That Australian Poetry should attempt to bring poetry into the mainstream

According to the AP website, the organisation’s primary aim is to ‘promote excellence in Australian poetry’. If so, AP should desist from further bringing poetry into the so-called mainstream. The idea of a marginal yet crucial cultural practice being given more exposure and public profile may seem appealing from sentimental and perhaps commercial perspectives, but such an idea does not in any way promote ‘excellence’ in the art form.

Fads come and, rather fortunately, go. What stays with us is what the early twentieth-century thinker Antonio Gramsci termed ‘cultural hegemony’. Drawing on Marx’s notions of ideology and superstructure, Gramsci proposed that in any given society a class achieves domination not only when it controls the economy but also when it ‘imposes its world view as common sense’. What makes such an imposition hegemonic is not so much the intention of the ruling class but the insidious and potent ability of this class to convince others that their specific political ideology is something all rational people would agree with. Gramsci’s hegemony is, in other words, what we mean by mainstream culture. As such, it serves the power of those who control the means of production and not the interests of the producers themselves: in this case, the women and men who produce works in the minor yet enduring medium of poetry.

It may seem ‘common sense’ for contemporary Australian poets to aspire to join the cultural mainstream in order to have access to audiences, capital, or at least a few free cups of coffee (as enabled by AP’s popular Cafe Poet Program). But it was not the desire to be materially rewarded that made this thickly-accented and rather unpopular immigrant adolescent want to devote his life to the thoroughly non-mainstream medium of poetry. Had I wanted to, as it were, ‘win friends and influence people’, I would have chosen popular music, cinema or stand-up comedy as my vocation, all of which I tried and ultimately abandoned for the opaque, indefinable joys of writing mostly unpublished, unpublishable poems.

My personal experience and convictions in themselves may not dissuade AP, ‘the peak body for poetry in this country’, from attempting to drag the most timeless of literary forms into a mainstream cultural milieu that these days boasts, among others, so-called porn stars (that is, working-class women who have nothing to sell but the sexual labour of their bodies), so-called reality TV stars (that is, unloved, alienated individuals who have nothing to sell but their privacy and dignity) and so-called pop stars (that is, talented entertainers who have nothing to sell but a crass image of their subjectivity, a rather monstrous and morbid image in the cases of the one and only King of Pop and, more recently, the gifted and unfortunate Amy Winehouse). And I cannot necessarily expect that AP would join me in believing that poets should be compelled to refuse joining the truly hideous mainstream culture of our times, that they should instead write to resist and subvert the language of the status quo.

I shall instead return to the notion of hegemony and ask a rather simple question: what will be the effects of this evangelical quest to turn poetry into a mainstream activity? A utopian future in which school kids use clever yet conciliatory impromptu verse instead of fists to ward off playground bullies? A stupendously literate society in which poetry slams draw crowds as big as AFL grand finals? An immaculately cultured nation in which the aesthetics of the most recent avant-garde poetry publications are the subject of heated arguments on talkback radio? Not very likely.

The most immediate result of forcing poetry into the mainstream will be the commodification of the art form. The rather frantic attempts at branding poetry as live entertainment, educational supplement, ceremonial gimmick and exotic/ethnic curio will not magically teleport us to the golden age of poetry when bards, troubadours and panegyrists were the foremost creative personalities of their feudal societies. Such campaigns will instead reify a particularly ineffable art form, transforming it from something of innate value to its creators into an object produced solely for the purpose of being sold to schools, community groups, media outlets, wedding planners and so on. What makes a mainstream cultural product – such as a poetry workshop for primary schools offered by AP’s SuperPoets, or a wedding vow written as part of AP’s Wow Vows – different from a marginal cultural product such as a poetry collection is that, as any long-suffering poetry publisher knows all too well, there exists no demand for the latter, whereas the former is created almost purely due to a belief in a stable demand for it (in entertainment, educational and ritualistic contexts) as a usable commodity.

And, notwithstanding issues such as alienation and exploitation, will this commodification of poetry contribute towards AP’s putatively primary aim of ‘promot[ing] excellence in Australian poetry’? For the philosopher Theodor Adorno, as a commodity, a work of art’s ‘specific content and harmonious formation’ are subordinated to ‘the principle of their realisation as value’, and therefore the ‘autonomy of the works of art’ is ‘tendentially eliminated’ in the process of bringing the work of art in line with the commercial demands of the mainstream capitalist economy. Would it be too speculative, therefore, to suggest that far from ‘promot[ing] excellence’, an untrammelled push for turning poetry into a commodity will result in more or less identical, increasingly accessible and user-friendly – in short, ordinary and conventional – poems produced for the sole purpose of satisfying the quantifiable needs of fickle clients?

When I decided to become a poet in the mid-1990s, I knew very well that I’d become neither rich nor famous from giving myself over to what was being spoken of at the time as a ‘dying art form’. We can now breathe a sigh of relief and appreciate the fact that Australian poetry has indeed survived that calamitous decade and is now, by most accounts, thriving. This is due to, among other factors, the emergence of new committed poetry presses and journals, the possibilities for exploration and exchange of ideas and techniques offered by the internet, and the maturation of a new, post-baby-boomer generation of Australian poets. It is indeed a propitious time to ‘promote excellence’ in writing, conceptualising, discussing, publishing and reading poetry.

In my opinion, instead of devoting its energies and funds to bringing poetry into the mainstream, AP could ‘promote excellence’ – or at least competence – by, for example, improving the quality of its occasional publications. Tara Mokhtari, in her review of AP’s 2010 ‘New Poets‘ series of chapbooks, pointed out that the publications’ ‘production quality is basic at best’. Sam Byfield also noted in a review of the 2009 series that ‘perhaps due to financial pressures, [the chapbooks] contain tiny font which even in good light is difficult to read, and the small dimensions lend an overall feel of insubstantiality to the publications. Furthermore … several poems are mistakenly printed twice.’

AP could also benefit from becoming more inclusive, making itself more open to non-members, as one would expect from the self-proclaimed ‘peak body’ for Australian poets. As of now, the majority of the organisation’s publications accept work only from AP financial members, and the ‘community’ section of AP’s website is a members-only area. Such policies obviously exclude a great number of non-member, and possibly ‘excellent’, Australian poets.

Continue the debate:
Robert Lukins − Rebuttal
Ali Alizadeh − Rebuttal
Robert Lukins − Affirmative

Ali Alizadeh’s collections of poetry include Ashes in the Air (UQP, 2011), short-listed for the Wesley Michel Wright Prize, Evental (Vagabond, 2011) and Eyes in Times of War (Salt, 2006). He also writes creative non-fiction, drama, fiction and criticism. He holds a PhD from Deakin University where he currently teaches.

© Ali Alizadeh

Overland 205-summer 2011, p. 66–68

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Ali Alizadeh

Ali Alizadeh's latest books are Towards the End and Marx and Art. He's a Senior Lecturer in Literary Studies at Monash University.

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