January 26, 2018
Poetry beef is the sweetest, most vegan beef of all
by Simon Reichley
It’s not often that beef between poets makes headlines, but a recent review by Rebecca Watts of Plum, a collection by Hollie McNish, appears to have struck a nerve. Published in the UK’s PN Review this month, Watts’s piece, “The Cult of the Noble Amateur,” takes McNish and a few of her contemporaries ruthessly to task for subverting the poetic values of “craft” and “intellectual engagement,” replacing them with the far more saleable values of “accessibility” and “honesty.” And, delightfully, McNish struck back.
For Watts, McNish is part of “a cohort of young female poets” (one that also includes Rupi Kaur and Kate Tempest) who have been elevated by “the poetic establishment” for essentially commercial reasons. And really, the bulk of Watts’s scorn seems to be leveled against that establishment: the publishers at Picador and Andrews McMeel who have printed and promoted the work, the reviewers who have praised it, the judges at the Poetry Society who awarded McNish the 2016 Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry, and so forth.
In a particularly ambitious rhetorical turn, Watts draws connections between the populist desire for directness and authenticity and the stunning successes of populist movements like the ones behind Donald Trump and Brexit. One begins to wonder if what really disturbs Watts may be the possibility that the current moment doesn’t have much use for the kind of poetry she most values. In the closing of her essay, Watts insists:
It is the job of poets to safeguard language: to strive, through innovation and engagement with tradition, to find new ways of making language meaningful and memorable. Eliot noted in 1932, ‘the people which ceases to care for its literary inheritance becomes barbaric’. Though he wrote before Orwell, Eliot knew that to embrace Newspeak is to relinquish the only tool we have for communicating and defending civilised values. If we are to foster the kind of intelligent critical culture required to combat the effects of populism in politics, we must stop celebrating amateurism and ignorance in our poetry.
Which is all well and good, but I have to say it’s tough to watch more than a minute of cable television and, with a straight face, think, “Instagram poetry has really made a mess of things.”
McNish did not let the review go unanswered, publishing a response on her own blog. To Watts’s assertion that positive reviewers have been “hoodwinked” by her “faux-humility,” McNish writes:
Hoodwinked? I like writing poems. If they’re crap, that’s one thing, but to assume some sort of cunning plan to lure people into reading them amazes me. I do not have the time for that and if I did, I would do something more fun with that time.
When Watts claims McNish’s book is “deliberately bad,” McNish claps back, “Oi now — no it’s fucking not! How bloody rude is this!”
As Allison Flood and Sian Cain report in the Guardian this week, response to Watts’s piece has been mixed. The editor of the PN Review, Michael Schmidt, tells Flood and Cain, “Many of our readers seem relieved that literary criticism is at last being applied to writing that has, hitherto, been welcomed with open arms by journalists because it is easy to read, contains few challenges… to insist that it can stand on a sure footing beside poetry in what I have now too often seen described as ‘dusty old books’.”
Others have rushed to McNish’s defense. Don Paterson, who publishes McNish at Picador and is himself a celebrated poet, compares Watts’s citique to “saying TS Eliot was a terrible hip-hop artist. True, but so what.”
Whether poetry is the royal guard of language, a font of ever-flowing meaning, or the continuation of Twitter feuds by other means, you have to say it’s a fun thing to get worked up about.
Simon Reichley is the Director of Operations and Rights Manager at Melville House.