Over the last few days there has been much written about Rebecca Watts’ article The Cult of the Noble Amateur in the PN Review. In case this has passed you by, she considers a current subset of young female writers (e.g. Rupi Kaur, Hollie McNish) to be characteristic of ‘rejection of craft’ and lacking intellectual engagement – in effect, dumbing down in order to increase sales, while being praised for honesty and accessibility (I’m paraphrasing her opening paragraph here). Normally I would shrug and move on, but not only has this appeared in the mainstream media with the ‘poetry world split’ over it, but it’s been a subject of discussion on my facebook feed and among members of the collective I work with. So, colour me engaged…
A quick skim shows that much of the debate is polarised into two core views – one says Watts is elitist and the poets she criticises are open, honest, accessible and so on; the other says that contemporary writing should be subject to the sort of literary criticism that has traditionally been applied to poetry – a test of quality of sorts, and a sense that it should be intellectually rigorous.
All very ‘so what’ so far – but a bit of background might be useful. Firstly, Watts is a poet, and a published one with The Met Office Advises Caution via Carcanet (2016). You can read some extracts here. Secondly, she was, I believe, commissioned to write this by the editor of PN Review, having previously refused to review Hollie McNish’s Plum as she didn’t consider it worthy of inclusion. So, let’s start there – Plum.
I’ve just fetched it from my bookshelf, and I have it because I bought it because I like it. It mixes childhood verse with current writing, and this is the point – the juvenilia in particular are not great literature, but they’re not meant to be taken on their own. The book as a whole charts changes in her life, celebrates them, points out absurdity – and her youngest self (the opening poem was written when she was 8) is part of this. Also, and I think Watts fails to realise this (maybe she doesn’t go to poetry gigs), is that when I read McNish, like many others, I hear her voice in my head. Just like buying a band’s album from the merch table, I get a lot of my contemporary poetry books from the poet after a gig. This is part of their purpose, the context in which they are published. They may be intellectually rigorous, they may not, and just like music, poetry can be a mix-tape. I can happily browse Plum and note that some of the shorter works are essentially aphorisms, a form that McNish’s publisher-at-Picador, Don Paterson, also uses in works such as The Blind Eye. Then onto wondering at the abstraction of Paul Muldoon, off for a bit of old skool Shelley, and back to the now with Kate Tempest (another not favoured by Watts). I smile while bucking opinion by preferring to read Kate Tempest (ah, those Classical references writ new) than listen/watch her. She’s great at the latter, but it ain’t my thing. As Lemn Sissay said in response to Watts’ piece, “there’s room for all forms of poetry. And whichever side you’re on, it’s foolish to say there isn’t.”
And therein lies the crux. We like different things. Like Watts, I am unimpressed by Rupi Kaur’s incredibly successful Milk & Honey. When Watts cites the lines ‘she was music / but he had his ears cut off’, I can’t help The Killers’ faux-deep ‘I got soul but I’m not a soldier’ popping, unwelcome and unbidden, into my head like a blob of anthemic pap. Unlike Watts (or at least her article), I wish Rupi Kaur well with it. She has written, she has promoted via modern media, and she has produced something that speaks to a lot of people. She has also, along with others, increased the readership for contemporary poetry. This is A Good Thing and should be celebrated. Yes, quality is important – I’m not of the po-mo mindset that says (or at least imples) otherwise – but not everything has to be intellectually challenging, much as I like such a challenge, some of the time. If all contemporary poetry was simplistic, it would be A Bad Thing, but this isn’t the case – and this is where Watts has missed an opportunity by focusing on polemic that comes across as personal (though she has said it isn’t – and I think I believe her, and consider it very, very poorly judged).
Like any creative endeavour, there are aspects of the poetry world she could have tackled, and well thought out criticism is valuable; there are always things to learn, aspects to improve, Emperors’ clothes to expose. She could have compared the page and performance scenes, and how much (or little) they overlap/interact. She could have critiqued London-centric slam-style, or looked at how the use of language in contemoporary poetry varies. She could have dug a little deeper to see if, in fact, we poets all gain from the success of Kaur, McNish, Tempest whether or not we like their work – just as J K Rowling is lauded for getting kids reading again, even by those who aren’t Potterfans. Sadly though, she didn’t, and I have to wonder if the editor of PN Review simply pitted one young female poet against a selection of others in order to generate controversy of the sort that boosts sales. Just like ‘populist’ verse, or tabloid tub-thumping. I hope not, I really do, but if it is the case, it worked.
I’ll finish by saying I like Watts’ poems – and I’m not going to spurn them/her because of her article, though its elitism is a terrible way to come across a new (to me) writer. As she says in the title poem of her book:
A wheelie bin crosses the road without looking,
lands flat on its face on the other side, spilling its knowledge.