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Sunday, 11 January 2015

Roll Over Eliot and Tell Costa the News

A serious lack of intelligent critical engagement on the part of some players in the British poetry world has led to a situation of dumbing down, and aesthetic compromise. There is no genuinely engaged scholar of contemporary British poetry who could possibly think the ten-strong shortlist for tomorrow's Eliot Prize represents the ten best books of poetry published in Britain or Ireland this year - there are just too many glaring omissions. Further, the recent furore over Kate Tempest - a rapper and slam poet whose page-based work is mediocre and often lamentable - has been nothing short of disgraceful. Meanwhile, a perfectly pleasant, and amiable, and often funny poetry collection by a young man has won this year's Costa Poetry Prize - which is nice for him, but vaguely odd.  Again, the people who are selecting judges and selectors for most of the main prizes, book clubs, and festivals, seem either about 25 years out of date, or, far worse, guided by motives and poetics that are of dubious grounding. In the mad tilt to celebrity, accessibility, and accountability, an idea has seemingly formed that demotic, funny, usually rhyming verse is the most genuine way in which "real" poets can speak to "real people" in these "real" times.

Aside from the fact that we have had demotic poetry since at least Chaucer (and funny verse too), there is no reason to think poetry need be ever either "real" or "for the people" - poets are artists, and they should select their aims according to the art's interests, not the audiences.  Or at least, that is the elitist modernist view, which, up to a point I believe is essential as a starting point; tempered by a post-structuralist awareness of problematic issues with canon formation and ideology, to be sure.

It would be nice to be able to say that most poetry prizes in the UK are actually a tussle between modernist, post-modernist or avant-ist tendencies - but they aren't even that - like many reviews in newspapers, they are more often guided by pleasant, amiable, coterie group-think. So and so is handsome, or polite, or interesting, or has had a tough life, or taught me at this school or that course, or writes poetry like Heaney or Armitage, or was on the telly, or has won a lot of prizes, or is published by a big press... the number of reasons for selecting a poet to win a prize is so vast, it is hard to sometimes remember the real thing might be to ask who is actually writing the most interesting, or vital, or engaged, or informed, poetry. So long as 90% of people who read and write poetry in the UK think it mostly begins and ends with the list of three or four large mainstream presses, all is almost lost. Not quite, but almost.

However, for their part, Faber has of late published extremely exciting and intelligent new poets, such as Berry and de las Rivas, and will continue with Underwood soon.  I just think we need a lot more context, wider reading, and more robust intent on the part of some of the powers that be in these isles.
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