(Carl Spitzweg, De Arme Poet [The Poor Poet], 1839, oil on canvas; Neue Pinakothek; found here)
I’ve deleted the post I originally wrote here. It was a long-winded and dull answer to Rebecca Watts’s article in PN Review entitled ‘The Cult of the Noble Amateur’ criticising the work of three poets, most particularly Hollie McNish; you can read more about it in the Guardian. Since writing my post, I saw better arguments elsewhere, such as this and this slightly barbed riposte by Don Paterson. I should just add here that I thought Watts had every right to write her piece and to review Hollie McNish’s poetry. However, I disliked the personal tone of her attack (ironic as she was complaining about the cult of personality), and her failure to interrogate her own standards and even try to engage with McNish’s aims. I also thought that greeting the work of three poets as being the advent of the Poetry Apocalypse was ridiculous.
Instead I want to pick up the point that I was reaching at the end of the first version of this. Watts had a clearly defined set of criteria of what a poem (and, less defensibly, what a poet) should be. She measured McNish’s poetry against these criteria and found it wanting. That approach is not always the best way to read literature, I find. Usually you have to take work on its own terms – usually it tells you how to read it, if you’re paying attention. But that’s not always the case and anyway, it’s not easy to do.
I’m reading Edmund Gordon’s stellar biography of Angela Carter at the moment. In it, he records the reactions of many critics to Carter’s work as it was published. Irrespective of whether they like the books or not, some critics are more sensitive to what Carter was trying to do than others. But how do you judge something like The Passion of New Eve when you’ve never encountered anything like it before? If you do not understand the writer’s purpose, is that your failure or hers?
What I am thinking about here is how ‘wrong’ Watts and some of Carter’s critics are in applying existing standards to work which challenges those standards. Must we change our ideas of literature every time we open a book? I am inclined to say that yes, we should. But all of them? Is that realistic? And how then do we define what is ‘good’ and what is not if we do not have consistent standards? Is it possible to separate ‘good literature’ from ‘I liked this book’? I wibble around this subject; what do you think?