On ‘poets with history and poets without history’

Study I, 2018

In the past decade, cultural theorists formulated the concept of the ‘cultural fragmentation model’ to incorporate the experiences of ‘contemporaneous social conditions’ as well as the constant transformations 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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