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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Poetry and Tribalism - Posted by Jon Stone at FuseLit

A very interesting article which can very well echo our Australian situation ... Here is the start of it all:

'Tribalism' is, of course, a negative term, a word we use to criticise. We scorn it, want to be done with it, and yet it seems to perfectly describe a kind of attitude that few human beings avoid entirely. We identify ourselves as being part of a certain group, and round others up, usually without their permission, into contrasting groups which we define ourselves against. It afflicts British poetry culture, at least to an extent I see played out in various public and private interactions, and it could do, I think, with some objective analysis, as well as further discussion.

The three main tribes I'm referring to are: the mainstream, the spoken word scene (alternatively, performance poetry, slam or stand-up poetry) and the avant-garde (alternatively, non-mainstream or innovative poetry). Some of these terms are hotly debated, rejected or modified for clarity, but in order to get on with an article like this, I simply have to use them loosely. Via Facebook, internet forums, articles and pub conversations, I've experienced various discussions of the differences or lack thereof between the three, but these discussions tend to take place between like-minded people. I rarely see a proponent of the avant-garde square off against a regular from London's spoken word scene, for example. If parts of this post therefore seem to labour a screamingly obvious point, it's because I am addressing myself to myriad different viewpoints which, to my mind, seldom agree on what is and is not obvious.

So I'm going to try to pull some threads together. First of all, let's consider some positive (and crude) generalisations, just to get our bearings:
  • The spoken word scene is grass roots poetry, increasingly popular and well-attended, priding itself on being inclusive, non-elitist and politically engaged. Spoken-word artists eschew obscurity to address topics directly and passionately through stage performance and are active in overturning the popular image of poetry as fusty and self-obsessed. The scene has its roots in the centuries-old traditions of tavern performance and oral storytelling.
  • Avant-garde poetry emphasises radical thinking, playfulness and the critical importance of language. Its principle belief is that powerful institutions and the outdated ideals that sustain them can only be challenged by revolutionising and reenergising language itself, by undermining and overturning the registers and modes of exchange that reinforce current orthodoxies. It embraces feminism and minority poetics and seeks to dispel myths about poetry that limit its scope and reach, including the idea that poems should be understood merely as self-expression or versified narratives.
  • 'Mainstream' poetry is not so much a scene or movement as it is a catch-all term for the most widely acclaimed poets of all stripes, as well as the numerous others whose work bears a familial resemblance to these 'leaders in the field'. Its style is defined only by whatever is popular and enduring, and shifts over time. If there is a modus operandi at all, it is one of inclusivity through emphasis on the individual poetic 'voice', rather than any particular style or school of thought. Good mainstream poetry avoids both elitism and populism, attempting to meet readers half way, the idea being that good poetry needs to be challenging but also that poets must make every effort to engage their audience.
All three tend to give primacy to reader pleasure, but the latter two tend (to differing extents) to anticipate or require a certain hunger or adventurousness from the reader.

Now let's look at the harsher negative stereotypes of each which are sometimes bandied about:
  • Spoken word is the domain of aspiring comedians, hip-hop artists and rabble-rousers who like a more pliant audience, shoehorning jokes and tirades into the loosest of verse structures. It's the medium of choice for those who make little effort to refine their poetic craft and lack the patience for poetry's more subtle effects, making much of the output derivative and rambling.
  • Avant-garde poetry, despite its pretensions, is dominated by middle class white academics who have failed to break into the mainstream and now disingenuously associate incomprehensibility and opaqueness in poetry with daring and cleverness. The literary equivalent of Brit Art, it's Emperor's New Clothes syndrome writ large; endless pontificating on random assemblages of text using plenty of jargon in order to prove you're part of the club.
  • Mainstream poetry is a small enclave of largely white, upper middle class men who live comfortably enough to obsess mostly over trivial things and ignore most politics, look down on popular culture and compete for status in a classical canon, taking care to avoid offending too many sensibilities or challenging too many orthodoxies. Because of their (unearned) power and prestige, they are in a position to pick and choose the next generation of 'mainstream' poets from those whose beliefs and writing styles flatter their own, and, of course, from the creative writing courses they run.

There is at least a kernel of truth in all of these descriptions. There's also much in the latter three that is informed by snobbery in its various forms, and by the problem of accessibility/simplicity versus difficulty/obscurity in art, which seems to result in deeply entrenched positions. I'd like to think most people agree that both difficult and accessible writing can be democratic and a force for good, and that each can respectively feel pointlessly obtuse or artless if handled poorly. The debate that rages seems to be about where we can draw the lines, although the most heated remarks are often so hopelessly broad-brush that the debate never really gets going.

Continue to read HERE

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