Does Poetry Need A Bit of Conflict?

The poetry community over the past couple of weeks have been split over poet and critic Rebecca Watts’ essay “The Cult in of the Nobel Amateur”. Writing in the PN Review, Watts argues against “the rise of a cohort of young female poets”, mainly referring to poets such as Rupi Kaur and Hollie McNish, the first of which recently published a bestseller and the other won the Ted Hughes award for new poetry. She argues that although these poets are being praised for their “honesty” and “accessibility” are instead simply amateurs and unable to write decent, well thought out poetry.

This has provoked a mixed reaction online: some were negative; particularly the fans of the poets mentioned above and some were shocked that Watts would attack such successful poets of her own gender. However, others viewed it as a relief. A criticism of a school of poetry that has until now remained relatively unscathed. All of this is representative of a larger problem in contemporary poetry and in the long run an article such as the one published by Watts might benefit poetry as a whole in all its forms.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#3535DB” class=”” size=””]The first thing that is worth noting is that this is perhaps the first piece of interesting news relating to poetry in perhaps a century.[/perfectpullquote]

While that may be slightly hyperbolic, it is truth to say that contemporary poetry is very rarely exciting for anybody outside the sphere of the poetic community. A sphere that is relatively very small. A controversy and voice of dissidence might serve to excite the world of poetry slightly and invite a larger audience to the form. Outside of this, criticism seems to be becoming a rare commodity among poets and critics. Maybe due to the size of the community or the position of poetry in society today, it is a rare occurrence that someone stands up to say they dislike another’s poetry.

There seems to be an unwritten rule that poetry can’t be bad, or ill conceived. Across the world there are people in poetry groups and at poetry slams that offer nothing but support for their fellow’s work. This can’t be good for the quality of the writing, and Watts argues that exact fact. As painful as it may be, sometimes poems are bad. Sometimes the poet needs to go back and edit their work, the same as any other writer. This sometimes is never in most circles and this serves only to produce work that is weaker and weaker as time goes on. Watts’ essay is exciting because it reintroduces to the poetic community the concept of criticism that appears across all art forms and serves to create stronger work.

Another small point brought up by Watts worth expanding on is a problem central to poetry today: nobody is reading poetry, not even the poets. This is a point made by Watts in reference to McNish who has previously admitted to not being a fan of reading poetry. While McNish in her blog defends this point by saying she instead studies things that she finds more interesting, it highlights a flaw in reasoning. A poet that does not read poetry is like a musician that does not listen to music or a director that does not watch films.

It is a concept almost too ridiculous and self absorbed to comprehend. Artists learn from other artists who study their craft. Artists build and subvert the work that has gone before them. To write in such a void might encourage poetry that is more honest but at the expense of any semblance of craft, form, or competency. Imagine a guitarist who never heard music and just strummed random notes; a director with a camera who has no concept of how to stage a scene. Furthermore, it is incredibly self-absorbed to expect people to read your work without bothering to read anyone else’s. It is a false economy the poetry community is working under where it seems that there are more people writing then reading poetry. How can a poet expect anyone to buy their work when they don’t bother buying the work of their contemporaries?

However, it would not make sense to examine the essay without acknowledging its flaws. Though many of the points in the essay are valid, the way in which they are expressed is at times not ideal. Watts’ does not concentrate only on the work but also attacks the poets personally. Hollie McNish in particular bears the brunt of this attack. However, the fundamental flaw in the essay is not expressed outright but hinted throughout the piece. Watts’ seems to believe that their is no value in the poetry written by McNish, Kaur, and similar.

Although it is understandable to believe that their work is poor and that they don’t deserve the praise they get, it would be foolish to claim their work is without value. [perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#3535DB” class=”” size=””]What Watts fails to recognise is that this form of short form, pop poetry can exist beside more traditional poetry[/perfectpullquote]

Although this writer agrees that the poetry produced by this group is often poor, the form itself is not inherently flawed and it is possible to write good poetry using it. We haven’t seen examples of such yet, but there should be in time.

Rebecca Watts’ essay may not have been perfect, but it might do something more valuable than she could have imaged writing. It might be able to stir up the poetry community enough to try gain back the vitality and lively atmosphere it had in previous years. Poets could gain a lot from learning that not always is their work perfect, and sometimes you need to be told so.

Submissions are open for all HeadStuff poetry categories, including Poem of The Week (Every Friday), Unbound (longer sequence of poems from a single poet), and New Voices (submissions from poets under the age of 30.) We accept both written, audio and video recorded poems as long as the quality of the audio and video is of a high standard.

Please see our Submissions page for more information.

Photo by Trust “Tru” Katsande on Unsplash