‘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

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

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

Stroud Book Festival Poetry Night, 9th November, 7.30pm

The Stroud Book Festival is thrilled to once again be hosting an eclectic line-up of poets and poetry from Gloucestershire and beyond.

The first poet on the bill is multi-award-winning poet and broadcaster, Daljit Nagra, on Thursday 8th November at Wycliffe College, one of the festival’s splendid sponsors. Nagra, who was the first ever poet in residence at BBC Radio 4, will be reading from his latest book, ‘British Museum’, as well as earlier books, including the Forward Prize-winning ‘Yes We Have Coming to Dover!’

“He’s a marvellous reader of his work,” says Adam Horovitz, who will be introducing him on the night, “and his questing, questioning, witty and politically pertinent poems are well worth discovering aloud as well as on the page.”

On Friday 9th November, the Stroud Book festival Poetry Night offers up a wonderfully varied and immersive evening of readings, performance and music by a hand-picked bill of acclaimed poets, in two parts.

The first part brings together three poets with Gloucestershire connections: Kate Carruthers Thomas, Patrick Mackie and Maria Stadnicka. It closes with acclaimed Welsh poet and singer Paul Henry and will be compered by Adam Horovitz.

“On Saturday 10th November we’ll be celebrating the work of Gloucestershire poet and composer Ivor Gurney with a one-woman show starring writer and actor Jan Carey, to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One,” says the festival’s artistic director Caroline Sanderson. “Author, Composer, Soldier-of-a-sort: The Life and Work of Ivor Gurney is fresh from an acclaimed run at the Edinburgh Fringe this summer and we are delighted to bring the show to Stroud.

“We round off our poetry programme on Sunday 11th November with a magical family event inspired by nature,” adds Caroline. “We hope that children of all ages will come and meet Frann Preston Gannon, illustrator of the poetry anthology I-am-the-seed-that-grew-the-tree.

“It’s a glorious new gift anthology of 365 nature poems for children, spanning over 400 years of poetry, and including the work of poets as diverse as William Blake, Roger McGough, Carol Ann Duffy, John Agard, Eleanor Farjeon and William Wordsworth. As well as a chance to enjoy the poetry-telling, Frann will be encouraging children aged 6 and above to create and illustrate their very own nature poem.”

How to book tickets:

In person: at The Subscription Rooms, Stroud

By phone: by calling 01453 760900

Online at https://stroudbookfestival.org.uk

Somnia

strange how bones hurt

at times of deep uncertainty

…a poetry master said…

… thinnest shields…

fragile body, when winter hits,

we firstly feel pain

with our teeth

 

 

©Maria Stadnicka, 2018