2007 - 2021

Noble Poets

The poetry world is having a meltdown [if you don’t care just to let you know that I don’t care that you don’t care, so save us both somme time and don’t leave me a comment saying you don’t care] – after a ‘review’ in the poetry journal PN Review by Rebecca Watts published a takedown of Hollie McNish and the spoken-word poetry scene (‘The Curse of the Noble Amateur‘).

It raises all sorts of questions about populism, art, criticism, gender, technology, elitism, and, I suppose, poetry.

Here’s Holly’s response to what one reader called the “breathtakingly rude/pearl-clutching review”.

If you haven’t come across any of these poets before – here’s an example each of McNish, Tempest and Kaur’s work …

Holly McNish’s Embarrassed

Read more here.


Kate Tempest’s Europe is Lost

Read more here.


Rupi Kaur reads from Milk and Honey

Read more here.


Comments (10)

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  1. David Rushton says:

    Holly McNish – brilliant, brilliant!!

  2. david says:

    Eh, I thought we had this conversation already? And when Tom Leonard said that “all living language is sacred” it was over? Did I miss something?

  3. Doghouse Rielly says:

    Somewhat to my surprise, I care.

    But then I think it’s been all down hill since Larkin abandoned punctuation.

    Is this art’s first digital disruptor? Both subverting and dramatically expanding the host art form?

    Either way the repost has more than a few moments of real quality. I’m looking forward to the short story about slugs and she deals with the Schopenhauer and Hegel reference brilliantly. (In my opinion at least)

    Facinating stuff, thank you.

  4. Andy Thornton says:

    While the tone of Ms Watts’ article might be criticised, I don’t think that should distract from some of her valid comments. Modern technology allows creatives in all fields the ability to self-promote to an extent never before possible. In the same way as someone can buy a digital camera, devise their own website and upload their work for sale, so can writers promote themselves – but it doesn’t mean that either are producing work of any real enduring quality. I can buy a van, sign write my name and telephone number on the side followed by the word “joiner” in big letters. It doesn’t guarantee you’ll get a skilled job when I come to fit out your kitchen.
    Since the 50s’ and 60s’ performance poetry has been a mixed bag. While it can be vibrant, and engaging and can introduce poetry to some who might otherwise not be interested, it is the immediacy, but short-term life of the presentation that is to the fore. Ultimately though, the “poetry” is the words that end up on the page – whether that be a paper page or a digital page.
    And on that basis, much of Rebecca Watts criticism of the quality, I believe, is valid.
    The “language of the streets”, honesty, telling it like it is – don’t necessarily produce good poetry.
    I think we might be wise to guard against an unwillingness to be critical simply because a piece of work is presented with sincerity.

  5. Fionnghal says:

    An Embarrassed aig Holly. Dìreach mìorbhaileach!

  6. Redgauntlet says:

    I think Rebecca Watt’s searing article is highly convincing.

    It’s a terrific piece of critique of not just poetry, but of our time in general. A terrific read. Thanks for the heads up Bella.

    “When did honesty become a requirement – let alone the main requirement -of poetry?”.

    Absolutely right, Rebecca.

    Honesty is completely irrelevant to aesthetics – at least in the literal sense. Writers and poets are liars for a living… when they write about being in love with someone, they probably aren’t.

    Which takes us back to Liz Lochhead and her reading of Burns’s letters. Burns is born mythomaniac.

    You can’t take everything he ever wrote in a literal sense. That’s to completely misunderstand the act of writing…

  7. Janine Nighntein-Aytee-Too says:

    “Honesty is completely irrelevant to aesthetics”: bullshit. Or more precisely: to whose definition of aesthetics? It would be great to hear Jenny Lindsay, who was (or is?) Bella Caledonia’s poetry editor, or Kathleen Jamie, or Melanie Abrahams or Kevin Williamson giving their views on this debate. The comments above are so sadly male-dominated. And, as Mike correctly identifies, gender is central to the controversy: it is difficult to imagine any commercially successful male poet or spoken-word artist being savaged to the extent that Rebecca Watts has savaged Holly McNish and Kate Tempest—and their work.@Redgauntlet: what is experienced as Sylvia Plath’s emotional honesty is central to understanding the size of her appeal to readers over the decades. I contend that the same holds for what readers experience as Emily Dickinson’s “honesty” regarding that poets representations of her spiritual endeavors. Hollie McNish’s poem “Embarrassed” (above) is a convincingly honest account of a young mum being made to feel bad by backward attitudes to breastfeeding in public in the UK—and the same mum taking a stand against that repression. McNish’s need to simply state that there are sexualized tits (McNish’s word-choice) everywhere you look, but people make a fuss when mums’ breast feed, should be read as a judgement on the poverty of UK culture—not of McNish’s poetry.
    That said, I agree with a lot in Watts’ article. The constant focus on “accessibility” as a virtue in the arts is hypocritical. What do people really mean who champion accessibility? Do they imagine people start by reading McNish and then move onto reading and accessing better poetry? Does that happen a lot? Finally, I think Watts is wrong and deliberately malicious in attempting to stigmatize Kate Tempest’s poetry by associating it with McNish’s. The work of the two poets is very different.

    1. Kevin Williamson says:

      Hi Janine. I’ve read and followed all the arguments over the last week or so. Hollie is a friend and we work together often through Neu! Reekie! When the row was raging last week we were both in Dublin performing at the same event. So from a personal viewpoint I’m obviously biased towards Hollie. That said I dont think what Rebecca Watts wrote was very helpful. She failed to differentiate between live spoken word poetry and poetry that is published in print to be read rather than listened to. The two often overlap but they dont have to. These are two approaches to poetry and language and are judged or appreciated by differing criteria. Spoken word needs an immediacy and can uses rhetoric and rhyme in ways that page poetry may not need. Poetry on the page is an artform that includes ways of writing that may not engage a live audience to the same degree. Most people engage with poetry on the page, one to one, and there are ways of writing that work and others that don’t. For instance manipulation of syntax to make language original and fresh to ear and eye and brain. Poetry should be big enough and diverse enough to cater for both and everything in between. Rebecca for her part had no coherent critique of spoken word poetry and seemed dismissive and snobby about its value. Yet anyone who has seen Kate Tempest or Hollie McNish in action will know just how powerful their work is and how deeply it connects with its intended audience. This audience is huge in poetry terms. Hollie and Kate should be acknowledged as fantastic ambassadors for the art of poetry IMO. They’re winning poetry a new audience. That counts big style in my book. By similar measure to have an Oxbridge-educated woman in her 30s attack the poetry of Rupi Kaur is ridiculous. Kaur’s audience tends predominantly to be young women, often in their teens. That’s a bit like me rubbishing the music of, say, Justin Bieber, because he’s no Mark E Smith. Utterly pointless and cringeworthy, unless you hold young people in disdain and want everyone to know it. I tend to be a bit spiky towards anything that smacks of elitism. But at the same time a good old meeja stooshie doesnt do much harm. If it gets folk thinking and talking and about poetry fair dos. Job done. Kevin

  8. Robert says:

    Well at least it’s nice to know we live in times when rows about poetry can still make the headlines.

    Having read Rebecca Watts’ ‘non-review’ and Hollie McNish’s rebuttal, it seems to me that Watts is barking up the wrong tree.

    However bad you think McNish’s (or Tempest’s, or Kaur’s) poetry might be, it’s not fair to criticise them for writing it. I think we can assume in good faith that they are writing the best poetry they’re capable of: you’d have to be a really twisted individual to deliberately write bad poetry (satirical bad poetry is another thing, E J Thribb in Private Eye, for example).

    Even terrible poets have the right to free expression and it’s mean-spirited to deny them this. Some terrible poets even become treasured for their awful verse (William McGonagall being the most famous example I can think of).

    And if terrible poets sell lots of copies, well, there are a number of possible reasons for that. Perhaps most people aren’t given enough of a grounding in good poetry to distinguish between good and bad — or perhaps most “proper” poetry is not actually that good, either, so bad and accessible verse is more popular than bad and obscure verse.

    Really, if Watts thinks these poets aren’t deserving of the fame they have accrued, it’s not the poets themselves who should be the targets of her ire, but the poetry establishment that showers them with awards (presumably in an effort to make poetry more “relevant”).

    I have absolutely no idea what the Ted Hughes award is or how it is awarded, but if Watts thinks Hollie McNish’s poetry is as terrible as all that then it is the curators of that award (and others) who should be hauled over the coals, not Hollie herself.

    As for myself, all I can say for sure about poetry is that either it speaks to you or it doesn’t. Anything else is just noise.

  9. Jo says:

    I’m not familiar with Hollie’s writing but I checked out this “non-review” via the link.

    My gut feeling as I read on, and on, was that Hollie should have simply let Watts’ at times vicious comments go right over her and ignore them. I’m sure criticism is important but this sort of stuff isn’t. It deserves no attention at all. As I read more of Hollie’s own responses to Watts’ barbed claims she sounded as if she was seeking to explain and justify her writing. She doesn’t have to do that. Watts isn’t entitled to any such courtesy!

    Let her hing as she grows Hollie! She’s not worth it and don’t allow her or anyone like her to do this to you again.

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