Paxman at the Mainstream Launderette

Alan Morrison on Jeremy Paxman's Unexpected Contribution as a Forward Prize Judge

It is quite symbolic of the solipsistic ‘sleep-in’ of the ‘upper’ poetry scene that this year’s token ‘layman’ judge of the Forward Prize, Newsnight stalwart Jeremy Paxman, has commented that contemporary poetry –at least, that portion of it filtered routinely through the ‘big six’ (or sometimes ‘big eight’) poetry publishing cartel– is increasingly out-of-kilter with the climate and concerns of wider society.

There have been previous rhetorical incursions on contemporary poetry’s perceived socio-political solipsism by left-wing literary figures such as John Pilger and Terry Eagleton. But Jeremy Paxman, a household name of our times, whose long, griffin-like face with its permanent gadrooned grimace is now something of a national heirloom, is an unexpected ‘coup’ for today’s poetry-sceptics –even if, as with the aforementioned cultural pundits, he is making his judgements on the basis of exposure to a small sample of contemporary poetry rinsed through the ‘Mainstream Laundrette’.

Paxman’s comments were included in a piece by Alison Flood in The Guardian of 2 June, and I excerpt parts of it most relevant to my following responses:

Shelley had it that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world", and that "poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds". For Jeremy Paxman, though, it is an art form that has "connived at its own irrelevance", as he believes that poets today have stopped talking to the public and are only addressing each other.

Paxman called for an "inquisition" in which "poets [would be] called to account for their poetry", appearing before a panel of the public where they would have to "explain why they chose to write about the particular subject they wrote about, and why they chose the particular form and language, idiom, the rest of it, because it would be a really illuminating experience for everybody".

The television presenter was speaking after judging this year's Forward prize for poetry… Paxman said there was a "whole pile of really good poems here", and "nothing on the shortlist that I don't feel better for having read". But he also expressed the wish that poetry more generally "would raise its game a little bit, raise its sights", and "aim to engage with ordinary people much more".

"I think poetry has really rather connived at its own irrelevance and that shouldn't happen, because it's the most delightful thing," said Paxman. "It seems to me very often that poets now seem to be talking to other poets and that is not talking to people as a whole." …

Michael Symmons Roberts, a poet who has both won and judged the Forward prize, said that Paxman's proclamation was "not without foundation in terms of the symptoms – it would be stupid for poets to say poetry is as dominant as the novel" – but he disagreed with Paxman's diagnosis.

"Poetry doesn't have the currency in our culture that novels and films have – people who would be embarrassed not to have read the latest Julian Barnes or Martin Amis are not the slightest bit embarrassed not to have read the latest John Burnside or Carol Ann Duffy. But I don't believe it's quite good enough to say this is a problem of poets and poetry – it's far more complex," said Roberts. …

"There is an awful lot of very powerful, lyrical, and readable poetry being written today," he said, but what was needed was education, because "we have lost the sense that poetry sits halfway between prose and music – that you can't expect to read it like a novel. We are quite used to downloading an album and listening to certain tracks … poetry needs to be consumed in that way. …

Dr Jeremy Noel-Tod, editor of the Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry, said he tended to respond to sentiments like Paxman’s …: "Lyric poetry has rarely produced immediately popular art. But the poetry that people need emerges over time. And very often it's by writers considered irrelevant or insufficiently ordinary by the commentators of their day"…

But Susannah Herbert, director of the Forward Arts Foundation, welcomed Paxman's "splendidly provocative proposals for a Forward inquisition", expressing the hope that they would "kick start an overdue national debate about the power of well-chosen words, communication and the role of poetry in our collective lives". …

William Sieghart, who founded the Forward prizes in 1991, said the writers on the shortlists "bring news that stays news, in fresh and startling language", and that their voices "remind readers that, in an age of shortened attention spans, good poetry can communicate insights and visions with a power other art forms can only envy".

Suffice it to say that there’s not really a lot of point excerpting this year’s Forward shortlist itself since its poet-and-imprint ‘roll -or rota- of honour’ is, almost by tradition, pretty predictable. And perhaps this is, in part, what Jeremy Paxman is picking up on.

As to the token defences from emissaries of the ‘Poetry Illuminati’: as is often the case, these come across as spurts of complacency mixed with wilful blindness, dialectical inconsistency (if not contradiction) and a disturbingly familiar obfuscation and unsubstantiated rebuttal which we’re more used to hearing from today’s politicians (particularly those currently in power).

As I wrote in my polemic on contemporary poetry culture, ‘Reoccupying ‘Auden Country” (which can be read at as well as in The Robin Hood Book – Verse Versus Austerity), today it seems that the ‘upper’ poetry echelons sport not so much ‘political’ poets as ‘politician’ poets. Like politicians, many high profile contemporary poets appear too careful and economical with their use of language to risk articulating anything so near-taboo as an ‘opinion’. For too long now Auden’s much de-contextualised trope, ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’, has been misappropriated by subsequent generations of poets as some kind of passport to an apolitical Pimlico –or we might call it, Apolitico.

In spite of the near-collapse of capitalism and over four years of remorseless austerity cuts designed to resuscitate it, we still appear to be stuck in the rut of a period of Poetry Realpolitik, or ‘Realpoetik’, which pre-dates the economic crash and has apparently continued pretty much as if little has happened since it. This in itself marks a form of what William F. Ogburn termed ‘cultural lag’, that culture takes time to catch up with technological changes, and that social problems and conflicts are caused by this lag. Only that in this particular case, the ‘lag’ is a seeming incapacity of the poetry scene to catch up with social and political changes.

What a great pity and wasted opportunity that while we have been forced by elective Tory austerity to endure a repeat-Thirties, our highest profile poets appear to have been repeating the Georgian era of 1912-22. The two chief differences between today and the Thirties, to our modern detriment, are the absences of both a prominent ‘political’ opposition in poetry, and a proper Opposition in Parliament (that is, of one which actually articulates any alternative to the Government’s austerity agenda).

In the Thirties we could look to Auden, Spender, Day Lewis, MacNiece, Orwell, Caudwell et al, and to a principled Labour Opposition led by Arthur Henderson, and then by Christian Socialist George Lansbury. Today’s equivalents of such poetical and political firebrands are entirely in the shadows of the back rows and backbenches, while paler flames of Realpoetik and politik splutter from the pusillanimous tallow of a candle which cannot be held to them.

If we first take Michael Symmonds Roberts’ initial premise [my italics throughout]: “I don't believe it’s quite good enough to say this is a problem of poets and poetry – it’s far more complex” –well, he may have some point, and to give him his due he does go on to expand what he means, but isn’t the choice of language chillingly familiar here in terms of fashionable contemporary ‘politician-speak’.

Beginning with the polite denial: “I don’t believe…”, which is uncannily similar to the average minister’s “I don’t accept that” or “I don’t recognise that”. Then the pedagogic clause by which the criticism itself, rather than the target of the criticism, is subjected to qualitative scrutiny, as if by way of distracting us from the core issue: “(I don’t believe) it’s quite good enough to say…”.

Good enough’ for whom precisely, the object of criticism? Or is this shorthand for ‘This is actually just very inconvenient’? Or simply: ‘I’m all right Jack’? Symmonds Roberts himself is a prolific beneficiary of our poetry prize culture, having won practically every major award going –Eric Gregory, Whitbread, Forward, Jerwood, T.S. Eliot shortlist, and 2013 winner of the Costa (the implausible ‘domino effect’ for a select few of the contemporary poetry rapture). So it’s possible that his opinions in this particular area are just a tiny bit rose-tinted.

But the phraseology of his counterintuitive response seems to be simply turning the topic on its head, as if in lieu of an actual valid counter-argument. Surely what clearly isn’t “good enough” is that for the umpteenth time we’re back here again on the same ‘Round Robin Rondeau’ of gainsaying refrains seemingly designed to magic away legitimate criticisms of a perceived ‘closed shop’ prize scene, until the next year’s Verse Déjà vu…?

Symmonds Roberts then comments: “There is an awful lot of very powerful, lyrical, and readable poetry being written today”. To which one might well respond, well yes, there certainly is, but is much of it getting through the Forward filtering system? Since, if it were, would those such as Paxman be urging poets to ‘raise their game’?

Next comes an unhelpful analogy coupled with some dubious terminology: “We are quite used to downloading an album and listening to certain tracks … poetry needs to be consumed in that way”. Firstly, many would argue that if poetry is comparable to an ‘album’, then it would more likely be the equivalent of Pink Floyd pop-symphonies than any mere commercial gatherings of hit singles. Secondly, there is that really unhelpful and ill-chosen term “consumed”.

To risk pedantry, or even seeming ‘elitism’, many would argue that of all art forms poetry has very little if anything to do with ‘consumption’ (except perhaps in the tubercular sense) but more to do with ‘absorption’ or ‘reception’; and, unlike most escapist entertainments of capitalist culture –such as pop music and cinema, which provide what would be termed in sociological parlance ‘immediate gratification’– poetry, rather like classical music or spirituality, is not ‘consumed’ so much as ‘imbibed’, but, more often than not, through an initial conscious focus and effort on behalf of the prospective appreciator. Indeed, rather than ‘consumed’, poetry is ‘appreciated’. Or would we now also argue the religious ‘consume’ God? Even in terms of the Eucharist this hardly seems an entirely appropriate description.

To reduce the topic of poetry to consumerist standards is to –deliberately or not– dumb it down; although I will concede here that Symmonds Roberts was responding to a charge which seemed, at least ostensibly, geared towards implying a sense of cultural exclusiveness and inaccessibility of contemporary poetry (while, quite oppositely, many of us would argue that much contemporary poetry is so ‘accessible’ and ‘plain-speaking’ as to be almost indistinguishable from average prose).

However, I don’t think this is what Paxman means, even if on the surface it might initially seem so: known for his own rather specialist tastes and interests, and general contempt for commercial ‘junk culture’, it is highly unlikely Paxman is suggesting that poetry should become more ‘hip’ and ‘street’. I think Paxman is talking not so much about ‘style’ here as subject and substance: he does, indeed, specify that he feels “poets now seem to be talking to other poets and that is not talking to people as a whole”, which would suggest to my own reading that Paxman is implying it is what contemporary poets are talking about, rather than necessarily how they are talking about it, that is the main problem.

And, as is fairly typical today, practically the only remotely ‘political’ topic higher profile poets tackle is that of ‘war’, which, in spite of its undoubted importance, particularly in a period of prolific global armed conflicts, is nevertheless a ‘single issue’, and one which most people, particularly the artistically inclined, fairly unanimously deplore. It is, thus, and in spite of its abjectly unsafe nature in real life, a fairly ‘safe’ poetic topic, since it is broadly outside the remit of the ideological tensions and sensitivities of topics relating to, for instance, domestic politics.

And domestic politics, those thorny topics perilously close to home, being ‘on our own doorsteps’, are infinitely more challenging to tackle in poetry. War is the easiest evil with by which to avail devastating verse; it is a crie de Coeur thrown out to the converted; and its countervailing is a universal cause that only dictators and armaments capitalists would dissent from.

It’s far harder to use one’s verse to vocalise those less panoramic causes specific to polarised communities on the domestic front; far more difficult to dramatise the often painfully mundane but no less significant or profound sufferings of those living in poverty ‘amidst plenty’. There are many poets writing today on such unspectacular but important themes (and a fair crop of them can be found under the Smokestack imprint), but today’s poetries tackling the plight of the unemployed, the Atos-afflicted sick and disabled, the victims of the bedroom tax, and the lengthening queues outside food banks are, like the very impoverished lives they strive to give voice to, seemingly invisible to the likes of the Forward, Eliot or Costa sifters. In the charmed circles, poetry solipsism appears to rule supreme.

In his seminal polemic on the role of poetry in society, Illusion and Reality (1937), Christopher Caudwell argued that what he saw as ‘bourgeois poetry’ or ‘capitalist poetry’ was turning in on itself, distancing itself from wider society, becoming more irrelevant through over-specialisation, and hence inescapably approaching its own annihilation. Caudwell was of course writing in the Thirties, a time at which, ironically, poetry was opening out in terms of social and political engagement through the ‘Auden School’ (in graphic contrast to the supplemental solipsism of our otherwise parallel economic period). However, he would have had much in mind at the time the relatively recent shockwaves of avant-garde Twenties Modernism, which significantly altered the tectonics of literature –an era when, as Cyril Connolly put it in his Enemies of Promise (1938), ‘the Mandarins ruled supreme’.

The Modernist tide peaked early with T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and James Joyce’s Ulysses, both published in 1922 (Joyce’s monumental mythopoeic bombshell of a book had been serialised previously between 1918-20, but only in America, in a journal called, ironically, The Little Review) –and while Eliot’s esoteric masterwork, though praised by an appreciative circle of his contemporaries, was otherwise pretty much overlooked at the time (and emphatically failed the litmus test as to what constituted ‘poetry’ to that supplemental gendarme of the establishment, the Tory Literary Supplement (TLS)).

Ulysses also passed by the mainstream of the day, and was, as with The Waste Land, lauded only by the most ‘forward’-looking fellow-travellers (in Joyce’s case, ironically, the critical transfusion came from Eliot in The Dial; though having said that, Virginia Woolf, herself an exponent of ‘stream-of-consciousness’, and so perhaps feeling competitively threatened by Ulysses, famously dismissed it at the time as a ‘memorable catastrophe—immense in daring, terrific in disaster’).

But it falls today to one Dr Jeremy Noel-Tod, editor of the Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry, to take the past on board by remarking with sympathy for Paxman’s standpoint: “Lyric poetry has rarely produced immediately popular art. But the poetry that people need emerges over time. And very often it’s by writers considered irrelevant or insufficiently ordinary by the commentators of their day”. Although given the arguable ‘ordinariness’ –or, in a socio-political sense, ‘irrelevance’– of much high profile verse at this time, the dialectical trajectory of Noel-Tod’s comment isn’t so easy to determine.

But returning to Caudwell: the ‘specialisation’ of which he wrote was as much concerned with ‘style’ as with ‘subject’. By contrast, today, one suspects such criticisms as Paxman’s are more concerned with the over-specialisation of poetic ‘subject’: i.e.: poets are using their poetry as a means of communicating to other poets, rather than to “people as a whole”; and this is much more to do with their choice of topic for conversation, than, necessarily, the patina of the conversation itself. Or, as Paxman put it in a trope worthy of Christopher Caudwell, or Cyril Connolly: poetry has “connived at its own irrelevance”.

Susannah Herbert at least appears to welcome such an ‘overdue national debate’ –even if it’s a debate which significant sections of the poetry scene has been having for many years, but which organisations such as the Forward Foundation, of which Herbert is currently director, have apparently either missed, or simply ignored. Until, that is, a media heavyweight such as Jeremy Paxman puts in his tuppence-worth!

Less open to criticism and more inclined to the perennial poetry-solipsism comes the response from Forward Founder William Sieghart –a more typically reality-denying sound-bite in defence of a paralytic status quo: that the poets on the shortlist “bring news that stays news, in fresh and startling language”.

Firstly, news never ‘stays news’ –that’s why it’s ‘news’: it is about ‘the moment’, it is ephemeral. Moreover, only time can decide what will “last”, and, historically, more often than not it has been that work either overlooked or dismissed for its un-fashionableness in its own time, and far less so that lauded at the time of its publication, which tends to “last” (again, we return to Dr Noel-Tod’s point).

Prizes and honours are often the temporal sops for more ephemeral and/or sharp-elbowed talents, while posterity tends to be the posthumous consolation for lifetime refuseniks. Indeed, as Cyril Connolly argued back in the 1930s in his literary polemic Enemies of Promise:

At the present time for a book to be produced with any hope of lasting half a generation, of outliving a dog or a car, of surviving the lease of a house or the life of a bottle of champagne, it must be written against the current

Going by such an argument, it would seem unlikely that the poster poets of the contemporary poetry ‘mainstream’ will also prove to be those voices which “last”; it is more likely that those which currently swim against the ‘mainstream’, and thus well away from its awarding radars, will be the ones to resurface in the future. But that is, of course, only if one goes by that argument. As with most subjects, Connolly also had something to say on this, in Enemies of Promise:

We have seen how the style of a book may affect its expectation of life, passing
through a charnel house in which we have observed the death and decomposition of many works confident ten years ago of longevity, hailed as masterpieces of their period and now equal in decay.

Secondly, Sieghart’s ecstatically-toned phrase (which expresses a sense of excitement practically no one else outside those either on the shortlist or the judging panel actually shares), literally reads like an advertising slogan, a salesman’s habitual spiel, rather than anything resembling a defence of poetry. Almost contradictorily, however, Sieghart then says, with –at least in theory– much more credence: “in an age of shortened attention spans, good poetry can communicate insights and visions with a power other art forms can only envy”. That’s very probably true –except many would argue that such poetry rarely if ever actually features in such shortlists.

Quite apart from all these discrepancies, in any case, many today no doubt privately regard pretty much all prizes in the arts as not only qualitatively irrelevant, but actually extremely damaging, if not traumatising, to the health of the arts. Since, inescapably, in attempting to compete for such annual back-slapping trophies, artists, or in this case, poets, end up, whether consciously or not, tailoring their poetry –both in terms of style, tone and even subject– to the perceived ‘tastes’ of a rota of established arbiters, most of whom are published by the same ‘six-pack’ imprints, and almost always one of whom is a previous Forward winner.

This means in the end that ‘fashion’ and ‘formula’ have an overt influence on actual artistic/poetic product, as if their chief function is to vicariously tailor bespoke poetics to fit the ‘taste-reputation’ of the particular prize-giving body.

In Caudwellian terms, this is an ultimate illustration of how the arts are adulterated and commoditised under the auspices of capitalism. And capitalism is an implicitly philistine modus operandi, since it is pathologically incapable of distinguishing between authentic talent and talented marketability; it can only perceive merit in that which has a figurative price-tag attached, which pretty much instantly rules out almost all authentic artistic expression, particularly that most likely to “last”.

But to return to Paxman: on his quoting from Shelley, I’m reminded of my own former punning on that famous phrase, to the effect that some contemporary poets aren’t so much the ‘unacknowledged legislators…’ as ‘hedge-betters… of the world’. The following quotes are particularly instructive in this context:

…the function of the poet has, historically, been subjected to a division of labour, such that poetry becomes more specialized, until at last it has no subject but itself.

(John Hartley in Tele-ology – Studies in Television (1992), commenting on Humphrey Jennings’ Pandemonium (1987))

The function of politics in poetry is to show the reader how events external to his inviolability as an individual continually impinge on his behaviour.

(Alan Bold, ‘Introduction’, the Penguin Book of Socialist Verse (1970))

Depressingly as ever, it seems once again that the Forward still refuses to actually move forward in terms of offering a more imaginative and representational range of contemporary poetries, as opposed to simply offering the same revolving table of ‘house dishes’ served up by the same metropolitan imprints. (For example, does Hugo Williams have a Forward Loyalty Card?). Contrapuntal to calls to rein in the Banks, should we also be calling for greater regulation of the poetry prize circuit?

Unless it really is the case that, just as many still believe that the highest positions in our society are occupied by those of the greatest ‘merit’ rather than the greatest hereditary ‘privileges’ and accompanying ‘opportunities’/nepotisms (public school, Oxbridge etc.), and/or those with the most athletic stamina for ‘networking’ (there’s one poetry prize called the Bluenose –it can only be a matter of time until a ‘Brownose’ is founded!), the ‘top’ poetry imprints continue to hold monopoly on the prizes because they are genuinely the ‘best’ imprints and, ipso facto, publish the ‘best’ poets…?! (And the seldom addressed issue of poetry nepotism –the perennial ‘marking each other’s homework– is an ‘elephant-in-the-room’ which will, I predict, stampede its’ way out into some or other polemical clearing at some point in the future).

Whichever windmill one chooses to tilt at on this issue, one thing is increasingly clear about common public perceptions of our evermore specialised and solipsistic upper ‘poetical class’: they are becoming as out-of-touch with ordinary people and the social and political issues which affect their daily lives as is our plutocratic political class (which also of course creates a lot of these issues). This is, essentially, what Paxman seems to be picking up on.

But many would argue (though very few publicly) that it’s an even direr state of affairs than simply poetry solipsism towards wider society: that what we have currently, and have had for at least two decades now, is a ‘top poetry 1%’ out-of-touch with the 99% of fellow practitioners –a kind of poetry apartheid, as exemplified by pecking order prizes, a top six-pack of metropolitan imprints, and myopic flagship journals. That the high profile poetry scene of today is little more than a shop window display arranged by window dressers who double up as the shoppers (while a plethora of powerful but uninitiated voices are left to mist up the glass with window shoppers’ sighs). Suffice it to say, if Christopher Caudwell was around today, he’d probably be in need of intensive cognitive behavioural therapy to help him cope with the consolidation of his dreaded archetype: a poetico-capitalist dystopia.

Whatever the real truth, for many today, the poetry prize shortlists tend to serve as an annual ‘Oh God, is it that time of year already?’ moment. They come round like recurring hangovers we’d thought we’d shaken off from the last binge, only to find they’d just been dormant, temporarily numbed by a hair of the dog, and are now kicking back in with a vengeance. These are ‘cultural hangovers’, and their primary aim is to discourage future indulgence.

They are also ‘cultural lags’, and ones which, as with Royal pageants and jubilees, celebrate cultural redundancy and prestigious nothing. Like most traditions, they are bad habits on autopilot, and, as with austerity capitalism, are only capable of repeating themselves as acclaimed mistakes, in spite of public disaffection and disinterest. They’re also like so-called hangover cures –moulting hairs of the dog: initially analgesic, but only synthetically restorative, and ultimately ineffective and acridly nauseating. They are annual celebrations of everything that’s nepotistic and dysfunctional about our society –the poetry equivalent of the culturally redundant annual Honours Lists.

They are ‘traditions’; and ‘tradition’ is the flat Alkaseltzer of cultural dehydration.

A.M. © 2014