Literature is anything but democratic – Giles Gordon
One of my favourite literary figures is the colourful Scottish poet and folksong eminence griseHamish Henderson. I like him not only for his own poetry but his vital work in trying to heal the gap in the false antithesis between the high art of modernist poetry, and the more humble oral and vernacular arts of storytelling, folksong and ballad. Like many creative figures of his generation he was powered by the belief that poetry could and should be an egalitarian thing and that nothing should be off limits to anyone and any time. He believed in the ‘democratic muse’ of poetry in much the same way as the Scottish philosopher George Elder Davie thought of university education as ‘the democratic intellect’, available to all those, regardless of class, who had a bent in that direction and he was also fearful of the dangers posed to liberal education by centralised powers that be (how prescient, for 1961!). And whether you like it or not, many of the writers who have been conveniently dismissed by lazy literary critics as ‘elitists’, such as Hugh MacDiarmid, were actually writing for a stage in society that had not yet been reached. They were, in fact, radically Panglossian, not the mean guardians of some sort of exclusive knowledge, or bouncers to a select club. While Philip Larkin was whining in boozy letters to Kingsley Amis about not being able to write and Ted Hughes becoming the Poet Laureate, Hamish Henderson was collecting folksong and tearing up, and flushing down the toilet, the offer of an OBE that Margaret Thatcher’s government had decided to offer him, presumably to bring him into the fold. Flora Garry once observed that happiness writes no poetry. I think that prizes and gongs from a centralised, established power seem to have become the opium of the poetry classes.
And it’s good to have these touchstone figures of the past such as Henderson, they are a cause for optimism and their actions light the way. I think the way really does need lighting too because I’m beginning to question just how democratic poetry really is. I’m not going on here about the prevailing, preconceived notion that poetry is flowery and pretentious, to be only engaged with on sufferance when you are a teenager at school. I’m also not going on about the new false antithesis between poetry for performance vs. poetry for the printed page. That is arrant nonsense – it only serves the journalists and chroniclers to have a nice little dramatic dichotomy on which to lay down their tale that they want to sell to others. No, I’m not talking about this, nor am I talking about the literary salons that thrive on hermeticism and obscurity (although they are elitist). My problem is more fundamental, that I feel that poetry overall has become intrinsically un-democratic, as a craft, a study, an art, a blanket term. It’s undemocratic because it is only practiced, read and taken seriously by a small cross-section of society. But it was also undemocratic 200 years ago because only the upper echelons of society could read. For some it doesn’t represent these things so much as it represents a profession – but this isn’t my issue too, if you can get a paying job attached in some way to poetry (teaching etc) then all the more power to your elbow, but try not the teach the same old canon.
So, if I am saying that historically poetry was undemocratic, then what is the point of this blog? Well, my beef is with the way in which it is now consumed and offered to readers and the way that poets operate. I think my issue is with competition – that poetry in order to have currency and validity in a sauve qui peut world is forced to adopt, absorb or else parody aspects of that adversarial working world. Thus poetry festivals and readings become networking events where you can try and sell your wares to other poets and maybe sweet-talk a publisher. It’s such a self-centred activity that the performers develop this knowing style of turning everything into a joke, even the most serious elements of their poems and the audience is desperate to be heard – people straining to find something funny in each and every poem so they can let out a nervous, self-conscious laugh. It’s like those people who go to a Shakespeare comedy and laugh before the line has been properly delivered to show that they know and ‘get it’. Recently I’ve been questioning why I write and to begin to talk about motive is inherently dangerous, because it risks placing various motives on some sort of scale or hierarchy of purity. And I’m not about to start putting myself forward as a paragon of virtue. But let’s face it, it seems a lot of people are in it for the competition, for the thrill of winning, for the furtherance of ego. Ego and poetry go back to time immemorial, of course I know that, the lyrical ‘I’ etc and literary spats and pecking orders are nothing new. I’m not stupid, I know that everyone who writes or creates is in some way seeking validation, unless you are genuinely fulfilled by writing for your own amusement, but that is a very rare breed. Those who simply drown all the background noise out and get on with their writing regardless of fashions have my unwavering admiration.
But most of us are in the same boat, we are following, or at least trying to follow, the same approved patterns of behaviour, achievement and reward (or failure in the eyes of your peers). If you are young you are trying to make a name for yourself in magazine publication, trying to win an Eric Gregory Award (or Edwin Morgan Poetry Award if you can claim to be Scottish) and perhaps already approaching a major pamphlet or book publisher. If you miss a crucial pre-requisite in your early career poetry CV, such as an Eric Gregory Award, you can pretty much forget about being taken seriously after the age of 30. If I go to listen to a poet read I am often told of the litany of prizes and residencies they’ve won by way of an introduction, as if this is a protective spell against my not enjoying or liking their work. The CV of a successful poet dares you to defy it. The way the rich get richer, once a poet has a foothold in this aspirational pattern of behaviour, it is difficult for them not to be a success in the eyes of others (even if they’ve hardly written anything at all). If you somehow manage to make an impression early on in your writing but fail to achieve these things to cement your reputation, you can quickly discover how many friendships in the poetry world are of a fair-weather nature.
There is so much talk about the things attendant to poetry (the prizes, awards, residences, the networking, the contacts, the gossip), but very little discussion or consideration of the poetry itself. How many contemporary poets read and consider the work of other poets, and I mean seriously, deeply, regularly? How many review books, and do so even without payment? The withdrawal of any reward for anything should be the test of your seriousness as an artist. How many poets would continue writing even if the entire poetry world with its cliques and coteries turned their backs on them? It’s all a big popularity contest and it’s mostly based on an assessment of the personality and backstory of the poet and how this is marketed and not their poetry. There are two kinds of discriminating reader. I’m aware of Bukowski’s gnome: ‘so many poets but so little poetry’, but this isn’t true. 1). there is a lot a poetry, it’s just it isn’t being read, discussed and considered 2). it is easy for a powerful figure to burp rhetoric like that and 3). ‘yeah I know he’s a pretty good read, but god who’d wanna be such an asshole?’ (thanks Modest Mouse!). Perhaps I’m cynical, maybe it’s sour grapes, but I’m perverse and contrary, like that Tom Duddy poem where one of his colleagues points to a passage in a book and Duddy looks at the other page first. People who try too hard to get me to look at them, will find me looking the other way, reading the works of overlooked poets who have been trampled underfoot.