Sunday, 15 November 2020

Academic taste: Further comments

Academic taste: Further comments

This is part of a series on the possibility of poetry being led astray by an elite, and the resentful thesis that multiple varieties of poetry have been suppressed (as opposed to being published even when no good in a very tolerant scene). Last time we discussed the existence of an “academic taste”, linked to reactions and feelings within university English Literature departments. People talk about this, often, in connection with the poets that academics find uninteresting. “Allott was an academic and his anthology confirmed the disappearance of a range of poets, including Noyes and Watson.” Anthologies can’t erase memories, but they do provide a focus for memory.
The argument about academic taste is roughly:
(1) academics have selective attention and are not interested by a great deal of poetry that the rest of the audience like
(2) most of the serious reviews are now written by academics (since about 1960?), and most books of poetry don’t get reviewed
(4) reviews and syllabus choices influence publishers a great deal, and also affect word of mouth and consumer choice
(5) and this affects the books that retailers stock
(6) the publishing and retailing businesses are paralysed by academic prestige and inhibited from publishing kinds of poetry which would sell (but which are disapproved of by conservative academics).

(4) and (5) just aren't true. This is where the theory falls down. (6) is almost completely untrue. We could add a final idea, that “the poetry which uses/imitates entire cognitive processes also used by academics is favoured by academics”.
As for (6), I would think that Oxford University Press and Carcanet do favour the academic taste. (That is, OUP did before they abandoned the contemporary poetry market.) But unsophisticated poets could get published somewhere else. Carcanet define and satisfy a specialist taste, they appeal to a particular sector of the market and it is clearly not true that they are preventing other publishers from being successful.

Palmer describes for us maybe ninety poets of the inter-war period who just aren't read today. In fact, none of them were intellectuals, and that is connected with Allott’s decision not to include them in his large-scale retrospective anthology in 1962. Many of them were very popular in their day. Certainly Noyes and Watson sold a lot of books. But the market abandoned them – this is a much larger-scale event than the rejection, much later, of such kitsch-nationalist poets by Allott, Ian Hamilton, or other compilers of standard works. The popular market is much more voracious in forgetting and throwing away than the academic world. Everyone forgets the cultural product of last week so that they can consume the product for this week. It’s part of the consumption process.

It is only fair to define Allott’s book as a sequel to Michael Roberts’ 1936 Faber Book of Modern Verse, since Allott accepts almost every British poet who was in the 1936 selection. The converse applies – Roberts purged a large (if indefinite) number of poets who were still alive and whom he effectively defined as irrelevant. Roberts says that he has selected only poets who seem relevant to the future– an untenable claim, since he can have had no accurate idea of what was going to happen next. Anyway, the work of purging was done by Roberts and the (ten years younger) Allott just followed his pattern. Allott seems keen to follow the detailed examination which Roberts extols as part of creating new values. The attention to detail is supposed to carry out the liberation from outmoded values. This is a trick – it is all too obvious that if JC Squire had examined poets closely he would have ended up choosing poets which suited his taste, and that Roberts and Allott used “objectivity” to select poems by other Oxford graduates.
The way in which close reading is used on the text while being rigorously not applied to the person reading the text is still irritating. Roberts and his allies seem to be taking over the whole poetic scene, including its past. Their own ideological composition is therefore of the highest interest. But they blank this out. The lens is strong enough to disperse most of the poets writing, as at 1936. but it is invisible to itself. Reflexivity is being fundamentally denied. Saying that you’re The Future doesn't really cut it.
I see the problem in a different way. Poets are paranoid about being ignored. The academic conversation does validate some things, but leaves out maybe 99% of the work that gets published. This makes academics a target for paranoia. I think this is irrational. Academics aren’t there to write testimonials for x thousand bad poetry books. To dwell on that – academic writing only has status because it eliminates what is irritating when you dwell on it. It may be that poetry gets forgotten on a large scale – this doesn't mean that academics have to remember all the poets whom everyone else forgets. Thinking that the formal record in magazines like Critical Quarterly is the record that counts is just the kind of error that makes people annoyed with academics. But wherever I take a close look, most of the books being sold are the ones not getting “serious critical attention”; the academic conversation, or the memory it sets up, gives a consistently misleading version of what we were actually reading – in 1930, 1965, or now. Most poetry is not satisfying to do a close reading of, or to write about. But it may actually be pleasurable – the illusion is when you decide that all poetry is more intelligent than popular music. Actually, a great deal of poetry is simple in the way that pop music is, and it can reach a large audience with those qualities.
Geoffrey Hill is the classic example of a poet fully absorbed by academic life, writing difficult and opaque work that many people do not find gratifying. The bibliography of academic work on Hill is formidable – he seems to be a “safety shot” for someone who wants to research the modern period but is also deeply conservative. He is a safe academic asset for the uninspired. But, simultaneously, he reaches a great many people who otherwise find modern poetry dumbed-down and poppy and trivial. He is not a cult figure, although he probably was in the 1950s: Allott forced him to supply an explanation of his poem before Allott would consent to include it. But, I don’t think he is a basis for generalisations about academic taste. He spent much time not producing anything, and much of his work is unsatisfying because he was determined to produce, without a winning idea. This connects with emotional processes in Hill, quite well known by now, and not with some secret rules of academic existence. Work like Mercian Hymns and Speech! Speech! is spontaneous and emotionally rewarding, and that just shows that much of his work is hard going because it cost him too much effort to write it. It didn't excite him.
Were Hill’s inhibitions related to high “academic" standards? maybe, but academic status also gives some people an unnecessarily high self-regard and a tendency to talk highly-educated nonsense without ever wanting to stop.
I have spent considerable time recently studying catalogues which list all, or most, of the poetry books published in a given year. I am not sure how productive this is. But it underlines how diverse the business is. If you actually look at all the books published in 1977, they include a dizzying variety of poetry, most of it bad I expect. Most of it certainly wasn't academic. There never was a "stranglehold" of the academics. As I said, a magazine like Critical Quarterly, reviewing maybe 1% of the books coming out, only reviewed books of interest to their audience, who were mostly English teachers. They didn't block anybody else from reaching an audience. This is just a myth.

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