Since reading Michael Peverell’s post on the term ‘mainstream’ I’ve been wandering around in a state of queasiness brought on by my own pejorative use of ‘mainstream’ when talking about contemporary poetry. This also reverberates around what Chris Goode describes as my ‘ecumenical’ stance with regard to the various factions within this minority sport.
I have spent some time on these pages bemoaning factionalism and trying to point out that it is possible to like the work of Paul Muldoon, Kenneth Goldsmith, Fleur Adcock, Geoffrey Hill and Jeremy Prynne without being struck down from above. I like to think that I’ve been reasonably consistent in this but I have equated the mainstream with mediocrity and this kind of laziness contributes to the problem.
I think one of the problems with the current state of play is the assumption that to like something automatically implies a contempt for something else. This is not helped by leading practitioners who seem to take some delight in lobbing grenades from their respective ghettoes. There’s also the problem of critics who seem to have made a career out of their dislikes.
None of this is sensible, most of it masks a neurotic lack of confidence in one’s place in the scheme of things and (above all) wastes energies and talents in recurring flurries of slur and counter-slur. As someone who was once paid to look after unruly adolescents, much of this is redolent of Tea Time in the Remand Home.
Whilst feeling a little guilty about my deep contempt for all things Larkin, I cam across the term ‘a theology of reduction’ coined by Alexandra Walsham to describe the various strategies in the 17th century to bring the various religious groupings closer together. This revolved around the notion of adiaphoria which maintains that there are a number of beliefs and practices which lie outside the central principle (things indifferent) and that these should not be the cause of conflict and strife. In 1682 Daniel Whitby published ‘Protestant reconciler, humbly pleading for condescention to dissenting brethren, in things indifferent and unnecessary for the sake of peace, and shewing how unreasonable it is to make such things the necessary conditions of communion’ which stated (among many other things) that the ‘heinousness’ of schism led the various parties to take up positions which led to ” the destruction of so many precious and immortal Souls”. Whilst I’m not making a direct comparison, I think I am arguing that the current obsession with ‘things indifferent and unnecessary’ has got us into this sorry state.
This isn’t to suggest that these animosities should be transformed into a state of complete harmony, we should all be able to express our personal preferences and predilections providing these are about the work and not a knee jerk reaction to a member of a particular camp.
The Mutual Sneer.
I want to avoid the mainstream/Cambridge debate (schism) and suggest a new line of approach. This leads on from Keston Sutherland’s observation that some poetry demands and rewards readerly attention and some can be grasped in entirety on an initial reading. He went on to opine that most poets would prefer attentive readers. There is nothing wrong with this distinction but it should not imply that one is better than the other.
The mutual sneer arises when those advocates of the first type of poem imply that those who undertake ‘drive-by’ readings are lacking in erudition and somewhat shallow whereas advocates of the second type retort with accusations of obscurity and elitism. Both of these critiques manage to miss the point entirely which is that each camp is guilty of producing swathes of material that isn’t any good and of revering poets that don’t deserve to be revered.
The sneer and personal insecurity go and in hand. The poet who is confident of his or her ability is less inclined to take swipes at others whilst those that harbour doubts are ever ready to use attack as the best form of defence. Poets are also politically and strategically inept, the last hundred years are littered with farcical and juvenile ‘initiatives’ which only serve to further alienate those of us can see the point of verse and versifying.
The Mainstream, the Innovative and the Order of Things.
You don’t need to be a fan of Foucault to realise that the current discourse of British poetry is damaged because it is used as a proxy for wider cultural fault lines. Firstly there is the anti-intellectualism that we hear so much about in opposition to poets who are seen to be the products of the academy and therefore not grounded in the real world. This is further compounded by more than a degree of Little Englander nationalism with its ‘natural’ antipathy to all things European which are thought to be inimical to the solid virtues of British common sense.
The conversation about poetry is also encumbered with a problem of terminology – I’m not at all clear how we might define ‘Cambridge’ or ‘innovative’ or ‘post-modern’ and I’m guessing that these terms are bandied about without a great degree of thought and are less than heplful in setting out positions.
I freely confess that I don’t have a remedy to this dismal state of affairs but I do think that those of us who are equally dismayed should begin to think about what a theology of reduction might look like and which ‘things indifferent’ we can set to one side.