Contempt and Contemporary Poetry

At first sight, Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s recent announcement about Arts Council funding, that he would give a firm ‘political steer’ with respect to projects representing ethnic minorities, sounds like a simple slip, a showing of this coalition’s ideological hand. After all, why single out any group as requiring cuts when, according to the economic model his party presents, there’s no need to single anyone out — cuts are required across the board.

But what he says, and, more importantly, the response to it by reactionary elements in the press and among the public, points to a more insidious underlying agenda. This isn’t simply lefty-bashing, it’s aligning socially-inclusive premisses about the arts alongside other soft targets for blame like benefits cheats.

Hunt announced, ‘We must move on from the box-ticking targets approach, saying if you get a certain number of people from certain backgrounds you can win a certain amount.’ The Mail reported this, citing the example of ‘a poetry anthology called Ten which is being published next week and features solely black and ethnic minority poets.’ No critique of the content of the anthology was offered, it was simply presented as ‘Among the many minority projects funded by the Arts Council since its creation in 1945,’ placing it in what we must assume to be a long line of, if not follies, then at least troubling issues raised by post-war government policies.

One is tempted to refer to the NHS at such moments, but instead I first have to declare a personal interest. I mentored one of the writers appearing in Ten, the very talented Malika Booker. I wholeheartedly support this project, thinking, with the Poet Laureate, that Malika and her fellow writers are ‘Ten sparkling new talents who demonstrate the richness, energy and confidence of the poetic  voice in our multicultural country.’

When this issue was picked up in The Guardian, the journalist concerned, Lara Pawson, reiterated Carol Ann Duffy’s point that these writers were serious professional writers:

‘Karen McCarthy Woolf’s pamphlet, The Worshipful Company of Pomegranate Slicers, was selected as 2006 Book of the Year in the New Statesman. Mir Mahfuz Ali’s poetry has appeared in Ambit, PN Review, Poetry London and London Magazine. Roger Robinson has received commissions from The National Trust and the National Portrait Gallery. Malika Booker is soon to be the Royal Shakespeare Company’s poet-in-residence. Nick Makoha was commissioned to write a one-man show for The Theatre Royal Stratford. These are committed, hard-working artists: they don’t want charity; they want equality.’

I can second this based on my interaction with Malika over the past two years: she effectively worked through an entire draft collection with me while maintaining a punishing schedule of work, performances and classes. Here was a person eager to learn, pass on learning and perform to the limits of her considerable abilities. Her work is marvellously diverse — narrative and performative, yes, and also lyrical and introspective, musically subtle and psychologically probing. Because she never seems to let herself off the hook, she offers her audience a richly rewarding and detailed insight into both self and community. My reading of Ten shows she is not alone in this.

But the comments which were posted after Pawson’s piece online were, as a majority, utterly dismissive of the project, its principles and the art-form itself. Poetry was categorised as a hobby, castigated as simultaneously inept and elitist, while the idea that the arts should be funded, let alone that ethnic minorities might receive any particular support, was rubbished. Comments were derisive and borderline racist, but, moreover, there was a sense of excitement about this, of people, gorged on what they saw as multiple nonsenses, goading themselves to still more shrill pronouncements.

This is, of course, not uncommon in online discussions, where the combination of anonymity and lack of serious scrutiny stokes the flaming. But it pointed to the real reason Mr Hunt felt it acceptable to play the ideological hand.  He clearly thinks he can conflate Arts Council ‘box-ticking’ with traditional Tory targets  because the routine smears of the press plus this type of extraordinary online braying convinces him it’s not going to be an issue.

What to do, other than, within the arts corral, comfort ourselves by bleating righteously? I occasionally find myself bewildering Creative Writing students within just such a safe haven (so far),  in the seminar room or lecture hall. I go on about the inner resistance they might experience in writing and reading poetry, whatever their ethnic or class background.

I talk about the mixed emotions aroused by the idea of poetry in practitioner and non-practitioner alike – a combination of timidity and arrogance, or fear and pomposity. I explain this gets in the way of the real work, the hard graft of self-development Malika has set herself and, together with her fellow poets, has brought to such a striking, if temporary, resting point in her contribution to Ten

It is of course precisely this sort of inner meanness I’m referring to: the position that stunting one’s own creativity has done no harm while denying the opportunity to others to develop theirs.  It is, in particular, aligning this meanness of spirit to monetary meanness which has given Mr Hunt his unhappy slant on arts funding for minorities.

He is invoking a particular Little Englanderism which likes to cite Larkin as literature’s last rhymer (Heaney and Muldoon, somehow, slip off the map at such moments; Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy, despite being in our children’s syllabus, haven’t yet arrived). He is relying on the kind of number-blindness that asks where the support for ‘white’ writers is while declaring that 1% is at once an accurate assessment of the ethnic minority population of the UK, and already too much. He can, in short, rely on the hand-me-down opinions of people who have hardly given the arts a moment’s thought, let alone actually engaged with any examples.

The truth is ignorance does not breed indifference when we discuss the arts, it leads instead to a kind of hyper-philistinism, in which people present grandiloquised versions of half-thought-through viewpoints because of an anxiety about their own inadequacy.  This condition, particularly, is what coalition policy on the arts requires.

 It means that the corollary of their hunt-down-the-frauds policy, the underlying idea behind aligning these with ‘box-tickers,’ is never seriously considered. This is that the arts are not for art’s sake, they’re for ‘our’ sake. By that the coalition mean the same small nest of privilege which created all the snobberies and insecurities with which their supporters feed their dreads and suspicions about what art is.  Art is not for us, it is for them. But what a narrow definition they use.

Whether it’s rhyming in poetry, dressing nicely for the theatre, clapping or not clapping at the right moment in the concert hall, or knowing what you like when confronted by ‘modern’ art (anything in the last hundred years being out of bounds), this is all about behaviour and not content, about etiquette masquerading as principle, about received opinion over original thinking.

That’s why it’s so important to be as open as we can about and to the arts — as practitioners and learners, and as audience and funders. Accessibility allows for the possibility that this most protean and natural of human impulses, whatever bewildering form it has evolved into now, might just feed us as it has been doing for thousands of years. I mean accessibility not just to its processes, through discussion and education, but accessibility to its means of production and to its products. And I mean accessibility to all.

Jeremy Hunt’s position reeks of snobbery, the view that we, the extremely various people of these, historically, extremely various  islands, shouldn’t be allowed to know what is good for us, and we certainly shouldn’t have a say in how it’s funded.  That class of snobbery just feeds this shrill, peculiarly British contempt for what makes us distinctive in the first place, our extraordinary capability to use the English language to create.






About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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