Poetry On Trial: 2. “Poetry and Tribalism” by Jon Stone

In the second of our ‘Poetry on trial’ essays – culled from the excellent Cut Out and Keep blog (now part of Fuselit website) – English poet Jon Stone looks at poetry’s three great warring tribes and questions whether the divisions are helpful.



‘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.

It’s very likely that there are poets operating in each of the three spheres I identify who feel they are there because the other two won’t have them, or because they believe their own particular scene grants them access to the widest and most diverse audience. That experience is highly subjective though. Most poets looking to carve out an audience will undergo a process of gradual refinement, improvement and compromise that finds them gravitating towards one or the other, depending on how their personal judgement evolves.

As an example, my own work fits mostly in the mainstream bracket, and it’s likely that I’ve consciously made an effort to reconcile my ambitions to the dominant forms and aesthetics in that area. But I’ve also attempted to find my footing in some spoken word arenas, and a portion of my work has always seemed to be more in keeping with avant-garde fashions (albeit I don’t see it as being in any way out of step with my other poems). This has led to me to some vexing and seemingly nonsensical considerations: this old sestina that guarantees a laugh when read aloud, should I discard it utterly or keep it around as a surefire crowd-pleaser? How many collage poems do I dare slip into a submission for a mainstream poetry magazine? Which poems from my pamphlet can I safely perform without being dismissed as a dull page poet?

Coming out of this, my own subjective experience is that the spoken word scene is the most difficult to engage with. I’ve found that it demands a kind of force of personality that I don’t have and don’t want to have, and that my tastes are generally out of kilter with most of the audience. The world of avant-garde seems to line up more with the kind of work I want to write, but also seems to demand a degree of familiarity with certain niche poetics and a strong academic leaning, neither of which I possess. Therefore, for me, the mainstream has probably offered the shortest distance to travel in order to find the right fit, as far as I can find the right fit anywhere.

But that’s, as I say, simply my own experience. I don’t believe the case has been proven that any one of these three is fundamentally more embracing of all styles and approaches than the others. People being people, the process of becoming included, of working out where you fit in, requires a negotiation that challenges and tempers some egos while inflaming others (particularly where the ‘fit’ is near instantaneous). People being people, those most comfortable and most settled in their space can become arrogant and lazy. Arguably, this is most achingly obvious in the mainstream world, because of its relative apportionment of status and power. The same names are recycled by prize committees and editors stricken with nearly identical preferences. We don’t need to believe the rumours of flagrant nepotism; flawed human nature is explanation enough. Without an unaffiliated, independent critical culture or scrutiny from an external source (in other words, without constant prodding, nit-picking, niggling and badgering) people of influence settle into a clan-like arrangement. Hence Ted Hughes Prize winner Lavinia Greenlaw tellingly remarking that the shortlist she was on looked like “a family photo” last month. The belief that, say, that Sean O’Brien or Robin Robertson has produced yet another outstanding collection is genuine and uncynical – it’s simply based on a lack of consistent exposure to contrary views and tastes, and susceptibility to the ‘aura’ of a poet who has made their name.

It’s worth noting, though, that the spoken word and avant-garde scenes suffer from the same human fallibilities, albeit theirs are less visible and (because they do not have access to the same resources) less disagreeable. “Avantpo criticism,” as one poet describes it on Facebook, “is somewhere between an echo-chamber and a circlejerk”, and when one starts drawing lines between poets based on book endorsements, namechecks in essays, guest editorships of underground magazines and the like, the web of affiliations quickly becomes apparent. Similarly, many spoken word nights feature a carousel of familiar names, something particularly notable when performances are televised or otherwise of a higher profile.

Conversely, it seems at first glance like all the rancour is directed towards the mainstream from the two ‘outskirter’ tribes. You almost feel sorry for mainstream poetry when you see it described, on the one hand, as needlessly complex and unintelligible by some spoken word advocates, and on the other dismissed as “the simple plundering of domesticated interiority for its symbolic potential” in a letter to the Cambridge Review. It seems to catch the brunt simply for being in the middle. Only Don Paterson hits back, and then only in the direction of the avant-garde, branding it “that peculiar and persistent brand of late romantic expressionism, almost always involving the deliberate or inept foregrounding of form and strategy over content – almost in a proud demonstration of their anti-naturalism”.

But from a position of privilege, the persistent foregrounding of mainstream poets in broadsheets and government-funded bodies is counter-aggression enough, particularly when you have Carol Ann Duffy making remarks like “there’s little competitiveness in the poetry world”, self-evidently reducing ‘the poetry world’ to the mainstream only. Niall O’Sullivan, host of Poetry Unplugged, is judicious in remarking that he bears no ill will towards the mainstream prize circuit “as long as those involved don’t utter the usual lines about how they honestly tried to simply choose the best collection”. But they do, and this is a problem.

The antipathy, therefore, is roughly constant across the three tribes. So, I would say, is the propensity for a lack of objectivity. And is there roughly equal potential for strong and innovative poetry in each? I would say there is. Is there roughly equal likelihood of tiredness and mediocrity being mistaken for consistency? Yes. Are there always overrated poets? Absolutely. Sean O’Brien, Keston Sutherland and Kate Tempest, respectively, are not so far in front of the bulk of their contemporaries as their reputations suggest.

There is one distinction that is worth deeper consideration, though, and which may reveal a fundamental cause (or reinforcer, at least) of the tribalistic attitudes. While mainstream poetry undoubtedly revolves around a system of meritocracy, ostensibly rewarding poets proportionately to their work’s value, both the spoken word and avant garde scenes seem to operate more in the spirit of a collective, where active and frequent participation puts you on the same level as most of your peers. In terms of organisation structure, it’s like comparing a pyramid to an even plain with the odd spike. I’ve picked up this impression from various sources, but just to give a couple of recent examples, this interview in The Morning Star describes the moment a first-time reader is announced at Poetry Unplugged:

“… the host hollers: ‘Next up, a Poetry Unplugged virgin!’ and a roar of approval spreads throughout the intimate audience, a cheer louder than anyone would rightfully expect to emanate from 50 people.” 

In the case of the avant-garde, this article by Alec Newman (editor of Knives, Forks and Spoons Press) in the Cordite review paints a picture of publishers that “cooperate in the dissemination of our titles […] share our experiences, our strengths & our resources, and […] quite often publish the same poets in the same month in order to bring them to the widest possible audience.”

That’s not to say there aren’t aspects of meritocracy alive and well in the imaginations of both avant-garde and spoken word artists. Avant-gardists in particular seem at times to propose an alternative narrative of recent poetic history that is just as figurehead-heavy as the mainstream’s, while spoken word is prone to the populist argument: whosoever draws the biggest crowd is the most deserving (in this sense, populism is just the other side of the coin to elitism; both entertain a kind of artistic social Darwinism, whereby the desired outcome is that the very few are raised onto pedestals for mass dissemination and the rest fall away, even if that ultimately restricts choice and opportunity).

But the mainstream, for the most part, lacks the counterbalance of a collective spirit. Poets are gracious and generous, but there is an expectation that beginners must start at the bottom of a long ladder and spend a long time fruitlessly clambering. There is expectation also of reverence toward those higher up the food chain than you (not to mention argy-bargy when it comes to the exact order of that food chain), and a deal of agitation about the ‘excessive’ amount of poetry being written. Here’s Hugo Williams, on judging the Forward Prize in 2010:

“But an awful lot of them seemed to be published just because they existed, really. [147 collections is] too big a number of books in one year in one country to put out. I think it’s something to do with the democratisation of everything – that everyone’s got a right to get a book out … I’ve got the feeling that sometimes it’s more about desire than worth.”

When we ask ourselves why British poetic culture isn’t a continuum of styles, but seems to be regarded in terms of these three reductive pigeon-holes, it’s perhaps this difference of approach that gives us the answer. The mainstream, which is at the centre, is not porous enough. Poets from either end of the spectrum do not drift into or through it in a way that would completely disrupt any attempt to differentiate and stigmatise.

Do I think the mainstream needs to lose its meritocratic attitudes then? Partly, but not entirely. An absolute lack of selectivity across the board would do more harm than good. It’s been expressed to me that a serious problem among avant-gardists is that if you have the right attitude, the right chops, you’re in, and there’s no further editing of your poems or demands made of you as a writer. Discussion and debate about the relative merits of art and artists in any medium seems to me not just a healthy but an essential thing, but when it comes to a poem like Hot White Andy by Keston Sutherland, lauded by some as one of the best poems of the 21st century, I’ve read much intelligent analysis but nothing that even attempts to explain what it does that other, comparatively similar-looking texts do not. All poetry suffers from the problem of seeming to be, at first idle glance, indistinct and samey, which is why articulating distinctive qualities and features is essential. This articulation begins in blurbs and cover quotes and memorable remarks, and includes reviews and essays. One of the great flaws in our poetic culture, across the whole spectrum, is that it tends towards addressing inner circles and the converted, rather than attempting the more onerous task of engaging the sceptic. The avant-garde, on present evaluation, suffers even more heavily from this affliction, and the spoken word scene is almost totally lacking in written analysis, outside of the odd site like Sabotage Reviews.

This aspect of mainstream poetry’s self-coverage, then, is one I find flawed but crucially important to any healthy poetic culture.

I also think the collective spirit can be over-emphasised to the extent that it becomes less, not more democratic. I had a brief exchange with Niall O’Sullivan on this in the comments section of the post I previously linked to where he usefully described the conflict between the inclusivity of folk cultures and the capitalist/corporate encouragement of solipsistic individualism:

Mainstream poetry is all about the audience as a passive receiver, especially to the point where the poet often instructs the audience not to applaud until the very end. Inclusive tropes and turns of phrase are dismissed as cliche.

Originality and individualism are as much a part of capitalism and consumerism as they are a part of mainstream poetry and this is why I’m not that surprised to find a lack of engagement with the current social movements within it. It channels the university lecture where a few short questions are allowed at the end rather than the boisterous trade union gathering or the revivalist church service.”

I partly agree with Niall here, but I also want to defend the university lecture model as an alternative and necessary means of including as many people as possible in progressive discourse. Popular rhetoric is simultaneously empowering and alienating. Many people exercise their social conscience by behaving sceptically towards mass sentiment and fashionable anti-establishment feeling, preferring to reach their own conclusions and to not to be grouped together with others whose views are broadly similar but not quite the same. Although there are toxic kinds of individualism, finding one’s own way is also a kind of empowerment, one that is more familiar to many of us than the process of becoming part of a popular movement.

Without getting too sidetracked, the point here is simple: everyone arguing or conversing with each other in an unstructured way can lead to the most simplistic arguments and loudest voices being foregrounded. Affording a temporary elevated status to a poet (or lecturer), as the person addressing an audience, who are there to listen is, in theory at least, a recognition of the time and care they have put into what they are reciting – by definition more time and care than can be put into an immediate reaction. This permits a greater wealth of nuanced and intelligent viewpoints to be shared.

Let me try to further break this down: there is an irreconcilable disagreement, as I see it, between those who say, “If anyone can be a poet or writer indiscriminately, then it all becomes worthless – only a few will ever be worth listening to” and those who argue that any amount of selectivity is non-democratic and necessarily endorsing of the current regime (ie. those at the top of any social order will oppose change). There has to be a path between those extremes which aims to justly reward any artist who is willing to commit, continually improve, and not avoid their social responsibilities. Mainstream poetry does not achieve this – it is too married to a certain family of styles, too non-fluid to recognise its own deficiencies – but some of the framework is there, and it’s a framework that needs to be preserved and built upon.

What this all comes down to is, you might think, rather bland: all three ‘tribes’ I have identified are important to British poetic culture and ideally should form a continuous, non-staggered spectrum. There is far too much of a tendency towards dismissiveness across the board, and too little effort made to properly recognise the merits of one another. Our collective responsibility, I think, is to change the mainstream without destroying it – or worse, replacing it with something similarly flawed.

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