Thursday, 13 January 2011

The poetry mainstream

This note was triggered by some recent comments (noted below) about the alleged mainstream/non-mainstream rift and how to deal with such perceptions. It's an issue that frequently arises in discussions. Even if one doesn't believe that there's a rift, it's advantageous to appreciate the viewpoint of people who do, especially if you're running workshops.


Using the term "mainstream" is asking for trouble. Some people think it's not useful, challenging with borderline cases - "Is X mainstream? Is Y mainstream?". Others think that the term's used by people who like pigeon-holing, marginalising or labelling in an anal-retentive, simplistic way.

I think it's a convenient short-hand that even the detractors end up using. It may be less helpful in the USA than the UK because in the USA mainstream poetry is a smaller proportion of serious poetry than it is in the UK. It doesn't have a firm definition (nor does "raw/cooked", "hard-edged/soft-edged", "poetry/prose", etc). Some poems are clearly mainstream, some are clearly non-mainstream, and few people argue when extreme examples are categorised.

Mainstream poems tend to have certain characteristics, some of which non-mainstream poems lack, and vice versa. An alternative formulation is that a mainstream poem is one that benefits from a set of skills similar to that used with non-literary texts.


Words summon contexts which in turn affect interpretation of the words. Hearing "bishop" I might load in the context of Chess or of Religion. But also I load in a set of interpretative tools appropriate to the task. We become used to employing different sets of skills for different types of text. Poetry and prose typically use different (though overlapping) skill sets. So do different types of poetry.

Carrie Etter wrote
Describing and classifying poetry I've noticed that a couple commentators on "The Tethers", knowing of my "experimental work," seem to struggle with TT's "mainstream" qualities, but where they see a vast difference between the two areas, I see continuities, a spectrum
. As far as the arrangement of skills is concerned I think a spectrum isn't the best analogy. Mainstream and non-mainstream works share some effects (alliteration, for example) more than others (e.g. fragmentation). The effects tend to cluster, so meter is likely to be associated with rhyme and paraphrasable meaning (because these features are often found together in people's experience of poems). I think the struggle that Etter's readers mention might be because the skills required don't all come from a standard skill set.

On Etter's blog Christodoulos Makris wrote
"There's comfort in labelling. It's also easier to "sell" or "understand" a writer or artist if s/he can be bundled into a category". I agree, but I don't see a problem with that; it's how perception works. If one needs to use a collection of reading strategies that you've not used together before it's like tackling a multi-disciplinary work.

Steve Waling wrote
"I wonder what it is, though, that sees some people reading nonmainstream poetry and seeing only confusion, while others 'get it' (whatever 'it' is) almost immediately". Some factors are

  • Innate predispositions - Numerous perception and processing problems that are masked during normal reading may become exposed when reading poetry. As analogies, consider some visual disorders - "Simultanagnosia" (Seeing only one object at a time); "Integrative agnosia" (Inability to recognise whole objects, tending to focus instead on individual features of an object); "Pure alexia" (Inability to identify individual characters or read text); "Colour agnosia" (Ability to perceive colours without being able to identify, name or group them according to similarity).
  • Beliefs and Interests - How much can an atheist appreciate religious poetry? Survivor poetry, Gay poetry, Football poetry, etc are not to everybody's taste, especially if the reader seeks identification with the persona.
  • Education and expectation - Readers might have expectations regarding "understanding" that aren't appropriate to all poems. If they expect poems to communicate a message strongly and clearly, they might well be disappointed, especially if the message isn't spelt out for them in the final line or couplet.

The rest of this note suggests ways to reduce the differences between the two types of readers.

How the two sides view each other

When meeting those from other arts are you ever embarrassed by poetry's mainstream - its readers and writers? Do these quotes sound fair?

  • "The fact is that the British poetry scene is reactionary, nostalgic and prejudiced. The reputations of many of its star turns depend on an exclusivity that maintains an embargo on true diversity. Experimentalism is beyond the pale, as is pretty much anything that amounts to a conviction", Gregory Woods, Magma, Autumn 2003
  • "Those who are not very concerned with art want poems or pictures to record for them something they already know - as one might want a picture of a place he loves", George Oppen, "An Adequate Vision: A George Oppen Daybook", ed Davidson, IR 26:5-31, p.29.
  • "Poems very seldom consist of poetry and nothing else; and pleasure can be derived also from their other ingredients. I am convinced that most readers, when they think they are admiring poetry, are deceived by inability to analyse their sensations, and that they are really admiring, not the poetry of the passage before them, but something else in it, which they like better than poetry", A.E. Housman, "The Name and Nature of Poetry" (lecture), 1933.
  • "The public, as a whole, does not demand or appreciate the pure expression of beauty. Its cultured members expect to find in poetry, if anything, repose from material and nervous anxiety; an apt or chiselled phrase strokes the appetites and tickles the imagination. The more general public merely enjoys its platitudes and truisms jerked on to the understanding in line and rhyme; truth put into metre sounds overwhelmingly true", Harold Monro, "The Future of Poetry", Poetry Review, January 1912
  • Steve Waling suggested that "[the non-mainstreamer] says ... "I'm better than you," at the unsophisticated reader of mainstream poetry, who is presumed to be less intelligent, lazy or, even worse, terribly bourgeois and accepting of the comfortable status quo. Instead of being made to think viz a viz language and meaning creation, instead of seeing how meaning is a social product etc etc... they prefer a slice of 'social realism lite', the comforting feeling of being given an insight into the human condition that isn't too different from other very similar insights, an over-described slice of life etc etc..."

Mainstreamers criticise non-mainstreamers.

  • In Staple 63, C.J.Allen points out that when mainstream readers read Ashbery, they find that "everything they're used to in a poem is left out - the meaning, the music, the sense of resolution and so on. But, for [Ashbery's] admirers, what he'd left out were the tired poetic conventions, the dull patter, the stale, confessional voice full of highfalutin metaphor".
  • Mainstream readers when faced with non-mainstream work often mention the emporer's new clothes. Look long enough at anything and you'll eventually see something of interest (after all, it's hard to admit to yourself that you've wasted so much time). The poets are autistic, over-intellectual, lacking in empathy.
  • Steve Waling suggested that "the non-mainstreamer tells us things about language that we already know, doesn't he/she? Don't we all know about the way language is manipulated by adevertising/capitalism/etc etc and isn't it just a bit boring? And why don't they make some concession to ordinary readers, instead of using all these jump-cuts and juxtapositions etc etc?"

Widening the mainstream

How does one offer new directions to mainstream reader? Giving them theory (even in watered down forms) is unlikely to get them moving. Is there a gentle path to enlightenment or is shock therapy the only way? Whatever the pros/cons of non-mainstream poetry I think mainstream readers can benefit from questioning their tastes, which may initially require a devaluing of what they like before they can acquire new tastes. So I'd say start with the stick - it's more likely to provoke action - then thump them with some carrots.

Sticks for mainstreamers

If they like rhyme, or confessional poetry, encourage them to say why, then challenge them, using quotes from famous (preferably ancient) people. Or one can query more generally the source of their tastes, and how conditioned they are. Non-victimising ways of doing this involve

  • Relativism - if we're not conditioned then how come tastes in other times/places are often different?
  • Analysis of environment - "There's no such thing as society" said Thatcher, but what about the Poetry World? What's it made of? Who decides what "Poetry" and "Good Poetry" are? What influences our tastes?
  • Other arts - The changes in visual arts over the years might provide useful analogies. If fidelity is the reader's touchstone then presumably they dislike Constable and prefer the hyper-realists. If they say they like van Gogh, try to transfer that aesthetic approach into literature.

If people can handle a discussion about "What is Beauty" so much the better. Is beauty "Eternal"? What are the differences between Beauty Competitions and Poetry Competitions?

Common conceptual stumbling blocks include

  • Subject Matter - Avant-garde poems are less likely to be anecdotal, about people, or about one thing. They may try to shock or borrow material from non-art contexts.
  • Unity/Completion - Avant-garde poems have more gaps, and changes in style. They may have several "centres". The beginning or the end might be missing. The piece might not be held together by a voice. It might look more like a draft/sketch than the finished article
  • Language - One's more likely to notice the words in avant-garde poems, and they won't necessarily be in sentences
  • Narrative - With Avant-garde poems readers may not be able to accumulate meaning sequentially, clause by clause. "modern poetry asks its readers to suspend the process of individual reference temporarily until the entire pattern of internal references can be apprehended as a unity", J. Frank,"Spatial Form in Narrative"

You need to have at your disposal some arguments (devil's advocate or otherwise) against some traditional poetry assumptions

  • Beautiful art needn't depict beautiful people, happy events or even possible events
  • Beautiful things needn't have beautiful components - medieval religious art used gold-leaf, some poems use "rainbow" and "gossamer"
  • Poetry doesn't have to rhyme - see "this poem doesn't rhyme", G. Benson (ed), Viking, 1990. (a collection for children)
  • Poetry can be about things and ideas, not just about people falling in love and dying.
  • Beautiful things need not be hard to produce

If they're still resisting, look at corruption or back-scratching within the Poetry Establishment. Look at who puts anthologies together and who's left out. Look at the work of those who claim to write Real Poetry. Somehow try to unsettle them.

Carrots for mainstreamers

Once you've chipped away at preconceptions it would be useful to be able to suggest transitional poets; poets whose work has widened out from the mainstream. In the UK, candidates are hard to come by. Perhaps Don Patterson's work will appeal to them. He's not avant-garde, but he strays far enough from the mainstream to offer a challenge. Perhaps with some people it's easier to refer to Picasso.

It's worth pointing out that non-mainstream poetry may have the same features as mainstream poetry, but the proportions are different. In extreme cases some prided features of mainstream poems may be absent altogether. Sometimes one feature (e.g. sound effects, fragmentation, repetition) is taken to the extreme, no longer masked by meaning or narrative - nothing's in the way. When mainstream poetry uses these features, readers (even avant-garde readers) might not see them, being blinded by the glare of other, more obvious features.

Then offer them a non-mainstream poem. The chances are that if you succeed in getting them to like it, they'll say it's not really avant-garde at all. I'm not sure what to offer though! "The Wasteland" is old, but it's probably avant-garde enough and it's widely available - see Exploring The Wasteland.

You could introduce them to Hybrid poetry, which supposedly combines the best of both worlds. I'm not convinced, but it might be worth a try. A description sounds promising -
"Today's hybrid poem might engage such conventional approaches as narrative that presumes a stable first-person, yet complicate it by disrupting the linear temporal path or by scrambling the normal syntactical sequence. Or it might foreground recognizably experimental modes such as illogicality or fragmentation, yet follow the strict formal rules of a sonnet or a villanelle. Or it might be composed entirely of neologisms but based in ancient traditions. Considering the traits associated with "conventional" work, such as coherence, linearity, formal clarity, narrative, firm closure, symbolic resonance, and stable voice, and those generally assumed of "experimental" work, such as non-linearity, juxtaposition, rupture, fragmentation, immanence, multiple perspective, open form, and resistance to closure, hybrid poets access a wealth of tools".
So what does the resulting poetry look like? There's much variety. Here's part of a sonnet by Karen Volkman (from "American Poets in the 21st Century")

    Lifting whither, cycle of the sift
    annuls the future, zero that you zoom
    beautiful suitor of the lucent room
    evacuating auras, stratal shift

    leaping in its alabaster rift.
    Lend the daylight crescent, circle, spume,
    ether from your eye, appalled perfume,
    ash incense to boundary when you drift

There are many books explaining A level and GCSE poems line by line, but fewer that tackle modern poetry in the same way. 4 options are

  • "Nearly Too Much: The Poetry of J.H. Prynne" by N.H.Reeve and Richard Kerridge attempts to help readers appreciate some notoriously difficult poems. It's helpful, but for me it too often fails to identify what I find difficult, nor does it try to justify why the poetry is preferable to a more comprehensible paraphrase.
  • "The Poem and the Journey", by Ruth Padel, tries to explain some poems, including one by Prynne. I'd recommend the book to most people who are interested in poetry. Her explanations of impenetrable poems usually helps me understand what the poet's trying to do, though doesn't explain why the poet had chosen to be unhelpful.
  • "how to write a poem", John Redmond, Blackwell, 2006 is an introductory text that aims to train readers for Jori Graham poems rather than the old poems that most introductory books tackle.
  • "Close calls with nonsense", Stephen Burt

Mainstreamer ab-reactions

Even after all this, mainstreamers may remain unconvinced. Typical responses include

  • It doesn't mean anything - if you've done your groundwork and have picked the sample poem carefully, you should be able to cope with this. Challenge their notions of meaning. If they appreciate music or abstract art, exploit that information. And do they really understand the meaning of poems they've long cherished?
  • It's too intellectual. It doesn't relate to real people. Why should I need an English degree to understand a poem? - people who depend on old-fashioned aesthetic theories often think that they are theory-free, that they use innate, instinctive sensibility, that meaning should be paraphrasable. Challenging their assumptions can bring their theories into the open, but you may have to articulate their theories on their behalf. Of course it's also worth pointing out that there are many types of poem (just as there are many types of music, maths, etc) some of which are aimed at those who know their subject inside-out and enjoy theory.
  • Why does it have to be so obscure? - there isn't always a good answer to this. I don't think that avant-garde poetry is any more allusive than mainstream, but I think it's fair to admit that nowadays allusions are harder to detect than they used to be
  • If it's so good why isn't it popular? Does anyone actually read Finnegan's Wake? - I agree with Keston Sutherland that textual experiments seem cut off from language in general - they're not usually precursors even if written by famous people. They don't "take" in the way that new Art fads do. I think "The Wasteland" and "Ulysses" are enjoyable, important works, but I don't like "Finnegan's Wake". Though even if experimental works don't open up further possibilities they at least give the mainstream some elbow room.

Widening the non-mainstream

Sticks for non-mainstreamers

This isn't easy. One could point out that many of their tricks aren't new, but they know that already. Some brain-scan research is coming up with interesting findings about pre-disposition to appreciation of types of art, but it's early days.

Carrots for non-mainstreamers

One could encourage them to assist readers who aren't familiar with non-mainstream poetry. Options include

  • Adding notes (I think mainstream poets do this more often that non-mainstreamers)
  • Ordering the poems in a collection so that the less aesthetically challenging pieces come first
  • Explaining their writing processes. When Carrie Etter wrote that "Just as a poet may choose among such forms as the sestina, the sonnet, etc. in composing a poem, I think about modes of expression, degrees of tension or fragmentation, lines versus prose, etc" I suggested that she might take a poem of hers and list the tensions she's thought about (what's being withheld, why the reader should be motivated to feel, or even resolve, the tension). Do the details of the fragmentation matter, or could the piece be fragmented in many other ways to the same effect? Why is each line-break and indent positioned the way it is? What mind-states might an idealized reader pass through?
  • Adding narrational or conceptual sugar, the type of meaning Eliot had in mind when he wrote "The chief use of the 'meaning' of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be ... to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him."


  1. Hi Tim, I'm starting an avant garde poetry magazine and am looking for people that have knowledge in this topic. Have read a few of you're articles and have to say I'm really impressed, as this is exactly the type of critical thought I'm looking for. You probably are a very busy person, but if you find two minutes to email me, my email is, I'll be delighted to explain in more depth what this is about.

  2. Avant garde implies getting away from or ahead of something which you must first define just as you must define who you're trying to reach.
    What follows sums up much:
    "For many a poet
    the worst of times
    for brevity, social comment
    or if it rhymes."
    The dominant (often paying) poetry being accepted
    "is to a greater or lesser verbally extent verbally led, which foregrounds the patternings and intricacies of language from which the poem's messsage emerges..."
    This quite a straitjacket.

  3. Moving readers gently to new to them poetry forms requires gradualism. But no poetry venue accepts this sort of slow change which might have the unwanted effect of turning some poets backwards to appeal to die hards.