We are all poets, or ... poetry in the age of narcissism ...

We're all poets, or poetry in the Age of Narcissism 

I encountered this view very early on  in my life as a poet. I remember going to a party in inner-city Sydney in the late seventies. By then I'd been publishing and giving readings for a few years and I was introduced by a friend thus: "This is my friend Alan, he's a poet." The reaction of her friend was to fix me with a slightly quizzical gaze... “A poet?” Said with rising intonation giving the utterance  a distinctly questioning edge. Yeah, my friend replied, “he's actually published. "Oh yeah sure, but you know... we're all poets." That was her response.

I honestly can't think of another art form where such a notion would be entertained, let alone commonly accepted. Can you imagine someone saying well, yeah, we're all musicians,  painters, sculptors, novelists or playwrights. It sounds strange.  But yes, we are all poets and presumedly, we just don't know it.

At least in those days you had the distinction between poet and published poet; the later signifying a degree of seriousness of purpose and intent. Since the advent of the Internet however even that distinction has been totally erased. Anyone can "publish" on the Internet and hence we are all now "published poets". Whether anyone reads the work is immaterial. An audience for poetry is now more irrelevant than it ever was and so is the love of poetry. The fact that you're work is 'out there' is, apparently, enough.

So what has been the result of this mass democratisation of the art of poetry? In short. the production of a lot of really bad poetry. On the supply side there's been an extraordinary explosion in the amount of poetry being written and "published" and on the demand side there's been a  corresponding decrease in the audience for poetry. In other words, more poets, more poetry, and less audience.

Shouldn't it be the opposite? As more people write it, shouldn't it mean that more people are reading it? Well, the answer to that question should be yes, but all indications are that the real answer is a resounding NO!

The reason for that is that many of the people who've taken it up are just not interested in reading other poets, not interested in reading poetry, and, in general, not interested in poetic voices other than their own. In the age of Facebook, Twitter, slams, open mikes, and spoken word the emphasis is on making noise and being seen.

Poetry is no longer the quiet, meditative, transformative, almost priestly vocation that it once was. It's loud, brash and in your face. Alright ! Welcome to poetry in the Age of Narcissism.

Spoken word events/ open mikes and the like are the shop fronts of this new narcissism.

Everyone gets the same amount of reading time. The poet whose been working away assiduously at their craft for decades is given the same amount of airspace as the muppet who stands up and reads a gem they coughed up that morning over a coffee and a fag. In fact they often get a lot more time because the narcissistic poet never wants to leave the stage. Drunk on the sound of their own voice, they read their intolerable poems, typically with intolerably long intros for intolerable periods of time.

Who cares? The audience doesn't know the difference, and besides, when can I read next?

Can you imagine how that would work in other art forms. The master painter gets equal exhibition space as someone whose only art practice consists of doodling on the back of beer coasters. The virtuoso musician shares equal billing with the three chord wonder. Nah... in other art forms it just wouldn't happen; in poetry/spoken word it happens every night of the week.

The fact that many of these poets-for-a-day read from mobile devices like cell phones and tablets is indicative of how they regard the craft of poetry. The mobile device is an expression of the immediacy of their self expression. Feeling brought up raw from the pit of their tortured stomachs is all that interests them. However anyone who knows anything about the art of poetry knows that writing a good poem can take hundreds of re-writes over weeks, months and often years. To the newly born poet that just all sounds like too much fucking effort. If you don't get it then i’ll just shout a little louder.

First name introductions only. Readers at open mikes are typically introduced first name only. Novices are actively encouraged. After all, the world can’t have enough poets, right? A complete absence of all critical filters is actively encouraged., indeed demanded. The main goal is to give everyone a platform to express their feelings. Poetry equals feelings. The best poems are the ones that express the most heartfelt feelings. What could be better than a first timer standing up and inflicting their sensitive poems on the assembled, and how uncouth you would be to unfairly criticise emotions so sincerely expressed.

Cue… vomit.

As a result open mikes, spoken word events, and poetry readings in general have become marathons of self indulgence and abuse. If you have a genuine love of the art of poetry, the only reaction to these occasions is sheer horror and revulsion.

A simple anecdote will serve as an illustration of what I've been talking about. I recently met a woman via the dating site RSVP. She was educated, well-read, cultured, widely travelled, and with a genuine interest in poetry. Over a coffee she related the following story. She'd seen a poetry event advertised on the Internet and thought it sounded interesting; something a bit different on a Saturday  afternoon so she rang a friend and decided to attend. Half-an-hour later, after being subjected to what she called “a barrage of self-indulgent rants” she and her friend left the venue never to return. Her conclusion- the readers should all make an appointment to see their nearest mental health professional.

Poetry in the Age of Narcissism is drowning in its own vomit. The general public has long abandoned the art to its practitioners, and the louder poets yell, the faster the punters run - in the opposite direction.

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Replies to This Discussion

Hi Alan, I very much know where you are coming from here. I think we are both really contemplative poets looking for contemplative, thoughtful  readers. We are also believers in the craft, but I would say I love poets trying to experiment and airing stuff that is not always locked down perfect. Whereas a musicians ARE not expected to make mistakes, as it spoils the performance. Thanks for the well considered article.

Adam Aitken

I agree Adam, it's sometimes good to see a poet trying out a new piece in front of an audience.

Someone asked me the other day, " haven't poetry readings always been like that"... ie.... that bad.

And i had to agree, mostly, yes. But back in the day we just took longer to write our bad poems.Today , it's straight out of mobile and into the microphone. It's the immediacy of it, which i guess is a reflection of our TV instant-reality- fame trailer-park culture.

Another reason is few educational institutions teach poetry seriously. When I studied English at Sydney Uni I could study poetry (reading it) throughout my undergraduate degree and had great lecturers who knew what great poetry was. As students, we spent a lot of time just learning about it with no pressure to write our own for marks.

Good point Adam. Almost as important to be a good reader, as to be a good writer of poetry. Much more emphasis could be placed on developing a poetry reading culture., as opposed to, or complementing, a writing one. 

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