Dave Coates – Dave Poems

So recently this site passed fifty reviews (or so), and I’ve been thinking over a kind of ‘what is this blog really about’ post for a while. Which might be a mistake. Here goes.

First, thanks to the folks who shared my work with a large audience for the first time and gave the first words of encouragement, without you I probably would’ve packed it in long ago. The number of people I owe for their thoughtfulness, their patience, their time and their good advice makes my head spin. I’m awfully lucky. Otherwise, thank you (yes, you) so much for reading.

When I started out four years ago, and up until relatively recently, I wrote about poems the way I wrote about films, or video games, as if poetry in these islands was a multinational billion-dollar market and my voice only one in a million. I felt like there was little consequence to saying the first thing that popped into my head, because hey, it’s not like anyone’s really reading these screeds, let alone taking them seriously, let alone the authors of the work in question.

I’m much more aware now that that is not the case, which should demonstrate how slow on the uptake I can be. Reading those old reviews feels like sitting with a friend in a pub who’s holding forth at great length and high volume. Specifically, I’d like to offer sincere apologies to Nick Laird and Emily Berry, whose work, though not my cup of tea, absolutely deserved better. In both reviews I questioned whether their work was really poetry when I should have asked whether my work was really criticism. It is totally possible to criticise – even dislike – a book and still write enlighteningly and generously about it. I’ve added editor’s notes to both reviews saying as much. I’m sorry. I can and will do better.

*             *             *

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about prize-giving culture in poetry. Joey Connolly wrote insightfully on this in Poetry Review, a welcome call for transparency and inclusivity in a process in which few seem to have faith. Despite the handful of decent collections nominated for the TS Eliot prize this year, it is a deeply conservative shortlist, and Connolly is right to point out the ludicrous situation in which John Burnside can step out as a PBS selector long enough to be selected then step right back in. It would be laughable if it wasn’t a ticket to a 1 in 10 chance at twenty grand in a notoriously unlucrative genre.

For all the skulduggery, it feels like a good omen that Connolly’s article can be published in a journal that itself publishes some of the best critical work going. I spent an afternoon last week in the Scottish Poetry Library going through the periodicals for new reviews and essays, and there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic about the state of criticism; as Claire Trevien demonstrated on a Facebook thread recently, many folk can name three or four quality critics or essayists each off the proverbial cuff. There is absolutely a warm glut of middling, mildly positive blurbism if you’re in a mood to look for it, but it’s not quite the end times. On the other hand, from a fairly unscientific first expedition the gender balance still seems heavily weighted towards male reviewers, and I expect an audit of the demographics of reviewers at large would show a relatively narrow field of reference. As a cishet white middle class able bodied well educated man I’m not exactly helping.

I don’t think it’s a painfully gauche daydream to wish for criticism as varied and complicated as the poets currently at work in these islands, though the Eliot shortlist again put pay to whatever optimism for the mainstream Kei Miller’s deserved victory in the Forward engendered. Poems that challenge our basic assumptions about the people around us require more time and thought – and run a greater risk of being misunderstood or simply ignored – than those that build upon or even exploit these prejudices. And sometimes critics like me just don’t have the experiential tools to speak valuably about it, even if our privileged positions might encourage us to speak authoritatively. In such cases the poet, the poem and the reader are all sold short.

Speaking of which, while a simplistic or compliant critical community is not necessarily an impediment to great poems, it does remove one good reason to work or think harder. More to the point, it perhaps willfully gaslights the reader, who is the supposed beneficiary from the work we’re supposed to be doing as, essentially, specialist readers. Encouraging this kind of knowledgeable, opinionated and empowered readership will probably not earn powerful friends as a by-product. Something that the best or most disruptive poetry does is highlight that the world, in more ways than we often care to acknowledge, is strange and awful. Recognising and expressing the ways in which art reproduces or even endorses strangeness and awfulness does not make you strange or awful, though it’s a good way to make life difficult for yourself (if it wasn’t already).

In short: more transparency, inclusivity and unwillingness to let harmful thinking stand unexamined, no matter how ‘masterful’ its control of language or its ‘musicality’, two words that give me the dry boak; the understanding that negative criticism is not a personal attack, and that personal attacks are not good criticism (Something I’m still working on – anger is a good motivator but a lousy editor); good criticism and journalism (see Connolly’s work, and Fiona Moore’s) are vital to holding the community to account, and posing a challenge to the astroturf canon presently being laid down for want of a mature discussion about what (and who) poetry in 2014 is really for.

But what is in our hands, and what Sabotage Reviews is already doing very well, is the ability to highlight and discuss work that deserves attention and struggles to find it, in a way that (at the very least) aims to be meritocratic. Poetry criticism, much like its opposite numbers in fiction, film, tv, games etc., should be a dialogue, should start a conversation, one that can be conducted in a transparent and safe space. I don’t think we’re all that far off, but it will take hard work and some difficult conversations.

*             *             *

Okay, thanks for coming along this wee trip off the beaten track, hope it was worth something. See you next time with a review of Alan Gillis’ Scapegoat. Yes he’s still my supervisor, and yes there is much irony in reviewing my immediate professional superior directly after a post about transparency and meritocracy. Hope you trust me.

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15 thoughts on “Dave Coates – Dave Poems

  1. impones October 29, 2014 / 5:08 pm

    Reblogged this on permanentpositions and commented:
    Here’s a great stock-taking post by Dave Coates at his poetry review blog’s 50th review milestone.

    I’m struck by the man’s humility and his commitment to refining and developing his intelligence; he clearly keeps healthy company.

    Some of the several stand-out sentences for me in this post I couldn’t help picking out:

    a sort of coming to grips with agency and personal professional responsibility here –
    ‘When I started out four years ago […] I wrote about poems the way I wrote about films, or video games, as if poetry in these islands was a multinational billion-dollar market and my voice only one in a million.’

    in a section about privilege and privileging of certain sorts of poetry in a lumpen prizes/awards system –
    ‘Poems that challenge our basic assumptions about the people around us require more time and thought – and run a greater risk of being misunderstood or simply ignored – than those that build upon or even exploit these prejudices.’

    and I love the ghost archaic meaning of ‘awful’ as awe-inducing here –
    ‘Something that the best or most disruptive poetry does is highlight that the world, in more ways than we often care to acknowledge, is strange and awful. ‘

    He’s also good on the implicit misogyny of the platitude ‘masterful’ applied to poetry. It’s a good post! YES! *feeling inspired*

  2. Kim Moore October 30, 2014 / 11:47 am

    What a great post. Takes courage to admit mistakes and apologise. I hope you keep writing reviews. I’ve only found this site recently and have been really enjoying it

    • davecoates October 30, 2014 / 12:07 pm

      I’m definitely still writing reviews! They ain’t getting rid of me that easy 🙂 Thanks for the kind words Kim!

  3. martyn crucefix October 31, 2014 / 11:49 am

    I echo Kim’s comments – only found you recently and you manage the critical independence without compromise – a tough thing to do in the very little world of British poetry.

  4. Ben Wilkinson October 31, 2014 / 2:14 pm

    Hi Dave,

    Ah, the recurrent confidence crisis of the critic! All the best (read: non-delusional) are afflicted by it at some point; you’re clearly a smart bloke, so I’m not surprised to see you re-dressing some of your more trenchant and entrenched reviews of old. I agree it needs to be done from time to time – especially when you’ve frisked Emily Berry or Nick Laird’s writing for its being poetry at all in the first place. But at the same time, however authoritatively expressed (and why should that kind of passion – i.e. giving a damn – so often be considered a crime over purely tepid criticism?) a review’s only an opinion, and an opinion at a given moment. As Mike Hofmann once put it, “it seems to me to be as unrepeatable, as ‘hot’ and as improvisational an activity as writing poems. Judgement isn’t reliably ‘there’, like a geological stratum.” I stand by that. So while it’s great to see you questioning the role and function and responsibility of the critic, I don’t think you should give yourself *too* hard a time for past opinions. In my humble opinion, nothing you’ve ever written (that I’ve seen) has been downright stupid – just, at times, highly contestable, and on occasion, insubstantially argued for. As a critic myself, I’d hate to think I was stuck in my ways, blinkered and utterly trenchant in my views, so an openness to revising old opinions is absolutely necessary. But equally, I want to offer a genuine opinion, to attempt to passionately and transparently articulate why I think something is good or bad, by whatever standard I hold to at that time, and I never want to let fear of reprisal or potentially upsetting a few people stop me from doing that. That kind of worry does the critic, poet, readers and poetry in general no favours at all. It’s why, in truth, probably not many people are suited to the business of writing criticism (I may well prove to be one of them), and those that are, spend a lifetime trying to get it right. A bit like writing poetry itself – reviewing as art form in its own right. Dialogue, so long as it’s productively critical and not pointlessly ad hominem, has to be a Good Thing, and what this whole business of poems and poetry’s all about. I quote Hofmann again. simply because he’s a fount of common sense on all this: “A lot of the articulacy and the connections and the nerves that might have gone on poems have gone on these pieces [reviews]. Sometimes I even fancy it shows: the hindered poem. I regularly felt – probably all reviewers do – that I was going far beyond the needful.”

    my best,

    B

    • davecoates November 1, 2014 / 12:28 pm

      Thanks very much for the kind words Ben, that’s some sound advice. And rest assured I’m going to keep talking about what I enjoy (or not) to the best of my ability. The only changes will be, like you say, more substantial arguments and fewer ad hominems. Otherwise business as usual!
      Thanks again,
      Dave.

  5. ingridamurray November 1, 2014 / 5:25 pm

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, yours is a very good blog, Dave and I look forward to all your posts.

    • davecoates November 1, 2014 / 5:33 pm

      Many thanks for reading, Ingrid, much appreciated 🙂

  6. Nell Nelson November 2, 2014 / 6:47 pm

    I liked this a lot. You say some crucial things, with which I couldn’t agree more: “It is totally possible to criticise – even dislike – a book and still write enlighteningly and generously about it.”
    and
    “I don’t think it’s a painfully gauche daydream to wish for criticism as varied and complicated as the poets currently at work in these islands”.
    Yes.
    I feel (I mean ‘feel’ through my finger tips) that critical/appreciative responses to poetry are an art, and should be approached by writer and reader as such. One can work at it and get better at it, like poetry. It sometimes requires nakedness about one’s intention and perception. It is not an easy thing, nor should it be. It’s necessary to be as articulate in response (or even as articulate about the difficulty of articulating a response) as the poetry itself. And to be truthful and never ever smart-arse.
    I think you are good, seriously good at this, and we (poets, publishers and poetry peddlers) need you. More please.

    • davecoates November 3, 2014 / 3:10 pm

      Nell that is massively kind of you. Many thanks. I will do my best.

      • davecoates November 3, 2014 / 3:11 pm

        (And sorry for the increased book-buying budget!)

  7. Rain, Rain November 24, 2014 / 5:46 am

    I’ve never heard the term before, but now you mention it, I do believe that those flabby blurbisms, ‘masterful’ and ‘musicality,’ give me the dry boak as well! So thanks for that diagnosis.

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