Poetic Pretentiousness | A Rebecca Watts response


The poetry world is a mess. Big time. Recently the PN Review published a stinging critique of the “rise of a cohort of young female poets”, those being Kate Tempest, Hollie McNish and Rupi Kaur, and described their work as “the open denigration of intellectual engagement and rejection of craft”.I've met many victim poets who have expressed this sentiment over my time as a 'novice, wannabe performing poet' and it's honestly the attitude which deterred me from continuing my venture in the poetry scene. These poets all have this same dutiful belief that they are wounded on behalf of poetry's sake by these philistines who don't have the soul, intellect or artful comprehension to even have the word 'poetry' spat in their direction. Today's poetic martyr is Rebecca Watts who, evidently, isn't a fan populist poetry. I'll play devil's advocate here and admit that I understand the logic which underlies her argument (and when I say underlines I mean buried twenty-thousand feet beneath her; logic so far gone that I doubt it was ever in Watts' grasp. But I'll give credit where credit's due: somewhere in the depths of her uninhibited snobbery there was logic.) Anyone who watches me regularly as a book reviewer knows I'm a literary fiction reader; I'm an academic and researcher. But I'm also very socially aware; I know where I came from and I know what role literature plays in the life of the everyday man. Spoiler alert: it's not a big role. Literature, particularly poetry, is exclusionary by nature and its accessibility isn't regularly encouraged. Very rarely is poetry made mainstream, and in a world with such an unjust, education chasm dividing the individuals in even the smallest of societies, it doesn't help poetry's case when its stereotypical, maligned defenders come roaring from their academic chambers: "PLEBS! PHILISTINES! REMOVE YOUR FILTHY PAWS FROM MY PRIZED AND MYSTERIOUS TREASURE!"

I started reading Watts review innocently, merely via innocent perusal of newly published articles online. I tend to flitter from site to site, jumping between numerous listings via google trends when I stumbled across Watts review. Her opening rhetoric of 'WHY IS THE POETRY WORLD pretending that poetry is not an art form?' had me intrigued. Although I was aware she was already taking an antithetical stance to my own, I'm always willing to read oppositional arguments and thus I continued. By the end of the fourth paragraph really signalled to me the that this so called "review" I had committed myself to reading was going to be nothing more than an exhaustive, elitist and patronising rant:

"Of all the literary forms, we might have predicted that poetry had the best chance of escaping social media’s dumbing effect; its project, after all, has typically been to rid language of cliché. Yet in the redefinition of poetry as ‘short-form communication’ the floodgates have been opened. The reader is dead: long live consumer-driven content and the ‘instant gratification’ this affords."

Oh, already she's lost me. If anything screams anti-intellectuality to me, it's melodrama. I honestly don't have time for it. Extreme emotion is always the cry of an anti-intellectualist argument, and unfortunately it's far too commonly employed nowadays. It's this precise quality, propagated by overly emotional SJWs, which is why Feminism and liberalism have really taken a credibility tumble. I find myself frequently distancing myself from a lot of people who I side with, politically and socially, because I don't want to be associated with closed-minded, emotionally reactive hardheadedness. I therefore choose to represent these movements independently.

Anyway, back to the article. Oh I'm sorry, "review." The review which never discusses the book being reviewed once, but instead focuses on personalised attacks on the poets discussed, their audiences, their readers and the sub-genre as a whole. "When did honesty become a requirement – let alone the main requirement – of poetry?" Watt asked disdainfully before snidely remarking on the lack of "linguistic precision" of these poets and their editors:

"people who do not know that poems are deliberately created works, not naturally occurring phenomena, should not be paid to pass judgement on and host discussions about literature."

By this point in the article (I refuse now to refer to it as a review), the pseudo-intellectuality and self-righteousness became too overbearing for me to stomach. If Watts' intention was to rouse the literary critic and reader by the blasphemous appropriation and destruction of poetry and literariness itself, she should have employed a less pompous battlecry. Sorry Watts, but I'm going to have to take undermine your self-righteousness here. I'm afraid to inform you that you have no right to say who should and should not be employed to work in the literary world. Believe it or not, there are people out there who are literary and intellectually informed enough to understand the complexities of poetic construction, mastery and deliverance, who can also appreciate and enjoy Kate Tempest's writing.

No, those of us who do are not culture critics "pandering to a strain of inverse snobbery that considers talent to be undemocratic" or "playing a part in the establishment’s muddle-headed conspiracy to ‘democratise’ poetry." We are just more grounded individuals with less of an ego. We don't take the status of best-selling poetry records as reflective of our own poetry and studies. If best-sellers and sensationalist writings impacted literariness, I would have rewritten my masters thesis on Zoella's Girl Online rather than James Joyce's Ulysses. I'm more concerned for you and your lack of faith in literary integrity: how fragile do you think the canon is? It's still white and largely male for crying out loud; if Toni Morrison and Margo Jefferson can't break the third wall into it, what makes you think a few "instagram" and slam poets have a better chance?

As you are a fan of condescending writing I have taken the liberty to employ the same stylistic method so that my response translates suitably into your internal narrative. My dear Watts: welcome to the world of publishing. You've clearly been far too sheltered in your academic privilege, so allow a working-class, academic woman to shed some light for you and bridge the gap you're incapable of seeing. A bookseller's daily grind in a mainstream bookshop involves selling more sensationalist, one off hit novels than anthologies of T.S Eliot. More parents buy David Walliams, How to Train Your Dragon and Harry Potter than Little Women, Wind and the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island and The Secret Garden. 80% of people never even took a second look at The Martian until it was made into a major motion film.

Did I wish the little girls who bought Zoella's new book would buy A Little Princess instead? Of course I did. I believed they were selling themselves short of a literary experience; but how am I to know if they ever came back to a bookstore and bought Hodgson Burnett that time? Who am I to dictate or judge someone's reading evolution? No one starts reading high literature by jumping in the deep end; and barely anyone ever reads poetry. Sorry to be brutally honest but Harry Potter isn't well written, in my opinion. But just because it has more literary credibility than an 'Instagram poet' that's ok? Do you judge those who loved Harry Potter and moved on to write essays on Brideshead Revisited because of it? Why; because they discovered literature 'the mainstream way'?

I'm not sure about Watts, but I know people who aren't interested in reading at all, and certainly aren't interested in 'pretentious' literature,  which requires deep analysis and dissection. Due to the class system and unjust, unfair education system disadvantages, the majority of people aren't even aware literature has the potential to be analysed and therefore are unsettled and discouraged when reading something 'they don't get'. Due to their societal circumstances, many don't have the time to invest in literature, or educate themselves in fields where the school systems let them down. They aren't interested in literature because the system failed to show them the potential it had for them. But they see McNish's Youtube video shared on Facebook, a poem about breastfeeding and they think yes, this is for me. I get this. Literature is a privilege, whether Watts would like to admit it or not.  The large majority of people grow up believing poetry isn't for them and can never be about them.

I also found myself somewhat baffled by Watts' passionate and profound disgust with the idea of personal poetry, or rather, having an audience invested in the poet's life. Well firstly I ask if Watts has ever read Shakespeare's sonnets or Catullus? Or if she's at all aware with such a thing known as 'marketing' which the publishing world is dependent upon. How does she think Fantastic Beats and Where to Find Them ever came into being? There's nothing wrong with personality. Again, it's not a usual trait of high literature but the implementation of such is not inherently bad. I have to overlook Orwell's vile homophobia and Ovid's historic sexism when investing time in their work, of course, and thankfully those traits of their personality do not enter their literature...that much...for me to be overtly affected or influenced by them as individuals. That being said, the separation of the artist from their artwork is still a very interesting debate to be had.  One could easily argue such individualise-orientated writing is less conflicting and safer to invest in. After all, the millions of people invested in Marion Bradley's powerful, depersonalised and magnificently written Mists of Avalon were left horrified and disturbed to find out the author was a prolific child molester with numerous victims, one being her own daughter. As you can see, cases can be made for either side. The personal presence or absence of a writer has its pros and cons both ways.

Another major unprofessional and childish, anti-intellectual faux-pas Watts engages with was openly correlating these poets to Donald Trump, claiming that "like the new president, the new poets are products of a cult of personality, which demands from its heroes only that they be ‘honest’ and ‘accessible’, where honesty is defined as the constant expression of what one feels". This comparison is what I can only assume is the twenty-first century's version of bringing up Hitler into your argument. You bring in Trump, you loose the argument. Yet she carries this analogy throughout the rest of her "review", going as far to claim that their poetic language in performance is tactical, mimicking that of Trump's egocentric political slur: "language has always been the slippery servant of self-promoting, truth-bending, popularity-seeking individuals."

I think Watts definitive claim of poetry's redefinition is naive and sheltered. The aim of literature and writing, Watts, is not to preserve its status. That's what academics are for. The aim of literature is to move people, affect people and change their lives. Literature and poetry which delivers on this objective is undeniably successful, whether its literariness matches your standards or not.  You very proudly cite T. S. Eliot as your literary reinforcement for saying ‘the people which ceases to care for its literary inheritance becomes barbaric’, yet he is also the poet who wrote: "The rats are underneath the piles. / The Jew is underneath the lot. / Money in furs", along with many other anti-Semitic sentiments across numerous poems. Were I bolder I would question whether or not you consider linguistic barbarities a greater crime against poetry than its employment for xenophobic sentiments, but I'm sure you would answer more sensibly than you have already demonstrated.