Poetry News

New Essay at PN Review Indicts an Establishment That Embraces the Popular

By Harriet Staff
Hollie McNish

U.K. writer Rebecca Watts rethinks concepts of honesty and accessibility in poems by the likes of YouTube sensations (and commercial sensations) Rupi Kaur, Lang Leav, Kate Tempest, and Hollie McNish. "The Cult of the Noble Amateur" is in the new issue (239) of PN Review. "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 Guardian's Alison Flood and Sian Caine reflect on the piece, noting that the poetry world is "split" in its reaction: 

The essay in PN Review has split the poetry establishment, with some praising it as “stonking stuff” and “brilliant”. PN Review editor Michael Schmidt showed the Guardian 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’,” Schmidt said.

Other responses to Watts’s essay have been scathing; including from McNish herself, who hit back on her website on Monday: “A clever retort using high-register vocabulary is fine, but really it is simply saying that the author thinks I’m a shit poet and fucking stupid, too, and that Picador should not be publishing shite like mine. So why not just bite the bullet and say that.”

More from Watts:

Perhaps because poetry is taken to be the loftiest of the literary arts it is the most susceptible to invasion by those intent on bringing down all barriers on the grounds of fairness. McNish is one such warrior. In her commentary on ‘Politicians’ she claims that her mother’s warning ‘not to become an inverted snob’ is ‘one of the most important and difficult lessons I’ve tried to learn’. Her poem ‘Aspiration’ (subtitled ‘After watching Grand Designs on telly for the last time’) is revealing in this regard. After stereotyping those with ‘highly paid jobs’ and ‘workmen’ equally (she’s nothing if not egalitarian in her refusal to engage thoughtfully with others’ experiences), she compares the Grand Designers ‘sarah’ and ‘tim’ (or ‘jim’ – his name inexplicably changes halfway through), who ‘nibble on nuts from a vintage glass ashtray’, with herself ‘nibbl[ing] on nuts eaten straight from the packet’: 

and i think how those nuts might taste from a bowl 
on a dining-room table carved straight out of a tree […] 

and then i get bored of this dream 
and i realise i do not like tim 
and that soon enough 
we die 

It’s not clear what’s stopping McNish from putting her nuts in a bowl. But having set out to lampoon the paraphernalia of an upper-middle-class lifestyle, she concludes with the nihilistic flourish that any aspiration or application of effort is futile. 

Whether socially or as a writer, admitting pride in an attitude of slobbishness is a way of shielding oneself against criticism or condescension. Yet McNish needn’t worry. The middle-aged, middle-class reviewing sector is terrified of being seen to disparage the output of young, self-styled ‘working-class’ artists. In fact, it is terrified of being seen to criticise the output of anyone it imagines is speaking on behalf of a group traditionally under-represented in the arts. Time and time again, the arts media subordinates the work – in many cases excellent and original work – in favour of focusing on its creator. Technical and intellectual accomplishments are as nothing compared with the ‘achievement’ of being considered representative of a group identity that the establishment can fetishise. 

The full essay is at PN Review.

Originally Published: January 24th, 2018