Friday, September 22, 2017

Pretentious? Moi?

People find some curious ways to promote poetry. One strategy I've often noticed (and already complained about when journalists do it) is to flag up to the prospective audience that the poet or poetry promoter is already aware of their potential objections. No! It isn't like that usual poetry you've probably come across before - you know, the obscure, boring, pretentious kind! Ah, the p-word. How often have I seen it used to promote some poetry event. 'Poetry without the pretension', the flyers will say.

Bronzino, Portrait of a Young Man (Metropolitan
Museum of Art)
I'm not sure where the organizers get their ideas about marketing, but using a negative as an opening gambit doesn't seem like much of a winner to me. I realize there is a confectioner who promises 'a lighter way to enjoy chocolate', but offering poetry 'without pretension' is more like trying to sell me one of those slabs of fat and sugar by first reminding me about what they are likely to do to my waistline.

Of course, I'm all for those who try to promote poetry. More power to them. But there's something I find oppressive about that most English of put-downs: the accusation of pretension. To be pretentious is to pretend to something, to stake a claim on something to which you have no right. In the language of literary criticism, to be pretentious is to be showy, to make a greater claim for one's importance than is justified. But if we are all afraid of being pretentious, then how will we ever create anything?

Whenever an artist of any kind produces work they are making a claim for the importance of what they want to communicate to the world. They are also making a claim for the importance of the way they are communicating. As an audience, we may find form and content disappointing, risible even in their failure to persuade us of their importance. But that is just plain old artistic failure, which may in itself be bound by the tastes of the time.

Those bandying about the notion of the pretentiousness of poetry fail to see that poetry is trying to be important. I don't mean that it is always trying to be weighty or serious, but it is trying to be important to its audience: to move them and shift their perception of the world and their place in it. Most poetry, if we're honest, will fail to do that for many people, but that doesn't make poetry any different from other art forms. And we should see failure as something worthy, as an honourable attempt to be important. Sneering at so-called pretension does not embolden anyone to make better poems, but makes them more likely not to try.


  1. I really enjoyed this article. Hit the nail on the head(and not at all pretentious!)

  2. oh I agree with everything you've said here.

  3. Goddam! right on, nail on head, hit, bang on ... ouch!
    So true!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    And if I want to use exclams I will! :)