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The Poetry Kerfuffle

The Poetic Kerfuffle

There has been a huge amount of talk this week about an article in PN Review, which The Guardian newspaper reports as:

Poetry world split over polemic attacking 'amateur' work by 'young female poets'

Writing in PN Review, Rebecca Watts has slammed the popularity of writers such as Rupi Kaur and Hollie McNish as ‘consumer-driven content’
(Guardian article about Rebecca Watts’ PN Review piece)

Why do we (meaning humans rather than poets specifically) have trouble accepting things being done differently to how we, as individuals, would do them?

The Fast and the Furious

I know how to hurt
I know how to heal
I know what to show
And what to conceal

I know when to talk
And I know when to touch
No one ever died
From wanting too much
(Garbage, lyrics from The World is Not Enough, retrieved from

Conceptual Art has always been a place where proponents and reactionists fight, no holds barred (or, in this case, no holds bard), over questions of style and taste and what art actually is. We see this in every single branch of the arts — music, painting, ballet, poetry ... it's the little boxes idea I blogged about in Poet in the Box back in December 2017. We like things we can put in little boxes and label, ‘this is a poem’ and ‘this is a poet’. But, just as there are many varieties of tea, there are many varieties of poetry and poets. In contrast to Beowulf is a 17-syllable haiku a poem? Compared to The Waste Land is a limerick a poem? Damn right they are! It is of necessity that everything takes a twist and turn every decade or so. Humankind would not have past the dark ages if it didn't ... humankind wouldn't have past lunchtime if it didn't!

They're nice and precise, each one begins and ends
They may win you admirers, but they'll never earn you friends
Fast cars, fast cars
Fast cars, I hate fast cars

They're so depressing going around and around
Ooh, they make me dizzy, oh fast cars they run me down
Fast cars, fast cars
Fast cars, I hate fast cars
(Lyrics from 'Fast Cars' by Buzzcocks via lyrics to Fast Cars)

It's true that most performance poets read their work at a much faster pace than, say, T. S. Eliot or Ted Hughes did, but we are living in a fast world. Does that mean that slow poetry reading speed is wrong? No, but neither does it mean that poetry read very quickly is wrong either.

Criticism is a very personal affair-no two people can hear alike, neither can their reactions be standardized.

(Harold Craxton, "Sviatoslav Richter", The Musical Times, Vol. 102, No. 1423 (Sep., 1961))

I will always remember a quote from the classical music magazine, Gramophone (I think), where pianist Sviatoslav Richter, one of the greatest pianists of all time, responded to an interviewer who said he found Richter's playing of the slow movement of one of Schubert’s piano sonatas too slow and that the interviewer couldn't understand it. Richter apologised and explained that was his [Richter’s] fault because he played the movement not slowly enough. Fast pianists were a feature of the early days of recordings on vinyl, where it was often difficult to fit a movement of a piece onto a single side of a 78rpm record.

Unlike Beethoven’s sonatas, but like his own song cycles, Schubert’s piano sonatas were not of a nature to inspire the need for public performance for a long time. Sviatoslav Richter’s comprehension of this special intimate nature can explain his interpretation of some of the late sonatas. his very slow tempo in the first movement of the last sonata in B-flat Major (marked only Molto moderato) excited the derision of Alfred Brendel. As I remember, Richter takes almost half an hour for this movement alone, with three more still to go. Brendel was right in thinking the tempo incorrect or inauthentic, but he also appeared not to feel that the intimacy of the work was also essential to its authenticity, and contented himself with a large- scale rendition. The movement is indeed of grand dimensions, but the paradox of schubert’s style here is the astonishing quantity of dynamic indications of pianissimo and even ppp, broken most memorably just before the repeat of the exposition by a single fierce and unexpectedly brutal playing as loudly as possible of the trill of the principal motif, heard so far only very softly (a repeat that Brendel refused to perform, perhaps because the unprepared violence is awkward in a large hall, although paradoxically more convincing in an intimate setting). Richter was an extraordinarily intelligent musician: whenever there was a significant detail in the score, it was always signaled by a reaction in his interpretation, not always, perhaps, the reaction that one would have liked, but no matter.

(Charles Rosen, Ch. 28. "Old Wisdom and Newfangled Theory: Two One-Way Streets to Disaster" in Freedom and the arts : essays on music and literature (2012, from Alfred Brendel on wiki quotes)

The Contenders

Giving a fresh meaning to the notion of a poetry slam, the august poetry journal PN Review has published a stinging critique of the “rise of a cohort of young female poets” led by the likes of Kate Tempest, Hollie McNish and Rupi Kaur, describing their work as characterised by “the open denigration of intellectual engagement and rejection of craft”.
(from the Guardian newspaper article)

  • Rupi Kaur (born 5 October 1992) is a Canadian poet, writer, illustrator and performer of Punjabi descent. She self-published a book of poetry and prose titled Milk and Honey in 2014, which was later picked up by Andrews McMeel Publishing in 2015. The book deals with themes of violence, abuse, love, loss, and feminism . As of 2017, Milk and Honey has sold over a million copies and reached number one on the New York Times bestsellers list. Her second book The Sun and Her Flowers was released on October 3, 2017.
  • Hollie McNish (also known as Hollie Poetry) is a British poet, author and spoken word artist. She lives near Cambridge in the UK. McNish has published five books of poetry: Papers (2012), Cherry Pie (2015), Why I Ride (2015), Nobody Told Me (2016), and Plum (2017). Nobody Told Me won the 2016 Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry. She released an album of spoken word and music, Versus (2014), recorded at Abbey Road Studios. A play co-written with Sabrina Mahfouz, Offside, played in theatres and was published as a book in 2017. She makes a living as a full-time poet, doing readings, and organising poetry classes and workshops, mostly in schools, often for pupils who are struggling.
  • Kate Tempest (born Kate Esther Calvert, 22 December 1985) is an English poet, spoken-word artist and playwright. In 2013, she won the Ted Hughes Award for her work Brand New Ancients. In 2015-16, she was a visiting fellow in the Department of English at University College London.

(poet bios from Wikipedia)


“the open denigration of intellectual engagement and rejection of craft”? Don't we see this in every art form? Didn't Beat Generation poets receive a similarly polarised reaction? Haven't classical composers, such as Steve Reich and Erik Satie, been deplored for blandness or lack of seriousness? The New Second Viennese School composers like Schoenberg Berg and Webern were often regarded dismissively by lovers of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. Webern’s 4:33 is precisely that — a piece lasting 4 minutes and 33 seconds of ‘silence’ ... of course all is not silence in a performance of 4:33 because a pianist sits at a grand piano and depresses the sustain pedal and lets the noises of the auditorium be picked up by the piano strings which, because the dampers are lifted by the action of the sustain pedal, allow the strings to vibrate in resonant sympathy — breathing, coughs, sneezes, shouts, whistles, bangs all create a unique interpretation of the score in a manner similar to the butterfly effect.

The year was 1961. Computers were still in their infancy, and the race to the moon was just beginning. Edward Lorenz, an MIT meteorologist, was developing a weather- prediction model. Lorenz theorized that a miniscule occurrence, such as a tiny butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon, could hypothetically set in motion a chain of events that could cause tornadoes to touch down in Texas a few days later.
That model (illustrations of which visually resembled a butterfly) eventually came to be known as the butterfly effect. As a metaphor, the butterfly effect has come to signify a series of seemingly trivial and unrelated events that collectively have a massive impact later, whether in causing storms or influencing the stock market.
(from MIT Technology Review)

how sympathetic do you imagine the broadsheets of the day were to this piece of silence purporting to be music? So-called music I suspect it would have been called.

The Trouble with Technique

Though the Beat aesthetic posited itself against author T. S. Eliot's creed of strict objectivity and literary modernism's new classicism, a few modernist writers were major influences on the Beats, including Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and H.D.
(Wiki page on The Beat Generation)

My personal take on this storm in a poetry shot glass is to wonder why people can't accept that something isn't quite their cup of tea without deriding an alternative approach as worthless. The irony of that statement lies in the fact that the three poets referred to in Watt's article have earned far more from their poetry sales than 99 percent of more traditional poets will in their lifetimes. Does that make it better? No. But does it make it worse? Absolutely not! I remember going to watch John Cooper Clarke on stage, supporting the band The Fall in Milton Keynes back in mid-2000s. That was nothing like the poetry readings I'd been to before, the likes of Tony Harrison, Matthew Sweeney and Seamus Heaney, but it was very definitely good poetry! I saw Kate Tempest on BBC2 at the end of 2017 and was blown away by her fast and furious reading. No, it wasn't wandering lonely as a cloud but it was full of the emotions that younger generation poets and audiences appreciate. No, it's not something I could do nor is it a form of poetry I'd particularly want to write myself, but it's admirable in its creation and delivery. I bought the audio version of Let Them Eat Chaos by Kate Tempest through iTunes.

When homosexuality was a crime punishable by imprisonment and macabre forms of ‘treatment’ poetry was deft at raising its voice on what was an important matter to a number of poets at the time — it was a personal reaction to draconian laws. Kate Tempest in her Let Them Eat Chaos set touched on many issues that are very relevant to the younger generations of the 2010s: homelessness, unemployment and knife crime, for example, are, sadly, daily concerns from secondary school age onwards. This poem, Embarrassed by Hollie McNish isn't ‘consumer-driven content’, it's a matter of relevance to teenagers and grandparents alike expressed in a form that will interest the younger end of the market. Of course, in Wordsworth's time women stayed home and breast fed their babies in the kitchen whilst preparing their menfolk's breakfast fry up, lunch and dinner but that is not the world we live in now ... the world has moved on and it's no surprise that the poetry world is keeping pace.

Most interestingly, Rebecca Watt’s says, in an interview for BBC Look East,

It was absolutely vital for me to realise that poetry isn't something that sounds old. [...] as soon as you start reading contemporary poetry, poetry written now, you realise it's voices that you hear all around you and snippets of real life weave themselves into the language of poetry, and that's the real substance of it.

(extract from interview with BBC Look East, transcribed by Giles L. Turnbull)

The only YouTube poem I could find by Rebecca Watts’, Dove Cottage, she introduces it as being about, “the house in which William Wordsworth lived, where he wrote some of his most famous poems,” and where she was poet in residence and tour guide for a time.

By noon bright flames worry sweat from the poet’s high forehead
and while he muses
a woman’s hand hovers,
like a writer’s
(extract from Dove Cottage by Rebecca Watts, from the YouTube recording, transcribed by Giles L. Turnbull)

I think the most strident difference between the poetry of poets like Kaur, McNish and Tempest is that it is in your face about being a poet, especially a female poet, right now in 2018, not what it was like to be a male poet in the 19th century. I believe there's room for both.

The Poetry Circus

I gather PN Review have had over a thousand supportive messages from people applauding the Rebecca Watts article. I know that the poetry friends I have on Facebook and Twitter tend to be more suportive of the performance poets.

There's no such thing as bad publicity' is often associated with Phineas T. Barnum, the 19th century American showman and circus owner. Barnum was a self-publicist of the first order and never missed an opportunity to present his wares to the public. As with many other supposed quotations, there's no hard evidence to link the 'bad publicity' quotation to him.

The proverbial expression began to be used in the early 20th century. The earliest version that I have found in print is from the US newspaper The Atlanta Constitution, January, 1915:
All publicity is good if it is intelligent.
The thought behind the proverb had been expressed earlier by Oscar Wilde:

The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.

But, as the saying goes, there is no such thing as bad publicity. People love a good argument! I bet that Mlles Kaur, McNish, Tempest and Watts have all sold copies of their work or tickets to one of their readings on the back of this. I imagine their social media followers lists have grown a few percentage points too. I applaud them all! :)

Published inPoetry


    • Giles Giles

      I was fortunate enough to see Richter play in Harrogate in 1991/92. He was a remarkable pianist 🙂 xx

  1. Sarah Watkinson Sarah Watkinson

    Great piece, Giles.

  2. Giles Giles

    thanks Sarah 🙂 xx

  3. Frances Browner Frances Browner


  4. Giles Giles

    thanks Frances 🙂 xx

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