Jane Simmons is a retired teacher/lecturer who is now studying for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln. She has written several short stories and is currently working on her second novel and a collection of poetry. She is a member of the Lincoln-based Pimento poets and Outspoken Poets and regularly reads/performs her work in the Lincoln area. Although her main interests are poetry and prose fiction, she has written a short play which is to be published and performed in summer 2018. Jane says she does not know how she ever found the time to go to work. Jane lives with her husband in a village outside Lincoln. They have one daughter – who is a vet, and Jane’s number one reader.
The poetry journal PN Review has published a thought-provoking essay The Cult of the Noble Amateur in which the poet Rebecca Watts makes a stinging critique of poets such as Hollie McNish, Kate Tempest, and Rupi Kaur, describing their work as characterised by the open denigration of intellectual engagement and rejection of craft. Watts argues that these new poets do not deserve the support of the poetic establishment - and her argument has split the poetry world in two.
On one side of the debate are those who are pleased that literary criticism is at last being applied to writing that has recently been welcomed and applauded because it is easy to read and contains few challenges. They argue that such work does not have literary merit and therefore cannot be considered equal to the work of poets whose work is produced within a poetic tradition and challenges the reader.
On the other side are those who champion the work of this rising cohort of performance poems whose writing has now been taken up by mainstream publishers. They argue that Watts’s critique is essentially an example of intellectual snobbery, determined to maintain poetry as the preserve of a traditional elite, and they champion McNish not just because her poetry is accessible but also because they see her, and other poets like her, as challenging this elite.
Watts begins her critique by asking:
Why is the poetry world pretending that poetry is not an art form? 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.
She asserts that such artless poetry sells because poetry reflects our age, where short-form communication is something which readers find easier to engage with. Technology has had a deleterious effect on our attention spans and cognitive abilities, and social media platforms dumb the entire world down. In the world of politics, sound bites, for which social media is the perfect vehicle, mean we no longer expect the statements politicians utter to convey any meaning whatsoever.
However, she argues, we have hitherto expected better of literature not least because endurance, rather than fleetingness, is one marker of its quality…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 continues in the redefinition of poetry as ‘short-form communication’ the floodgates have been opened. The reader is effectively dead: content is now consumer-driven and the consumers expect instant gratification. Kate Tempest and Hollie McNish, Rupi Kaur, and others like them, are dragging their significant and seemingly atypical followings into the arena of establishment-endorsed poetry.
She refers to McNish and Tempest developing profiles on YouTube as an extension of their presence on the slam/performance scene, before being picked up by Picador. Both received the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry, evidence that the poetry establishment believes that poetry must adapt to changes in the way people engage with literature. Even McNish has deduced that her ‘poetic memoir’ Nobody Told Me won the Ted Hughes Award ‘because of where the poetry has gone, not for the quality of the writing’.
She 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 before asserting that the ability to attract an audience does not itself render a thing intrinsically good. She argues that the new poets are products of a cult of personality, which demands only that they be honest and accessible, where honesty is defined as the constant expression of what one feels, and accessibility means the complete rejection of complexity, subtlety, eloquence and the aspiration to do anything well.
Watts then queries when honesty become a requirement – let alone the main requirement – of poetry? and notes that the obsession doesn’t apply to all literature. She asserts that every one of the reviews and articles relating to McNish in the press in the past two years cites this feature as her work’s main selling point and questions the validity of honesty as an aesthetic priority. Another key question follows If, these cultural commentators do know that poetry is an art form, why are they lying? She concludes they are pandering to a strain of inverse snobbery that considers talent to be undemocratic. and in so doing, are playing a part in the establishment’s muddle-headed conspiracy to ‘democratise’ poetry.
According to Watts, McNish’s poems consist of assemblages of words that relate to familiar topics. Their effect is limited to recognition, which merely reinforces the reader or audience member’s sense of selfhood. Her fans are drawn to the poems by the themes as well as by McNish’s ‘unpretentious’ presentation, which is abundant in expletives and unintimidating to anyone who considers ignorance a virtue.
She continues it’s less real anger than a celebration of one’s own strength of feeling. Since it tries to provoke an emotion of which its target readers are already in high possession, it will change no-one’s mind about anything; and anyone can do it. McNish’s Plum is the product not of a poet but of a personality. Watts was supposed to be reviewing the collection but to do so for a poetry journal would imply that it deserves to be taken seriously as poetry.
After hearing McNish speak at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, Watts found it bizarre, that she chose to admit publicly that her publisher had sent her a pile of books to read, because they thought she hadn’t read enough poetry. Also bizarre was McNish’s admission that the poems she was writing presently were the same as the poems she had written in her childhood diaries. Sometimes these childhood poems are paired with poems written in adulthood, with an introductory note highlighting their similarities, via this novel format she curates her self-image as a writer in possession of her full talents from the start.
Poetry as an autobiographical project is nothing new Watts points out and credits Wordsworth for inventing the expectation that a readership should be as interested in ‘the growth of a poet’s mind’ as the poet is. She argues that McNish has inadvertently penned a Prelude for our time – despite being ignorant of any tradition out of which poets write. Where Wordsworth explores the development of the poet’s particular sensibilities brought about through a combination of emotional experience, education, philosophical reflection and personal engagement with events, and debates whose implications extend beyond the poet’s sense of his individual identity and importance – McNish’s slapdash assembly of words celebrates the complete stagnation of the poet’s mind.
The childhood poems are standard eight-year-old fare, suggestive of neither backwardness nor literary promise. The eight-year-old’s poem bookend Plum’s first section, (mind); the second section is (body). The poems in the former are concerned with sex, anatomy, physical appearances, dancing, animals, food – a grouping which Watts judges a feeble attempt to convince the reader that McNish’s infantile outbursts carry some philosophical significance that is also preposterous. The use of parentheses to shield the terms from scrutiny is plain insulting – defensive and pretentious, meaningless and attention-seeking all at once.
Watts singles out a poem as the one in which McNish most obviously attempts to be poetic … a departure from her usual style of garbled literal statements with the odd approximate rhyme thrown in before asking whether McNish read the books her publisher sent, noticed that other poets’ works contain imagery and metaphor, and decided to give these a go? She claims all the poems have messages and demonstrate a limited grasp of the ways in which words can be combined to form meaningful phrases.
She dismisses claims that McNish ‘can be verbally deft’ and is seriously interested in how language shapes the world and our emotions’ and that the inclusion of poems by her younger self in the book is both generous and admirable and should inspire us to greater honesty concerning our own failings. She asks whether anyone could really have been hoodwinked by such faux-humility? Watts argues that by making a virtue of her arrested development McNish shields herself from accusations of puerility and goes on to describe McNish’s work as deliberately bad and predicated on the defiance of all standards by which it could be judged.
The personality poets are proud of their imperviousness to literary influence,and would have us redefine poetry as whatever the poetic establishment claims it isn’t. They regard themselves as taboo breakers
In person, McNish admits her desire for establishment status, Watts continues, pointing out that McNish told the Guardian that she ‘never would have got in’ if she’d ‘just sent [her] stuff off to traditional poetry publishers’, and, now that she is ‘in’, resisting the appellation ‘spoken word poet’ because ‘it can be a bit of a derogatory label’. Watts says McNish’s writing is predicated on a truculent anti-establishmentism and later says it is a twisted sort of vanity that craves applause for what they believe to be their worst creations. This is how the cult of personality fostered by social media works once you care about the person you’ll consume anything they produce – especially if it makes you feel better about your own lack of talent. Despite her wholesale condemnation of aspiration, McNish aspires to be admired for her talents, yet she has stated openly anyone could do what I do.
The upside of this is that the art form can no longer be accused of being elitist – but in other contexts, elitism is not considered an evil in itself. Serious poets, Watts argues, don’t start off amateurs, but apprentices – just like any other vocation whereas McNish seems to believe that any aspiration or application of effort is futile. Admitting pride in an attitude of slobbishness is a way of shielding oneself against criticism or condescension.
Watts argues that the middle-aged, middle-class reviewing sector is terrified of being seen to disparage the output of young, self-styled ‘working-class’ artists and any other groups traditionally under-represented in the arts. The arts media subordinates the work … in favour of focusing on its creator. Technical and intellectual accomplishments are then as nothing compared with the ‘achievement’ of being considered representative of such a group identity. Just as McNish insults those she expects to buy her books – condescending to an uneducated class with which she professes solidarity, while simultaneously rejecting her spoken-word roots – the critics and publishers who praise her for ‘telling it like it is’ debase us as readers by peddling writing of the poorest quality because they think this is all we deserve.
In conclusion, Watts says Life, as good poetry attests, is complicated and infinitely various. Just because something is ‘what I think’ doesn’t mean people en masse should be encouraged to listen. In her view, it is the job of poets to safeguard language: to strive, through innovation and engagement with tradition, to find new ways of making language meaningful and memorable. This is in the best interests of society; she reminds us that Eliot noted, ‘the people which ceases to care for its literary inheritance becomes barbaric’.
To embrace and applaud the language of this group of poets is to abandon the only instrument we have for communicating and defending civilised values. If we are to encourage and nurture 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.
Hollie McNish has published a lengthy response to Rebecca Watts’s essay on her website. She argues that it is patronising when social media is accused of ‘dumbing down’ the world. If I write a poem and … post that poem onto social media… This is not me rushing the writing of poems.… It is me sharing poems I have already written, on a platform lots of people use, particularly young people. She considers that the terms instagram poet, slam poet or youtube poet… are an obvious and easy way to belittle the writing simply for how it is shared. … insulting to those audiences and the poets. In her view most ‘spoken word’ poets or… poets who’ve become popular first through live readings or … self publishing … are surely no more attention-seeking than those submitting to literary magazines.
McNish points out that Plum is her fourth published collection and complains that to imply that the Picador poetry editors are simply scouting for youtube poets in order to sell books is patronising to all of us. She concedes that a social media following does not mean that that poetry is of a higher standard than poetry with less of a following. She professes discernment,
I know it’s not the best poetry but I don’t think my writing is total shit … that book that won the Ted Hughes award is a very long book of both poems and prose.
McNish denies any belief that drawing a crowd is an automatic marker of talent and states my aim, and the aim of all of these other poets on social media and gig circuits is and was always [NOT} to gain some sort of following … just that they love…writing poems. She disclaims responsibility for what reviewers see as the best thing about her poems I don’t write for these reasons, I don’t write in order to be honest.
Unsurprisingly, she objects to the description of her writing as ‘an assemblage of words’ seeing this as a further attack on readers and audiences. Next, she objects to the criticism that her poetry is abundant in expletives… there are some, but I wouldn’t say it is abundant. She has this to say in her defence I don’t write poetry after having attended an English Literature course at Cambridge. I was at Cambridge but I didn’t study English and I haven’t read a lot of poetry.…I just wrote. She continues using expletives cannot surely still be assumed to mean that that poetry is necessarily of a lower standard? I think in expletives. … I swear. I always have. She argues that she writes in her own voice and that Watts’s scathing and sarcastic tone is much, much more childish and weak linguistically than my using naturally occurring ‘expletives’ or swear words.
In response to the criticism of her childhood poems, McNish says that she just thought it was funny that she was still writing about the same topics Surely there is space for both types of writing in one person. That is definitely not what has stagnated my mind; everyday life has done that. I had a collection of poems that I was trying to bring together and … maybe the titles aren’t great and maybe the brackets are stupid … but I have not ever been taught how to format a book or think of titles for sections or use brackets. McNish also argues I don’t ‘throw in rhymes’. I have written in rhyming couplets since I was little … I have written all of my diaries in, mainly rhyming couplets,…and now it is just how I write. She goes on to accuse Watts of classism.
Of the poetry books, she says that she asked for them that I might learn... and I think I soaked up some more knowledge about writing However, she then adds I …realised that these poems were not me. She protests not all of my poems have messages and argues that to use the idea that a poem has a message is again to shun it without any consideration of the poem. She also defends herself by saying that she is amazed at the suggestion that she has hoodwinked anyone or used a cunning plan to lure people into reading her work; she just like[s] writing poems.
McNish is offended by the suggestion that she, and other poets like her are proud of our imperviousness to literary influence’ . The poets she has met on the ‘spoken word circuit’ are the most well read (in terms of poetry) group of people I know. I have not read a lot of English Literature. But that is not a pride in being ignorant. It is a choice I made to study or specialise in other things.
She hoped that including the childhood poems might make people giggle as it makes me giggle to read them again. It was just a playful decision … and not an attempt to get applause for bad poetry. She is fine to be an amateur poet; I really just like writing and I love language. She objects to being called slobbish and protests I work my arse off. She denies claiming she ever said she was working class or from any under-represented group in the arts and asserts her middle- class credentials. The constant obsession … with a person’s level of formal education is snobbery like the snobbery she witnessed at Cambridge. She denies that she shuns her spoken word roots; she thinks the label ‘spoken word poet’ is so often used to imply … prejudices.
On the role of poets, she writes I am always wary of the idea that it is the ‘job of poets’ to do anything… what language are we safeguarding here because surely spoken language, colloquialisms, even the vulgar obscenities are then part of this constantly changing language before concluding her response by saying I feel amateur in most things I do, …so am happy to accept that label. But do not call me ignorant.
After reading both sides of the argument, I felt some sympathy for McNish because she was clearly not equal to the task of matching Watts in an intellectual argument. If asked to choose between their work, I would choose Watts. I have seen McNish in live performance and, although I share many of Watts’s views of her work, I must admit she was entertaining -certainly better in performance than on the page.
We are familiar with the term gateway drugs, and it can be no bad thing if McNish’s work is the gateway which encourages a younger audience to read poetry. However, I prefer my poetry to challenge me, to make me work, to use language and poetic techniques to make me think more deeply. If poetry really is the best words in the best order and if it is more than the sum of its parts, then the work of McNish et al is not up to the mark.
What do you think?