The Gates of Horn and Ivory – contemporary poetry and the Instapoets

Stranger, dreams verily are baffling and unclear of meaning, and in no wise do they find fulfilment in all things for men. For two are the gates of shadowy dreams, and one is fashioned of horn and one of ivory. Those dreams that pass through the gate of sawn ivory deceive men, bringing words that find no fulfilment. But those that come forth through the gate of polished horn bring true issues to pass, when any mortal sees them. But in my case it was not from thence, methinks, that my strange dream came.” The Odyssey, 19, 560–569

There has been cause for celebration in the poetry world recently, because sales of poetry have reached an all-time high, driven by contemporary poetry, too! That hasn’t happened since, well, forever.

But hold on a moment, everyone, don’t hang out the bunting and put on the party hats just yet! BECAUSE IT’S THE WRONG POETS! Yes, some know-nothing, no-talent, overly emotional young women and men (but we’ll talk about the women, obviously) have gotten ideas above their station, and had the temerity, first to reach millions of people via social media (ugh) and then to sell those millions of people actual printed books! And all without a suitably extensive list of publications in the right magazines and journals, a competition win, or even an MA in Creative Writing to their names. How ghastly. Where is their knowledge of the tradition? 

Poetry people, can you hear yourselves? It’s not a pretty sound. The sound of – well let’s not overegg things here, it’s definitely not all that many – maybe a few hundred delicately attuned noses being thoroughly crinkled in disgust.

Even The Blue Nib has crinkled its nose, though somewhat less obnoxiously than Rebecca Watts, who as most of us know, tipped a whole cauldron of boiling oil over the ramparts of the ivory tower via her 2018 article for PN Review, ‘The Cult of the Noble Amateur’. In her editorial for issue 37, Shirley Bell said (italics mine),

“I can see the consolation in reading this work compared to more challenging poetry. But this poetry loses the joy of finding the less obvious pleasures of entering a poem, following its journey through whatever twists and turns there are, and taking away something that may stay with you forever. There is a real joy in intellectual challenge.”

I hope Shirley did not intend this to come across as condescendingly as it sounds. But if there is truly a real joy in intellectual challenge, there are not many that wish to partake of it. It’s not easy to get up to date information on the size of the contemporary poetry market. The latest figures I could find were in an Arts Council report from 2000, where they stated that poetry book sales at that time totalled around 2 million, of which 3% were of contemporary poetry. That’s around 60,000 books. 40,000 of them were the works of one poet. And until the advent of the Instapoets I can’t imagine it had changed that much. So even among people who buy poetry books, 97% of them are steering clear of the ‘real joy in intellectual challenge’ of contemporary poetry.

No, I suspect most readers see contemporary poetry as like the dreams that come through Homer’s gates of ivory. Bringing words that find no true fulfilment. No consolation. The thing they take away for ever is a feeling of bafflement, inadequacy, and a sense of not being good enough or clever enough for this. If you’ve ever shown one of your poems to a friend and had them say to you, “Well, I don’t really feel qualified to talk about poetry, but…”, then you’ll know what I mean.

How did we get here? When we have, theoretically, such a liberating definition of poems given to us by William Carlos Williams? 

‘a poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words’

Machines made out of words can do many jobs. Machines can be made out of words to make us laugh. Or to make us cry. To remind us of something we had forgotten was true. Or, yes, to console us.  And, for those of us who may want it, to give us the joy of intellectual challenge, if joy it truly is. But that’s only one job out of many. And perhaps not the most important one, or the one that is meaningful to most people.

Shirley Bell says in her editorial (again the italics are mine):

“The Blue Nib’s USP has always been that it is edited. I have acted as a gatekeeper in that I choose or reject poetry on what I perceive as merit. I look for poems that have been edited and honed. I can often see that a piece has been poured out in a rush of feeling and I regret the fact that with an editorial pen, such poems could be reduced to the bare bones of what they are trying to say. Polished in fact. And with every line break, comma and full stop earning its place. It is those polished poems that I am looking for.”

A ‘polished’ poem may be a very fine thing. But it may also be slippery, hard to get a grasp on, and so shiny that when you stare into it you only see your own bemused face staring back out of it at you. 

And to reduce a poem to the ‘bare bones’ of what it is trying to say? Well, that’s a dangerous endeavour. The ‘prose sense’ of a poem, as IA Richards put it, may be very meagre. As any meat eater will tell you, a very lean cut can often be lacking in flavour. It’s the fat – not too much of it, but the right amount, that makes a great steak taste good. I am sure we have all read poems where we have got the prose sense, and looked around for something more, only not to find it. ‘So what?’ poems. I’ve read more of them than I care to count.

In fact, this is what a number of people who criticise the Instapoets criticise them for. Many of their poems are very brief, and are, indeed reduced to the bare bones of what they want to say.

Take the example Shirley quoted in her editorial, from Nikita Gill. I remove the line breaks Shirley indicated, that are not in Gill’s original:




       “I suppose I love my scars because they have
        stayed with me longer than most people have”
Or Rupi Kaur’s ‘eyelashes’:
       “i am losing parts of you like i lose eyelashes
        unknowingly and everywhere”

Two two-line poems, that I have to say I think are rather good. Gill doesn’t say much about her scars – are they physical, emotional? The lines are memorable – and if they are about self-harming behaviour then in 17 words she has said something very specific about that behaviour and why she has engaged in it.

And Kaur’s eyelashes are a wonderfully delicate image, saying something true about the process of shedding a relationship, in a surprising way. Intellectual challenge? No. Lines that stay with you, invite you to return to them once you’ve read them for the first time? On balance this reader would say, yes.

I’m by no means claiming that the work of the Instapoets is all good, however we define that. There is a lot of it. But precisely because there is a lot of it, and it is being directly tested with its audience, it stands a very good chance of getting better. Someone will undoubtedly rise from their ranks whose work will stand the test of time. It’s inevitable.

As a contemporary poetry community, we must face a hard truth. With the rise of social media and the ability it has given poets to deliver their work directly and unmediated to a potentially huge audience, the contract, such as it was, between poets, editors, and publishers is now broken.

It used to be that if you wanted any hope at all of being published as a poet, then you had to submit to journals. And then you might get noticed enough to pick up a publishing contract, and the chance to sell a few copies of your first slim volume. You trusted that your publisher and editor had chosen you because they had a good sense of what would sell well, that your work met those criteria, and that they were far better equipped than you to get that saleable work to the widest audience possible.

But now, who could in all conscience advise a talented young poet not to start putting their work out on Instagram or YouTube, because it might hurt their chances of being published in ‘serious’ journals? 

    ‘And how many people will see it in those?’ the young poet asks you. ‘Oh, not many
     people,’ you reply. ‘But they will be the best people.’

With that, all the evidence suggests that you would be condemning a talented young poet to an audience a tenth or a hundredth of the size that they could have had.

Shirley says she is acting as a gatekeeper. But a gatekeeper to what? From the tone and tenor of her comments above, it sounds like she believes she is guarding the gate of polished horn, through which only true words pass.

But what if she’s wrong? And in any case, what’s the point in guarding a gate if everyone can just rush around the sides of it, as they can now?

Gates open both ways. By only allowing a certain kind of work, that meets a very particular set of standards, through our gate, we have only allowed a particular kind of work to be put before the public. And by any measure they have not cared for it.

What has been done to poetry over the last hundred or so years, by insisting on a level of ‘intellectual challenge’ for it to qualify as ‘good’, is horrifying. We have taken an art which for generations had entertained, enthralled, amused, enraged, inspired, and seduced people from all classes of society and all walks of life, and we have reduced it to a mode of discourse that the majority of people turn away from in bafflement and incomprehension. Some custodians of the sacred flame we have been.

Instead of guarding the flame, we have created a vacuum, which has been waiting to be filled by something, anything, that isn’t contemporary poetry as it has been served up for the last century or so. If we don’t like the rise of the Instapoets, then we have only ourselves to blame for it.  

We cannot have the temerity to be surprised and outraged when a group of young poets decide to do something radically different, bypass ‘the tradition’, and go direct to their public with a very different kind of work. If social media had been available sooner, it would undoubtedly have happened sooner. 

And do the Instapoets care what we think of their work? Whether it meets our standards for fit and finish? Hollie McNish did respond, with great dignity, to the attack on her by Rebecca Watts, but that was more to do with its very personal nature, and the numerous unfounded assumptions Watts made about McNish’s motivations for writing, to which she strongly objected.

But that aside, I doubt that they do care very much about our little arguments around the quality of their work. They are busy communicating with their audience, and some have achieved every poet’s unspoken dream, to become rich and famous on the proceeds of their own words. Which is more than we will be able to say, as we check at our next reading whether we’ve sold enough of our pamphlets or collections to cover the return fare home, wishing only to be back asleep in our beds with whatever consoling or deceiving dreams may come to us through the gates of horn and ivory.

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