Magazine pours bucket of 'literary criticism' over award-winning Hollie McNish
Performance poetry/spoken word versus page poetry? Isn’t it a debate that has been put to bed, particularly with performers Kate Tempest and Hollie McNish winning the Ted Hughes award for innovation in poetry in recent years? Not so, apparently.
In an article which she describes as an essay that is headed “The Cult of the Noble Amateur” in the current edition of the prestigious poetry magazine PN Review, poet and Cambridge graduate Rebecca Watts begins by asking: “Why is the poetry world pretending that poetry is not an art form? I refer to the rise of a cohort of young female poets who are currently being lauded by the poetic establishment for their ‘honesty’ and ‘accessibility’ – buzzwords for the open denigration of intellectual engagement and rejection of craft that characterises their work.”
So far, so provocative. She goes on to talk about the recent big rise in poetry sales and the staggering success that originated on Instagram of American poet Rupi Kaur; the success of her book Milk and Honey has had a lot to do with the upsurge. Watts says: “Though their reach is nowhere near Kaur’s in terms of absolute sales figures, Kate Tempest and Hollie McNish are her 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, before being picked up in print by Picador. Both have received the Ted Hughes award for new work in poetry. Through them, the establishment – by which I mean its publishers, editors, reviewers and awards administrators – demonstrates its belief that poetry must adapt to changes in the way people engage with literary output. 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’.”
A long extract of this article has been published by PN Review on their website, where they advertise it as their “featured article”. It has, as you might imagine, been doing the rounds on Facebook, and has been reported in the Guardian as well.
Watts - pictured at the Aldeburgh poetry festival in 2015 - asks: “What good is a flourishing poetry market, if what we read in poetry books renders us more confused, less appreciative of nuance, less able to engage with ideas, more indignant about the things that annoy us, and more resentful of others who appear to be different from us? The ability to draw a crowd, attract an audience or assemble a mob does not itself render a thing intrinsically good: witness Donald Trump. Like the new president, the new poets are products of a cult of personality, which demands from its heroes only that they be ‘honest’ and ‘accessible’, where honesty is defined as the constant expression of what one feels, and accessibility means the complete rejection of complexity, subtlety, eloquence and the aspiration to do anything well.”
The essay then gets, well, a bit more personal. In talking about Hollie McNish’s latest book Plum, issued by leading publisher Picador, Watts says: “I was supposed to be reviewing it, but to do so for a poetry journal would imply that it deserves to be taken seriously as poetry. Besides, I was too distracted by the pathological attitude of its faux-naïve author, and too offended by its editor’s exemplary bad faith, to ignore the broader questions it provokes.”
She goes on to talk about hearing McNish speak at Aldeburgh in 2015 – a section of her essay that I found particularly interesting, because I attended the same panel discussion. Watts says: “In 2015 I heard McNish speak on a panel at the Aldeburgh poetry festival, where she was also a main performer. Two things she said struck me then as bizarre, both in themselves and for the fact that she chose to admit them publicly. The first was that her publisher (presumably by then Picador) had sent her a pile of books to read, because they thought she hadn’t read enough poetry. The second was that the poems she was writing presently were the same as the poems she had written in her childhood diaries.”
When I said the essay gets personal, this is the kind of thing I mean: phrases like “McNish’s slapdash assembly of words (‘scribbled in confused moments’, as she says in the acknowledgements) celebrates the complete stagnation of the poet’s mind … If this feeble attempt to convince the reader that McNish’s infantile outbursts carry some philosophical significance seems preposterous, the use of parentheses to shield the terms from scrutiny is plain insulting – defensive and pretentious, meaningless and attention-seeking all at once … In a sense it is unfair of me to single out this poem, because it’s the one in which McNish most obviously attempts to be poetic. Certainly it’s a departure from her usual style of garbled literal statements with the odd approximate rhyme thrown in. Did she actually read some of those books her publisher sent, notice that other people’s poems contain imagery and metaphor, and decide to give these a go?”
You could argue that this is selecting quotes out of context – I would argue that they fairly reflect the overall tone of the essay – but read the whole extract online for yourself. As the PN Review website proclaims, it is their most popular read at the moment.
This week poet and Cambridge graduate Hollie McNish used her own website to issue a long, point-by-point response. Again, you should read it in full, and make up your own mind. Introducing her detailed comments, she says: “I normally post links if people write nice things about my poems, so I think it’s only right to post the absolute reverse as well. I’ve had my share of hate – both aimed at my writing and also just at me as a person or my face or my voice and accent or whatever.
“I am fine that many people dislike my poems – of course they do – I dislike a lot of them. I normally don’t reply to these sorts of articles, because I am happy to have my writing critiqued in any way. But when something like this is printed in a very prestigious literary magazine which goes further than any writing critique to make assumptions about my (lack of) education, my love (or not) of language and my personality, as well as patronising and insulting a whole swarm of other writers who I love and admire and who I know love poetry as much as anyone, I feel it’s nice to be able to reply.”
Here are a flavour of her comments. McNish accuses Watts of “badly researched and … very patronising guesswork” … about herself and Kate Tempest, and talks about her education at Cambridge: “I was at Cambridge but I didn’t study English and I haven’t read a lot of poetry. I never chose the poetry modules because I didn’t want to study poetry more than I wanted to study philosophy, politics, Latin American cinema and translation, which were the topics I mainly went after. I have therefore not learnt in this way how to write poems. I just wrote.”
She adds: “I need to stand up for my writing. I have never done this before. I don’t ‘throw in rhymes’. I have written in rhyming couplets since I was little because the children’s poetry I grew up on and loved, which was mainly written in rhyming couplets. I have written all of my diaries in, mainly rhyming couplets, since I was about 10 and now it is just how I write. I find it hard not to. As a teenager I loved printing out song lyrics and analysing them and re-writing them as a kind of geeky game. Again, they rhymed, so again I was writing using rhyme.”
Talking of the book list that her publisher sent her – that she revealed at Aldeburgh in 2015 – she says: “I asked for poetry books to read when putting together and editing this collection [Plum] because, like the author, I am aware I am not very educated in poetry. So I asked for poetry books that I might learn from for this fourth collection. Wanting to learn I think is a good thing. And I did read them. I read them and I enjoyed some and I think I soaked up some more knowledge about writing, as you do every time you read. But I also realised that these poems were not me, and that I did not want to try to copy poetry which was written from a very different place. I read them and I thought finally – it’s ok to not know all these linguistic techniques and how to subvert them in your work and maybe I’ll slowly learn more and more as I keep reading and writing but for now, work on this collection. I also read those books with a lot of admiration – the metaphors and imagery that I’m aware I don’t write with, as you kindly point out. I learnt that I don’t like capitalisation very much from Emily Dickinson and I did copy that.”
The Guardian has reported that PN Review’s editor, Michael Schmidt, pictured, showed the newspaper some of the many supportive responses to Watts’s essay the journal had received. “Many of our readers seem relieved that literary criticism is at last being applied to writing that has, hitherto, been welcomed with open arms by journalists because it is easy to read, contains few challenges … to insist that it can stand on a sure footing beside poetry in what I have now too often seen described as ‘dusty old books’,” he said.
Schmdidt is also the founder and managing director of Manchester-based publishers Carcanet Press. Carcanet said on Twitter: "As editor, Michael Schmidt commissioned Rebecca Watts to write her essay. He approves the essay and stands by what Rebecca has written."
Maybe some do see Watts’ essay as someone calling attention to what they perceive as the minimalist nature of the emperor’s new clothes. But is this really literary criticism – or something else altogether? Something is happening here, and you don't know what it is - do you, Mr Schmidt? As someone might have said.
As Write Out Loud’s news editor I would normally present this story as two contrasting views, and leave readers to judge for themselves. You must still do that, of course. But I would like to add one or two points of my own, and that is why I have, unusually, added my name to this news story.
Reading this essay, I was taken aback by the language used to discuss McNish’s poetry, even though I am not suggesting that words like “infantile”, “garbled”, “slapdash”, “scribbled” and “confused” have never before appeared in “academic” works. There are rather a lot of them in this case, that’s all.
I was reminded of the celebrated poetry editor and anthology compiler Neil Astley at Bloodaxe, who says in the introduction to his popular anthology Being Alive that his own journey “into modern poetry began in the 60s with the Liverpool Poets’ Mersey Sound”, which he described as “the magic bus which opened my minds to thousands of other poets”. In their day those poets – Adrian Henri, Roger McGough, and Brian Patten – were sneered at by some critics as “writing for the great unwashed” … and described as “three parts of a pantomime horse”.
Are there class undertones in this essay, too? McNish may have gone to Cambridge university, but she does not speak with a middle-class accent. Is that a problem with some people? I’ve met Hollie McNish briefly a couple of times at poetry festivals, and on each occasion found her modest and engaging. Her poetry performances are powerful and compelling and her words are clearly crafted, whatever she or anyone else says. As I said earlier, I was in the audience at the Aldeburgh panel discussion, too, and you can read my report on it here.
For me at the time McNish’s most interesting question was “Is rhyme a dirty word?” It’s certainly a word that is often used to describe and simplify a difference between spoken word and page poetry. Poetry fashion goes in circles, and we will undoubtedly return to rhyme at some point – we may be doing so already. Does PN Review fear being left stranded by the tide?
Write Out Loud began by championing grassroots open mic poetry nights, as we still do – yes, “The Cult of the Noble Amateur”, if you like - and performance poetry, the kind of poetry that can resonate across the world. Remember when Tony Walsh delivered his poem ‘This is The Place’ at the vigil for victims of the Manchester Arena bombing last year? But these days we recognise that it’s not performance poetry versus page poetry – we want to champion it all. It’s a pity that others don’t see it the same way.