Monday, September 29, 2008

"......categories like black writer, woman writer and Latin American writer aren't marginal anymore. We have to acknowledge that the thing we call literature is more pluralistic now, just as society ought to be. The melting pot never worked. We ought to be able to accept on equal terms everybody from the Hasidim to Walter Lippmann, from the Rastafarians to Ralph Bunche." Toni Morrison.

Whenever I go to a poetry festival this is the question I revisit. I'm just back from King's Lynn, where the programme was indeed broad both in terms of the styles of the writers participating, their personal aesthetics and their backgrounds. But I've been troubled for a very long time about the notion of who defines writing quality and how it's assessed - and this is another reason for flagging up Morrison's quote.

British poetry is taking its time to acknowledge society's pluralism, even to acknowledge different points of view. And British poetry is defined, all too often, by a small band of intellectuals who are maybe not that inclined to welcome uninvited newcomers. Sometimes I feel like the received version of British poetry is defined by safety, by invitation, by restraint.

One term of abuse, for example, the easy dismissal, that irritates me is domesticity. It's used by both sides. The traditionalists, defining what is a good subject for poetry, twist and turn between rewriting the classics, working class roots, playing with the ideas of dead philosophers...dealing in traditional form, irony and cleverness. For the avant garde, any hint of the personal and by implication the domestic, suggests the dead hand of the everyday and dullness.

But on this battleground of the kitchen floor, there's a deep hypocrisy. Let's look at the domestic. When men write about food they are applauded. When women do, they are dismissed. When men write about love they are only doing what they have always done. Women are accused of sentimentality. When men write about their children they win prizes. When women do they are mawkish.

Few of these intellectuals defining our poetry and its qualities would dare disagree with Morrison's view. Yet when there's an opportunity to listen to work they are unfamiliar with, that is written outside their narrow boundaries - an opportunity presented to them effortlessly, on a china plate even, with cake and tea, do they take it?

Adel Guemar's State of Emergency, Lorna Thorpe's A Ghost in my House, Paul Stubbs' The Icon Maker and Will Stone's Glaciation were four of those opportunities at Kings Lynn. All of them are poets writing outside the expected. You'd probably rather not listen to Guemar's delicately sinister poems borne of Algerian torture and oppression. They reminded me of the attention to detail in Leon Golub's paintings, the gold watch on the wrist of the executioner.

And you might grimace uncomfortably at Lorna Thorpe's uninhibited poems of the body, charting that unknown place between men and women. Paul Stubbs, taking as his starting point the paintings of Francis Bacon, is signalling his intention to unsettle and as he delivers, the crow on the roof joins in. Then there's Will Stone's melancholy, the quiet exploration of that state of mind that is so taboo to those in bed with irony....

I believe the more people who write, publish and offer up their wares, the better. How can there be too much poetry? Those who fear it are those who fear exposure, who fear their views on what is good and bad will be overturned.

Those who cannot listen to the new are dead. If there is a formula for a healthy mind, I'd say a regular blast of whatever you define as the classics and a brisk daily walk through the margins with whoever invites you.

Personally, I'd rather risk wandering through the graveyard slot and be reminded of what unites us all than sleep through the afternoon.

And as a postscript, I want to read poetry that comes from somewhere deeper than esoteric footnotes, I want poetry to be loving, sexy, angry, jealous and passionate, not preening and self-conscious. Give me Neruda, Lorca, Plath, Edna St Vincent Millay at her best.....those who follow in the tradition of the old ghazals describing midnight and all it contains.

No comments: