Blind Wine-Tasting etc by Jon Stone
Here’s something to think about. In 2002, French researcher Frédéric Brochet caused minor ripples with a paper called ‘Chemical Object Representation in the Field of Consciousness’. Brochet served a variety of wines to experienced wine tasters, recording the results. Not only did the resulting rankings tables prove to be as consistent as random numbers; the same wines provoked entirely different reactions when presented differently. A white wine dyed red suddenly became “intense, spicy, supple, deep” when earlier it had been “fresh, dry, honeyed, lively”. A mid-range Bordeaux was praised when labelled as a grand cru, decried as “short, light and faulty” when served as a table wine.
Brochet demonstrated that certain expectations and presumptions, often planted subconsciously by others, overrule the evidence of our senses. And If this applies to wine, why not to poetry? It’s a question that has particular application when evaluating prize culture, but it has wider relevance than that. If you’ve ever had cause to linger in the comments section below poetry articles in online newspapers, you’ll likely have encountered the sort of person who recites the names of the poets they remember from school, lamenting that contemporary poets are so comparatively inconsequential: a clear enough demonstration of how a vague awareness of cultural pre-eminence is sometimes the only thing that governs taste. The poet who is conscious of the way dominant and resurgent predilections factor into reception of their work risks a kind of madness. Does the fashion for ironised sentiment make me look stuffy? Are my interests too much at odds with other people’s? Must I wait for family members to start dying (or, at the very least, the birth of my first child) before my writing can be said to have the emotional heft of real experience?
It’s the relative smallness of the poetry landscape that gives these kind of questions more bite than in other artforms. The individualistically-inclined director has the hope of finding an audience outside of that which exists for current mainstream and avant-garde genres or, at the very least, a judging panel who are no more familiar with the other entrants than they are with him. British poets live in a world in which prizes are regularly awarded to people who know the judges well, and where there seem to be few, if any, routes to a wider audience beyond these prizes. Internet culture has revolutionised that perception to an extent, though it remains the case that the best chance most poetry presses have of being noted in the mainstream media is in the form of, say, a brief shout-out alongside a dozen other organisations in a rambling survey of the lie of the land.
What makes it particularly likely, however, that poets are haunted by a need to please (and the consequent leashing of their wilder inclinations) is the concern that some of our leading poets have a controlling attitude towards cultural tastes. Last year, the Poetry Society entered a rocky period, resulting in an extraordinary general meeting being called and, ultimately, the resignation of the entire Board of Trustees. Although a subsequent statement laid the blame squarely at the feet of the board and exonerated both the Director and the then editor of Poetry Review, the only complete narrative currently offered by anyone asserts that the sequence of events amounted to an attempted coup, with several leading poets and poetry editors abandoning the Poetry Society following its failure.
One of those poets who resigned his post as honorary vice president was Don Paterson, the editor at Picador. It’s perhaps noteworthy that in a recent piece for Herald Scotland, which he words with characteristic forthrightness and gusto, he asserts that ‘art is not a democracy’, and then supplies these paragraphs:
As for the need for that consolidated expertise – a small anecdote: there was a young author, English but resident in Scotland, who made an application to a core-funded Scottish arts body for a small grant for new writers […]
The gatekeepers in this case were unqualified to judge. The poet received a letter saying that it had been a very competitive year, and there had been stronger entries. I saw some of those entries and they were, scrupulously, not. More personally galling was the fact that I’d gone to the trouble of writing a careful reference extolling the virtues of this individual.
I know very little, but have enough evidence to suggest I may be a reasonable judge of poetry. I decided to publish the author myself, in England, on the list I edit at Picador. [She] has gone on to be shortlisted for everything, and won the two main UK prizes for first collections; she has been hailed by everyone from Carol Ann Duffy to Seamus Heaney as an important new voice. She’s now based in Bristol.
But I won’t write another reference to that body again; my carefully-phrased opinion was entirely disregarded in the sole area where I have any proven expertise. I am certainly not arrogant enough to insist that it should have counted!
But it should have been dismissed by a peer, not a minor apparatchik brought up to think that all opinions in the arts are of equal value.
Paterson’s wider concerns about the problems with over-administration of the arts are well-grounded, but look at the aggression on display here. “The gatekeepers in this case were unqualified to judge.” He does not know who these gatekeepers are, or their qualifications, or the values they applied in their judgement. He only saw “some of” the other entries. Yet he is furious at a supposed “minor apparatchik” for having not kowtowed to his reputation as an eminent editor and poet. He went “to the trouble of writing a careful reference extolling the virtues of this individual” – does he believe that no one else supplying a similar quote could be similarly qualified to recommend a poet for an award? Those areas where the poet succeeded subsequently, which he cites here as proof of the poet’s virtues, are areas where he has considerable influence. He is galled, it seems, by the existence of an area in which he does not. He suggests that the submission should have been evaluated by a ‘peer’; by which we can take him to mean someone from those circles with which he is familiar.
It is fair, of course, for Paterson to consider himself a reasonable judge of poetry. But in what respect is he entirely like those wine experts who could be fooled by food colouring or a label on a bottle? To what extent is he capable of tainting the sense of others, where the label, for example, is ‘Picador’ rather than ‘grand cu’? His bolded statement – ‘art is not a democracy’ – is the clarion call of those who believe that standards are real, unshifting and absolute. Without pretending to read Paterson’s mind, the idea that people of influence believe wholeheartedly in the veracity of their own judgement is deeply troubling. To be sure (and as he rightly says), not all opinions are equal. But it is possible for many contradictory opinions to have an equal factual and experiential basis. It is possible (indeed, highly likely) for any person’s partiality to certain themes and subject matter to factor heavily in their judgement, even if they are an acknowledged expert. Brochet’s research strongly suggests that.
What is the test then? How does one evaluate the evaluations? Here’s the real crux of the matter: in poetry, there are serious impediments to articulating the methodology one employs when assessing talent and worth. It’s hard to say exactly what they are, but review after review flails about in an effort to relate personal emotional responses and impressions in factual terms. Having read the book of poems Paterson mentions publishing in his article, and several of the reviews, I remain at a loss to understand what elevates it above numerous other debut collections that have arrived in recent years. It’s certainly not that I can’t detect any qualities whatsoever, but why those that are particular to this volume should be rated as more important than those in, say, any of the collections I have reviewed recently for our Sidekick Books site, is something that no one has convincingly argued. Least of all Paterson, whose efforts to describe why he had chosen to publish another Picador poet went this far:
… there was something in [his] turn of mind, the precision of his ear, the quiet strangeness of his imagery, the tenderness and clarity of his address, that made us want to read his poems again and again.
Something, but what, exactly? Paterson has talked in the past of ‘restoring the science of verse-making’ in order to bolster our self-confidence. There isn’t a scintilla of an allusion to science or scientific process in this description.
I don’t suggest we fret too much about this. Reviewers should continue to flail if we’re to make any progress in this area, and in the meantime, it’s not exactly a crushing blow to the artform that we have the potential for an array of competing tastes. If anything, therein lies the secret of a vast richness. What we should beware of is the wine expert mentality, the tendency to believe that because superior and inferior poets must objectively exist, and because we have strong inclinations, those strong inclinations are forever aiding us in parsing one from the other. We ought to beware the influence of anyone who affects to have expertise and the right to wield it, at least until their arguments alone impress us, not simply their standing. And that is a far-off thing in poetry.