Ali Alizadeh makes the case that bringing poetry into the mainstream is incompatible with excellence in the art form, that it would turn poetry into a degraded commodity, that the mainstream is a wholly horrid and irredeemable thing. On these points I disagree.
Before beginning the rebuttal proper, I would like to briefly address some minor but relevant assertions by Alizadeh regarding AP. Firstly, AP identifies itself as a ‘peak industry body’ rather than the ‘peak body for poetry’, a distinction that reflects its ongoing efforts to ensure poetry is given a strong voice and is well represented in consultations with, among others, governments and arts funding bodies.
Secondly, Alizadeh points to a lack of competency in certain chapbooks of 2009 and 2010. These were, in fact, produced by the Australian Poetry Centre, a body that merged with the NSW Poets Union to form AP at the beginning of 2011. AP considers these two groups to have produced work of a deservedly high reputation, and will continue with their energy and dedication in its own publications.
Lastly, Alizadeh claimed that ‘the majority of the organisation’s publications accept work only from AP financial members’. AP has presided over two collections: the Australian Poetry Journal (the organisation’s major publication), which is open to submissions from members and non-members alike, and the Members Anthology, a separate publication that gives AP members the chance to be published. The second title also acts as a professional development opportunity by involving members in the publication process since the anthology is produced in collaboration with an editorial team made up of members.
Addressing Alizadeh’s argument more generally, I see his portrayal of the cultural mainstream as incomplete, if not problematic. He points, as reasons to resist the popular realm, to the brutal glitter of pornography (a slave world populated by ‘working-class women’ – and no men) and reality TV stars (guilty of being ‘unloved, alienated’). I would not contend that mainstream culture is some utterly estimable example. Quite the opposite: it is a nebulous, necessarily changing interconnection of art forms that would be greatly enriched by the increased inclusion of poetry. I certainly agree that poets should ‘refuse joining the truly hideous mainstream culture of our times’: they should make it less hideous by poetry’s presence. ‘Bad art’ is not the mainstream, it is ‘bad art’, and it is provided with just as comfortable a refuge in ‘unpublishable poems’ as it is in common culture.
On two occasions Alizadeh describes mainstream cultures that boast poetry at their hearts, one imagined and the other historical. The vision of ‘poetry as a mainstream activity’ is first said to be representing a ‘utopian’ view, before reference is made to the ‘golden age’ when poets and poetic writers were the ‘foremost creative personalities’ of their societies. He thus posits that poetry as a part of the mainstream is a condition both ideal and fondly remembered. In other words, he seems to see the pursuit of this condition as one worth continuing.
I wonder at, and have some small experience of, the potential for a creative and intellectual marooning of thought and art produced in cloistered, perhaps purely ‘academic’, environments – the settings which those who renounce the mainstream might consider as strongholds of ‘excellence’. While these protective conditions may produce work of the highest order, they may also foster and normalise work divorced from the challenge of having to make friends with, or earn respect of, an unsubscribed, disinterested mind.
Alizadeh presents Gramsci’s ‘cultural hegemony’ as a force to be confronted. In this, I agree. Further, I suggest that resistance is an imperative built into this view. I cannot agree though that poets can ‘resist and subvert the language of the status quo’ by not engaging or interacting with it. I can only imagine this incarnation of poetic rebellion as a beautifully polished but unfired cannonball. In the face of an unsatisfactory popular culture, many poets are compelled to improve the situation.
Alizadeh has made an informed and conscious decision to abandon popular culture for the thrill of poetry, a privilege that should be respected and surely extended to others. In introducing the mainstream to poetry and to those poets who aspire to a larger audience, AP would be supporting the mere opportunity for more Australians to read and write language at its most powerful, to experience these ‘opaque, indefinable joys’.
Robert Lukins lives in Melbourne, is the general manager of Australian Poetry and is working on a novel. His writing on arts and culture can be found in his regular contributions to Inpress, Broadsheet, themenstruum.blogspot.com, Crikey, and The Big Issue.
© Robert Lukins
Overland 205-summer 2011, p. 68–69
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