March 11, 2013

essay response "Giving Poetry 'Back to People'" (a response to Neil Asstley's essay, "Give Poetry back to people") by Douglas Messerli

by Douglas Messerli
Written in response to Neil Astley's essay, “Give Poetry back to people,” New Statesman, October 23, 2006

Beyond my annual assessments of the poetry scene—necessitated by my introductions to The PIP Gertrude Stein Awards—every few years someone publishes a well-placed essay decrying the current state of poetry, indicating problems with poets and publishers. Such pieces as Neil Astley’s New Statesman comments on the British poetry scene in October 2006 are often beneficial in their ability to rouse the fractious poetry world into response.

    On the surface, many of Bloodaxe editor Astley’s concerns are similar to those I expressed in my 2005-2006 essay “What Is to Be Done?” Astley is distressed, namely, that at a time when it appears that more writers and readers exist since the cultural flowering of 1920s, bookstores are nonetheless carrying fewer poetry titles and many British poetry publishing ventures are going out of business. Astley, like I am, is equally irritated that many presses, their readers, and the media—working in Britain under code words such as “maintaining critical standards”—focus on “narrowly based, male-dominated, white Anglocentric” writing while avoiding the wide range of international poetry and the increasing diversity of work by British African, Asian, Caribbean, and other writers.

     I get nervous, however, anytime one begins connecting that marvelously diverse work to the “common reader” or, in Astley’s case, “the people,” as opposed to the presumably obscurant work of “academicians” and “elitists.” I can well understand that the notion of “academic writing” is far different—given the continued poetic domination of Oxford and Cambridge poets—from the vaguer idea of academic writing we have here in the U.S., writing not necessarily attached to the university setting but following the ideals of the “well made” and superficially crafted poems championed in many American college and university writing programs—often realist or psychologically grounded works that contain little complexity in terms of structure or ideas. Some of the poetry Astley asserts is being written by “exciting new major writers”—writing by Galway Kinnell, Yusef Komunyakaa, Jane Hirshfield, and Mary Oliver—represents to me just the kind of work many describe in the US as academic in opposition to more stimulating and adventurous poetry.

     The word “adventurous,” of course, is a dangerous concept here; for, predictably—I’ve encountered the same phenomena in every literary panel of the National Endowment for the Arts and California Arts Council on which I’ve served—“elitism” for Astley equates to the avant-garde or any kind of writing that explores linguistic complexity, and, as such, is seen as perhaps even more dangerous than academicism in that it draws upon an audience supposedly different from “the people.” “The people,” evidently, are not the same folk who read poetry written by elitists or university graduates—both of a species separate from everyday folk.

     The headline proclamation of Astley’s essay—“Give poetry back to people”—sends my obviously uncomprehending mind in a swirl of conundrums: who are “the people”? who takes poetry away from them and how? where is poetry being kept while it is being held from “the people”? and who is being asked to give it back?

     If people—“the people”—are those rushing to poetry events such as the one Astley describes at the South Bank Centre, which features international figures whose work I admire—the Finnish poet Tua Forsström, noted Swedish writer Tomas Tranströmer, and the young Bombay poet Arundhati Subramaniam—then “the people” must evidently have found their poetry, at least in this event. The work of these international figures (and other writers Astley commends for whose work I have less enthusiasm) is obviously being published—some of it by Bloodaxe itself.

      Even if one were to ignore the fact that these and other huge poetry events (including the National Poetry Days he touts in the US and larger book events such as the Los Angeles Times Book Fair that takes place in my own city) attract “the people” for many reasons that have nothing to do whatever with what anyone means by the quality or effectiveness of printed poetry, one still must wonder why these people are superior to any other. And why—presuming other publishers like me “have it” or “hold it”—we should give it to them as opposed to the audiences which over the years we have individually developed.

     Let me just suggest that poetry, fortunately, cannot be owned by anyone, existing as it does in hundreds of guises and emanating from numerous compulsions—from a need to express one’s personal sentiments, to express one's cultural identity, to make highly charged statements, to simplify or codify narrative, to present one’s psychological being, or, as in my own case, to explore and challenge one’s language and thinking, etc. There are obviously hundreds of different audiences to match the radically diverse writing that Astley celebrates. Accordingly, since no one can own poetry or even hold it—poetry is not a singular thing—how can any publisher or other entity “give to back?” It is, after all, a thing of language, something we all share that transcends national borders and all those constructions of mortar, brick, wood, or thatch we inhabit to protect ourselves.      

     What Astley seems really to be arguing for is his vision of people, his vision of poetry. Good for him! Poetry is important—as I argue in the response to Astley’s essay in the forum published by The Argotist, I have reproduced below—and is something that readers, writers and observers should feel free to pontificate about. Now, Neil, if only you might describe the kind of poetry you want people, your “people” to read. I’m sure we might not agree, but then at least I’d know what you are talking about!

P.S.: In case I’ve not made it apparent in my comments above, I am what Astley might call an “elitist” who likes poetry that challenges its readers, encouraging them to think as complexly as our current world requires of us. Moreover, I admit that some of my best friends, often quite adventuresome poets, work as dedicated teachers in colleges and universities.

Los Angeles, Bergin’s bar, January 2, 2007
Reprinted from The Argoist [England] (January 2007).

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