The Death of Poetry greatly exaggerated
Two things strike me about Nathan Thompson’s online article in The Independent about “performance poetry slams” being “a further nail in the coffin” of poetry. Firstly, it says something about the media as it exists online today and secondly, it says something about the current view of poetry.
To summarise: Thompson’s article says: “Poetry is dead” and young people do not know any poets. Slams are part of modern “quick fix culture” and thus further destroy our ability to appreciate good poetry. Defenders of performance poetry have wrongly “politicised” the debate and are attacking an “ivory tower” that has never existed. Poetry is accessible, but only to people who have the patience to take it in slowly, “like sipping a fine wine”. See full text here if you want to read the full article.
The live poetry ‘scene’ has been quick to defend itself. Poejazzi did an effective hatchet job on the extraordinary hypocrisy of Thompson himself, who, they discovered, has also written an article praising slams and seems to make a fair amount of money teaching performance poetry via a website that boasts of a “method of teaching…picked up by the National Literacy Trust who liked it so much they made it available to 30,000 schools”. So, yes, it does seem a little spineless to publish one article in The Guardian, extolling performance poetry because “The audience plays an important role in the poetry slam; they are the arbitrators of good and bad – success and failure. It is not down to the critics or academics to hand down ‘correct’ opinions and interpretations, it is up to the audience and how they respond to a piece.” and then publish another one four months later in The Independent complaining that that same “audience is almost always half drunk and if you want to win you have to pitch your poem pretty low”. So well done Poejazzi for that.
Raymond Antrobus took apart his arguments, pointing out that “Poetry Slams are not on the rise – Slam Poetry is a genre of Spoken Word and that is what is on the rise”. Thompson is attacking the sign not the signifier. Niall O’Sullivan also had an interesting take, wondering why people are still attacking slams as a new genre when slams have been around for “three decades”
So why does an article like this get published and why bother responding? Most newspapers now are following the Daily Mail’s tactics, which, with its online content of provocative headlines, soft porn and celebrity gossip, has made itself the most visited news site in the world. Supposedly serious newspapers like The Independent do something similar. At the time of writing this, the ‘most commented’ articles on The Indie site include “Judge Dredd might be gay” and “Isabelle Huppert as a sexually charged nun”; and the ‘most viewed’ are stories involving Beyonce, Nicole Kidman and Tom Waits’s nanny. So, by whatever means and through whatever personal compromises of integrity, Nathan Thompson pens a provocative article guaranteed to get a few more shares and a few more visitors to the online site.
His actual argument is, to say the least, silly. Oral poetry is much, much older than written poetry. Even in literate societies, poets wrote for audiences – often live ones. In theory, “Poetry has always been words on a page, open to anyone”, yet most people feel like it is not. Their experience of poetry came mainly from school and they are led to believe – we all know this is true! – that it is difficult
and obscure. There is little public forum or discussion for poetry in mainstream discourse. This is not the
case for novels or musicals. This is not the case in other countries. In England, we do not even have an equivalent of Scotland’s Burns Night, where reciting or reading poetry or at least mentioning a poet by name is a public and general event. National Poetry Day is a well-funded falsity – again aimed mainly at school children. Blake’s birthday may eventually force its way into public consciousness. The poet laureate has some public voice. But for now, if you want engagement with an otherwise indifferent or unaware public, you’re not going get it from the T.S. Eliot prize or the Costa Prize. There are very few radio or television features. If you want to resuscitate the ‘dying’ art form, then slams and live shows are doing a better job than most. In any case, as Ray points out, the ‘anyone’ to which written poetry is supposedly open, includes only literate people.
As for the idea that “the politicisation of art … continues to damage poetry”, well, it seems that Thompson has reached for the classic argument of those whose political view is well-represented and well-respected in the mainstream: claiming that they are neutral while others are ‘being political’. Did Picasso’s politicisation damage his creation of ‘Guernica’? Was Stanley Kubrik making ‘damaged’ art when he made ‘Paths of Glory’ or ‘Dr. Strangelove’? Was not William Blake sectarian? Did Andrew Marvell have to write an Ode on Cromwell’s return from Ireland? Could he have not written about sheep and flowers? Oh, but wait, this is not what he means. He means that by railing against a literary canon and an ‘ivory tower’ of poetry, we are politicising things by bringing class into it. This from a man whose choice of simile for appreciating poetry was “sipping a fine wine”, probably the most class-based, elitist activity he could have thought of. He quotes Emily Dickenson’s I dwell in Possibility, and claims that when she “said only “the fairest” may enter her house of “possibility”, she wasn’t being elitist –she was putting up a barrier against the lazy.” Firstly, note the use of ‘said’. But apparently, she didn’t say it, did she? She wrote it. Apparently. Secondly, how can you get that reading from those lines? She describes the house of poetry as being “fairer than prose” and ends with this:
Of visitors – the fairest
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow hands
To gather Paradise –”
She says that ‘fair’ people visit the ‘fair’ house. What exactly she means by this, is perhaps open to debate. Even”narrow” hands can reach paradise through the open roof of poetry’s house but where is there a ban on lazy people coming in?
Let me quote back some people who have attempted to keep out the ‘uneducated’ from having access and taking part in poetry. We can choose from at least as far as Robert Greene’s famous complaint in 1592 that “there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and beeing an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey.” Or John Gibson Lockhard in 1818 “The just celebrity of Robert Burns and Miss Baillie has had the melancholy effect of turning the heads of we know not how many farm-servants and unmarried ladies; our very footmen compose tragedies, and there is scarcely a superannuated governess in the island that does not leave a roll of lyrics behind her in her band-box”. Or Ezra Pound in 1916: “we read again for the thousand-one-hundred-and-eleventh time that poetry is made to entertain. … Still it flatters the mob to tell them that their importance is so great that the solace of lonely men, and the lordliest of the arts, was created for their amusement.” Or The Sun’s hysterical headline when there was talk that Trinity College, Cambridge would make Benjamin Zephaniah a fellow, asking in 1987: “would you let this man near your daughter?”
Thompson has placed himself in this long and undistinguished tradition. Slams, he writes, are “a Darwinian death match where the audience picks the winner like some blood-crazed Circus Maximus mob”. The eugenicist misreading of Darwin’s theory of natural selection and the choice of classical reference are unfortunate for a writer trying to deny elitism, while describing a crowd as a “blood-crazed Circus Maximus mob” is, in the words of the great C.L.R. James, nothing less than “contempt for Demos and categorizing intellectualism”. Surely the Roman upper-class, those who enjoyed Horace, Virgil, imperial conquest, crucifixion and sipping fine wine were as blood-crazed as any that have walked the planet, yet Thompson’s image is of the “mob” not their rulers. Language is social and public and therefore inherently political. When in 2012 he described crowds as “the arbitrators of good and bad” he was being democratic, when he depicted them in 2013 as a “Circus Maximus mob” he was being elitist.
But why should I bother to respond to it? It’s just media hype and an attempt to gain a bit of comment and internet traffic. I have already defended slams on this blog. You’re right, I shouldn’t have done. Interesting though that hating on slam is now the unorthodox, controversial position…
If you want to see a slam in action, come down to Hammer & Tongue at The Victoria, Dalston on Tuesday 5th February (and every subsequent first Tuesdays of each month.) where there will also be live sets from Hollie McNish, Simon Mole and Michael Parker. http://www.facebook.com/events/483154268387112/?ref=14
 Sharon Olds and Kathleen Jamie barely get a mention anywhere, though a lot of people know who Hilary Mantel is.
 The Constant Preaching to the Mob, in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, Faber and Faber, 1985; 64-65