Accessibility vs Elitism

A somewhat inflammatory article by Rebecca Watts in the latest PN Review has been engendering some lively discussion amongst my friends this week. Don’t read it if you’re a spoken word artist – it will make you very cross, especially if you’re an admirer of Hollie McNish, whom Watts repeatedly misrepresents, in an oddly personal attack.

I’ve shot my mouth off about this article on Facebook quite a bit and I don’t want to repeat everything I’ve said there, but I do want to address the accessibility vs elitism argument, which seems to be endlessly rehashed amongst poets of all leanings.

If you strip away the gratuitous nastiness, Watts’s article does make some valid points. I share some of her disquiet about the modern cult of “honesty” in poetry – the idea that a poem’s value lies in how true or keenly felt the content is, not in how well it is expressed. And perhaps Watts is right that “honesty” is often used as a synonym for “artlessness”, “lack of craft”, and it is concerning if the ability to select and shape language with any kind of skill is now actually becoming frowned on in poetry. I wouldn’t take this point to Watts’s extreme – after all, a poem which is all craft and no feeling will please no-one, no matter how technically accomplished it is. And Watts is completely ignoring the fact that spoken word is a different genre, with entirely different affordances and constraints from literary page poetry. However, we’ve probably all wanted to punch the audience judges at a slam at least once in our lives because of their willingness to reward cliche, on-message content and the decibel reading of the delivery, not the quality of the writing.

I bridle, though, at Paterson’s chillingly eugenic phrase, quoted by Watts, “poetry’s natural intelligent and literate constituency”. Leaving aside the factual inaccuracy here (poetry predates literacy by thousands of years, as Paterson must know), I know of no other artistic community that actively boasts of how small its target audience is, and pronouncements such as this one don’t exactly help when I am trying to convince paranoid grassroots poets that there is no huge conspiracy up at Page Poetry HQ to deliberately exclude working-class and other non-university- educated people from the art form.

It seems to me that both extremes in the Accessibility vs Elitism debate are guilty of the same error: of using poetry as a bolster to their own self-esteem. In the red corner, those who sneer at “accessible” poetry are often wearing poetry as a badge to prove that they are “naturally” more “intelligent and literate” than anybody else. This is poetry as cryptic crossword or Mensa test or Masonic handshake, not art. They value poetry for its difficulty, per se, and don’t want it to communicate to (much less be produced by) the masses, because that would mean they lose their status as the anointed ones.

To be fair, it’s not always snobbery – on an emotional level I can feel a lot of sympathy for Watts, who won a scholarship to Cambridge from a background not unlike McNish’s and has put years of hard work into learning the principles of academic poetry, only to find that the goalposts have now been moved by a publishing industry who care for nothing except profit and everything she worked so hard to achieve now seemingly counts for nothing. In her article, I can hear something of the rage of my mother, who was so proud of the fact that, unlike most of her fellow working-class neighbours, she could spell and punctuate perfectly, knew the grammatical difference between “less” and “fewer”, but that knowledge never led to the social or financial advantage she hoped for and she ended up working as a dinner lady in a primary school where the well-paid (compared to her), middle-class, university-educated teachers routinely spelled words wrong on the board and preached the gospel of “There’s no such thing as ‘incorrect’, just ‘non-standard’.” As with the expansion of universities under Tony Blair, movements designed to open education and culture up and make it more “accessible” often don’t lead to the social inclusion they were intended to, but quite the reverse – they entrench privilege by allowing stupid middle-class people to elbow in and hog all the places that were hitherto reserved for a small minority of bright working-class people.

But I dislike the narrowing of the definition of poetry of red-corner rooters like Watts, who (ironically, in an essay extolling the importance of “nuance”) repeatedly makes prescriptive assertions of what poetry “is” or ought to be, ignoring the fact that, even within the “establishment” there are competing schools of poetics. Ironically, most of the criticisms she throws McNish’s way (naivety, lack of craft, lack of intellectual rigour, mixing metaphors, offending against good taste) were also, in their day, hurled at some of the poets she (on no evidence) accuses McNish of not reading – Keats, Shakespeare, Burns – by critics who also adopted a haughty “Poetry can only be what I say it is” attitude. Her contempt for what she sees as McNish’s lack of craft (because she writes without imagery in “literal statements with the odd approximate rhyme thrown in”) seems to me to be as dogmatic and unimaginative as the grassroots amateur dissing the poetry in The Rialto because, “It doesn’t even rhyme”. We can all draw up an arbitrary list of features, use them as the basis of a definition of poetry, and then condemn the work of anyone who fails to include them as “not even poetry”. It’s not hard.

I’m also concerned about the number of people I know who’ve been taught absolute rules on creative writing courses like “You should never use adverbs in poetry” or “Cut out all relative pronouns” or “Never end a poetic line with a function word” and when you ask them why you should never do this, they just say, “I don’t know – but I’ve always been taught it is bad poetry”.  I don’t have a problem with students being taught these as helpful guidelines, with a reasoning behind them (e.g. “If you use an adverb, ask yourself if you could make the point more effectively by choosing a more precise verb, e.g. ‘He whispered’, instead of ‘He said quietly.’ ” Or “Relative pronouns can make your diction sound stilted and formal – play around with them and see if cutting them out helps create a more natural, conversational style and ask yourself if that’s what you want.”) I have a real problem with rules being taught for their own sake, with no rationale. This is the poetry of the circular argument, the poetry of Simon Says.

“Simon says you shouldn’t use relative pronouns!”

“Why does Simon say that?”

“Because you shouldn’t use them. It’s bad poetry.”

“But why is it bad poetry?”

“Because Simon says!”

It gets even worse when journals begin rejecting basically good poems because they have transgressed against something Simon says, when it’s not enough to use language in interesting ways to move and arrest your audience – you must conform to the memo.  It reaches its nadir when poetic recognition is withheld from anyone who can’t afford to pay a couple of grand to go on a course to learn what Simon is saying this year.

That’s not to say, though, that I don’t think there is such a thing as craft or talent, that poets shouldn’t learn from precedent, that poets shouldn’t go on courses or work hard and try to improve, that no distinction at all can be drawn between “good” or”bad” poetry. But I feel that Watts is failing to acknowledge that McNish has something which has led to her reputation being elevated above that of other spoken word poets, even if it’s something she doesn’t like. If there really were no standards anymore, everybody would have a contract with Picador. And Watts is failing to acknowledge that “populist” forms like spoken word have their own traditions and own poetics, of which she is as ignorant as she (on no evidence) accuses McNish of being of conventional poetics.

Then, in the blue corner, we have those who denounce anything they personally don’t understand as “elitist”. All other poets have to pander to their laziness and ignorance. Nobody must use a wide vocabulary, because they might not understand it. Nobody is allowed to make literary allusions or write on minority-interest subject matter, because it makes them feel stupid that they don’t get the references. They will not entertain the possibility that “difficult” poets are writing about esoteric topics or in obscure forms because they are genuinely interested in and excited by them – no, the only reason they can possibly be doing it is to be “pretentious” or to deliberately exclude and humiliate. People aren’t allowed to write in a way they don’t understand because it hurts their feelings.

This isn’t accessibility or populism – this is tyranny by your neighbour. It is another kind of exclusivity – where anyone who is quirky, who is different, who has taste or interests that are not shared by at least 60% of the population, is denied a voice.

Watts is also right (although for me McNish is entirely the wrong target here) that there is a hypocrisy on the part of some of the Accessibility Warriors, in that they denounce quality control as “elitist” when it’s keeping them out, but approve of it when it’s offering them status. I know several aspirant poets who condemn journals as “elitist” and “pretentious” when they turn down their poetry, who denounce spoken word nights as “exclusive” when they won’t offer them a slot, but they clearly approve of “elitism” in principle, from the fact that they so desperately want to be validated by a journal or night that picks and chooses in the first place. Poets who genuinely dislike elitism are quite content with posting their poems on non-edited platforms like Facebook and/or reading them out at open mics where absolutely anyone can take the stage.

Am I oversimplifying things and going all school-assembly “Hey, Let’s All Be Nice To Each Other” when I say there is room for all kinds of poetry? I wouldn’t want to live in a world where we were only allowed to read and appreciate the kind of poetry that meets Rebecca Watts’s and the academy’s approval, but nor would I want to live in a world where we are not allowed to have individual tastes, but are only permitted to read and listen to “populist”, instantly accessible work that the majority approves of.


13 thoughts on “Accessibility vs Elitism

  1. You have lifted my spirits, my heart, and my self-belief. A magnificent article which I shall endeavour to subtly ‘share’ with others 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is just a tentative suggestion. As a participant in another contested field of poetry, namely the so-called experimental/avant garde, it would be useful for someone to write a kind of poetics of spoken word – what are the main techniques writers tend to use, how the interplay between writer and performance works, etc. Not as some kind of definitive statement but to give some clue to those of us who with a different set of criteria for what ‘makes a good poem’ (and mine might be very different anyway from so-called ‘mainstream’ poets.

    I’ve often found this useful in trying to understand what the heck I think I’m doing with my own writing,

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is a really good idea. I am definitely not the qualified person to do that, but it is something I’d like to read. I know a couple of people working on PhDs analysing spoken word poetics, but something more for the layperson would be really helpful – anyone know of anything like that out there they could recommend?


  3. An excellent analysis, and wise words. I think this argument risks overplaying the point that poetry is becoming hobbled by “accessibility” issues. It gives the impression that the “academic” end of poetry would only use obtuse language and inscrutable allusions. Some of the best poets I know use plain and simple techniques that, I suspect, require as much effort to craft. It might only appear to be effortless. I think you are right about Watt’s motives. It seems more petulant than considered and as a performance poetry promoter, I don’t see that there is an intrinsic distinction of quality between page and spoken word poetry. I see a lot of great work and a lot that is lacking quality in both “camps”. It is down to the individual and not easily generalised. I really enjoyed your response. I will follow your work in the future. Light and peace

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Dear Melanie

    I can’t help feeling that this is a bit of a proxy war between the editors of Carcanet and Picador. Don Paterson has made millions out of Kate Tempest and Hollie McNish whereas Michael Schmidt has made next to nothing out of his personally chosen supposedly ‘elite’ poets.

    Best wishes from Simon


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