Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Neil Astley's Stanza lecture

I happened upon this reprint of Neil Astley's 2005 StAnza lecture, apparently part of a poetry festival/celebration at St. Andrews. As lectures go, it's marked by brevity and plain-spokenness. But that's part of his point & to do otherwise would be inviting more abuse than what he's probably already felt. It put me in a Foetry state of mind (one perspective on that American dis-ease here).

Astley's main thrust is twofold: one, the UK "poetry police" headed up by critic Robert Potts & his buddies, is an elitist, white male enclave. He quotes Peter Forbes for detail:
PETER FORBES Forbes noted in one of his last Poetry Review editorials: 'Poetry, ostensibly a liberal art, is actually one of the strongest remaining bastions of pre-literate tribalism. Gangs form as readily as in any deprived ghetto and the patterns of bonding rituals, territorial marking, hysterical crowd behaviour, collective log-rolling and hatchet-work, are worth the attention of the anthropologists' (90 no.4, Winter 2000/01).

Astley goes on to say that the poetry police, being white male intellectuals, routinely keep out minorities of color, women and new writers whose writing falls into one of the rejected categories of the critics, i.e., it is emotional, or it has a mystical air or its content appeals to the proletariat.

This leads him to his other point:
In the poetry world, readers are almost always ignored, and I think it's important that they should have a voice.

Astley, who has compiled two popular anthologies, both of which were bludgeoned by the poetry police, doesn't bother to hide this information, and pushes it forward to some degree as justification for his overall disgust with these patrollers of fine taste. His web-published lecture withheld one portion due to legal reasons, so I'm tempted to guess Astley was grinding that (blood)axe hard.
Too many poetry reviews in national newspapers are written by poets or critics who don't review the books for the reader of the newspaper but discuss their content in minute and acutely critical detail in terms which are only comprehensible or of interest to academics or other poets.

Now, I've read this kind of convoluted minutiae and I was so befuddled that I wondered if I'd left my IQ on the stairwell. These reviews says Astley: "...don't fire up the reader's interest in the poetry because neither the reviewer's prose nor the quoted excerpts make much sense." Right on. As in what the hell did he just say? By the way, a favorable review of one Astley anthology (Staying Alive) by John Sears is alive & well on the web here.

As a contrast to all this intellectualization, Astley notes this about other genre:
Newspaper readers are offered illuminating and lively reviews of new fiction, biography, non-fiction and all the other kinds of books, but with poetry they get this offputting, leaden critical prose, giving the false impression that contemporary poetry is just as dull and incomprehensible.
Just a few weeks ago, The Guardian published the responses of 11 poets to Astley's lecture. A link to his lecture was included as well as a feature article by Robert Potts.

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