling “I read that mountain lions are allergic to kale, have you tried rubbing kale on it?”
As you’re running up the mountain, you see other people fleeing their own mountain lions. Some of the mountain lions seem comparatively wimpy – they’re half grown and only have three legs or whatever, and you think to yourself – why couldn’t I have gotten one of those mountain lions? But then you look over at the people who are fleeing mountain lions the size of a monster truck with huge prehistoric saber fangs, and you feel like an ******* for even thinking that – and besides, who in their right mind would want to fight a mountain lion, even a three-legged one?
Finally, the person closest to you, whose job it is to take care of you – maybe a parent or sibling or best friend or, in my case, my husband – comes barging out of the woods and jumps on the mountain lion, whaling on it and screaming “GODDAMMIT MOUNTAIN LION, STOP TRYING TO EAT MY WIFE,” and the mountain lion punches your husband right in the face. Now your husband (or whatever) is rolling around on the ground clutching his nose, and he’s bought you some time, but you still need to get to the top of the mountain.
Eventually you reach the top, finally, and the bear is there. Waiting. For both of you. You rush right up to the bear, and the bear rushes the mountain lion, but the bear has to go through you to get to the mountain lion, and in doing so, the bear TOTALLY KICKS YOUR ***, but not before it also punches your husband in the face. And your husband is now staggering around with a black eye and bloody nose, and saying “can I get some help, I’ve been punched in the face by two apex predators and I think my nose is broken,” and all you can say is “I’M KIND OF BUSY IN CASE YOU HADN’T NOTICED I’M FIGHTING A MOUNTAIN LION.”
Then, IF YOU ARE LUCKY, the bear leaps on the mountain lion and they are locked in epic battle until finally the two of them roll off a cliff edge together, and the mountain lion is dead.
Maybe. You’re not sure – it fell off the cliff, but mountain lions are crafty. It could come back at any moment.
And all your friends come running up to you and say “that was amazing! You’re so brave, we’re so proud of you! You didn’t die! That must be a huge relief!”
Meanwhile, you blew out both your knees, you’re having an asthma attack, you twisted your ankle, and also you have been mauled by a bear. And everyone says “boy, you must be excited to walk down the mountain!” And all you can think as you stagger to your feet is “**** this mountain, I never wanted to climb it in the first place.”
“Three days after my childhood home was sold I am in Scotland, in a Mornigside flat, recalling a Swansea house as old as this brushed sandstone place is new. I cajole significance into the misty-eyed coincidence that just after the Merrow house was sold I find a Morningside welcome in the cool and confident Scottish Woodcroft allied (by me) to a Welsh Woodcroft of old.” – from ‘Two Woodcrofts’, in London Poems (WetZebra2016) by Robert Cole.
Maurice singing Garden Verses. quoteoftheday @edfringe @thespaceuk @drwho @manandboy2017 @robertcolepoet
Super Cally Fragile Lipstick (13.25pm, Venue 27, nr Grasmarket) is the Edinburgh Fringe show with the best name. Not only is it a great play on words, it is bang-on appostite. It is also poetic, which is a thing for me if no one else.
Cally’s jokes are good and her delivery refreshingly bright without having that faux-hyperness that you see with some standups. There are excursions into the blue (if you get my drift) but it’s all pretty innocent. I especially liked her apology for being a little late to the show. “I was waylaid,” she explained.
The most engaging aspect is the fragility, though. I reckon she could do more with it, actually, although the judgements here are knife-edge tricky. Until recently it would have been unthinkable to make comedy out of autism in the way Cally does. The key to her success here is that she warm hearted, thoughtful, considered, and twinklingly funny.
Disclaimer: I have come to know Cally by bumping into her on the circuit a couple of times, so my comments here cannot be taken as entirely objective. They do, I hope, benefit from more-than-superficial familiarity with the work.
Exactly how I feel…
First review of #manandboy from @broadwaybaby
By Laura Pujos
Man And Boy is a perfectly poetic way to punctuate an otherwise hectic day at the Fringe. The premise of the show is that a “middle-aged English fat bloke” called Robert Cole reads out a selection of poems from his newly published collection London Poems, joined by his nephew Ed, and later in the run, his son Maurice.
Understated and unusual, Man And Boy achieved a stillness and tranquility in the room that is probably hard to find elsewhere at the festival.
The poems are divided into three sections, Family, Form and Fate, separated by brief musical interludes, with Ed on keyboard. The set-up is beautifully simple. The two men sit in front of you, void of a stage, while a table of poetry books and family photos construct their set. The small space heightens the intimacy as Cole shares with the audience snippets of his life. There’s something so calming, amongst the bustle of the Fringe, about just sitting and listening for 50 minutes, letting his words wash over you.
The poetry collection itself is “grounded in geography”, the people and experiences that Cole connects with and a, somewhat surprisingly green, London landscape. Despite a background in finance, Cole writes not about the city grind but uses the natural world as a springboard for thinking about the human journey, with both its wonders and sadness, and reflecting tenderly on family.
Cole’s writing displays influences including Philip Larkin, and employs a variety of technically challenging forms such as the sestina and the villanelle, but is unpretentious and absolutely not limited to poetry fans. One could go away and plumb the poems’ depths at greater length, but they also have an immediately aesthetic quality. Cole’s straightforward, conversational style of expression and attention to sound patterning work well in spoken word performance, enhanced by the musical element of the reading.
Crystal Palace 0, Huddersfield 3. Just when I needed cheering up.
“In the unremembered lessons learned and / heartfelt instincts that we know we know; in sight / and taste, in smell, feelings and sound; in mixed / company and alone; we share our home.