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
And most times immigrants bring more
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.