Date Archives January 2018

Stop your mechanical raspberries

Are you aware of the row that’s split ‘the poetry world’? Surely it’s one of the most interesting things to happen in the poetry world for ages…If you’re part of the poetry world. How do you become a citizen of the poetry world? A love of words should do it. That’s your ticket. You don’t need to write best-selling works or write scathing articles for PN Review. Rebecca Watts proclaims in said publication that ‘we must stop celebrating amateurism and ignorance in our poetry’ and uses a lot of words to criticise Hollie McNish, whose success she attributes to ‘a cult of personality’*. I haven’t met Hollie McNish, so can’t judge her personality. I first became aware of her through her poem ‘Mathematics’, which, in almost five years, has been viewed 2 million times on YouTube. The only poem I can think of that has more YouTube views is Neil Hilborn’s ‘OCD’ (13 million views. 13 million! For poetry!) Both are, in my opinion, wonderful. Here’s an excerpt from ‘Mathematics’:

‘…And sometimes one can add three more
And sometimes two times two is much much more
Than four
And most times immigrants bring more
Than minuses.’

I like the words and I like them even more listening to McNish read them. She’s a ‘page poet’ and a ‘spoken-word artist’ – terms that she probably dislikes as much as I do. Indeed, let’s not bother with categories: she is a poet. But Rebecca Watts doesn’t think so; she thinks McNish is a ‘noble amateur’. Well, if only based on ‘Mathematics’, McNish is certainly noble, honourable, principled and moral (thank you, Microsoft Word thesaurus). An amateur? Who gets to decide if you’re a professional poet? Is there a test? McNish earns a living through poetry: surely that makes her a professional? I’m going to think of other professional poets right now…Luke Wright, Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy, er…I’m sure I’ll think of some later.

Watts concludes, having referred to Donald Trump and Nigel Farage:

‘If we are to foster the kind of intelligent critical culture required to combat the effects of populism in politics, we must stop celebrating amateurism and ignorance in our poetry.’

I refer back to ‘Mathematics’ and its 2 million views: can it be claimed that any other recent poem has done more to ‘combat the effects of populism’ or, in other words, encourage more humanity? Perhaps Brian Bilston’s poem ‘Refugees’ – an enormously clever poem that was widely-shared on Twitter and, I presume, was the catalyst for his fantastic collection ‘You Took the Last Bus Home’. Watts’ article is a lengthy attempt to justify the view that popular poetry is not intelligent and therefore bad. She then implies that poets should have a political responsibility. I don’t agree, though McNish and Bilston are political, popular, intelligent and good.

George Orwell wrote in his essay ‘Poetry and the Microphone’ (1945):

‘There can be no doubt that in our civilisation poetry is by far the most discredited of the arts, the only art, indeed, in which the average man refuses to discern any value…Poetry is disliked because it is associated with unintelligibility, intellectual pretentiousness and a general feeling of Sunday-on-a-weekday…It is a question of getting people to listen instead of uttering a mechanical raspberry.’**

Hollie McNish, Brian Bilston and many other current poets have encouraged people to listen to poetry and read poetry and discern value in poetry. I like McNish and I like MacNeice – as Don Paterson wrote in The Guardian in response to Watt’s article, ‘one can worship at more than one altar.’*** It’s obviously unfair of Watts to suggest that popular poetry is ‘artless’ and only popular because it’s honest at the expense of craft. I hope that she changes her mind soon and, in the words of MacNeice, feels and enjoys ‘the drunkenness of things being various’ in the poetry world.





Norwegian; good

I’ve finally bought a copy of Siamese Dream, a mere 24 and a half years after it was released. I’d forgotten how exhilarating the start to Cherub Rock is. Talking of absolute joy, Strangers by the Norwegian singer Sigrid is the best thing I have seen, heard and – yes – read in ages…

Just like in the movies
It starts to rain and we…
We’re the broken beauties
Blindfolded minds collide
And we fall
When the curtain drops
Our touch is just a touch
Not like in the movies
Our story’s after the end
Like strangers
Perfect pretenders
We’re falling head over heels
For something that it ain’t real
It could never be us…

Written in a foreign language over a beautiful melody and, for the chorus, a glorious beat. It all sounds so happy, yet look at those lyrics! ‘Broken beauties’, ‘our touch is just a touch’, ‘our story’s after the end’… I love that last one: how to succinctly sum up the messiness and incompleteness of life. But if you watch the video, you’ll see someone dancing around a studio like they’ve just won the lottery. The video so cleverly echoes the ‘perfect pretending’ concept of the song by showing the crew and assorted film paraphernalia and one particularly mesmerising shot at 2:37 of Sigrid pretending to film someone who is presumably pretending to film the made-up house that Sigrid was in earlier in the video.* It should be irritatingly self-referential, but the lyrics require it and it’s so well put together, it could be in the movies: Krzysztof Kieslowski and Roy Andersson would be proud.

Apparently, ‘every few years a debate breaks out about poetry and pop’.** But surely pop wins every time? Sigrid wins for her lyrics and because she makes me want to dance – and what’s better than dancing? The opening to Cherub Rock sets my cheeks and back alight…and there are no words! Just sonic bliss. ‘Just’? Give me 20 seconds of sonic bliss over shelves of poetry.

* Sigrid – Strangers


Come and ‘ave a go if you’re avant garde enough

I love parodies but has it all gone too far? Just before New Year, I managed to negotiate with my kids half an hour of music television. Ah, a classic straight away: Sum 41’s ‘Fat Lip’, which features a random Iron Maiden tribute at the end. Afterwards, it was Bowling for Soup’s ‘1985’:

‘Cause she’s still preoccupied
With 19, 19, 1985…’

To be fair, having read the lyrics, there is a genuine and sad narrative that is quite surprising for what sounds like a standard ‘pop punk’ song. I had thought that it was a brazenly nostalgic song written to justify a silly video with references to 1985, though ‘Addicted to Love’ was released in 1986 and ‘Faith’ was released in 1987!

So is a fondness for parodies based on nostalgia or is it simply laziness? ‘It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.’* I’d add that it’s easier to imagine the end of capitalism than the beginning of a music style that is truly new. There’s a van parked outside a nightclub in town that has ‘80s’ and ‘90s’ on the back and various photos and images associated with those decades. Can you imagine a van parked outside a nightclub with ‘2000s’ and ‘2010s’ on it? All the images would surely inherently be parodies…So do I love them or not? Yes, but wouldn’t it be great if, instead of the weary widespread acceptance of ‘nudge nudge wink wink’ postmodernism, we were part of something original?

‘Postmodern thought is broadly characterized by tendencies to…irreverence, and self-referentiality…’** Indeed, have you seen the video for ‘Finesse’ by Bruno Mars? Honestly, why don’t we just put our brains in jars and watch Fresh Prince on repeat?

‘Punk continues to fascinate because it was the twentieth century’s last avant-garde.’***

‘Avant-garde in music can refer to any form of music working within traditional structures while seeking to breach boundaries in some manner.’****

Come on Bruno, sort it out!






This Is Just To Say That I Hope These Words Move You

I’ve just written yet another letter to the paper about the NHS. I heard on the radio yesterday that a woman died, having waited almost four hours for an ambulance to arrive. She was struggling to breathe. Can you imagine the pain and fear? How did the thousands/millions of other people react when they heard this news?

Cyril Connolly wrote in 1938:

‘…Unless writers do all they can it will be too late; war will break out and the moment be past when the eloquence of the artist can influence the destiny of humanity.’

To think that ‘the eloquence of the artist’ can have such influence! Despite Orwell and, no doubt, many other tireless heroes, war obviously did break out. Maybe this poem would inspire millions of people to save our NHS:

This Is Just To Say

I have taken
the NHS
that was in
public ownership

and which
you were probably
for future generations

Forgive me
it was so profitable
so good
and so rich*

I like to think it would, especially as I wrote it (some credit also due to William Carlos Williams). I think the poem was re-tweeted 83 times. Aw mah gawd – I’m famous! Justin Timberlake’s new song had about 1.8mn YouTube views in about 16 hours. Tony Walsh’s ‘This is The Place’ has, so far, had almost 205,000 views**. The crowd he was reading to loved the mention of Emmeline Pankhurst. I’ve just glanced at the wiki entry for her – lots of activism, not much poetry.