In Defence of Poetry (and Poets)

Recently I came across the following quotation from a newspaper column written by Irish novelist and satirist Flann O’Brien in the mid-1940s:

Having considered the matter in – of course – all of its aspects, I have decided that there is no use for poetry. Poetry gives no adequate return in money, is expensive to print by reason of the waste of space occasioned by its form, and nearly always promulgates illusory concepts of life. But a better case for the banning of all poetry is the simple fact that most of it is bad. Nobody is going to manufacture a thousand tons of jam in the expectation that five may be eatable. Furthermore, poetry has the effect on the negligible handful who read it of stimulating them to write poetry themselves. One poem, if widely disseminated, will breed perhaps a thousand inferior copies. The same objection cannot be made in the case of painting or sculpture, because these occupations afford employment for artisans who provide the materials. Moreover, poets are usually unpleasant people who are poor and who insist forever on discussing that incredibly boring subject, ‘books’.

How to dignify such toejam with a response? Where to begin? Perhaps with the obvious: that at first I was struck by this piece’s wit, its ‘droll humour’ already familiar to me from my reading of O’Brien’s novels, including The Third Policeman, At Swim-Two-Birds and The Poor Mouth. Shortly after, however, I started to seethe inside. Despite the influence of the voice of reason inside me whispering Mate, it’s what they call a joke, I began to recall the many and various occasions previous on which I had been told the same thing by some insufferable goon puffed up with self-righteousness, two glasses of clearskin wine and a pathological loathing for “the Left”. I recalled also an observation made by Pam Brown, namely: “Poetry is the only art form that is constantly asked to assess its relevance.” Clearly, one person’s joke is another’s insult; and clearly, also, O’Brien’s ‘droll’ – no, acerbic – wit, while moderately humorous, is representative of a systematic bias against my profession that I no longer find funny.

Allow me to engage in a little ha-ha humour of my own. Let me make it clear from the outset that my critique is written from my perspective as a reader, writer and publisher of poetry. I make no distinction here between spoken word artists, bush balladeers, performance poets, establishment bards, junkie rhymesters or Pam Ayres – all are poets, writing poetry; and all will be familiar with the rolling (or glazing over) of the eyes of conversation partners at the first mention of our craft; and yes, we have all endured the pitying (or pitiless) stares of otherwise “normal” people engaged in so-called acceptable pursuits or professions, be they plumbers, professionals or plagiarists. We spend our lives berating ourselves and each other, continually justifying our existence to agents of dullness, from “readers” of rabid newspaper columns right through to the kids who skipped all the poems in The Lord of the Rings.

We know them by their hysterical and negative bleatings about subsidies, Shakespeare and suicidal tendancies; we recognise in their puling the lockjaw of conservative attacks on urban elitists; and we continue to take their ridiculous drooling seriously, time and again falling for the same tricks, exhaling that practised mmm or quite so at the conclusion of each tedious panel session featuring the same publishing industry hacks, shock-jerk opinionists, gormless entrepreneurs and showroom dummies vomiting the same bile about poetry’s lack of an audience; poets’ lack of a sense of humour; poetics’ inability to say anything interesting anymore. “The market for poetry is [you fill in the moronic blank].” “Clearly, to survive in today’s world, poetry must [yep, I’ll leave it to you]”. “To be honest, I just don’t [come on, be creative] poetry, and neither does anyone else.” Sound familiar?

But I digress, as usual. How to sensibly respond to O’Brien’s broadside against poetry and poets? How else but with some French theory. As Pierre Bourdieu writes in The Field of Cultural Production:

Although the break between poetry and the mass readership has been virtually total since the late nineteenth century (it is one of the sectors in which there are still many books published at the author’s expense), poetry continues to represent the ideal model of literature for the least cultured consumers. (Bourdieu, 1993)

And herein lies the crux of the matter. Recently a friend of mine and I were talking about poetry and why nobody’s into it. I suggested it’s because people are intimidated by poetry, that they actually find it scary. I like this idea: at least it partly explains the viciousness of some peoples’ attacks on the form. Gig Ryan said something similar in conversation with Kris Hemensley a few years ago: that poets constitute a political and linguistic vanguard, whose force or energy is, by definition, projected in a different direction to that of the mainstream. But perhaps the simple truth of the matter is that people have a certain idea about what poetry is, one they’ve been force-fed by over-zealous fans of John Donne, or Shakespeare. More recenrly, perhaps, this idea of what poetry is has been replaced by an equally simplistic idea of what spoken word is. But again, I digress. Back to Flann O’Brien.

Bourdieu argues (albeit using the case of a play, namely Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett) that the long-term sales for less immediately popular works may in fact be reasonably sustainable, hence providing a counter-argument to O’Brien’s economic imperative. However this is not the real point that O’Brien is getting at – one suspects when he writes of “no adequate return in money” he refers to the unwillingness of publishers to publish poetry books in the first place, due to the fact that they will in all probability generate very few sales at all. The majority of poetry books rarely go to a second print run, and therefore most books older than two or three years remain forever out of print. Rather than capitalising on a potentially quick turnover of ‘units’ (as the record industry was traditionally able to do through the sale of ‘singles’ to promote albums), the book industry in general concentrates on publishing books with a high probability of ‘good’ returns.

In this sense, O’Brien’s first point is accurate, if misguided. His second point, relating to poetry’s expense and wastefulness, is somewhat absurd. According to O’Brien’s logic, the waste of space occasioned by poetry’s form would be counter-balanced by the decrease in the amount of ink needed to print each page of type. O’Brien’s point, however, would seem to relate more to an aesthetic disquiet than an economic one. Any book that does not conform to the spatial dictates of prose fiction – a solid chunk of text, unravelling in a consistent fashion over a pre-determined number of pages – is bound to appear wasteful; and yet criticism of this quality of poetry invariably ignores (or shows the critic’s ignorance of) the use and effect of poetic tools such as line breaks, or enjambment.

Furthermore, these styles and conventions, developed over many years in many different languages, provide poetry readers with the means by which to reproduce rhythm, rhyme, elongated readings and spoken performances of poetic works, in the same way that a musical score or a dramatic script is the means by which a work can be reproduced. O’Brien would perhaps be most affronted by a work such as Mallarme’s ‘Dice Thrown Will Never Annul Chance’, a sprawling piece designed more as a painting than a poem, and in and of itself perhaps the ultimate protest against the constrictions of conformity. Nevertheless, again, O’Brien’s point is a useful one because it expresses, quite humorously, a perception towards the avant garde in general that is oppositional as much as confrontational.

An even more clearly aesthetic point is O’Brien’s argument relating to bad poetry (his point with regards illusory concepts of life can be safely ignored as it applies equally to many art forms, not to mention religion and politics); clearly, there is such a thing as bad poetry, just as there is bad music, bad journalism and bad criticism. The percentage of good or bad anything, likewise, remains a matter of taste, judgement and distinction on the part of consumers, readers, viewers and evaluators. O’Brien’s own subjectivity suggests that for him at least almost all poetry is bad but this again leads to another question: what is good poetry? That’s right, we need to be told by one of those experts known as “the critics”.

Nowhere does O’Brien deny that good poetry exists – indeed, by arguing that most poetry is bad, he implicitly gives a valid reason for the existence of poetry – that is, the certainty that when done well, poetry is just as valid as any other art form. In any case, in the real world, the situation of poetry actually conforms to O’Brien’s ideal: so little poetry is published and distributed effectively, while so much of it is written; editorial processes act to encourage, identify and promote only the poetry that is worthy of the name. One’s agreement with or objection to this point would naturally depend upon one’s own (subjective) view of poetry in the public sphere at any given time, as well as its overall quality.

To agree with O’Brien that most poetry is bad is to express an opinion as to one’s own preferences in art and in life generally, namely that true art is the preserve of the chosen few (O’Brien himself often expressed admiration for James Joyce but rarely gave praise to any other artist, maintaining a fundamentally critical, if not cynical, attitude towards contemporary literature); that is, the tendency to think of great works of art as having been produced by genius, an Australian manifestation of which can be found in the critical work of poet A.D. Hope.

It is not unreasonable to argue that even within a particular writer’s oeuvre or lifework, only a certain percentage of the works will be judged outstanding (if they are ever judged at all) – this in itself is no argument for the non-writing or unwriting of the lesser works (or jam, in O’Brien’s analysis). It is the process of judgement, or the application of principles of taste, that leads to a situation where some works are valued and others not. In the case of self-publishing, the usual argument is that these principles have not been applied rigidly, or independently, enough.

O’Brien’s point with regards the tendency of poetry to act virally, or to inspire readers to produce inferior copies, while referring to a familiar phenomenon, could also be made with regards to other art forms, notably fantasy writing, and music – who, upon hearing a popular song, has not been inspired to sing along, or whistle? How many songwriters are obviously derivative in their styles? How many imitators has Tolkien unleashed upon the world? Would it be justified to ban the works of Michael Jackson or early rap artists on the basis of the popularity of the moonwalk in discos the world over in the 1980s?

That might be a simplistic example but unfortunately I find O’Brien’s words intensely dumb. Nevertheless I can just imagine some old crank, propping up a bar in Dublin, reading his words with an all-too-knowing grin. Cut to any pub in Australia and you’d probably get the same reaction. And yet these are the kinds of people, we are told, who need to be saved by poetry – who, if they only knew better, might actually appreciate something a little bit more sophisticated than say, oh, what the heck: The muscles on his brawny arms stood out like knots in cotton. That’s bush poetry. It’s also pretty good. I have no arguments with it. I have no arguments either with anyone who wants to spout drivel at me about poetry and how they don’t like it, can’t understand it and hope never to hear it again. I simply request that these people cease trying to convince me that they are right. Leave those who are interested in poetry to enjoy writing, reading and publishing it.

Surely the desire to write poetry upon reading a poem that is obviously communicating something to the reader is an argument for poetry, not against it. Surely poetry is, just like any other form, a highly effective vehicle for the transmission of ideas, emotions and worldviews. To judge a poem as inferior rather than (perhaps more accurately) derivative is to make a misguided critical judgement – the final evaluation has been arrived at for reasons that serve only to expose the prejudices of the critic him or herself.

In the context of self-publishing, one can clearly understand how the effect of seeing, reading and enjoying a book of poems in print can lead to a desire to do the same thing oneself – one could almost argue that such activities differentiate writers from readers, and that without that singular desire to see one’s work in print, there would be no development or innovation in poetry (and writing) at all.

There is no mass audience for poetry. There is no mass audience for trugo. There is no mass audience for silversmithing. There is no mass audience for Esperanto. There is no mass audience for the works of Flann O’Brien. Nevertheless each of these does exist, cannot be made not to exist, and will go on existing, whether O’Brien likes it or not.

Like any other form, poetry undergoes renovation and reinvention, in fact requires it in order to maintain relevance (however limited or indeed disregarded). O’Brien’s unfavourable comparison of poetry publishing with other forms including painting and sculpture is therefore inaccurate – indeed, the present trend towards self-publishing contributes to a real economy, through the gainful employment of printers and typesetters who would be otherwise underemployed, due to the downturn in the Australian (and international) publishing industry.

The fact that books are now so easily produced by individuals, using a variety of desktop tools and previously prohibitively expensive technologies (print-on-demand as opposed to offset printing, for example), suggests that rather than being concentrated in specific places of employment (such as newspapers, major publishing houses and printeries), the skills associated with the printing and publishing trades are in fact undergoing dispersal, with potential economic benefits for many artisans in the so-called new economy. At a more basic level, who does O’Brien think provides or produces the paper and pencils, the typewriters and so on that even inferior poets use (or used to use) in order to produce their inferior works?

There is a mass audience for Harry Potter. There is a mass audience for fascism. There is a mass audience for reality television. There is a mass audience for Paris Hilton. There is a mass audience for greed. How fantastic that the market(s) for poetry in Australia remain small and are inevitably dwarfed by the sales of other book forms – notably popular fiction! There may, indeed, be a God! If they don’t want it, don’t try and sell it to them! If we don’t want to engage with capital, then don’t stand for any arguments that use capitalism as a crutch! Just walk away! Don’t listen to the mouthpieces of the book industry. Consider compiling a dossier of reasons for the banning of newspaper columnists. Consider ceasing to read the newspaper.

To succumb merely to economic arguments in order to justify poetry (while far preferable to the situation in which poetry is seen as a mystical and mystifying art practiced by one or a dozen great minds), is to deny the complex and social symbolic value that adheres to the practice of writing in general and poetry in particular. O’Brien’s detestation of unpleasant, poor and boring poets may well be all the proof one needs that this particular statement should be consigned to irrelevancy. However, it is his final attack on the subject of the discussion of books that perhaps sums up the peculiar situation of poets and poetry in the modern world.

For, after all, is there any thing, any object more symbolic, more loaded with meaning, than the book? From religious texts to works of literature, comic strips to pornography, legal tracts to hand-made zines, the book encompasses, encapsulates and contains a field of human culture and social interaction. Surely it is no wonder individuals should feel the urge to create their own. The symbolic values and meanings with which people inscribe books – both in their physical appearance and their actual content – are surely worthy of spirited discussion, even at the expense of appearing boring to some.

Perhaps in the end it is the mere existence of poetry, of poets, of books of poetry, of self-published books that inspires the ire of a writer like O’Brien – but equally, in the end, he cannot wish them out of existence, and in the act of defaming and demonising this particular kind of writing, he succeeds only in making its unique position within society all the more self-evident. For this reason alone, all poets should be thankful to O’Brien, who published this diatribe anonymously in The Irish Times because, being a civil servant, he was in fact prohibited from publishing it under his own name.

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