When poets go to war

It's time for the Poetry Society to reconnect with the grassroots.

Being a poet, or being interested in poetry, looks bad enough. It's the dowdy aunt or eccentric brother of the literary world: once the dominant form in terms of sales, exposure and cultural capital, until displaced by the novel starting in the 1840s, in the 21st century it's considered a strictly minority art form. Those who write it are either inappropriately emotive teenagers or spinsters whose efforts could better be turned towards ceramics or local history. But when poetry gets into the papers, it gets worse still. The debacle over the election for Oxford Professor of Poetry in 2009, with accusations of both sexism and foul play and its subsequent postponement, made the poetry world look like a small and fractious place.

And then things got even worse. There were increasingly obvious problems at the top of the Poetry Society, the main charitable organisation for poetry in the UK, visible in a series of high-profile resignations. But no explanation for these convulsions was forthcoming until a group of members, formed in an online campaign by the poet Kate Clanchy, pressed for an Emergency General Meeting at which they demanded answers. When said EGM occurred, what came out was a litany of mismanagement by the board and personal spats spiralling out of control - George Szirtes has a good summary here. The board agreed to step down, but only after a few seething months of controversy.

The coverage of the affair has, as poet Polly Clark has pointed out, been very one-sided, "a lazy kind of PR for the Board... with added parmesan shavings of insinuation about the ex-Director Judith Palmer". There are, as others have made clear, a great many dedicated, capable and enthusiastic members still participating in the Society at a local level, and in the Society's many activities (such as its education section). Nonetheless, the Society looks discredited.

The fact is that, as throughout the history of poetry in the 20th century, much - and much of the most interesting - activity in recent years has taken place outside the institutional parts of the poetry world. Small presses, live events and new magazines being set up by young poets have become the main loci of poetic innovation in this country (discounting, of course, the usual old bastions of neo-modernism). Increased access to print publishing and the web has fostered an expansion of outlets for young poets run on a DIY basis. Brash, irreverent, incorporating vast swathes of pop-culture forms and material - video-games, spam, chunks of sampled text - and frequently surreal, the work of poets like Simon Barraclough, James Wilkes, Kristen Irving and Rachael Allen has injected life into a scene that can sometimes seem to just be ticking over on the margins. It's come out through magazines and e-zines like Pomegranate, New Trespass and Fuselit, through presses like Sidekick Books, Penned in the Margins and Donut Press, run out of flats and, just occasionally, offices. And all this has happened without support, or even much attention, from the main institutions and organs of British poetry. Many of the poets in this new generation of writers have little in common with those who currently dominate the poetic mainstream, who are patronised by the big poetry publishers and control the main journals and funding bodies - they are, in fact, closer to the groups of experimental poets who, starting in the 1960s and '70s, produced a thriving poetic counter-culture and small-press scene in Britain. Regarding the goings-on at the Poetry Society, cynics might well say: "Who cares?" But what implications does they have for the poetry scene?

David Keenan's claim, in an essay published in The Wire in July, that the slashing of state support for the arts would foster small-scale and radical culture that refuses the "narcotic compromises" of an art world sponsored on the basis of economic impact, "social worth" and accessibility, isn't really borne out in the case of poetry. Arts Council money that kept alive mediocre work also gave a start to Stop Sharpening Your Knives and its associated Egg Box Press, and a host of small presses - those putting out more traditional and newer or more experimental work alike - depend on their annual infusion of cash to put out work for which there is a small market. Moreover, the role that the Poetry Society, in particular, plays in all of this is at a tangent to the problem.

For Tom Chivers, director of Penned in the Margins and a board member of the Poetry Book Society, there is little connection. On the one hand, there is "a lot of work to be done" in terms of the full representation of spectrum of poetry by these institutions, and the Society's role is "not really relevant" to Penned in the Margins. But the Poetry Society still plays a vital role in the "poetry ecosystem". They play "a very different role" from the indie organisations and the poets that support and constitute them - in terms of education programs, the National Poetry Competition, local work with Stanzas, the network of local poetry groups, and so on; the Society's performance shouldn't be understood in terms of how much newer poets are interacting with it. The press coverage of recent events at the Poetry Society, not to mention the mishandling of how it was dealt with publicly, he says, has made what was "a purely organisational problem" seem like a real crisis.

The poet, editor and novelist Jane Holland agrees to some extent, but feels there is definite room for improvement. "I would be glad to see a return to a more inclusive programme at the Poetry Society, and by that I don't necessarily mean 'anyone who writes poetry' but a better understanding and sympathy for the aims and achievements of the small presses, including smaller magazines." The vast extent and diversity of the poetry world - "we have many different schools of poetry, we have multiple cliques and ghettos, we have new and established alternative presses, we even have the looming possibilities of digital poetry" - do not "seem to make it into the consciousness of the Poetry Society". A re-engagement between the small presses and grassroots groups and the Society is necessary: "it's about time we returned to a position of cheerful amateurism".

DES WILLIE/BBC
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Man alive! Why the flaws of Inside No 9 only emphasise its brilliance

A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking.​ ​Even as my brain raced, I was grinning.

At the risk of sounding like some awful, jargon-bound media studies lecturer – precisely the kind of person those I’m writing about might devote themselves to sending up – it seems to me that even the dissatisfactions of Inside No 9 (Tuesdays, 10pm) are, well, deeply satisfying. What I mean is that the occasional flaws in Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s cultish series, those unlooked-for moments when nothing quite makes sense, only serve to emphasise its surpassing brilliance.

At the end of the final episode of series three, for instance, there came a discombobulating twist. A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking. How had this happened? Were the preceding 28 minutes only a dream? Even as my brain raced, I was grinning. That line about Ron Mueck! In a piece that seemed mostly to be paying topsy-turvy homage to the camp 1973 horror flick Theatre of Blood.

Pemberton and Shearsmith are all about homage: a bit of Doctor Who here, a touch of Seventies B-movie there. Inside No 9’s format of twisty one-offs is a direct descendant of ITV’s Tales of the Unexpected. And yet it is so absolutely its own thing. Only they could have written it; only they could ever do this much (stretch your arms as wide as they’ll go) in so little time (half an hour).

In the episode Private View, guests were invited to the Nine Gallery in somewhere Hoxtonish. This motley crew, handpicked to represent several of the more unedifying aspects of 21st-century Britain, comprised Carrie (Morgana Robinson), a reality-TV star; Patricia (Felicity Kendal), a smutty novelist; Kenneth (Pemberton), a health and safety nut; and Maurice (Shearsmith), an art critic. Hard on their heels came Jean (Fiona Shaw), a wittering Irishwoman with gimlet eyes. However, given that they were about to be bloodily picked off one by one, at least one of them was not what she seemed. “I’m due at Edwina Currie’s perfume launch later,” Carrie yelped, as it dawned on her that the pages of Grazia might soon be devoting a sidebar to what Towie’s Mark Wright wore to her funeral.

Private View satirised a certain kind of contemporary art, all bashed up mannequins and blindingly obvious metaphors. Admittedly, this isn’t hard to do. But at least Pemberton and Shearsmith take for granted the sophistication of their audience. “A bit derivative of Ron Mueck,” said Maurice, gazing coolly at one of the installations. “But I like the idea of a blood mirror.” The duo’s determination to transform themselves from episode to episode – new accent, new hair, new crazy mannerisms – calls Dick Emery to mind. They’re better actors than he was, of course; they’re fantastic actors. But in the context of Inside No 9, even as they disappear, they stick out like sore thumbs, just as he used to. They’re the suns around which their impressive guest stars orbit. They may not always have the biggest parts, but they nearly always get the best lines. You need to watch them. For clues. For signs. For the beady, unsettling way they reflect the world back at you.

What astonishes about this series, as with the two before it, is its ability to manage dramatic shifts in tone. Plotting is one thing, and they do that as beautifully as Roald Dahl (the third episode, The Riddle of the Sphinx, which revolved around a crossword setter, was a masterclass in structure). But to move from funny to plangent and back again is some trick, given the limitations of time and the confined spaces in which they set the stories. In Diddle Diddle Dumpling, Shearsmith’s character found a size-nine shoe in the street and became obsessed with finding its owner, which was very droll. But the real engine of the piece, slowly revealed, was grief, not madness (“Diddle-diddle-dumpling, my son John”). You felt, in the end, bad for having sniggered at him.

If you missed it, proceed immediately to iPlayer, offering a thousand thanks for the usually lumbering and risk-averse BBC, which has commissioned a fourth series. One day people will write learned papers about these shows, at which point, jargon permitting, I might discover just how Maurice managed to live to fight another day.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution