Photo by Álvaro Serrano

Rhyme or reason

Poetry doesn’t need to be useful

Artillery Row

W.H. Auden once said, “Poetry makes nothing happen.” He went on to note, accurately, “My poetry didn’t save a single Jew from the gas chamber.” In fact, Wystan was fairly dismissive of the entire art form that made his name. He stated, “Art is completely unnecessary. Like love, it is not a matter of duty.” He may have taken his lead from Wilde’s famous statement that “all art is quite useless”, but this led to agreement from critics intelligent enough to understand what Auden was attempting to say, such as Frank Kermode, who said of him: “He never mistook the fact that he was good at something for the fact that it was important.” 

Kermode, thou shouldst be living at this hour. Auden too. Then they could head round to the offices of Barren magazine, a Michigan-based title that “sets its sight on the human condition in certain time and place and aims to expose it for what it is: natural, raw, vulnerable, real” and bang figurative heads together for their decision to fire their poetry editor Danielle Rose. Her crime was not to be insufficiently woke, or to misgender someone, or offer a heretical opinion on Black Lives Matter. Instead, she made this statement:

I wish poets understood that the general population has no interest in what we do, so when we speak we are speaking only to each other. The delusion that poetry is something powerful is a straight line to all kinds of toxic positivities that are really just us lying to ourselves.

Whether or not Rose intended to follow in Auden’s footsteps with such a comment, she was undeniably telling the truth, from a commercial perspective at least. Since the deaths of Seamus Heaney in 2013 and Maya Angelou in 2014, there are remarkably few English-language poets who have captured the public imagination to any great extent. While many of those practicing today receive critical acclaim, we lack major poetic figures whose collections sell in any kind of significant numbers. Rose also made a valid wider point about the nature of poetry and “power”. All the Petrarchan sonnets in the world cannot feed the hungry or house the homeless or topple governments. This is not their point, or purpose. The “toxic positivities” arising from a delusion that poetry is in itself a social movement are mirrored by the inevitable lack of progress that arises from this belief. 

Unfortunately, Rose’s statement did not sit well with the editorial staff of Barren, who duly fired her. They announced:

Our mission at Barren Magazine has always been to celebrate multicultural written and visual art. We exist to uplift the global arts community, and to showcase its passion and vigor through a unique aesthetic. We absolutely and firmly believe in the power of poetry, fiction, nonfiction and photography.

Please know that we have been paying close attention to the Twitter #poetry conversation, and, while we certainly can appreciate a good debate with polarizing opinions, our official stance regarding Danielle Rose’s tweet from yesterday is that poetry is an extremely powerful art form. And while it may feel that we poets and writers are screaming into the void, the fact is that people are in fact listening.

Leaving aside the fact that an arts magazine called Barren feels like a clunky touch of satire out of late-era Martin Amis, much of their statement, even down to the #poetry, is little less than the delusion that Rose attacks. The buzzwords “multicultural written and visual art”, “polarizing opinions”, “an extremely powerful art form” all appear in their usual ingratiating form, but their final statement that Rose and they have engaged in “discussion regarding misalignment of the Barren Magazine vision” is a chilling euphemism for someone failing to be re-educated to the company’s perspective. Most intellectually credible titles allow a range of views and opinions to be exhibited by their writers. Their readers tend to welcome this diversity of thought. If there is simply one vision that must be upheld at all times by contributors and editors alike, that is mere intellectual totalitarianism. 

It takes real wit and brilliance to convey a more universal message

As it happens, I don’t believe that poetry is purely useless. Satirists such as Rochester, Pope and Byron managed to take aim against weak and venal kings and governments with great wit and artistic success. Even if their work seldom resulted in bringing down those they attacked, it is hard to think of the so-called “merry monarch” Charles II without recalling Rochester’s mocking lines about him, which saw the debauched poet banished from court:

In th’ isle of Britain, long since famous grown
For breeding the best cunts in Christendom,
There reigns, and oh! long may he reign and thrive,
The easiest King and best-bred man alive.
Him no ambition moves to get renown
Like the French fool that wanders up and down
Starving his people, hazarding his crown.
Peace is his aim, his gentleness is such,
And love he loves, for he loves fucking much.

Politically and socially engaged poetry is usually angry, by definition, but it works best if it is served with a healthy dose of humour. Simply writing screeds of vitriol against the unfairness of society or the uselessness of our rulers might impress those in a narrow and inward-looking circle, who are often fellow poets themselves, but it takes real wit and brilliance to convey a more universal message to those who would not be especially interested otherwise. Yet we lack Rochester, Byron and Swift, just as we have lost Angelou, Heaney and Larkin. In their place, we have Kae Tempest and Andrew Motion. They are engaged, intelligent figures, undoubtedly, but hardly writers of universal reach. 

Poetry can, of course, be enjoyed on its own terms, for its beauty and its insights into the human condition. It does not need to be anything else. But when Rose made her observations and suggested that many figures in the contemporary industry are guilty of translating the art form into something that it is not, she was dispensed with. Let us hope for the sake of poets everywhere today that Barren’s actions are an isolated example of testy intolerance, rather than an expectation that this must, henceforth, be the norm. Because if poetry’s only purpose is to make something happen – whatever that may be – then we will all be the poorer for it.

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