How might we start redressing Seamus Heaney’s claim that “in literature, nobody can cause any bother any more” (Stepping Stones, 2008)?
Poetry suffers from a crisis of relevance. It has been pointed out many times that it's a marginalised genre within a marginalised field. The arts are viewed by government as a revenue-generating division of tourism or, like sports, a flag-bearer for national identity; and by the majority of the public as an indulgence / proof of cultural refinement (delete what does not apply). And poetry – well, poetry is seen as hopelessly out of touch, even within the arts, as can be deduced from Artur Żmijewski’s quip during a recent interview: “What if we try to treat ourselves more seriously and not use the language of literature?” (‘The Politics of Fear’, Art Monthly, February 2010). By literature, I take it he means the higher, stuffier kind.
Żmijewski may both be right and wrong. It seems clear it’s no longer “serious” to employ a ‘poetic’ mode as overwhelmingly as it continues to be employed. Doing so ignores what goes on around us. Savagery, obscenity, apathy, decay, exploitation, hunger, crime – all these and more are everywhere we look. They are our known knowns. Though escapism is fine, necessary even, we must be careful not to cross into denial. And while we have a duty to search for hope beneath the rubble brought about by advanced capitalism, we must compel ourselves to engage with the very stuff that creates it.
"The language of literature" is deadly serious. The most enduring of it was urgent at the time it was composed. It’s up to writers to remember this and continue its tradition of undermining its own norms.
The challenge is to unravel what makes some poetry – with language and devices that are at times offensive in their disengagement – so popular with those who bother to read poetry at all, and what (in extension) gives such a forbidding image to those who don’t. Reasons put forward include the teaching of it in schools. Check. The abundance of creative writing classes, with their emphasis on imitation and consensus rather than critical reading or experimentation, also seems a hindrance. The perception of it being rather cosy and for the privileged persists, and coincides with an ingrained certainty of what Poetry should be ("I don’t know much about modern poetry but I know what I like").
Another argument accepts that it's a minority artform, and suggests it should remain that way. There’s pleasure in exclusivity, and poetry is primarily about pleasure, right? Such an argument seems to me a product of a particularly elitist view of what literature should be about, and which is the very thing literature, as all art, aims to challenge.
So is there an answer? Or is asking the question enough? Some would say that “causing bother” for the sake of it is spurious and childish – it’s not big and it’s not clever. But its practice may just open a gateway, both for those who admit to reading poetry and those who don’t, beyond mainstream verse and to the core of our practice.
Because there are endless approaches to poetry besides the lyrical – including the realisation of projects that are unexpected and persistent rather than secluded and exclusive. Humour and sarcasm seem pertinent tools for poetic composition. As do cartoonism, transcripts, computer code, hyperlinks, ventriloquism… And rage. And the ugly. And brutalism, with its links not only to the architectural kind or to art brut, but also with its connotations of vulgarity – and of ‘bad taste’, through the use in Hiberno-English slang of the adjective ‘brutal’ to denote low quality.