Refuge areas and English nationalism
This is a posting about resentment and refuge areas, in the wake of the EU referendum and the election of Donald Trump.
The poetry world is most visible when it carries out acts of validation, such as awarding prizes and releasing books in prestige series. These acts are claims of homogeneity and indeed poets all want homogeneous applause. However, a significant component of the scene viewed in the round is resentment. This is one of the major energy flows and it needs to be brought to light.
One form of the lingering resentment is ethnically defined. It's aboot time we listened tae naebodie but oorsels. TS Law said. Mentioning this raises the possibility of an English Nationalist programme for poetry. This seems structurally implied in a game where ethnically defined blocs are saying listen to naebodie but oorsels, but it remains a white space on the board. It faces structural difficulties- on the level of someone saying that they won't eat spaghetti or hamburger because they aren’t English. In parallel, it seems that someone who would commit to such a programme would reject all poetry since 1960. That is, this category of people may actually exist, in numbers, but they are structurally removed from the game because they refuse to play it. This would point to the origin of the poetry scene as a self-selected group, dominated by empathy which leads to convergence. The more they converge, through shared experiences, the more they differ from the outside world. We may speculate that even though poetry is subjective, if a number of people read the same 300 books they converge, so that their subjective reactions come to resemble each other. In fact, the wish of the poet was to communicate, and this always mitigated the purely subjective element. The domination of the poetry world by the people who actually want to take part in it disguises an untested fact, namely that the scene could alternatively be run by quite different groups who would then lead it down a new path – so that the empathetic/liberal tendency would have to leave. So perhaps very different outcomes were possible.
English nationalism would take the form of denying the right of the people in the poetry world to own poetry. This is a thought experiment. It is likely that the actual state of poetry is the product of all its preceding states. Nationalism was extremely important in poetry in the era of Newbolt and Noyes, but there was a strong reaction against it in the Twenties – the reaction against the military ideas of the First World War, in fact. Being incorporated into the poetry world has meant, since that point, taking on unstated assumptions (about the desirability of war, the condition of the State as an emotional object rather than a business one, about asking questions, and about submerging in a collective), which were not compatible with nationalism.
One fruit of the uprising of 1968 has certainly been to critique individual judgement, the individual experience of art as a source of knowledge and pleasure. I think there is a refuge idea where art consumers faced with the critique of judgement which has continued to take place get irritated and disengage and take refuge in a narrower world. Here, the refusal to extend is a vision of authenticity. They find a comfort zone of pleasure while ignoring the critique and the rather long-drawn-out arguments which have accompanied it. This seems like a retreat to me. Back into the Balkan hill ranges and a tribal sense of homogeneity. I am not sure that criticism ought to be annoying and humiliating. There is a whole line of Marxist-oriented cultural critique which is designed to humiliate people – in the style of John Berger. Your experience is invalid, he is saying, because you are invalid people. This may not be backed up by evidence.
I was very impressed with Goodwin and Ford's book about the rise of UKIP (Revolt on the Right), because at each point they pass on assailing UKIP's dud ideas in favour of saying that the energy of the system as a whole is running down because politicians are ignoring what the electorate are thinking about and saying. The key thing is the decline of Labour and the Conservatives, not the rise of UKIP which wins votes without winning elections. I think the managers of poetry need to learn from populist hostility.
The poetic equivalent of UKIP and Donald Trump is Bloodaxe Books. The critique of the intelligentsia. Of sophistication, of ideas of modernity. The resentment against an elite who dominate the discourse and are super-articulate, the rationalisation that the elite represent a consensus and are fastened by self-regard. We have been dealing with this since the end of the 70s. Actually Bloodaxe is not English nationalist. I should emphasise that this resentment is expressed in the jacket texts, a fugitive genre which is not subject to scrutiny and not expected to be responsible and proportionate. Its texts may not be visible in retrospect, they vanish. They are anonymous. But they are read a lot by possible shoppers. This matches up with political campaigns via Twitter and the Internet, the digital post-truth realm. This attitude is not written up in any book (a book about modern poetry by the head of Bloodaxe was announced in the Bloodaxe catalogue but never appeared). Like UKIP, this line of opinion did contain a lesson for the intelligent and credible. I have certainly thought about it a lot. Populist books of poetry were selling in thousands while modernist-style works were selling 200 or 300. 95% of the potential audience are scared of anything difficult.
I don’t think those jacket texts ever named the people they were attacking. They didn't distinguish between the academic taste of the 1950s and the modernist/Leftist poets of the 60s and 70s. They just had a stereotype of “intellectual – smug – inhibited – not entertaining”. Evidently many real books acted out that stereotype.
The poetry world is a small self-selected group. This is worth thinking through. Evidently, people who never read any poetry are less qualified to make generalisations about poetry than people who read it all the time. This is a question of sovereignty, almost. Of the right to make judgements. The established “poetry elite” falls into several groups. Evidently there is a group f managers whose working assets include the rejection of modernism and of the critique of the self (roughly) which has developed since 1968. The populist thing involves a dual rejection: first, of the Oxford line of poetry for being too narcissistic, too smug, too sheltered from life's problems, too conservative in social attitudes. Then, quite separately, the attack on an elite of left-wing intellectuals, for not delivering credible accounts of lived experience and for being too esoteric in linguistic means. You can attack both groups at once. (It is characteristic of a populist resentment that it ignores differences between various sectors which it wants to attack.)
Because of the history of the scene, the populist resentful group is on the Left and is educated. It is rather that they are less educated than the hyperliterate, and are Left in a less abstract way than the readers of philosophy. This is quite unlike the UKIP vs Westminster polemic. You have to have sympathy for someone who is reeling out of the cinema not having understood the film. People encountered poetry at school – if there were people who read a Shakespeare sonnet and really didn't understand it, they were labelled as not the A-stream by the teachers. Schools have a programme to follow, but it is unconscionable for the poetry world to go on casting them as the C-stream. If someone is labelled as 37th out of a field of 45 in an exam, it is quite likely that they will mentally define the 36 who were more intelligent than them as inauthentic and lost in abstraction. This sounds childish, but as I was saying adult behaviour in culture recycles attitudes acquired while at school. If you see attacks on poets with Oxbridge educations, poets with knowledge of Continental culture, poets who have read literary theory, we are seeing a “refugium” mentality, parallel to UKIP's attack on career politicians. You have to admit that some people are reading new-style poetry and they just don't get it, the dots don't resolve into a pattern. The scene shouldn’t just be built around academic stars if they are very few in number.
If you get into the critique of everyday life, including consciousness, you can lose the sense of life being lived and offer the reader nothing to identify with. That is the very thing they want, so giving it away is quite a radical step. This may be what people mean when they talk about “abstraction”. I think that what the wider market wants is a poet with greater sensitivity than most people, and then poetry which has contained time. If poetry is an argument, if the compassion of the poet stops being visible because of the critique they are carrying out, the appeal is not there any more. If you are criticising the process of consciousness, you end up with zero contained time. There is nothing to identify with. Meanwhile you can reach a larger market by presenting a poet who embodies compassion and the feel of “lived time” even if they are unoriginal and evidently mediocre at key points.
Obviously I regard the people who like my poetry as the most legitimate critics. But there is a circularity built into this. Suppose you have an elite which enjoys minority support. Meanwhile its legitimacy is challenged by broad if disorganised groups which are pushed by resentment. This means you could redefine them as not being an elite. As a thought experiment, we could say, let us define a hundred different factions as being failed elites. How do we decide which one is the least failed? What I am saying is that if you only have 50 fans there is a problem in you defining those fans as the most authorised to authorise because the whole process of legitimation is in question.
I don't think the populist hostility amounts to a new elite group. This is because its means of presenting ideas, in jacket texts and so on, are so shallow and unaccountable. The ideas cannot be argued at length because they are too flawed and too reliant on negative stereotypes which fall into shreds when the evidence is assembled. They exist as smears, scurrilous insults, stereotypes, folklore, dark flashes of emotion, and if they were not like that they would not be populist.
Who are the elite? One segment little considered is the stockists, the people who choose the stock of bookshops. They are nameless so their biographies are not part of the cultural memory. However, it may be they influence the course of literature more than anyone else. The flow of reviews and so on may be at a remove from the book trade, and not especially influential on sales. A critic might be influential by affecting what the stockists do – influence is always conditional on being listened to.
I have reached a halt without talking about refuge areas which ignore the existence of feminism or of immigrant groups (and critiques of the British). I think similar conditions apply – the resentment is never articulated and so is hard to critique intelligently. Similar emotions are probably in play – people don't want to enter the poetry section in order to be made to feel guilty and to be told that the position they hold will have to be given up and they will be evicted. They probably want to hear the reverse, actually. They may want a refuge area, a refugium, from those feelings. They are resentful of an elite which bases its legitimacy on inflicting those feelings on people. But actually – being pro-feminist and pro-immigrant really are qualities which qualify you to apply for a post as culture officer, qualities too which justify the system and protect it from legitimacy and energy leaking slowly away.
Postscript. There has been a General Election since I wrote this, at which UKIP's share of the vote went down from 12.9% to 1.8%. They look like a burnt-out match. Things are changing very fast in British politics. Does that mean the populist thing can be forgotten? hardly so. The anti-immigration vote has just found other outlets. With poetry, you always have to think about why the huge new educated audience mostly ignore poetry. The people in charge are still short of legitimacy.