Response to Don Paterson and Rebecca Watts on Front Row

Am still thinking about issues raised by the PN Review debate this week. Partly because  doing my job (poet-ing) reminds me of it constantly, partly because I’m prepping for my PhD viva and wondering how relevant (some aspects of) my work actually is to other practitioners, partly because my last blog on it was written in about twelve different registers and horribly long and clunky and partly because I’m quite an obsessive person once something’s in my head and feels unsaid. So here’s a shorter blog responding to last night’s Front Row piece on the issue on BBC Radio 4.

The arguments between Rebecca Watts & Don Paterson are better presented here without the distortions & personal elements of Watts’ essay. To the extent I, as a now-past-young female spoken word artist & poet can see myself impacted by both sides of the issue. Here on iPlayer

1. Just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it’s good. No. I think artists themselves are aware of that. By the same token, just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it isn’t good. I think Kate Tempest & Hollie McNish at both excellent at what they do. However I do sometimes see poets who are not very good being over-promoted by organisations clearly going “Er, they’re young & on Insta-umblr” I must get them on all the things & then the Youth will flock & I’ll get more funding. All the examples of these poets I can think of are male, as it happens. Many of the people in the organisations are middle-class arts managers having a moment of panic around their difficulty reaching wider audiences in the face of a new emphasis on this post-Brexit & amid the continuing instrumentalisation of arts funding. Throwing a young spoken word artist at something is not a substitute for ongoing, open engagement & conversation with potential audiences & participants you’ve never previously had anything to do with.

2. More critical engagement with spoken word in written form would be good. But usually academia, magazines & other homes of Lit-crit just ignore it. Spoken word lacks all elements of the infra-structures available to solely page poetry & artists still too often have to compromise what they really want to do in order to engage with some of that infra structure. As scholar Julia Novak says, live poetry is “Bi medial” & although the boundaries between page & stage are ever blurring, there is still a great deal of denial about the implications of this bi-mediality. (& does digital mean “tri-medial”?).

3. Most poets I know would also sigh at the ever-recurring “Some exciting new poets have been blowing the dust off poetry books”. It’s been going round since at least the sixties & it would be good if organisations didn’t perpetuate it because media will go with it as if it’s a new thing. Every. Time.

4. Spoken word is not only about a “cult of personality”. Poet-persona is a key, necessary element of the genre in the same way as it is in stand-up comedy. Sophisticated critical engagement with it, of the sort Watts is apparently not currently equipped to undertake, can recognise and account for this.

5. However, audience identification with spoken word poets IS often an important mechanism via which a continuing relationship can be built up. As a way to reach new audiences that is powerful & good. Not intrinsically wrong. However, it also means that commercial organisations recognise that they can now exploit & monetise that. This means it would be good for there to be i) More advice available to newer poets too quickly pushed forward into all sorts of opportunities & traps. ii) Recognition that not all poets will be appropriated/used in this way & that therefore powerful voices may be being overlooked at crucial points in their careers.

6. Classism, racism, sexism & ableism DO still operate at macro & micro levels in the relatively un-diverse arts world & sometimes a deployment of invective against “identity politics” will be a thinly veiled pushback at a time when the arts-world is waking up to this. Wider structural issues affecting the entry of marginalised people to these worlds are still ever-worsening. Where there is power there is resistance, we know this.

More Than One Poetry: Omnivorousness and Snobbery in Poetry-World.

There is probably a PhD-worth’s response that could be made to a recent article about some successful poets who were dubbed “artless”, “amateurs” and “uncivilised” by another poet. (Hollie McNish/PN Review) I’m just going to focus on a couple of elements for now which strongly chimed with my own research into class, gender and performance. Although I’m a poet myself, I knew that literary studies was not going to give me the range of approaches and perspectives I needed to look at work like my own which ranges from published poems to stand-up comedy.  I’ve used sociological and anthropological methods and approaches including interviews and cultural analysis, as well as looking at performances and texts. The debate broadly between the poles of “Art” and “Commerce” has raged before in the fields of music, art and literature and will continue raging but I was struck by how some of the tropes were applied to poets at a time when it is beginning to reflect related divisions in other fields more strongly. Stand up comedy provides good examples and there has been actual empirical research done into how this works. Research which recognises that in order to get a proper picture of a field you have to look at producers AND consumers.

I’m particularly interested in why and how some art forms and practitioners are presented as more valuable and “legitimate” than others. Is Stewart Lee “just” better than Joe Pasquale or does displaying a liking for Stewart Lee also send other signals? Are complex, extended jokes “better” than short puns? At the same time, I’ve not wanted to get mired in the relativism of “Everything is as good as everything else. There is no way to determine what is good or true”. There are lots of ways but I would say they are localised, contextual and culturally specific, rather than universal across all places and all times.

Sometimes I forget this myself, then remember when I read about how the Chamula people of Mexico divide types of speech into the categories of “Ordinary”,  ” Speech for People Whose Hearts are Heated” and “Pure”. According to anthropologist Richard Bauman “Increased fixity of form, repetition and parallelism” (many features of Western lyric poetry) “also signal for the Chamula increasing ‘Heat’. Heat is a basic metaphor for the Chamula, symbolising the orderly, the good and the beautiful by derivation from the power of the sun deity”. Genres of speech and writing are part of interlocking systems and the constitution of one part is formed from feedback loops with another. To paraphrase the poet Don Paterson, you could say these systems become little machines for remembering themselves.

Another metaphor is that they are games. This is the one used by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, whose empirical work is crucial to researchers in culture, class and education but seems to be less used in literary studies. He has written a lot about the literary and art fields and says that they operate according to particular rules which must be followed by practitioners in order to enter the field. He calls a belief in the rules of this game the “illusio”. Some people’s educations and upbringings are geared to equipping them to play these games (Which will include knowing the history of the field and the debates within it). Some people are awakened to the arbitrariness of the “illusio” but play the game anyway. Some play it by displaying their knowledge of the rules and not following them. What is valued in the game is the same as in the wider field of power- money and legitimacy from big institutions.  At the same time, there is what he calls a “Restricted sub field of production” operating separately but in response to these rules, in which “art” is valued above money. An artist or art form is then conferred a value by fellow producers in relation to how autonomous they are perceived as being from the values governing the mass, the commercial and the “legitimate”.

“FLIPPING ECK PEOPLE, SOMEBODY UPHOLDING THE ART/TRADITION RULES OF THE GAME AGAINST WHAT THEY CALL NAIVE AMATEURS WITH BIG IGNORANT AUDIENCES. FROM FLAUBERT TO MONET TO DISTEL AND FOUCAULT, ALL MY BOOKS AND RESEARCH HAS BEEN ABOUT THIS AND LOADS OF PEOPLE HAVE APPLIED IT TO MODERN STUFF, GET OVER IT ALREADY”; that’s what Bourdieu might say if he wasn’t dead and French and probably rather polite in conversation, having worked his way up from peasant family to big cheese in the most elite French universities in a way that his own research and theories are quite pessimistic about. He internalised the rules and tastes of one game and ended up playing another- whilst being particularly alert to the arbitrariness of both of them. As you are often are when you’ve moved some distance from the social circumstances of your upbringing. It can leave you particularly anxious about knowing the rules- they’re not just second nature. In traditional poetry world you might call them out (Bourdieu. In this moment, me), uphold them (Watts), play with them and rewrite them (Paterson), not learn them but be brought into the field by someone who has (McNish). Anyway, that bit’s for another blog. What I just wanted to do here was to share part of a paper I gave at a panel on poetry and class at “The Place for Poetry” conference at Goldsmiths in 2015*.

I applied some of the newer research on how social distinction works for comedians and comedy audiences to poets and poetry audiences because I could see big parallels. Comedy-world also has its “Sub field” in which distance from commerce is particularly valued (Stewart Lee, Josie Long et al) and the principles associated with avant-garde art including innovation, playing with form and a cerebral appreciation of such are upheld. It opposes a commercial end of the spectrum represented by the likes of Michael McIntyre. There’s more going on around this of course, and complicated stuff in the middle, but the “How” our cultural tastes can be used to upholding existing social structures and distinctions is the bit that there seems to be less awareness of among poets and practitioners. Especially when people sincerely believe that these divisions no longer exist in a way which drives cultural snobbery. In fact, I’d like to say its the bit that there is more denial around. (Summarised in the point of view that the Poetry News article is not explicitly upholding a middle-class or establishment vision of poetry and that we have to have some common standards of decency don’t we?).

Poets nodded sagely and discussed interestingly some of the issues around this at the conference. But y’know. That doesn’t count as a sustained engagement with the arguments herein which I hope might one day happen in actual English departments, who knows.

This is one of the key slides I shared with some annotations. It translates a summary of some of the LSE sociologist Sam Friedman’s empirical research on stand-up performance (which draws on Bourdieu’s work) to the world of contemporary poetry. Another ridiculously quick summary of  a relevant aspect of  Bourdieu’s work; he argues that someone’s class is made up of their economic capital but also their cultural capital (knowledge and tastes for particular cultural forms which are passed on via upbringing and education) and their social capital (the types of people they have access to within their, or their parents social networks). The bullet points starts off being about cultural omnivores because they’re a key object of study when looking at cultural consumption. A prevalent narrative says that we’re now, as a society, more tolerant and less snobbish. We like loads of things from low and high culture- look at our breadth of enjoyment! I would say, not across all art forms, perhaps particularly not across ones where our sense of personhood is felt to be most at stake…

  • Contrary to earlier claims that “cultural omnivorousness” is now the most influential type of cultural capital in Britain, there are only partial signs of this in the consumption of poetry.

That is- in music you’ll have MORE cultural capital if you prove the breadth of your knowledge and tastes from things with “Legitimate” -consecrated by tradition, big institutions and awards- Cultural Capital like Philip Glass, Bach and Coldplay. “Emerging” or “Cool” Cultural Capital like the latest band only three people have heard of yet and “Illegitimate” Cultural Capital (often liked in an ironic way) like Chas and Dave or the song Barbie Girl. Whereas you’re not as likely to garner admiration if you confess to a love of poets Carol Ann Duffy, Keston Sutherland, Ross Sutherland and Pam Ayres in one breath.

  • For socially mobile individuals, omnivorous poetry taste is a social hindrance rather than social capital

In comedy this omnivorousness would mean liking a comedian with low cultural capital (low brow) associations such as Bernard Manning or Joe Pasquale – as well as one with high cultural capital associations (high brow) such as Josie Long or Stewart Lee. People feel ashamed of their low brow comedy tastes, having found they’re mocked or reproved for them. The equivalent in poetry is usually not liking poetry at all or liking greetings card or fridge magnet verse. However in Watts article, Kate Tempest, Hollie McNish and Rupi Kaur are constructed as being outside the art form and as actively damaging to its traditions and values. It’s audience are also constructed as untalented. It might be for poets and cultural audiences to answer how far they feel that revealing a taste for certain sorts of poetry (or none) is a hindrance to their social capital. 

The (omnivorous) middle brow has long been a space that Literature is suspicious of. It does, however epitomise the values of such institutions as the BBC (“Poetry Please” for example is very middle brow) and many literature festivals. Bourdieu calls it a space of both “avidity and anxiety” for those eager to prove their cultural credentials but unsure whether they’re liking the right things for the right reasons. However JB Priestley called it the “Broad Brow” and was optimistic about its potential as a transformative space where different classes and values can meet.

  • Poetry is now an emerging field for younger generations of the culturally privileged to activate their cultural capital resources.

I would argue that this hold as much for poetry as comedy. Spaces like Latitude’s Poetry Tent, as well as You Tube/Instagram are ones in which these resources can be mobilised and displayed.

  • This happens more through rarefied and disinterested “styles” of poetic appreciation.

One of Friedman’s crucial insights is that cultural capital can be displayed not just by your tastes but by the ways in which you express them. For example, his respondents with higher cultural capital would talk about how they appreciated Stewart Lee’s withholding of a punchline “I can see what he was doing there, very clever-ha”. Versus a lower cultural capital; “I laughed a lot. He was hilarious”. The hierarchical divisions here are broadly constructed along the lines of cerebral versus bodily appreciation, mental versus emotional response, educational/informative or spiritual versus entertaining content. 

  • These styles are embodied

See the binaries above. Also I would suggest that in poetry there is a sliding scale of cultural capital gained by producer/audience based on how much manifest bodily response their work generates- ranging from the under the breath poetry “Mmm” of appreciation, via chuckles up to enthusiastic clapping, full-bellied laughter and finally, lowest cultural capital of all- the clicking and whooping associated with poetry slams.
Interestingly in Watts review she said that McNish’s not particular sweary work was “abundant in expletives”, a criticism also levelled at low brow comedians “lowering” language to the level of the bodily.

  • Poetry taste still plays a crucial role in the expression of middle-class identities

This could perhaps be phrased as “Any taste for poetry plays a crucial role in the expression of middle-class identities”. (Again, it would be significant that Watts’ article was reluctant to call the work of Hollie McNish poetry at all, eventually referring to “an assemblage of words”).

  • Poetry taste acts as a tool for the culturally privileged to identify and pathologise those with low cultural capital.

Historically this has been done by pathologising those with no expressed taste for poetry, or for those liking Patience Strong/greetings card verse. Now, with the resurgence of a mass market for some poetry, it could be predicted that aspects of it would be used to pathologise audiences who express a taste for popular poetry. Watts actually said McNish had a “Pathological” attitude.

  • This cultural snobbery therefore shows poetry’s role in contemporary processes of symbolic violence.

Well, it does y’knaa. Who’d have thunk?
Symbolic violence is similar to the Marxist concept of false consciousness. Basically, people absorb the power relations of the power structures they live in, into their everyday ways of doing, knowing and valuing things (what Bourdieu calls their “habitus”). They experience and posit this power as universal and ahistorical- rather than as specific to the particular context they inhabit. In Watts article Poetry with a big P becomes a Tradition carrying Universalising values.

I know Watts’ article raised many other issues not touched on here and next I will be writing a blog about “Authenticity” as a way of both upholding and resisting gendered neo liberal injunctions to “Tell your true self”. Perhaps also one about populism. Also, though I expect nobody at all will be reading then, a sort of Bourdieu-style case study of Don Paterson.


Pierre Bourdieu. Distinction.
Pierre Bourdieu. The Rules of Art.
Sam Friedman. Comedy and Distinction
Ed Sally R Munt. Cultural Studies and the Working Class.
Julia Novak. Live Poetry (I nearly missed this book- Hannah Silva who is currently finishing a PhD on black British poetry pointed it out. I’d disappeared down a comedy rabbit hole of Comedy Studies by then and in a different PhD would have used it much more. Some people have been calling for a “Poetics” of live poetry. Well, this constitutes one. Though I would be using a lot more Bourdieu myself in order to trouble some of its assumptions around value).

*A bit about my experience at the conference in case anyone’s interested:
It feels like a thousand years ago now, but it was the day of the last general election in May 2015. Before Brexit, before Trump as President, before the year when everybody died. Writing was still privileged above speech, as it had been for a few hundred years and continues to be. But that and all other things pass.

Anyway, I was a few months into the PhD I have now submitted and was presenting my first paper at a conference,“The Place for Poetry” conference at Goldsmiths University. Nearly every other conference I went to would be on comedy, or in the broader field of sociology and cultural studies. This one was a warm-up for me. I tried not to be too perturbed by not really knowing what a paper was yet. Or if it was okay to start one off by performing my poem “Northern Voices”, about being a a still-too rare Northern voice on Radio 4. Some of what I said then, in a discussion on class and poetry with contributions I remember by poets (and other things) Cahal Dallat, Blake Morrison and Martin Malone, is relevant to discussions of a recent, controversial, Poetry News article about amateurism in poetry. Reading back on notes of the panel I am appalled to note that I wore a pink-checked trilby and at how apologetically I skipped over some of my theory slides I thought the audience would be bored by; but heartened at how lively the discussion was afterwards and at how valued I felt my perspective was.

There was a weird diversion I caused by quoting a bit from Roger McGough’s poem “Scorpio” in which he feels his poems are his children and are cruelly disparaged by critics dismissing him on class grounds;

Fellow poets some of them, and literary critics
who have made public fools of my children’ …
‘Some may even regret their youthful bile,
their mistrust of popular culture, and the working class.
This is to let them know, that though forgiven
they are not forgotten’

I said it was an elephant in the room not to note that one of the critics he meant was Blake Morrison who was editor of Poetry Review at the time. Morrison was convenor of the conference and sitting right in front of me in the tiny lecture room. He said he didn’t realise McGough was referring to him and looked perfectly unperturbed. The joys of a small poetry world. Rushing to the station so I could get the train back up to Thirsk to vote before close of polls I bumped into him bringing the evening’s star guest Paul Muldoon onto campus. He introduced me and started telling a rumpled Paul about the panel and I had to say “Do tell him about it, must dash, I have to vote!” and ran off in my ridiculous hat.