Let me put it this way.
If I’d decided to write a blog defying Watts and championing McNish, I would definitely be serving my popularity as a poet right now.
If I’d chosen to write a blog championing Watts in any way, no matter how slight, and therefore be in agreement with the argument that accessible shit sells and it’s artless and it’s a crying shame, I’d be finger pointed at by so many people I may as well go and live in my shed.
And for me this is more of a problem than any of the comments made on either side in the Watts versus McNish showdown.
Shit sells. It always has and it always will. Hollie McNish’s work isn’t necessarily shit. But the storm-wave of crass, overblown insults that hit social media after Watts’s review was published – because let’s face it, how dare she criticise a popular, accessible female poet – is far more isolating and intimidating than any writer sitting in her ‘ivory tower and writing something snobby’ about a poet whose work she doesn’t like.
And snobby? Really? Because Watts composed an articulate and provocative literary article- she’s a snob?
All Watts has really done here, is share her opinion. In her way, through her voice. Just like Tempest and McNish share their poetry (and therefore a lot of their opinions) in their way and in their voices. The article is valid, but it isn’t paramount. It’s flint-like in parts and a damning in other. But so what? Demanding it be taken down and all the other ridiculous comments I’ve read over the last few days, is worse than anything Watts might have written – because it challenges the idea that we all have a right to formulate a view, and then share it with a given community. ‘Watts’ review is offensive’ one person tweeted. ‘It offends me.’ So what it ‘offends’ you? Be offended. Write about it somewhere properly, maybe, instead of making a backwards comment like that.
There’s also this pressure. I feel it, as an emerging poet. To me it’s like you have two choices. Either share the popular opinion, or shut up. The wave of aggressive social media comments backed me into a corner. I found myself thinking – ‘agreeing with them gets you the popular vote. Straight up, no doubt about it. Not agreeing with them gets you the finger-point again. Or maybe a door in the face down the line.’ And this brought me to the problem of not just the thought itself; but the fact that I’ d even had it.
To be honest, the overly-negative (almost hysterical) reaction to Watts felt like a lot of things in popular culture these days – sensationalised, aggressive, and greedy. The article itself, also isn’t just about McNish. Her argument was part of a wider whole. And to my dismay a lot of people only latched onto this one thing. It’s important I mention this, because this is just how sensationalism works. It hooks onto a single element of something much broader, and runs with it. Then the thing gets viral, and because of the speed with which its passed around, and all the additional emotional baggage and rebuffs piled on top of it – becomes pretty manipulated. Whatever comes out the other end of all this social angst and tinkering, becomes ‘The Story’ – the centre. And this massively narrows the focus of the argument, and subsequently blocks any form of open, healthy debate about the original opinion or idea. If you cared to look, there’s actually a more interlaced and complex argument going on in Watts’s piece, and it’s necessary we take notice of it. Not because we should agree with it. But because it’s there.
Whether you care, don’t care, or get hot under the collar about any kind of literary divide, it’s Watts’ view that poetry is in danger of losing its integrity as an art form. That artless, accessible poetry seems to be becoming more worthy of attention and readership than just good poetry. And for her, this is a major issue. The work sells because its popular. The work is popular and therefore it sells. Furthermore this will do nothing to nurture a nuanced or balanced literary community. That’s how I read it anyway. And you can shout at the top of your lungs about ‘how mean’ she was about it all. But if you took a minute to dial down the volume and digest her points, some of them are worth taking note of. Even if you don’t agree with many of them. She’s highlighted some key issues.
Sales figures alone do tell us, that this new wave of ‘female amateurs’ as she puts it, are near establishment endorsement. Poets? The absolute underdog of literature being enveloped financially within The Establishment? (publishers, awards, their sponsors etc). And if you want to go somewhere else with that, it’s about where things are going in publishing. Long ago did the novel publishing industry more or less sell out for sales and finance over writers of quality they actually believed in. Is this happening poetry now too? You could go another way too. It’s cool and ‘free’ (in some ways) to upload poems to youtube for example. But is more screen-gazing really something we should be going for? What with Chomsky’s argument that the screen was invented as the ‘other’ to keep us snug and ignorant in our houses, deaf to a revolution? Aren’t poets the voices of the revolution? Or maybe we aren’t? Maybe we should all be dangerously Wilde, declaring our genius on twitter every single day. Or writing reams of dreamic garbage and romantically drinking ourselves under the bed.
These are just thoughts, all conjecture, popping into my head one after the other. You know, as a result of of those all-things-considered arguments that we all used to have…
If I’d say anything about the review, I’d agree with Paterson and say it’s brave. But the article itself isn’t really the issue here. The Watts/McNish event has highlighted a whole new problem for me. That right now, in the supposedly more-than-big-enough-for-everyone balloon world of lovely poetry – there is one okay route: and that’s toeing the popular line. More-so than actually being a good poet. I think back to a conversation I had with a friend, ‘this is way things are going’ he said. And McNish, this is ‘where the poetry has gone.’ It’s almost like there’s this popular poetry movement of some kind. Something we all have to follow and endorse, and take part in. Even if we don’t intrinsically feel part of it. Or maybe even want to be.
It’s also the whiff of fear. That if you do openly discredit or poorly review someone in vogue (spoken word or otherwise) expect a public blazing. And potentially your career being a little bit f u c kayed too.
Not that it is for Watts. And for being honest at least, and opening the floodgates, she’s done herself proud.