A recent discussion on Sally Evans’s Facebook page made me recall my first meeting with the Nobel laureate, Derek Walcott. Sally had initiated a discussion on originality and art, and this brought back to my mind a rainy evening in Jamaica, sat around a table at the Pegasus Hotel, when Walcott barked at the group of us who were nervous and cowered in his presence, ‘Only bad writers try to be original!’
In the course of the evening this wasn’t the most controversial thing he would say. Indeed, if you think about it, it isn’t so controversial at all. Originality has always seemed to me an easy thing to do, and a very small determinant in what makes a work of art good or not. There are countless ways to press words into shapes they haven’t taken before, or to disturb syntax in ways that force us to listen – but many of these ways are hardly delightful or pleasing – not that poetry has to be, of course. It just seems to me that originality can come easily – even cheaply – and that’s hardly what makes something good.
The most controversial thing Walcott would say that evening in a moment when he clearly wished to display his greatest contempt for us, was: ‘You must understand, poetry is not a democracy. It is an aristocracy. Only certain people are welcome.’
Walcott had meant to shock us. He had meant to unsettle us. He had meant us all to doubt and question our place in the world of poetry. In fact, this idea is not uncommon at all, albeit it is usually stated in language much less aggressive or contentious, for it is a simple restating of the idea that you are either ‘born’ a poet, or you are not. Supposedly then, being a poet it is not unlike being a monarch, or being born in line to a throne.
It is perhaps damning for me to admit the thought that came to mind when Walcott said what he did. Forgive me, I was barely twenty, and brash and insecure in equal measure, so I sat there thinking, ‘Of course it’s an aristocracy! Who the fuck doesn’t know that!?’
It has taken me years to grow unsettled and uncomfortable with this idea of aristocracy as it relates to art – this idea that we are either born ‘with it’ or ‘without it’ – this idea that class and station not only shape the world of economies, but shape the world of art as well, and that we are mostly complicit with this. I am uncomfortable because in this matter my politics and my instincts are completely against each other.
On good days I wake up feeling that I am a poet of some talent, and that today I will read more, and write more, and will try to be better than I was yesterday. But I am aware that to submit to this basic idea that I can ‘grow’ or get ‘better’ or even one day be ‘great’ is to submit myself to the idea of ‘aesthetics’ and ‘taste’ and that such things are never innocent or neutral. What we call ‘good taste’ is the product of an awful history that disprivileged whole cultures, entire races, and that utterly discredited certain ideas of beauty and form and art.
Simon Gikandi’s recent monograph ‘Slavery and the Culture of Taste’ is an amazing intervention in this debate. With an incredible breadth of research he unpicks how ideas of ‘good taste’ or ‘fine taste’ grew out of a society in which people were enslaved, so much so that the ideas that we inherit now – that shape so much artistic/poetic ambition and output is impossible without that background. The uncomfortable question arises: can we say we have walked so far away from the politics of the middle passage, plantations and chattel slavery when we continue to uphold the ‘taste’ and ‘aesthetics’ that grew out of these worlds?
Of course, I am more concerned about what my taste informs me to dislike rather than what it informs me to life. For instance, I do not much like the work of Benjamin Zephaniah though I am deeply respectful for his eloquent refusal of the award of an OBE. We will remember that Zephaniah stated, “I get angry when I hear that word “empire”; it reminds me of slavery, it reminds of thousands of years of brutality, it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised.”
But I wonder if there is in Zephaniah’s poetry, and many other poets like him, an attempt to recover an aesthetic that was dismissed as loud, crass, juvenile, unsubtle, unrestrained – all these words that really mean ‘Unbritish’, ‘not like how we would do it’ ‘unsophisticated’ ‘belonging to a lower class’!
The recent debate on the Buckingham Palace do has grown beyond the talk of sour-grapes to a much more interesting discussion about class and privilege. I admit that I find myself hardly interested in arguments around actual aristocracy or the British monarchy. It isn’t that points being made seem valid, but maybe I simply wasn’t born here and so can’t work up enough indignity to be moved by that set up politics. In a sense, I wasn’t born into it. I am, however, much more interested in an aristocracy that might exist in poetry, a group I sometimes feel, like Walcott, I might even belong to, and this complicity frightens me much more than accepting an invitation to the palace.