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“We're all poets” - poetry in the Age of Narcissism
by Alan Jefferies
“And of course this fashion for poetry readings has led to a kind of poetry that you can understand first go: easy rhythms, easy emotions, easy syntax. I don’t think it stands up on the page…”
Philip Larkin (Paris Review Interview… Summer 1982)
“Don’t imagine that the art of poetry is any simpler than the art of music or that you can please the expert before you have spent at least as much effort on the art of verse as the average piano teacher spends on the art of music”
Ezra Pound (“A few Don’ts by an Imagiste”)
I first encountered the “we are all poets” line back in the late seventies.
I was at a party in inner-city Sydney 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 it a distinctly questioning edge. Yeah, my friend replied, “he's actually published. Oh yeah sure, but you know... we're all poets." That was his 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 “Yeah well, you know, we're all musicians / painters /sculptors, novelists/ filmmakers or playwrights. It sounds strange. But yes, we are all poets and presumedly, we just don't know it, yet.
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 erased. Anyone can "publish" on the Internet and hence we are all now "published poets". Whether anyone reads the work is seemingly immaterial; and an audience for poetry it appears, is now more irrelevant than ever. The fact that you're “out there”, apparently, is 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 spoken-word artists; slam, rap, hip-hop performers, and less audience for poetry.
Shouldn't it be the opposite? Surely as more people write it, shouldn't that automatically mean that more people are reading it? Well, the answer to that question is sadly, no. The main reason being that many of the people who've taken it up just aren’t that interested in other poets, not interested in reading poetry, and, in general, not interested in poetic voices other than their own.
One apocryphal story I heard recently relates to a poet who got up at a spoken-word event in Melbourne and read some Sylvia Plath poems. After the reading they were approached by another spoken-word poet who complimented the work and asked where they could see Plath performing around Melbourne. Sylvia Plath? Arguably the twentieth-century’s most famous woman poet?
Okay, even if the story isn’t true, there’s enough truth in it to resonate. Obviously, not all spoken-word poets fit this description but in general, there appears to be a wilful ignorance of art of poetry, and a genuine disregard for the seminal voices that have shaped the art.
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/ open mikes/ slams etc are the shop fronts of this new narcissism.
Everyone typically gets the same amount of reading time. The poet who’s been working away assiduously at their craft for decades is given the same amount of airspace as the muppet who gets up and reads a gem they coughed up that morning over a coffee and a fag; or someone who rises to share a friend’s status update for that morning - (this actually happened at one reading). In fact they often get a lot more time because the narcissist poet (narci-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 what interests them most.
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 emotion. What could be better than a first-timer standing up and inflicting their sensitive poems on the assembled, and how uncouth would you be to unfairly criticise emotions so sincerely expressed.
These poetry conversions often take on the semblance of an almost religious occasion - a baptism of sorts. The poet-for-a-day is assisted onto stage by the willing celebrants who spur her/him on to share their inner-most feelings. Rhyming, half-baked, sentimental, cliched, completely devoid of all artistry - who gives a rats - it’s feelings we want. Hallelujah, another poet is born - all in the service of the Spoken-Word god!
Recently at a panel discussion a headliner in the spoken-word universe defined a poem as “a heart you throw at the audience to see if any of it sticks” Actually, I prefer the W.C.W quote “poetry is a machine made of words”.
Poetry is a slow, exacting, deliberate craft that requires years of patient learning; it requires the attention span of a moon, not of a Facebook post. “Poetry is the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits” so wrote Carl Sandburg. Poetry is a million-and-one things but one thing it most definitely is not, is easy, and that’s the lie that spoken-word propagates.
And that brings me back to the Larkin quote: “easy rhythms, easy emotions, easy syntax.” If Larkin had been around today and had the misfortune of wandering into an open-mike/poetry night he might very well have added “easy politics” The politics of spoken word starts at the lunatic left and keeps going till it reaches entropic darkness. Rants about the greedy, racist, misogynistic , environmentally plundering, Western capitalist society are standard fare; the same society, by the way that provides through the various arts bodies the funding for the larger spoken-word events.
And here’s the scary part; if you happen not to like a particular rant that somehow equates to disagreeing with the politics that that rant happens to be espousing. Idiotic, feeble, reductive, nonsense doesn’t even come close.
As a result of all of the above, open mikes, spoken word events, slams and poetry readings in general, have mostly become marathons of self indulgence and abuse.
If you have a genuine love of the art of poetry; if you truly stand humbled before the power of the written word; if you nurture a profound respect for the thousands of genuine wordsmiths who over hundreds of years have put everything on the line for their craft; real poets who have forged a voice in solitude, drunk on nightingale’s muse. If you are that person, then the only natural response to these occasions is sheer horror and revulsion.
A simple anecdote will serve as an illustration of what I'm talking about. I recently met a woman via the dating site RSVP. She was educated, well-read, cultured, widely travelled, and had a genuine interest in poetry. Over a coffee she related the following story. She'd seen a poetry event advertised on the net 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 “poets” should make an urgent 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.
In the late 1970’s - when i started publishing and attending readings - we called it performance poetry. The rationale at the time was that performance poetry was a reaction against the stuffiness of the normal academic delivery. It’s aim was noble; to tap into the centuries old aural tradition and find a newer, larger, younger audience for poetry. An audience outside the academic setting to which the muse had been confined for so long.
Poets performed their work. Some read straight from the page, others memorised their poems while others used a musical instrument as accompaniment; think Ginsberg’s harmonium, Robert Bly’s dulcimer or Richard Tipping’s jews harp. Whether you were consciously “performing” your poems or just reading them from the page the commonly agreed belief was that the poem had to work on the page before it worked on the stage. In other words; the primacy of the page - page first.
And that’s where the spoken-word practitioners of today differ so much from the performance poets of yesteryear. For most spoken word poets it is most definitely page last or in many cases page-not-at-all. It just doesn’t get that far, and if it did, it simply wouldn't work as poetry.
Or as Larkin so aptly put it all those years ago, it simply wouldn’t “stand up on the page”.
My argument then is that once you disassociate spoken word from the written word then the work ceases to be poetry. Yes, you certainly have another form of performance art but it’s not, and should never be confused with poetry. In the same way that you wouldn’t mistake stand-up comedy for poetry. Yes, stand-up can be clever, it can employ word play, satire; it can even use some of the same rhetorical devices as poetry; but it’s clearly not poetry and would never claim to be.
In the same way most song lyrics are not poetry. I would say that many song-writers throughout history have aspired towards poetry, but only a very small number get anywhere near. Dylan might be one of the few exceptions. Lou Reed, Patti Smith and Leonard Cohen would be contenders but even then only a handful of their lyrics reach the threshold of true poetry. (And no, I don’t think Dylan deserved to win the Nobel Prize).
That’s why I took such great offence in 2016 when ex-QPF Director David Stavanger - in some way trying to justify another musical extravaganza at a poetry festival - boldly declared that David Bowie and Prince were “probably two of the greatest poetic voices of the 20th century” which I’m sure would have come as a surprise to them, considering neither of them wrote poetry. He then proceeded to spend public monies celebrating the lives of two internationally famous rock stars instead of cerebrating the poetry of Australian poets, and more specifically Queensland poets. It’s a fucking poetry festival after all!
The problem here - common to spoken word - is a willingness to bestow the laurel of poetry on work that simply isn’t. Bowie and Prince may have been brilliant songwriters - personally I liked their music - and yes, they may well have been consummate performers but to me they are not poets because their lyrics don’t work on the page as poetry. No surprise there, rhymed song lyrics don’t often work as poetry on the page because a regular rhyme scheme is associated more with the poetry of a hundred years ago, rather than with the modern day. But that’s okay, because they wrote lyrics to pop songs and they work as song lyrics, and that’s what’s important. I challenge anyone to present either a David Bowie or Prince lyric that works on the page as poetry.
But here’s the rub, in the spoken-word universe, the terms poetry and spoken-word are used interchangeably - they mean the same thing.
The most obvious distinction between written and spoken word is that words read aloud are ephemeral. They are here now as sounds and they pass now as sounds. There’s no re-wind or re-read facility. There’s no, “I didn’t catch that, would you mind saying it again”. As the result of the immediacy of spoken word the emphasis is on delivering simple emotions, simple words, simple messages, things that can be taken in and absorbed at first hearing. The necessity to dumb-down content is simply inevitable.
The shouted polemic - the rant - is one the most favoured forms in spoken word/ slam. It’s no coincidence that much rap and hip-hop music employ the same form of direct address - the shouted polemic, the rant.
Clearly the emphasis is on style of delivery and much less on what is actually being delivered. Hence, the fancy dress and theatrical hysterics which so often accompany these events.
Without doubt there is a sort of a nuance bleaching in spoken-word poetry. Spoken word/ open mikes have become mass-nuance-bleaching events. There seems to be almost a deliberate purging of obscurity, the exact thing which, for me, makes the reading and re-reading of poetry on the page worthwhile and pleasurable.
In terms of form, the listener, as opposed to the reader, misses a lot of the features of a poem such as the shape the text makes on the page, the enjambments and line breaks, the style of the text - italics or bold - and of course the reading of a poem, as you would hear it, as opposed to the way the poet would like you to hear it. This ability to work with how you would read and phrase the poet’s words on the page opens up, I believe, a space for the reader and adds enjoyment to the reading of poetry on the page.
Edwin Hirsh has written that poets “seek language that lasts.” and by “lasts” I’m sure he means more than the two minutes allotted at a poetry slam or a ten-minute spot at an open mike. He means language that lasts potentially for thousands of years, across dozens of cultures - timeless in the true sense of the word.
Poets will continue to read their poems out loud. Public readings have become an essential part of the poet’s trade and are an effective way to reach new readers. Moreover they provide an opportunity to sell books in an era where many bookshops have stopped stocking poetry books.
However if poetry is ever going to pull out of the narcissistic death roll it’s currently in the grip of, it needs to work harder at defining terms. No piece of spoken word is a poem until it works on the page, and no spoken word performer is a poet unless they’ve written something that works on the page.
Poetry is a craft that requires immense skill and patient application. It requires persistent and inquisitive reading over time and most of all it demands a hopeless love and dedication to the art in all its forms and manifestations. To pretend otherwise only serves to diminish the achievement of genuine poets and totally undervalues the immense contribution made by poets to the history of the imagination.
And that’s the thing I probably despise most about spoken-word, the way it portrays poetry as something easy, something you can take up at a moments notice. Something like a participation sport, an activity that the whole population should be encouraged to engage in - like aerobics or zumba - because it’s somehow good for you and somehow good for society. It’s not; and rather than expand the audience for poetry it’s achieved the exact opposite because the audience can tell the difference- they know a rant when they hear one.
And in the process spoken-word has helped reduce what was once a solemn, almost sacred vocation - that of a poet - to that of a second-rate vaudeville actor sprouting lines with all the incisiveness of a political slogan, and all the gravitas of an advertising blimp.