It’s Not Poetry Until We Tell You It Is

If you listen to Radio Scotland you might recognise my adaptation of a recent catchphrase ‘It’s not news until we tell you it is’. It has echoes of Tom Leonard’s iconic Six O’Clock News, and James Robertson’s recent The News Where You Are in 365 Stories. But lately I’ve come across the same attitude applied to poetry.

  •  in the #derangedpoetess row, sparked when Oliver Thring’s patronising and superficial column in the Sunday Times treated prize winning poet Sarah Howe to the equivalent of the ‘what are you wearing?’ treatment we see given to Oscar winning actors – if they are women – and he responded by calling his critics ‘deranged poetesses’.
  • the hatchet job someone saw fit to give Andrew McMillan after his book Physical won the Fenton First Collection award.
  • the sneering column in The Times about the question of the Scottish Makar, implying that no-one cared, and no-one ever read Liz Lochhead’s poetry anyway.

The overwhelming impression is that there is a group of privileged arbiters of elegance, who feel it is their duty to tell us what poetry is, or should be. It is something precious, very difficult, not really to do with the real life that the stereotypical hard working families are interested in. You lot will be taught it in school, of course, because you have to be confronted with just why you are too common to be allowed serious education, but don’t even begin to think you get to play with it yourself. Increasingly, literature seems to be taught this way in schools. Selected ‘classics’ are delivered shrink-wrapped, hermetically sealed, and rigidly decoded, according to the latest amendments to the syllabus. No wonder so many people don’t think poetry is for them —

Last night I went to see Mark Thomas in a show called Trespass, about how the private management and development of public land is increasingly leading to the absolute control of what remains (at least in name) our property, and the exclusion from it of most of us, except on very stringent terms. His response is to exercise his right to be there to the fullest, to draw attention to what is in effect a social cleansing of public spaces, and to take back ownership. The parallels seem to me to be obvious. We are all to be excluded from ‘culture’ unless we toe the line.

The beauty of poetry in Scotland is that it really isn’t amenable to this kind of thing. We don’t have a sufficiently developed public school cadre to impose this sort of aspirational cultural expectation on people (I know there are a couple of universities who try, but without much impact on the rest of us). We don’t have ‘schools’ of poets that poets think they have to imitate. We don’t have an authorised poetic vocabulary. We don’t even have a single language – I am aware of six, with outstanding work being published in all of them. We don’t have preferred genres or forms. We are comfortable with poetry on pages, in performance, on film and in song. There aren’t any established fast tracks or hothouses producing a privileged elite. We have an astonishing diversity of learned, vernacular, humorous, tender, political, cultured, narrative, local,lyrical, international, sacred and profane poetry. We have a diversity of outlets, venues, genres and publishers. This active poetry community is a great defence against the creeping of cultural imperialism, and it is something I’m very proud of.

In my capacity as Makar of the Federation of Writers in Scotland, I will shortly be judging the poetry submitted in the Vernal Equinox competition, and I’ve had to write some guidance notes. I put in a plea for variety and experimentation. Now I’m going further. Language is yours.

Poetry is yours.

Occupy it.

Make something beautiful and new and something that is your own. Don’t let anyone exclude you from it. Don’t let anyone tell you what poetry is.

6 Comments

  • Forbes Browne says:

    What a wise, perceptive – and restrained – comment. Not getting out much, I was quite unaware of the Sunday Times and Times snidery. Well said!

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thank you, that’s very kind of you. I think poetry at large is much better than this – but those London-centred clique-merchants do like to think they have the power of life and death!

  • Carolyn O'Connell says:

    Interesting point of view,particularly regarding the teaching of poetry and I agree with your comments regarding the way poets are categorized and accepted for publication. Although not Scottish it is possibly a good place to submit.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thank you! The scene here is certainly quite open and accessible, but like everywhere else, the chances of paid publication are small. On the other hand, though, I find very little snobbery about that!

  • Andy Allan says:

    Very well said. Couldn’t agree more. I would add that some poetry magazines from down south seem to be becoming, ‘creative writing as taught in university courses’ magazines, rather than poetry magazines.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Yes, too true, but there is a poetry scene that seems more independent than that – it’s just harder to see from here! Thank you for the kind comments!

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