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Friday, 22 January 2016

PRIVATE EYES ARE WATCHING YOU

THIS MAN READS PRIVATE EYE AND IS UNIMPRESSED
Private Eye is a venerable, and some would say over the hill, satirical publication (rag to some) that is published in London and mucks up a lot of rakes, and vice versa. Recently, a brief piece it ran on the January TS Eliot Prizes, upset David Wheatley so much, that he commented on Facebook in a white knight sort of way, about how offensive the writing was.

Eyewear, the blog therefore had to read it to see.

Well, one sentence - and suggestion - is probably best construed as offensive, sexist, rude, and borderline libellous - the suggestion that the Eliot judging panel gave the prize to a debut collection by young poet Sarah Howe because she is good-looking, and half-Chinese. I say probably because Private Eye is a well-known satirical rag, and Wheatley, an Irish poet and scholar with expertise in Beckett's works, will know better than I that satire is sometimes meant to be like that. In short, they may well have meant to get a reaction.

Eyewear placed this winning book among its best of 2015, and Private Eye is surely incorrect in suggesting it won because of the looks or nationalities of the author- its merits as poetry are evident enough to speak for themselves.

However, David Wheatley went further (possibly because he rightly dislikes sexism, even in satirical magazines) and suggested Private Eye has no right to question the judging panel, and how this famous prize is adjudicated.  Wheatley went on to ask if the writer of the Private Eye squib had any knowledge of poetry more generally, and suggested they probably didn't.

Here is where Eyewear has a subtly different perspective on this sort of intervention from the outer world. We do not welcome sexism and chauvinism, and that part is wrong and should be apologised for. However, ill-informed commentary on poetry in mainstream widely-read magazines is precisely what poetry needs more of.

The current problem with British poetry - well one of them - is that it is impossible to express an opinion on a poet, poem or collection these days in public without triggering a cavalcade of storming PhDs and profs who all know more than enough to fight their various corners, immediately suffocating the fun of dumb opinionated blather which is the oxygen that fuels most fandom.

Poets often wonder why ordinary non-poets don't become poetry fans more often - it is because they feel you cannot be ill-informed and join the conversation.  And sadly, they are made to feel that way.

For instance, if I say I like a movie like Star Wars, I say this as an ignorant joker.  Same thing if I say I like The X-Files TV show.  I am not an expert in these shows, or sci-fi, or film-making (though I have some experience). I am a fan of boxing precisely because I cannot box and barely understand a left hook. I like Miles Davis because I am not a cool jazzer. I read War & Peace safe in the knowledge I will not be asked to speak Russian. I go to the ballet happily unsure of how to dance; I watch rugby unsure of how to enter a scrum. I loved David Bowie exactly because I am not a singer-songwriter.

I have long argued we need disinterested, ill-informed poetry fans, who feel safe to express dumb opinions, biased views, and half-baked theories on prizes, books, poets, contests, and publishers, JUST LIKE FANS DO FOR EVERY OTHER POPULAR ART FORM.

No, we must not too-carefully police commentary on poetry events - however dumb, rude and morally repugnant these comments may be - on the grounds that we poets know more than our readers, our potential wider audience.  Of course we do - we are Practitioners, we are IN THE KNOW.  We are the ones who need to keep our mouths shut, and let our work generate shit-storms of tweets, posts and other social media nonsense, in our absence.  Otherwise, the lunatics will be policing the poetry prison-house of language.

But, in this case, yes, Private Eye went too far, and owes Ms Howe and the judges an apology. She won because her book was judged the best of the ten. Eyewear felt the book was probably second-best of the ten (we preferred Citizen by Ms Rankine) but we think Ms Howe's book is still a fantastic book.  It should be okay to say this.  Just as our blog loved Bridge of Spies this year, but thinks The Big Short is a little bit better.

We must be less afraid to express opinion, and to not have to back it up. Oh, and we love reading Larkin, Dylan Thomas and Wendy Cope - get stuffed!
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