The rest is silence : that P N Review thing

playground 2

“Articulation is the tongue-tied’s fighting.

In the silence that surrounds all poetry we quote

Tidd the Cato Street conspirator who wrote:

Sir, I Ham a very Bad Hand at Righting”

Tony Harrison: On not being Milton


If I had to pick one particular inspiration it would be Harrison, and if I had to pick one poem of his, it would be this…..the business of being articulate when everything conspires to make you silent, or, if that fails,  dumb. I come back, again and again, to the doubleness of that line

the silence that surrounds all poetry

At one extreme, it’s the silence that allows a poem to be heard. It’s the space it’s given to yield up all it wants to articulate. The other extreme, of course is the silence of complete indifference, the lack of any kind of attention or response.

When I found a few years ago that I genuinely wanted to find out what I needed to articulate, I chose to to write poems. Probably because I haven’t the stamina or the invention for anything longer. Whatever. The thing I was surprised to welcome was the silence of the process. And to find language coming out of a silence in which I wasn’t imagining an audience, and therefore at no risk of imagining argument or opposition. It was just the business of concentrating on the moment, to find out if it was as significant as it seemed. Sometimes it was. More often, not. I found great consolation in this, and subsequently in the quiet company of people who wrote and shared poems.

I don’t know when I became aware that,  there were factions and competitiveness in this business of writing poems as in almost any walk of life;unhealthy kinds of ambition, too, and also envy and mean spiritedness. I do all I can to avoid the company of the vexatious, because what I need more than anything is serenity. Sometimes the noise of it all is too loud, and you can’t escape it. But maybe you can say your piece and walk away. So I shall.

My Facebook page is full of posts about Rebecca Watts’ article. I’ve read the article several times because it seemed to generate such angry responses. And I’ve read a lot of them. There were two that generated more light than heat for me, from Roy Marshall and Greg Freeman. Roy, in particular, takes a systematic, carefully analytic approach to Watts’ article, and it’s well worth your time. The links to both Roy’s and Greg’s are


I’m assuming that if you’re reading this, you read the original P N Review article. If you haven’t, then stop right now, go and read it, make your own mind up, and then come back if you have a mind to. In fact, you could do worse than read Roy Marshall’s piece. The thing is, I don’t want this to be about what x or y said about what a or b said about an article that folk may not have read thoroughly. And I don’t want to be taking sides or joining gangs.

I came across a thing on FB yesterday in which a wise man is talking about the polarisation of political discourse. He argues that, right now, that polarisation can’t be resolved; there is no real discussion, because we have ‘a contempt problem’. He says that when you encounter contempt (and I think Rebecca Watts is contemptuous in the course of her article) then answer with warmheartedness…ask yourself, will you do the right thing, or make the problem worse. My problem is that I’m given to being intemperate; I shall do my best to follow that advice.

Lets’s start by declaring what I believe, and believe in.

First of all, we get nowhere by arguing via labels and abstractions. Rebecca Watts makes statements like these:

“Why is the poetry world pretending that poetry is not an art form?

When did honesty become a requirement – let alone the main requirement – of poetry?”

Don Paterson has recently weighed into the argument, and generally helped to simultaneously muddy the waters and add to the polarisation, and writes, without a shred of shame that

“the poetry world [has been] split apart”

There’s an assumption that we all know what they mean and tacitly agree on what we mean by poetry. I make an assumption that too often it’s written as though it came with a built-in capital ‘P’;  I can hear that capitalisation even when it’s not written down. The thing is, I think , this kind of language is meaningless for practical purposes .

It’s not exclusive to the discussion of poems. “Poetry” is as useless a word as “music” or “art’. If “poetry” as a meaningful category includes every kind of oral poem from The Odyssey and Beowulf to McGonagall, John Cooper Clark and Kate Tempest, and poems in print from The Pearl to Howl then it’s difficult to see how anyone can assume we all know what it means. So let’s talk about poems. Then we may get somewhere. We’ll have arguments, but at least we’ll know what we’re arguing about.

What’s a poem? I won’t assume that you all automatically know what I mean when I use a word. So I’ll use a working definition/explanation which I’ve shared more than once. You might not agree with it, but you’ll know the premises I’m arguing from.  I rely on Clive James, not in the sense that I think the fact that he’s famous validates my case, but because he’s articulated what I couldn’t quite articulate for myself.

James writes about the ubiquity of bad poetry:  ‘At a time when almost everyone writes poetry, but scarcely anyone can write a poem…. there are…..Slim volumes by the thousand….full of poetry…but few..with even a single real poem in them’ 

[you see..there’s a difference between ‘poetry’ and ‘poems’ and poems are what I’m interested in]

“A real poem?  A real poem is  ‘Well separated’ . You hear ‘the force of real poetry at first glance’ ” (I love that!).

Because ‘Even if you don’t set out to memorize a real poem, it somehow seems to be memorizing itself for you’. 

I think I probably punched the air when he wrote about ‘poets who want to keep technique out of it, because they don’t have any’ and set this side by side with ‘the spectacular expression that outruns its substance.’ What an important idea that is ..just that one word ‘substance.’ 

How good it is to be reminded that a poem has to be about something real and concrete, because ‘everything depended, and still depends, on the quality of the moment…whatever kind of poem it is, it’s the moment that gets you in.’ 

Of course, you have to have the ability to be alive to the moment that insists you write it, and ‘Confidence is the attribute that can’t be taught’. Like a class rugby player’s sidestep. Like the way Picasso or Hockney put down a clean simple line that’s the only line that will do.

To be honest, I doubt that Rebecca Watts would take much exception to any of that, and I suspect that it underlies what is unfortunately an intemperate and incoherent article. A couple of examples. At one point she quotes from a Rupi Kaur, a poet who’s attracted an internet following of thousands.

i don’t know what living a balanced life feels like 
when i am sad 
i don’t cry, i pour 
when i am happy 
i don’t smile, i beam 
when i am angry 
i don’t yell, i burn 

I’d argue that there’s not a memorable phrase or line in this. Nothing to surprise, nothing to make you think, nothing interesting. It’s the verbal equivalent on a selfie posted on Facebook. Maybe that’s why it works for her followers. And it looks like a poem. Maybe it is…..but it’s also not very good. It doesn’t connect with me because it only seems interested in itself.


That’s about it. For me. Watts goes on, however:

“Commenting on the appeal of Milk and Honey, Kaur’s publisher Kirsty Melville insisted that ‘the medium of poetry reflects our age, where short-form communication is something people find easier to digest or connect with’.


poetry had the best chance of escaping social media’s dumbing effect; its project, after all, has typically been to rid language of cliché. Yet in the redefinition of poetry as ‘short-form communication’ the floodgates have been opened. The reader is dead: long live consumer-driven content and the ‘instant gratification’ this affords.”



have a think about this: a publisher insisted [Watts’ words] that the medium of poetry (poems?) reflects our age because it’s a short-form communication that people find easier to digest.

Right…it’s a proposition. It seems to have a grain of truth in it. Worth unpicking, anyway, if only to qualify or repudiate it. But what Watts does is rhetorically and logically dishonest: look, she says,  “in the redefinition of poetry as ‘short-form communication’ the floodgates have been opened.”

Simply, this isn’t what the publisher said or did. Certainly she didn’t offer a definition. And certainly not THE redefinition. Generalising/universalising from a single instance that isn’t even an instance of what you claim is at at least sloppy writing, and at worst, downright intellectual dishonesty. Floodgates? Really? She goes on a little later, following this thread


“Kate Tempest and Hollie McNish are her [Kaur’s]UK equivalents, dragging their significant and seemingly atypical followings into the arena of establishment-endorsed poetry. Both developed profiles on YouTube as an extension of their presence on the slam/performance scene”


“Even McNish has deduced that her ‘poetic memoir’ Nobody Told Me won the Ted Hughes Award ‘because of where the poetry has gone, not for the quality of the writing’.”

Two things annoy me:

One is the pairing of McNish and Tempest. One has street smarts, has put in the hard miles, has worked all levels of  the slam/performance circuit…and since the age of sixteen has lived the life she writes. One is authentic. The other isn’t. It’s sloppy writing to cavalierly pair the two.


Secondly, I talked about contempt, earlier. The two underlined words will do to illustrate what I understand by ‘contempt’. We’re invited, implicitly, to see Tempest and McNish as boors and bullies, coercing and ‘dragging‘ their followers along. There’s a contempt for their followers implicit in that. And the sneer of ‘even McNish’  implies that though she’s not very bright or smart, something should be obvious …even to her.

It’s this intemperance, this contempt that undermines the value of the article,  that polarises, and indeed, makes the world a worse place. That this is done in the name of something a civilised society would do well to value is simply unforgivable.


Do I rate Holly McNish’s poems? Mostly, no. If I ran a magazine and this turned up in the post, would I decline it?

so now 
stinks of shit 
from sewers, seeps to streets to poison kids 
preaching, it lies in gutters lined in teenage kicks 
deflated footballs, mud and teenage sick 

with stomachs thick and sagging centres 
minds left numb and fun repented 
it snatches fire-filled beating teenage hearts 
pours water over bursting teenage sparks 

In a heartbeat. But I wouldn’t tell anyone but her. And I’d politely explain why, starting with the meaningless of that phrase and the line break that makes it worse: seeps to streets to poison kids / preaching…..

Boredom that stinks of shit preaching what, exactly? It’s vacuous. I guess you might get away with it in a full-on performance rant, when there’s no time or space to ask what means, and you just go along with the nihilism. Ditto the naff rhymes. But I doubt it. The syntax is naff, too. It’s bad writing.

There’s another thing that really bothered me. It’s this question that Rebecca Watts poses, en passant:

When did honesty become a requirement – let alone the main requirement – of poetry?

I think I grew up to believe that an honest engagement with your subject, yourself, your audience and your medium was a sine qua non. For the argument to have meaning you’d need to consider its contradiction..that dishonesty/insincerity/cynicism might be acceptable. Because if they’re not, then the opposite becomes a requirement. I think the mistake Watts makes here is that she treats the proposition as a sufficient condition. I don’t think we’d have a problem with saying that honesty alone is not enough, and also that it’s necessary. Sincerity won’t automatically make good art. Nothing wrong with reminding ourselves about that.

I could write a lot more, but praise the lord, Roy Marshall and Greg Freeman have done that for me.  I hope the whole business doesn’t  close off a genuinely engaged reading and discussion of poems which is open to thinking about three questions that underlie the Rebecca Watts article. That will be forgotten, but the questions shouldn’t be.

One: are there such things as poor, badly written poems. Are there bad poems?        Examples, please

Two: are some bad poems and their authors excessively/inappropriately praised/rewarded

Evidence, please

Three: If the answer to Two is ‘Yes’ is this having a deleterious impact on ‘poetry in general’ (how would you know?). Put it another way; does it encourage people to write bad poems?


I said ‘three’ but I chuck in another.

Four: why does it matter, if 99.9% of the population have no idea that this conversation’s taking place.


And with that, I’m off to enter some poems in some competitions. Because I do.

Next week a proper post with a proper poet who writes proper poems. And a nod to Tony Harrison with whom we end

My mind moves on silence and Aeneid VI