I’m a fellow of The Complete Works, an Arts Council-funded programme that has sought to develop the writing of poets from BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) backgrounds. Why did it choose to foreground poets of colour? Because 10 years ago fewer than 1% of poets published by major presses were from minority ethnic backgrounds, despite at least 14% of the population being non-white. Even now, the work of these poets is massively under-represented in prize shortlists, reviews and amongst reviewers themselves (as highlighted by the research of Dave Coates). So is it really true, as Rebecca Watts suggests in her recent article in PN Review, that the media is “terrified of being seen to criticise the output of anyone it imagines is speaking on behalf of a group traditionally under-represented in the arts”? Given that silence is the usual response, the terror seems to be Watts’ own.
When I started writing – against a literary background as white as a ski slope – a big problem was just imagining myself as a writer. Watts quotes T.S. Eliot: “the people which ceases to care for its literary inheritance becomes barbaric.” But “the people” that care too much for their literary inheritance – or their version of it – can come to treat anything outside of it as “barbaric”. I remember that feeling of being on the outside and knowing that, if I wanted entry, I would have to speak like an insider. This was where craft came in. Craft, according to Watts, is about “technical and intellectual accomplishments”. It’s all too clear, though, that technique and intellect can’t be separated from their political and social contexts. A culture predicated on exclusion will create an exclusionary literary culture. For a long time, and this article continues the trend, craft has acted as the bulwark – the beautiful excuse – for dismissing work by socially marginal voices. Behind its technical veneer lies an implicit threat: adapt to the rules of “literary inheritance” or face exclusion.
There is an irony to this line of argument. Watts cites Sylvia Plath (all of her approving examples, I should add, are white), who Harold Bloom once attacked for her guileless and over-emotional verse, saying: “Poetry relies upon trope and not upon sincerity”. Sound familiar? Then, as now, the espousal of craft grants entry, while “sincerity” or “honesty” (Watts’ preferred term) bars the way. Perhaps this has something to do with the nature of those experiences being written about? I don’t know if the work of Hollie McNish and Kate Tempest – whose work Watts takes issue with – will be read alongside that of Sylvia Plath in fifty years’ time, but I know that the opposition between honesty and craft is false. Worse than that, it’s in bad faith. It converts one person’s taste into a moral or technical fault on the part of the accused.
As with so many defences of inheritance and tradition, Watts’ essay also strikes a constantly fearful note. Peaking through the crenels of Fortress Craft, she seems scared at the prospect of it being overrun by youths with funny accents who’ll tear up the Shakespeare and Eliot. More terrifyingly, she suggests that they may already be inside, scribbling on the table-cloths and stealing all the awards. Why is no one among the “middle-aged, middle-class” reviewing guard saying anything? I don’t think it’s because they’re terrified; I think it’s because this is a fiction. Literature doesn’t need to be seen in Bloomian terms, as an arena for agonistic confrontation. Art doesn’t need to be defined by exclusion. Our language isn’t a prize diadem, and our role to “safeguard” it. Poems will go on being made and spoken in ways exceeding any one definition of craft. And as society changes – hopefully for the better – so too will poetry. In the meantime, those who hold onto a singular idea of craft will only have succeeded in buttressing themselves against the world and the possibility of changing it.