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When listening to awful poetry

I was talking to someone today who was talking about how he hates performing or even reading his poetry at groups because he got many silent and VERY apathetic reception the last time he did. Now I was kinda interested and asked if I could read some of his stuff...which, I found slightly odd. I mean if you don't want people to hear your stuff why show them it?

Anyhoo, after reading a few of his poems it struck me how unstructured, clumsy and ulgy they were. I proceeded to provide my opinion (which he had asked for, not that it's worth too much) and he was quite offended but accepted that it was for precisely this reason that he had stopped reading his poetry.

So here's a question. If you were at a reading, open floor/mic or other event, and what you were listening to was absolute drivel and a waste of time.....how would you react?

Would you clap and be polite?
Would you be honest about what you thought?
Would you, politely, suggest that it could do with some work?

On a side note I did suggest that maybe reading and listening to other people's poetry and looking again at his own work. I also suggested reading in front of smaller groups to re-build confidence. But I also wondered why he was still writing in the same style and to the same standard if people though his stuff was so uninteresting.
Sun, 16 Nov 2008 03:06 am
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Er Martin - you mean UNinteresting not disinteresting. Disinterested means "objective, free of bias", and is what scientists are supposed to be.

Sorry - but standards have to be maintained...
Sun, 16 Nov 2008 02:23 pm
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Steven, yes that is what I meant. I apologise, sadly my brain can start turning to mush late at night.
Sun, 16 Nov 2008 10:21 pm
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I always clap politely and never give my opinion unless I genuinely love something I have heard. Sometimes not even then because I hate sounding like an anal fume exhaler. I have never told somebody their poetry is rubbish partly because of the 'if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all' school of thought and partly because of the aforementioned confidence factor.
One of my early comic poems is called 'Bad Poets Society' (which, in a very post-modern way, is itself deliberately a bad poem) and purports to list many of the pitfalls poets (particularly of the 'performance' variety) fall into. I used to provide a sort of caveat in an introduction claiming that I was writing about myself as much as anyone else but I still often got poets approaching me afterwards and apologising for using the methods I lampooned.
This told me two things. Firstly, My poem had hit nerves. Secondly, that poets are sensitive people who are easily hurt.
Perhaps poetry's attempts to reveal the inner soul make it peculiarly vulnerable to criticism. However much you might try to highlight technical aspects when criticizing someone's work, they always seem to take it personally.
Still, very bad poetry can be absolutely excruciating to listen to. I remember sitting next to one unnamed (published) poet during a particularly excrable performance and hearing him mutter under his breath, 'He'll never be a poet as long as he's got a hole in his arse'
Sun, 16 Nov 2008 11:20 pm
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I always buy their book and leave.....ensuring I give it to a charity shop where with any luck it will never see the light of day again!

Mon, 24 Nov 2008 06:31 pm
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I just tell grab one of their poems, read it and tell them that it's not poetry and that it's prose and then offer to set fire to it for them. I don't get invited to many parties.
Mon, 24 Nov 2008 08:05 pm
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See I would find it hard to offer unsolicited advice but if something is truely AWFUL, I often think I should. That said recently I have expanded the amount of stuff I have read and listened to and I had forgotten the amount of talent that is out there, so maybe I should hope that the awful poets develop by listening to those that are not awful.
Tue, 25 Nov 2008 05:39 pm
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Thats awfully nice of you Martin
Tue, 25 Nov 2008 06:19 pm
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Hate to dash your utopian dreams, Martin, but some people have got no, and will never have, poetic sensibilities. It's the 'hole in the arse' scenario. They are the John Sergeants of verse, the Chris de Burghs of rhyme. They should have microchips fitted which electrocute them every time they pick up a pen. (DG, don't tell me you can't electrocute someone with a microchip, I don't want to know.) Not only will they not improve by reading poetry, they won't understand half of it, and that's just the one's who can read. One of the first tools of poetry is literacy, and it's on the decrease in modern Britain. Perversely, more and more people are writing poetry. Hence: more shit poetry.
You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

But anyone with a modicum of talent (and talent is not defined by copying rhymes out of Hallmark greetings cards) should benefit from wider reading.
Tue, 25 Nov 2008 09:13 pm
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Oh dear, I was so looking forward to that utopia :(

I get what you are saying but if you're going to lampoon the literacy levels in Britain then what exactly do you suggest?

I mean I widened my vocabulary by reading. I improved my spelling through reading and writing. The same goes for my writing. Do you then suggest that practice does not make perfect?

You see I seperate creative people into two groups, 'natural' and 'learnt' talent. Some people natural have a way with words or are naturally creative, others through practice can reach a similar level through hard work. Talent isn't an ephemeral thing that is only manifest in certain people. ANYTHING, and I mean anything can be learnt, the key is relating the material to the learner.

If more and more people are writing poetry, then surely we must do what we can to improve those who are awful. If the other option is to stand by and let a flood of dross come our way, or to stall someone on a process of learning...is that truely the best way to advance?
Tue, 25 Nov 2008 11:05 pm
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The kind of literacy I am talking about goes a little bit beyond basic reading and writing. I don't know the statistics but the proportion of children who leave school with basic reading skills is probably stable or falling slowly. What is falling rapidly is what one might term 'high level' literacy; the ability to actually write coherently. The reasons for this are no great mystery. Young people (and yes, I am about to sound like an old fart) associate text with text (ie. literature with mobile phones) and with emails. They write in shorthand and with bastardized spelling. They don't seem to realise (and why should they, schools won't tell them) that good English is about TRUTH and ACCURACY. Teachers are too busy guiding pupils towards prescribed examination goals (minimum level literacy required) and pupils are too busy thumbing acronyms to each other.

I am not a teacher. But I have marked the work of undergraduates and seen the level of literacy of people who HAVE passed English A levels. Something must be done.

And I believe the answer lies in your question, Martin. Read. Just read and absorb, it is as simple as that. I don't believe there is a huge difference between people. I believe what little differences there are are accentuated by the cultural paths we take. I write half-decent English because I have had my head in a book for nearly forty years (I'll finish it one day. Ha Ha). That isn't talent, it's hard work. Now I know where apostrophes go and if I don't know how to spell something, I am at least aware of the fact.

Perhaps an early ability kickstarts the discipline to be able to embrace a skill. But the skills are there for all to learn.

Poetry, as opposed to literacy, is a more ephemeral beast. It often requires a subtlety of thought and an element of lateral thinking. Literacy will improve poetry, but it won't create poets. Those who can write poetry already may improve, but those who continually write rubbish but don't realise it (and are encouraged by cheering friends at incestuously self-regarding poetry events) won't even realise that they need to improve. There is nothing more depressing than the arrogance of the ignorant.

I think I might have gotten out of the wrong side of the bed this morning.....
Wed, 26 Nov 2008 11:10 am
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I can agree with you there and I have an opinion as to why literacy isn't seens as so important lately. I should warn people that this reason may seem offensive but is, as far as I'm concerned the truth.

Only 8 years ago when I was sitting my GCSE's spelling, grammar and punctuation was worth +/- 10% of your grade in most essay question exams.

Now if I go to 2 years ago when helping my sister learn for her GCSE's I was informed by my mother that spelling, grammar and punctuation wasn't important for my sister and she shouldn't worry because of learning difficulties.

And therin lies the problem. Learning difficulties are seen as a disability.....yet they ARE NOT!!!!!

I proved this, through hard work with my sister helping her to achieve grade far better than she was estimated to get.

Certain 'professional' bodies estimate that 10% of children have 'learning difficulties'. Now if they are being told that spelling, punctuation and grammer doesn't matter that's a significant portion of people who will come out of school using some excuse about why they didn't achieve their full potential.

Quite simply Siren, I know I can't draw a full comparision but I do believe that anything can be learnt, and that includes the ability to be creative. So I'm sorry I don't agree that poetry cannot be learnt. It can be learnt, the best just have to be willing to share their knowledge about why they are the best.
Wed, 26 Nov 2008 02:03 pm
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I'm not sure the 'sharing' of knowledge is the key here. The stuff is out there in libraries and even on the internet (though that knowledge should always be treated with caution. You might end up on this site taking advice from frauds like myself). Some people just don't want to learn. Why should they in this cut-and-paste world, where everything is just a click of a button away? There are more people who write poetry than people who read it. Modernism gave the (completely erroneous) impression that anyone can write poetry. Just like presenting an unmade bed as a great piece of art. If no-one bought Tracy Emin's stuff, she wouldn't bother doing it, and we'd all be slightly prouder about being British.
All art is good, in that it is an expression of humanity. Even bad art is good. In the end, it harms nobody. But it should be recognised for what it is, or we'll all just end up on next year's Poetry X Factor, with Carol Ann Duffy deciding who is shit and who isn't. The winner being published by Carcanet, the losers crying into their notebooks.
Wed, 26 Nov 2008 02:33 pm
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Maybe I didn't phrase my previous comment well. Some people can find it very hard to study from books and some need that face to face conversations and dialog to truly understand. I was merely trying to suggest an alternate way of learning.
Wed, 26 Nov 2008 03:55 pm
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I take your point. Workshops and the like. They may work very well for some, but I find that, despite their attempts at objectivity, most people who run workshops want you to write just like they do. I favour discussing poetry with friends over a pint, the occasional argument leading to fisticuffs, and forgetting what the hell it was you were saying the next morning. In other words a kind of looser, alcoholic workshop that is less hierarchical and more farcical.

The problem is this definition of good poetry. In any other art self-knowledge is easier to come by. If you only know three chords you will never imagine that you are Jimmy Page; if you paint in stick figures, you ain't Turner; but anyone who can throw a few words together in a vaguely cogent manner thinks they are the next Ezra Pound. That's because poetry is difficult; not just to create, but to understand. A five-year-old can appreciate that the Mona Lisa is great art and that Mozart created great music but, in a sense, good poetry can only really be read by competent poets. That why most poets don't read poetry.

Not being able to read books does not stop somebody writing great poetry, but it will never be literary poetry. It's like the difference between the Olympics and the Paralympics, if you want to get really offensive....
Wed, 26 Nov 2008 04:38 pm
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You'll have to come along to the next critque night at wirral words and see if it's more to your style.

But seriously I get what you are saying and I understand it for the same reason I hate, and I mean HATE, creative writing courses. It's just one person who thinks they know better because they may have been published. Which let's face it these days can be more about who you know or even just dumb luck! I mean heck I'd never take a course if JK Rowling or Dan Brown were teaching....heck I could reel off another dozen names of untalented writers who have made some money from being published.

I do still think though that it is a problem that needs to be faced, how does one react? Or rather how should one react when listening to awful work?
Wed, 26 Nov 2008 05:57 pm
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"Modernism gave the (completely erroneous) impression that anyone can write poetry."

Modernism (as anyone who's tried to read The Wasteland or The Cantos has found) did no such thing. If anything, the high Modernism of Eliot & Pound was meant to be more difficult, not less.

Lazy readings of the Beats might lead some to think that that kind of poetry is easy to do; but as anyone who's tried to emulate Ginsberg has found, it's a lot harder to do it well than it looks.

If anything, the worst poetry is the stuff that rhymes merely because that's the only thing they know that poetry does, or because that's what the poems they read at school did.
Tue, 2 Dec 2008 01:24 pm
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By the way, I'm not having a go at people who rhyme, it's merely to do with those poems where the only feature is that they rhyme. They tend also to rhyme badly.
Tue, 2 Dec 2008 01:56 pm
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I take and accept that point. From my perspective I have seen a good number of people writing poetry and starting off with rhyme because they believe that's the right way to go.
Tue, 2 Dec 2008 06:09 pm
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"Modernism gave the (completely erroneous) impression that anyone can write poetry."

By that statement, Steve, I meant to have a go at bad poets rather than Modernism itself. As I think I have said elsewhere, while I write generally in pre-Modernist styles, I accept what Modernism has done for poetry and all the arts (Multiple perspectives, use of contemporary language etc.) and its wholly welcome absorption into more traditional forms.
I fully agree with your point about Ginsberg. But you cannot deny that while there are plenty of bad rhymers out there, there are also plenty of people who misconstrue Modernist poetic forms and think that a series of random statements constitutes good poetry. You said as much yourself.
Good Imagist, Progressive, Abstract, Projectivist and Language poetry is as difficult to write as good rhyming poetry. The fact that it looks easier than trying to find a rhyme for 'pint' has led many minor poets to emulate these styles badly. No one form has more worth than another, it is how people engage with these forms that counts.
Tue, 2 Dec 2008 07:04 pm
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Well, yes, but I think the attitude goes back further than Modernism - to the idea of "first though best thought" which really originates with Romanticism. It's just that Modernism introduced the non-rhyming "modernist" bad poem into the mix. And yet that's not such a bad idea; a lot of dull poems are technically very polished, and a lot of really interesting poems are rough at the edges and not "finished."

Of course, Hazlitt (one of my heroes) introduced the idea that even the calls of a costermonger on the street can be "poetry", and I agree with him. But the obverse is that it leads to the idea that anyone can write and they don't have to put any effort or thinking to it (because it might spoil the inspiration!)
Wed, 3 Dec 2008 10:55 am
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Oh, by the way, Siren, I don't think you do write in a pre-Modernist style. Mainly because you're not a pre-Modernist. You may take some of your influences from pre-modernist writers (but then so did the Modernists); but I'm willing to bet that there's words and phrases that you use that wouldn't have been able to use in the pre-Modernist period (eg - This Be the Verse wouldn't have been possible without Modernism, even if its form is traditional.)
Wed, 3 Dec 2008 12:04 pm
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I've noticed that when listening to bad poetry I actually wince in a way that is clearly discernible from the expression on my face. It's pretty much a uncontrollable reflex reaction too.

When compering, I have been known (albeit very occasionally) to lampoon bad poets when introducing them (I get away with it because I introduce all of the acts by coming out with a set of scandalous lies about them that make them out to be dreadful poets or just bad people, regardless of their poetry).

My favourite one from several years ago was for a poet who had won a little bit of money in one competition and was terribly condescending and thought she was the next Byron because of it. The previous month (I had been in the audience) she had read out a ridiculously long and boring poem that relied solely on puns of Liverpool place names set out in rhyming couplets (and was cleared very proud of the idea and thought nobody else would have thought of it in a million years). So, I introduced her by saying "Last month, this next performer read a poem that incorporated puns derived from Liverpool place names - if I may: 'Wavertree, O' Wavertree, Wavertree at me will ye? Well wait 'til I get my Aintree! Aye, then we'll see' was sadly omitted from the poem".

Coming back to the purpose of this thread, the above are just two suggestions for what to do when listening to awful poetry.
Wed, 3 Dec 2008 12:55 pm
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Steven, you clearly haven't heard him - he does write in a pre-modernist style. Believe me, it's painful. Half the time it's like listening to Georgian pretty flowers in the spring poetry and the other half it's a John Donne the complete works redraft.
Wed, 3 Dec 2008 01:14 pm
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Hmmm, John Donne...

T.S.Elliot... famous modernist... wasn't he a fan of John Donne? And I think there's worse people to emulate...
Thu, 4 Dec 2008 09:18 pm
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I am a little disconcerted that the thread about bad poetry contains so much discussion about my work. Is their a link?

DG's got my number, I'm afraid. John Donne is an influence and I sometimes don't bother to update my diction from Enlightenment times. I suppose I take a perverse pleasure from people's (especially DG's) discomfort when listening to that sort of poetry. But perversely ploughing one's own track is not unknown in the poetry world is it, Steve?

Anyway, back to the matter at hand. My answer to bad poetry is already available on the net so I may as well reproduce it here. It is doesn't cover all crimes against poetry (or poetry performance) but I have seen a few people squirm in self-recognition when I have read it out at events (which I have done ad nauseum...).

Bad Poet’s Society

I’m a bad poet
I don’t have many uses
Before I even start
I’ve started making my excuses
‘This is work in progress
I haven’t thought it through
I can’t read my own writing’
(If only that were true)
‘I didn’t bring my folder
It would have made me late
This is a ‘found’ poem’
Put it back where you found it

I’m a bad poet
I’m the Chris de Burgh of rhyme
My free verse is even worse
Just prose with shorter lines
I’ve no respect for rhythm
For scanning or for metre
I’m far too daft to learn my craft
My poems tend to peter….out

I’m a bad poet
I’ve based my lifestyle on it
And every poem that speaks of love
I tend to call a sonnet
My favourite words are ‘destiny’
‘mountain’, ‘field’ and ‘ocean’
I hear curses when my verses
Smell like Andrew’s Motion

I’m a bad poet
It’s rubbish I’m espousing
The only Muse I’ll ever have
Will be a type of housing
But hang on just a minute
This verse is getting tighter
From where I’m stood, the line is good
The whole thing just feels righter
Maybe my Muse was sleeping
And something just awoke ‘er
Come with me, aspire to be
Not bad…..but mediocre
Thu, 4 Dec 2008 11:34 pm
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I don't know Siren, I'm not doing that myself...

I'm just following in that other tradition of English modernism that starts with Basil Bunting.

Ploughing your own track might be, I don't know, Stevie Smith? Rubbing people up the wrong way in poetry, though, I think Shakespeare probably started that. All the university wits of his day really resented his upstart grammar school provincial ways.

So (apart from the Uni education) you're in good company. Keep on trucking!
Fri, 5 Dec 2008 05:27 pm
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I kind of thought that mentioning John Donne in the context of someone being premodernist would be controversy-free. Evidently, I was wrong. Simply having a modernist like you stops you being premodern? Listen up, you people, I know I'm a logic-bore and that I keep annoying you all by living in the reality we've got, but surely this latest thing is a step too far!
Fri, 5 Dec 2008 07:30 pm
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I tend to be honest about what I have read certainly in discussion groups, in performance it is a very different ball game but I don't tend to be horrible with it at discussion groups! I've seen people do it (including lecturers I have had) which have put people off writing again... The point behind this kind off thing is to encourage people to keep writing and look at things from different angles not put them off altogether!
Sun, 7 Dec 2008 01:00 pm
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Okay so now what about written poetry, where you are asked to comment? So how honest should you be then? Is there any difference to reading and listening to poetry?

Personally, I welcome any critism because I believe it can help me understand what works and doesn't work and helps me to improve my work. However, I could easily understand how people can get offended if you were to just offer unsolicited advice.
Sun, 7 Dec 2008 02:37 pm
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If you are asked for an opinion - you should give it, but I agree with andy n that encouragement should be given. Criticism - even of excrutiatingly awful stuff, can be given without shooting the writer down in flames. And certainly shooting down a new writer, or perhaps someone who hasn't got the best grammar, spelling, whatever, just to show how very clever you are, is nothing short of bullying.
Personally - I would welcome any constructive crticism re technique, as much as those messages I have received touching on shared experience etc.
Sun, 7 Dec 2008 03:58 pm
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I have to pick up that point about spelling, grammar and punctuation there. With poetry that is read as opposed to heard you need good punctuation in order to understand where you should stop and breathe. It helps define a rhythm and help a reader ascertain the rhythm. I have read a good number of pieces that fall down simply because they do not make good use of punctuation and grammar. I don't necessarily think that pointing out errors or omissions in grammar and punctuation is showing how smart you are. Poetry does need these thing in order to make it readable.
Sun, 7 Dec 2008 06:08 pm
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I didn't mean to suggest that I don't find spelling, punctuation etc. important - on the contrary, and I absolutely agree with your point about punctuation being so important to the sense of the piece. The point I was trying (and it seems, failing) to make was .... there are some right clever dicks on 'ere, and I've bin lookin' at this site 4 a while - finkin' dare I post summit? .... or will I end up wiv me ego in lickle peeses on't floor?
I like people to be nice to each other!
Sun, 7 Dec 2008 09:20 pm
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Ah cjd, you'll be fine. There have been a few barbs on these threads but they have generally been between people who know each other. Or they have been responses to prior provocation. I haven't really seen anyone rip into an individual's work out of pure sadism, there has always been some 'history'.

And as for 'clever dicks'; where else have they to go other than poetry websites and the like? We live in one of the most anti-intellectual societies in the developed world and must take refuge where we can.
Sun, 7 Dec 2008 10:36 pm
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Yes, why is it that other countries seem to celebrate cleverness but in Britain you're likely to get beaten up, or at least teased, for it?
Sun, 7 Dec 2008 11:21 pm
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It is a sad state of affairs Re: intellegence, but I the sad thing is that support for intellegence has been damaged because the powers that be have made learning 'more accessible'. This of course is why we are in such a state, we make sure everyone has a chance at the expense of those who, with support could massively acheive. Of course the counter point of what about those who aren't supported is valid, and that's why our learning system will always penalise the more intellegent.
Mon, 8 Dec 2008 12:53 pm
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I think anti-intellectualism in this country goes back quite a long way. Being an island, traditionally we were cut off from advances in European philosophy and art. It worked the other way round also. It was Voltaire who finally translated Newton's works into French, many years after British scientists were already applying his principles.
The Brits like to see themselves as a functional, rational race. We distrust theoretical thought unless it can make money or advance science in a direct way.
I'm not sure there is a French word for 'arty-farty'.
Mon, 8 Dec 2008 03:22 pm
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"I'm not sure there is a French word for 'arty-farty'."

Just went on babelfish and after stretching the limits of the phrase 'arty-farty' and getting nothing in translation (You're quite right, Si. Well done) I decided to enter the following:

"artist wind"

It gave me:

"vent d'artiste"

A beautiful phrase, I'm sure you all agree. I'm certain there's an unwritten poem with that title lurking inside all of us. Awful or otherwise.

Special prize for the 1st person to post one!....

(I'm being anti-intellectual, aren't I?)
Wed, 10 Dec 2008 08:42 am
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"I'm not sure there is a French word for 'arty-farty'."

"vent d'artiste"? too flowery not to mention inaccurate - in the interests of pedants everywhere - maybe 'la caisse d'artiste'?
Caisse - slang for farts, though more frequently means cash desk or till. Easy to confuse the two.
(Pretentious?, moi?)


Wed, 10 Dec 2008 08:59 am
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Anti-intellectualism goes back at least as far as the 18th century - you can see it in right-wing magazines like Blackwoods and the Spectator right from their beginning. Intellectual was often associated with the French, although funnily enough, the early French liberal thinkers such as Diderot looked to Britain for awhile as a beacon of liberal thought! (We did produce such thinkers as Milton (400 years old next year!), for instance, who was known as much for his pampheteering as for his poetry.)
Wed, 10 Dec 2008 03:27 pm
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When Voltaire lived in England for a while in the mid-eighteenth century he was amazed by the intellectual, political and religious freedoms this country exhibited (as a deist, he was mightily impressed by the Quaker Movement). Much of this was down to our earlier release from the cultural and religio-political shackles of Roman Catholicism. Of course, liberalism is not the same as intellectualism. I think the anti-intellectualism in this country is mainly cultural and, as Steve rightly says, goes back a long way. Its the John Bull, Damn Frenchies, Roast Beef mentality. The strange thing is that while all this was going on, we led the world in scientific invention and political egalitarianism (in a relative sense, and not necessarily in our colonies). GB is a funny old place.
Fri, 12 Dec 2008 08:07 pm
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There wasn't all that much egalitarianism in England after the French Revolution either, Siren. We produced Tom Paine, but his book was banned in this country, and there were several very repressive laws brought in by the government of the time. People were regularly accused of "slandering the government", books were banned, and people with liberal ideas were persecuted.

Have you read any William Hazlitt? He's a brilliant liberal thinker of the Romantic period, curmudeonly but often very sharp.
Sun, 14 Dec 2008 03:59 pm
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Yes, I've read a lot of the prose written in the Romantic age, and I always found Hazlitt very witty and level-headed. His assessment of Coleridge's infuriating inability to settle down to one task was particularly illuminating. In fact his general descriptions of the poets of the time are fascinating. You get a real sense of these poets as people, and this informs the reading of their work.

It is certainly true that Britain (England, really) became more repressive after the French Revolution. The authorities were terrified of a repeat performance instigated by revolutionary poets and intellectuals. Hence Blake causing havoc walking around London wearing a Jacobin cap. If he hadn't been generally regarded as a loony he would probably have been arrested just for that single sartorial transgression.

Of course, just like John Lydon advertising butter, many of these 'revolutionaries' mellowed with age. A couple of them became Poet Laureates. Southey's sell out was probably the most spectacular.
Sun, 14 Dec 2008 05:15 pm
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I just think John Lydon has to pay the gas bill.

One of the things I like about Hazlitt was he never mellowed with age.
Mon, 15 Dec 2008 10:20 am
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What a fabulous hour this has been, reading and absorbing this lengthy, somewhat convoluted, discussion. I laughed out loud more than once ... better than a book. I wish I knew who you all were. Or perhaps I've seen you, and I'm not yet aware of your names. It does please me that I recognize persons who have made comments on my own work. Thank you.
Sat, 27 Jun 2009 04:39 pm
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