‘Poets with History and Poets without History’ – Polarity in British Contemporary Poetry

In the past decade, cultural theorists formulated the concept of the ‘cultural fragmentation model’ which incorporates the influences of ‘contemporaneous social conditions’ as well as the constant transformations experienced within a society defined by change and competition. In contemporary poetry, the fragmentation model accommodates numerous directions and trends, some situated in a position of tension or conflict with each other. This phenomenon generates a polarised spectrum which has yet to crystallise into a cohesive operant model. Consequently, poetry is at a stage of self-discovery and exploration, whilst witnessing significant transformations with the influence of social and mass media.

The current cultural environment accommodates a wide range of poetic discourses, with many writers preoccupied to articulate their art and to engage with the readership and new audiences. However, the idea of tension or conflict in poetry is not new.

In 1934, Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva published the essay ‘Poets with History and Poets without History’ in which she identifies two opposing categories of poets (and poetry): ‘poets without history’ and ‘poets with history.’ The first category refers to poets preoccupied with self-expression, whilst the second category refers to poets engaged in artistic discovery and literary innovation.

Tsvetaeva’s concept establishes a classic categorisation and polarity which are not without relevance within the contemporary British poetry. The current cultural reality has led to a generation of poets which Anne Stevenson defined in 2000 as being ‘at the mercy of technology and in thrall to the media.’ Furthermore, the new generation of poets is getting better at identifying its own specialist clientele and is exploring intense themes like abuse, misogyny, racism and mental illness.

Editors and poetry promoters observe that the poetry market is booming, as audiences for poetry, as well as poets themselves, are diversifying. Nielsen BookScan reported in 2017 a 66% increase in poetry books sales. Despite this positive development, theorists look at the contemporary poetry with criticism, if not cynicism.

Susan Sontag expresses her scepticism in reference to the contemporary poetry which, in her view, appears to suffer from an ‘uninhibited display of egotism’, thus igniting the need to redefine the concept of poetry as an art form. At the beginning of last year, Rebecca Watts published ‘The Cult of the Noble Amateur’ (PN Review) in which she includes the British poet Hollie McNish in the category of poets viewed as ‘noble amateurs’, preoccupied with self-promotion whilst offering the consumer an ‘instant gratification’. Watts expressed concern about the literary establishment’s readiness to modify the readership’s engagement with poetry. This modification or change implies the acceptance of mass media’s influence on poetry markets and, consequently, on poetry as literary genre.

But going back to the idea of ‘poets with history’/ ‘poets without history’ and the relevance within the current context, Marina Tsvetaeva’s reflections are as fascinating as they are applicable. Tsvetaeva identifies the ‘poets without history’ or ‘poets without development’ those poets consumed by personal expression and lyricism. Furthermore, she believes, that such poets have ‘narrow knowledge and they come into world not to learn, but to say and to make themselves known. A poet without history cannot have a striving towards a goal. He himself doesn’t know what the lyric flood will bring him. His poetry has no project.’ (Tsvetaeva, 2010, p.139-140). By contrast, in Tsvetaeva’s vision, ‘poets with history’ are: ’like an arrow shot into infinity. They seem to reincarnate in themselves all the days of creation. No more than the tirelessness of the creative will. They don’t have time to turn around to look at themselves, only pressing forward. The loneliness of such walkers!’ (Tsvetaeva, 2010, p.136-139)

The process of ‘looking forward’ implies a continuous drive to innovate and explore new artistic territories. This gives a new dimension to the idea of craft. These poets are not particularly visible on social media and they tend to engage with their readership through their work and public readings. Moreover, they become preoccupied with linguistic nuances and concepts, using language to its full capacity, to surprise and delight the reader over and over again.

Tsvetaeva’s axiom opens the discussion about the type of poetry set to formulate new trajectories in contemporary British culture. This poetry is ‘not necessarily the one which wins competitions in the Irish Times or the New Stateman’, as Seamus Heaney wrote in 1974,but a poetry which defines value systems and reveals new interpretations of the world. Moreover, it is not a detailed ‘self-interview’ but becomes memorable when the writer assumes the responsibility to challenge complacency, and has the courage to experience the transformative power of change.

©Maria Stadnicka, 2019

References:

Sontag, S. (2009) Against Interpretation and Other Essays.London: Penguin Random House.

Stevenson, A. (2000) A Few Words for the New Century. In: Herbert, W.N. and Hollis, M. (eds.) (2015) Strong Words. Modern Poets on Modern Poetry.Hexham: Bloodaxe Books, Pages 181-183.

Tsvetaeva, M. (2010) Art in the Light of Conscience: Eight Essays on Poetry. Hexham: Bloodaxe Books.

Watts, R. (2018) The Cult of the Noble Amateur. PN Review 239. Vol. 44, No. 3. Available from https://www.pnreview.co.uk/cgi-bin/scribe?item_id=10090.

 

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Landscape with Buses

 

On both sides of the frontline,

orchards in bloom.

People buy and sell goods,

occupy central squares,

dogs run after barefoot children

with grain baskets – linen flags.

Buses on schedule, taxis in queue.

 

Business as usual.

Gunshots, grenades, mortars.

 

Stray barks come out of houses

with blown-up windows. Splinters

rising – morning’s canines.

Soldiers wake up to the call to prayer,

switch radio on, shave by the roadside.

Nametags rest in shoe polish tins,

heat bakes bread already sliced.

Buses carry wounded further inland.

 

Poem published in Sweat, Ink and Tears, 8th Jan. 2019, available here.

©Maria Stadnicka, 2019

Bolshoi Rehearsal

Photography: ©JStadnicki, ‘Studio’ 2018

 

53.2. Numbers blink, red dots on scales

show my thighs have grown

by two-hundred grams. I open the window.

Adverts for drama productions hang across skies,

a heavy woman squeezes against glass

to make room for me.

 

For lunch, I swallow crushed ice,

wood shavings, a full glass of tap water;

jump on the treadmill: thirty-eight minutes,

three-point-two miles, three hundred calories.

Lost two-hundred grams.

 

A neighbour rings, invites me to dinner

saying the man living at number four died

hit by a bus on the way to the gym.

He was 73 kilos. I am 53.

 

I stop eating protein, google public transport

routes, pick-up times for stones-pounds.

Every day at 9:45, a stout driver reminds passengers:

‘No hot food at the back. Only light snacks.’

 

Indoors. Drawing jogging maps

on steaming shower curtains.

Shampoo waves on my striped ribcage.

Sea splashes away in the bathroom.

Sand grains hide in my shoe.

 

©Maria Stadnicka, 2018

Poetry Night @Stroud Book Festival 2018

North

Imagine we are in a train crossing the Urals,

leaning against the back door, watching

spirals of barbed wire spike up towards light.

 

Further, inland, somebody looking like you

climbs up the mountains’ vertical. On his back,

a box the size of your ribcage.

 

Full text, published in Stride magazine.

@Maria Stadnicka, 2018

Orbita – Reconfiguring Contemporary Dialogue

Orbita: The Project, Semyon Khanin, Sergej Timofeyev, Vladimir Svetlov, Artūrs Punte, translated by Kevin M.F. Platt with colab. (166pp., Arc Publications)

Orbita is a creative collective/group of Latvian poets writing in Russian which attempts and succeeds to reconfigure the contemporary dialogue between culture and creative genres. This refreshing poetry collection is an unpredictable Latvian cultural project rather than a straightforward poetry anthology; a cross between concrete poetry, poetry installation and art gallery.

In terms of historical anchors, Orbita invites me to revisit directions proposed by the Black Mountain School and then look back at the British movements like the Gloucester Movement, the Westminster Group and the Scottish group headed by Ian Hamilton Finlay. However, the achievement of this innovative and remarkable anthology comes from the precision with which the four poets define, as Tony Ward mentions in the preface, a cultural path ‘the UK poets of a half a century ago dreamed of but never achieved.’

Semion Khanin, Sergej Timofeyev, Vladimir Svetlov and Artūrs Punte write in Russian and their work is translated by Kevin Platt in collaboration with many other translators and academics. A mark of the project’s complexity and relevance, as well as its polyphonic orchestration.

In Orbita, nothing should be excluded; each poem, photograph, installation are equal attributes in an unitary aesthetic discourse. The humour is dark, with vibrant tones reflected in linguistic choices:

do not think he is homeless
he simply lost his keys
and for the past four months he’s been sleeping
in front of a furniture store.
(Semion Khanin, p 28)

Khanin sets the anthology’s visionary axiom placing the reader at the centre of his preoccupation, as both reader and poet are  ‘surrogate brothers and sisters / related by reason.’ (***, p. 18) His intention is to ‘tell you a story from when I was still a burglar’ (p. 19) but the story unfolds ‘in state of zero gravity’ when ‘motionless on the sofa / and everything within fogs up with your breathing’. (p. 30)

The deictic centre expands with Sergej Timofejev and becomes spatial deixis. The locative space is the world where:

a dog softly barks
at a passing cyclist.
With restraint, the weather grows worse
and the barn falls apart.
Water pours modestly from the tap
not splashing and disappearing in the drain almost at once’
and where during a radio interview ‘a pianist answers every question
with ‘yes’ and no.’
(‘Morning in a Land of Introverts’, p.35)

Timofejev’s preoccupation to formulate the daily existence’s boundaries emerges, indoor again, when observing the quotidian. The present is defined by isolation, routine and angst:

I got to my own place and went to bed.
Woke up in the morning; it was Monday; and I lay face down
On the pillow and waited, but nothing special was happening;
So I got up, showered and went to work.’
(‘Quiet God’, p.36-37)

And so is the literary world:

Write me a novel
That will tell of another novel
All the same I’ll read neither one nor the other –
I’ll depart for Manchuria and perish for nothing.’
(‘Popular Song for Ukulele’, p.45)

Vladimir Svetlov who focuses his poetics on the practical aspects of consumerism similarly negotiates this metaphysical drive:

like a gift for loyalty
to repeat customers
we have been given these days
(‘Hit Parade’ p.63)

Svetlov’s discourse is direct and urgent, placed as critical question about the meaning of our contemporary socio-cultural preoccupations: ‘have you noticed we use the word “to tell” about posts in FB?’ His irony poses a destabilizing threat to our hierarchy of values…[the full review, in Stride Magazine.]

©Maria Stadnicka, 2018

 

Laureateship – Champagne Taste but Beer Money

Marx Reichlich (c.1485–1520) ‘The Jester’ ©Photo credit: Yale University Art Gallery

For over two days now, this business with who is going to be the next Poet Laureate has been in my mind. The matter is slowly gathering momentum. The search for a new ‘Nation’s Poet’ is about to start at the end of this week. Social and mainstream media are already speculating possible candidates and appointments. What used to be a process surrounded by secrecy, appears to currently aim for better transparency and diversity. Three days ago, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media&Sport with the Department of Education launched an expert panel to advise on the selection of the next Poet Laureate.

15 experts from all over the U.K. will be working for six months to identify the best poet the country has to offer and suited for such honours. One assumes that a governmental announcement means money; travel, accommodation bills, meals, drinks, commissions paid. Realistically, the named experts haven’t temporarily left their current jobs just to sit in a hotel for six months and debate  without even be paid. This is the case when a pope is elected, for instance, and even in such circumstances it usually doesn’t take longer than a few weeks. [Though, one must recognise, the longest papal conclave took over two years. In the 13thcentury. One assumes that modern times, with the benefit of instant and simultaneous communication, have made the selection much easier. It is the era when everybody knows everything about everybody else.]

The tax payer will gladly fund this laureateship race as the government was clever at publicising, with news of the new panel, the relaunch of the National Poetry Competition in schools. [September next year though.] Parents are, probably, enthused by this and temporarily willing to overlook the black cloud looming over the British arts sector with Brexit ahead. They would have long forgotten 7% budget cuts in the arts sector implemented in 2013. Only a week ago, the government announced a slight increase in budget spending for arts, though it does not reach over 5%.

Anyone noticed the arts are still in deficit, with some museums, libraries, theatres, cinemas in a desolate financial situation?

Six months expenses for 15 experts could save a community library, a cinema, an independent publisher, an old press, a centre for youth; could create poetry bursaries. And the list could go on and on.

And what is all this for? Five thousand pounds a year and a barrel of sherry, for the privileges that come with these? Or is it just for giving the country the sense of ‘normality’ back? For the ‘glamour’? At least one of the favourites, the poet Benjamin Zephaniah, made his position clear this morning, ruling himself out of taking the title.

This development brings yet another question into focus. A question about the relevance of a ‘poet laureate’ as a cultural institution driven by bureaucracy, promoted by bureaucracy and privilege, out of touch with our times and defined by an identity crisis. To add a bit of context, it is worth mentioning that there are  just a few countries which still have a poet laureate. Among them are USA, Canada, Germany, Serbia, India, Turkey, Somalia, Nigeria, Iran and North Korea. The number is even smaller when we consider the countries which allow a prime minister to get involved.

And, finally, if this is about the ‘nation’s poet’ as the government says, has anybody asked the nation? Maybe this appointment, more than others, should be done by referendum, considering we have become experts at this too.

©Maria Stadnicka, 2018

 

Further reading:

https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-starts-selection-process-for-next-poet-laureate

https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2018/oct/12/brexit-is-black-cloud-for-uk-arts-says-nicholas-hytner-national-theatre

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-23060049

https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/poet-laureate-2018-benjamin-zephaniah-shortlist-announcement-when-carol-ann-duffy-a8619896.html