Are young poets losing their sense of literary identity?

For the month of August this year, while the rest of you were living it up at the Edinburgh Fringe, I was fortunate enough to be teaching at the University of Edinburgh’s International Summer School — my class was Creative Writing, and most of my students were poets. The majority were also English Literature undergrads, and hailed from a variety of countries.

One of the seminars I devised for the class was entitled “The Importance of Reading vs the Anxiety of Influence: Entering the Literary Canon and ‘Making New’”. In this seminar, I spoke about ideas of literary tradition, literary identity and essentially “knowing where you come from” as a writer. Dr Alan Gillis gave a lecture on the Modern Irish literary tradition on the same morning as my seminar, and I asked the students to talk about their own literary identities — how they felt they fit into their national literature as well as the wider literary canon, what tradition they felt they might be working in, or a tradition they might aspire to fitting into. I found their responses pretty surprising.

The students did not believe in literary tradition. Unanimously, they said they felt that tradition — and the idea of fitting into the canon in any specific place — no longer existed for contemporary writers. “It’s just not something I ever think about,” said one American literature undergrad. Indeed, the group seemed to think that if anything, identifying with a particular literary tradition or attempting to emulate literary predecessors was a bad idea. “Isn’t it just copying?” was a question that arose again and again. We talked about the Whitmanic tradition, and the influence of other literary heavyweights on contemporary writing. “It’s just riding on the coat tails of someone very respected,” was one response. The students also dismissed the idea of being part of a national literature. Only one student, who hailed from India, said she felt ties to her country’s literary identity, but said she also felt that embracing her role as “an Indian writer” — and more importantly, as “an Indian woman writing in English” — might actually be potentially damaging, or at least limiting, for her. “I prefer to just be a writer,” she said, and the others agreed. “If you’re a good writer,” said one of the American students, “why does it matter where you’re from?” The general feeling was that where you’re from, who you’ve read and who you admire is — or should be — irrelevant.

This provided real food for thought for me. I’d expected that such a diverse range of young people — hailing from universities all over the world — would have radically different opinions about literary identity and tradition. The fact that they stood united and totally dismissed the ideas about tradition and canon in TS Eliot’s Tradition and the Individual Talent really surprised me. I was also surprised by the fact that, when I asked the question “so, do you feel like you have a literary identity at all?”, the answer was a resounding “no”.

This made me think about my own literary identity, which is apparently a bit of a sore topic. Who I am as a writer — and indeed, who I am as a human being — is something that other people seem determined to have a say in. A while ago, after the now-legendary “where are all the young Scottish poets?” panel debate at StAnza 2009, a comment thread popped up online somewhere, and among a list of young Scottish poets, my name was dropped. I was unaware of this thread at the time, but when I was tipped off about it (I’ve just spent a good while Googling to try and find it again, but to no avail), I found that people were lining up to talk about my national — and therefore, literary — identity. To set the record straight, I had to point out that I was born in England (North Yorkshire, to be more specific), but moved to Scotland at the age of 8. I’ve received about 90% of my education north of the border, and I never wrote a word of poetry while I lived on English soil. Surely, therefore, I am a Scottish poet. Am I a Scot? This is a bit tricker. I have two Scottish grandparents (one on each side, as it happens), but both my parents were born and raised in Cumbria and speak with strong Cumbrian accents. I was born in North Yorkshire and between the ages of 2 and 7 my family lived in the Midlands. Apparently, these were my formative years, because in spite of my sixteen years on Scottish soil, I’ve never shaken my accent — which is a weird southern mongrel with northern vowels, but unmistakably English.
It’s tricky. Apparently, I’m Scottish enough to play rugby for Scotland — if, you know, I was a bloke, and any good at rugby, and even vaguely interested. But because of The Accent Thing I get asked to read at events called things like “Sassenachs in Scotland!”, which I’m not 100% comfortable with. During the festival I was very flattered to be asked to read at Utter!’s “Utter! The Brave” event, which was ‘Scots Only’. I accepted (and a damn fine event it was too), but as it turned out, I didn’t feel very comfortable with that, either.
So my feeling of literary identity is a confused one, but the urge to belong as a writer and to fathom out whose traditions I belong to and where I am accepted is a really strong one. To be faced with a diverse group of young writers (none of them that much younger than me) and told that literary identity “doesn’t exist”, or at least, “isn’t relevant” to writers of our generation was rather shocking. Am I weird? Are they weird? I can see that ideas about literary and national identity change over time, obviously they do — but do they really cease to matter? Have they ceased to matter? Am I the only person under 30 still worrying about this stuff?

Of course, the issue might be my Scottishness (or, my status as a Scottish resident, depending on your outlook). Dr Gillis’ lecture was all about Irish literary traditions and the Irish literary identity, so the Scots aren’t alone — but is it an inherently Scottish thing to constantly think about and debate one’s national and literary background? Is it just us? In the seminar group, there were students from all over the world — Americans, Canadians, Scandinavians, Europeans, etc — but I was the only Scot(tish resident). According to the students, the Americans, Scandinavians, Europeans and — dare I say it — maybe even the English, are just getting on with it. Even my Canadian students reckoned that questions about national and literary identity in their country had mainly been answered (”we just need to get over the fact that America’s right there, really”, said one). It’s just us Scots who are devoting hundreds of hours, blogs and column inches to the issue of what tradition, what nationality, and (apparently) where our new generation of writers are. Is this true? Are the Scots just “very into navel-gazing”, as one student put it? Or is this as much of an issue elsewhere? I don’t feel qualified to comment, but would love to hear others’ thoughts.

Something else that must surely have contributed to this general feeling of rootlessness and the apparent break from literary tradition is the rise of University education. These days, if you’re under 30 and want to be a writer, you’re probably at University, and probably studying something in the Humanities bracket. All of the students in my group were majoring or had majored in Literature. Most of them had moved on or were planning to move on to MA courses. Several of them stated that their MA course was or would eventually be Creative Writing.
I’m not going to debate the usefulness or value of Creative Writing at University level, don’t worry. What I’m left wondering about is the influence of all this literary study on the mentalities of young writers. With so many young writers picking up Literature degrees, is it possible that this study has contributed to their lack of interest in their personal and national literary traditions? As students of Literature, these young writers have access to libraries full of works by authors from across the world and down the ages; they are bombarded with option-courses on everything from Classics In Translation to the contemporary slam movement of Def Poetry Jam fame. Gone are the days where if you grew up in or attended University in New England you’d be expected to name Frost, Lowell or Dickinson as your primary poetic influence — or so my students seemed to think. One of them was, in fact, from New England, and his view was: I have a world canon full of amazing writers at my fingertips. Why should I read Frost just because he was from the same state as me? I can choose to read anything I like.

Obviously, the option to read anything you like — or at least, anything you can gain access to — has always been there for writers. But is access a key factor? More young writers are attending University and therefore getting the opportunity to visit incredible, sprawling libraries full of weird and wonderful works. Most University campuses grant access to inter-library loans across the world, as well as offering online services like LiOn and JSTOR for free. The internet has also, naturally, revolutionised the way we all read — but the current crop of writers under 30 are the first writers of “the web generation.” Does this all add up to explain this apparent disinterest in tradition and sense of place?

The short answer is, I don’t know. I’m still really surprised by the unanimous and unswerving response my students gave me. This post is mainly just the overspill of the seminar and its lengthy discussions. But I’d love to hear what other people think about these ideas… so no matter what your age, leave a comment!

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37 Responses to “Are young poets losing their sense of literary identity?”

  1. Rachel Fox Says:

    Interesting post. It warms the cockles a bit to hear how internationally minded your students were…how open and really like blank pages they feel in that regard (of course they’re not, they can’t be, but it’s good to feel that way sometimes).

    I’m more English than you (not lived here in Scotland so long, some family but not much) but I sound about the same as you (and people do judge heavily on sound just as much as they do on sight…everywhere). It’s quite a complex thing because Scotland is an interesting place to be right now in some ways - the whole excitement about being free of an old ‘enemy’ and all that - but if you are part of (or sound like) the old enemy…it’s less exciting. And they’re not free of it yet!

    The unavoidable truth is that people like you and me are British in make-up (at least for the recent past… we’re all Africans, aren’t we..?) but British of course is the word no-one wants to say…apart from at the Olympics…and other complications… Now I remember why I didn’t study politics!


  2. Joshua Jones Says:

    Hi Claire. This is a really interesting article, and I find it bizarre I’ve never really thought about it at any great length before. I can’t comment on Scottish national/literary identity, so won’t (although I lived in Liverpool until 10, then Kent for 10 years, now Norwich - and I don’t feel Northern/Southern/whatever - they’re peripheral to my self-identity).

    I’m on my BA, and find it’s had little consequence on what I read, probably to do with the inadequacies of the course. Anyway, regardless, I’m inclined to agree with your students, and I think there are two ways of looking at it:

    The first is that young writers nowadays simply don’t bother reading poets of the past properly (and by past I don’t necessarily mean that long ago, and very much mean modernist/post-war/postmodern poetry), or simply cherrypick what they read for how it fits in with their taste without looking into how poetry, modern poetry, has developed, and at least understanding why writers they don’t like are established in the ‘canon’ (as if there’s a set canon anymore).

    The second is that we really are enlightened, that place doesn’t shackle our mentalities and the style of our work, that we are aware of tradition, could understand it and explain it, but choose not to be bogged down by it. That we’ve escaped a logocentric view of what the poetry canon should be, or is, and are able to do and write however we feel.

    I imagine it’s between the two. I know SO MANY young writers of various levels of ability who have NO IDEA which movement or poet they’re writing a lot like, and I’d hate the thought of someone else reading their work not picking up on the ‘influence’. I know MANY MANY MANY CW undergrads who simply DON’T READ POETRY! Writers of poetry.

    Young writers nowadays are in a privileged position in that we are, thanks to the web, an international generation, and I agree that place, nationality are fairly arbitrary signifiers of self and that they’re not that individually important. But that if we as a generation simply neglect the writing of the past, if we churn out another silly absurdist piece and think we’re doing something new and original, then the poetry world will suffer. It’s not possible to develop as fully as you can _within_ the discourse of poetry without knowing its past, even if only to dismiss it.

  3. Rachel Fox Says:

    Should add that of course some people do still say/use the word British (I was being a little flippant there)…not least the recent Roddy Lumsden anthology ‘Identity Parade’. And didn’t that bring up one or two debates about who’s from where and how too..?

  4. Rachel Fox Says:

    And Joshua…that argument about young writers not reading poetry…it comes up a lot and whilst I don’t completely disagree with it I don’t wholly agree with it either. There just isn’t one type of person in this way - some people are more academically minded and want to read everything they can before daring to write a word themselves but there are others (and there always have been) who have that burning ’something big to say’ and are far too busy saying it to do much reading. You may think they’re wrong (that second group) but without them the world would be a much duller place (and now and again they have a genius in their midst). Plus they may not have read the entire poetry back catalogue (world edition) but they might have other references filling their heads (from music, from art, from TV, from film). Poetry doesn’t have to be a closed world.
    But as I say I’m not really disagreeing…just fleshing it out.
    p.s. not young myself. thank god.

  5. Claire Says:

    Josh! This is precisely how I feel, also:

    “Young writers nowadays are in a privileged position in that we are, thanks to the web, an international generation, and I agree that place, nationality are fairly arbitrary signifiers of self and that they’re not that individually important. But that if we as a generation simply neglect the writing of the past, if we churn out another silly absurdist piece and think we’re doing something new and original, then the poetry world will suffer. It’s not possible to develop as fully as you can _within_ the discourse of poetry without knowing its past, even if only to dismiss it.”

    Thank you for leaving such a thoughtful and detailed response :)

    And Rachel — I know what you mean. It was heartening on the one hand to hear that the students didn’t feel at all limited by literary predecessors (not living in fear of TS Eliot et al is probably a good thing). And I also agree to an extent with your point on non-readers. If you want to write seriously, then you need to read… but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with just dabbling as a young ‘un, just playing with sound and imagery and not really paying attention to what other people are doing. That’s probvably healthy, in fact. But as Josh says, when you get to MA level and you want to study Creative Writing, if you’re not even vaguely interested in reading, something’s wrong there.

  6. Rachel Fox Says:

    I’ve never been near an MA in Creative Writing…no idea what goes on in that world…so you’re probably right on that point. Of course you don’t need to do an MA to be serious about writing (but it does seem to be the current main road).

  7. Rob Says:

    In a rush, but will just add this for now, from Michael Schmidt’s 2006 StAnza lecture. Very thoughtful article, by the way, Claire:

    “What we are includes, and depends upon, what we have been; what we have been can be changed not in pattern but in meaning by what we become. Life by the chronological clock versus life by values. Not to know what we are made of is not to know who we are, is possibly to fall victim to what we are made of. The poet who refuses to read other poetry for fear of being influenced has been influenced and will write without knowing how derivative the work is, for the ear is not innocent and memory is a faulty filter. “

  8. Katja Says:

    What an interesting question! I’ve never actually given much thought to it, but my gut instinct would be to say that yes, of course it matters where you’re from, what your national identity is, ESPECIALLY if you’re a writer.

    (I’m Finnish, & not a writer, but if I were, I feel my Finnishness would have a major impact on what I wrote, how I wrote and why I wrote)

  9. Katja Says:

    ..Then again, I must say that just because I’m Finnish does not mean that the artists or writers I most identify with are Finnish themselves. Most of my influence comes from English speaking countries and some random others. But the fact that I AM Finnish still has a huge impact on how I see things.

  10. Stephen Nelson Says:

    Great article!

    I have to say I agree with your students, & I find the idea of abandoning or breaking down a Canon very heartening. It’s something to do with the huge increase in the “creative classes” over the past 10 years or so, thanks largely to some cosmic shift perhaps (I’m serious!), but also, more prosaically, to the internet. Creativity, writing, comes from a sense of the individual in a polyphonic world where information & influence blast us & leave us reeling/realing, clinging to a glimmer of SELF in the crossfire. The Canon has been replaced by the cannon - the bomb - the fallout. It represents the control systems of the past - political & academic specifically (although the fact that your students all belong to universities is hilarious) & an elitist exclusivity which kids today won’t have truck with. They (we?) are too egalitarian for a canon. What we find in its place is a WORLD of poetry, a poetics of EVERYTHING (more on that in a tick).

    Similarly, national identity seems too narrow for me. Our own Scottish poetic heritage is positively claustrophobic. I look to IHF & Eddie Morgan’s involvement in the International Concrete Poetry Movement, or Trocchi’s association with the Beats as a way out. Consequently I read a lot of American writers because of the depth of “newness” & variety I find there.

    The idea of the writer as individual finding identity in living community (as opposed to tradition) is important to me as well. The internet allows for this & appeals to our “digital selves” - our electric circuitry - our hardwiring. I’ve found the visual poetry community particularly warm and inclusive.

    Another consequence of the break from national identity, literary heritage & the Canon is the emergence of poly-poets - poets who can write in a variety of forms & styles across a range of interests, whose writing is textual, visual, material, sculptural, as well as emotional, spiritual, psychological, and who see poetry in EVERYTHING, from roadsigns to rubbish to consecrated texts, & make poetry from EVERYTHING.

    It’s lively & stimulating for me. I find it really difficult to go back & read Worsworth, Keats, even Donne. It all starts with Rimbaud, moves onto the dadaists & out on to the streets where text/language/poetry is ubiquitous.

    I’m happy to hear of the response of your students & while I myself feel inherently Scottish, somehow I also feel Scottish/American, Scottish/Indian, Scottish/Japanese. Pretty amazing considering I have’t left these shores for 20 years! It’s a wonderful new world we’re living in.

  11. Nigel Holt Says:

    The down-trodden in history always have the strongest national identities. As an expat writing in English in a country where I am an alien, my national identity also comes more to the forefront, although patriotism is the last refuge of an inability to think.

    The lack of self in younger people is hardly unexpected when you consider how modern societies condition people. The hard edge of the west of the early C20th has disappeared; people no longer worry about whether they will eat, or live the next 24 hours through some war but what flavour icecream they’ll have with their chicken tikka. That is certainly not true in say Palestine, or here where Arab culture is slowly dissolved in the petrie dish of MTV broadcasting and replaced with Kapitalist Fried Chicken.

    People, as Schmidt says, have identities whether they like it or not, and are bound to follow sheeplishly into academia where these days poets are born and cultivated as everyone has a lower-value degree, and everyone is pumping out the same platitudes as that’s what’s expected. I exaggerate, but the MacPoem factories are here.

    The internet has made a huge difference. To me, it has given a link (I live in the UAE) with other like-minded (mainly American) poets, and as someone who writes mainly formal verse, I have discovered the underground contra-war between formalism and Free Versers that has been going on in the States for decades. In the UK, I think it’s less of an issue. Harrison, Porter and others have been bringing out formal verse for years. Formal verse is still regarded more in the UK I think.

    I’m older, born 1964, so perhaps that, combined with my geography and my style of writing all set me up as something. Many of my friends and colleagues in poetry are left-wingers, or more centrist, and so we see ourselves as ‘Non-Conformalists’. Being in a minority always helps sharpen focus, though: it brings out the Holy Victim in us.

  12. H. Says:

    I always thought that the excuse that “I don’t want to write like so and so writer because it would be copying!” was just a lame cop out for not trying something new or even trying to understand something that might feel a little over your head at first.

    I think we grow by emulating. I did do a little research in college about local poets in my area and I wasn’t thrilled with the results, so I moved on, however. I do think it’s important to seek what is out there, but why limit yourself to writing like someone who you do not relate to their work?

    My point is this (and I can only speak as an American, of course) - I think it’s important to try out some local work, see what fits for you, but I am not entirely sure why we do have to pigeonhole ourselves. YES, read read read, and emulate and try new things! But why would I spend my life writing like Dylan Thomas? I think poetry is getting out of your comfort zone, personally, and if I spent my life writing like Dylan Thomas, at some point it was going to get pretty repetitive and …EASY to me (sorry, Dylan!) and I would want to challenge myself with a new style, tone, whatever!

    I think your students have an excellent point, and maybe it is a regional thing … I’m not sure (and I had made the assumption that “writing regionally” or whatever you want to call it, sounded sort of like a college class, not something that people sit around in coffee shops discussing … at least in my area. Poetry may just be sort of … evolving, and most of us aren’t with our heads stuck in a book of Milton, but with our heads in a book of Rachel McKibbens or something. Which - again, just my opinion, tends to be a little more trendy towards young people (though what do I know, I am getting older, ha!)

    I feel a little sad about the whole thing, because there IS something to reading Milton, BUT harder to grasp our little MTV brains around. I think spoken word poets are EASIER to understand (dear god, don’t flame me), simply because … if you’re speaking, you need to be clear and concise and you can’t mess with intention and word choice because the person listening doesn’t have the time or the ability to hold your words. As a result - young people are gravitating towards poetry in the simplest sense.

    I think your Indian student had a good point as well. Why must I write as an American woman? Why does it matter? If I was ever asked, I would say yes I am American, yes I am a woman, but I would also be complimented that they asked … that my work is that androgynous that I could have been from Sweden, male, smoking a pipe by the water with a white beard, writing about my latest fishing exploit. Isn’t writing, in a way, the big magician’s show anyway … isn’t it talent to pull the wool of someone’s eyes, at least for a moment?

    I sort of read works with the authors as faceless beings, but that is just me. I am not really a fan of book jacket photos, it seems a little crazy, but maybe I am a little crazy.

    Anyway, most of this probably made no sense. I guess the more I write, the less of a clear cut answer I have for you, as I notice I keep going back and forth.

    In other news, good to see you are posting on ONS again!!!


  13. The Revenge of the Revenge of Weston T. Holder Says:

    It’s very tough food indeed. Like a rubbery steak. Dripping with some form of acid that’s burning the inside of my mouth.

    Influence and identity… it’s a heavy subject. I’m forced to think of it from so many angles at this point thatI seem unable to form my own answer.

  14. Titus Says:

    Ooh, fascinating post that I’m going to have to come back to when I’ve got more time, as the comments obviously need pondering too (Rachel Fox always has to be pondered).
    But for the record I’m definitely an Essex poet with London leanings, firmly rooted in the English Tradition from The Wanderer onwards.
    I notice more, er, interest amongst the Scots in their own literary tradition, however. Possibly the plethora of tongues available - some created, it must surely be, controversially, said.

  15. Rob Says:

    Michael Schmidt is right that we are all part of tradition whether we like it or not. However, the tradition you become part of isn’t limited by nationality or even by the Canon (although anyone who thinks their own writing won’t be helped by reading Milton or Wordsworth or their equivalents from other countries is seriously deluded). The ‘Scottish tradition’ has often found its strength by looking beyond its borders, particularly to American writing but also to Europe, both western and eastern Europe, and beyond. The Internet has made access to these resources easier – what we can read online, and what books we can order – but the principle isn’t new at all. Insularity has never been a virtue and there’s now no excuse for it.

    The idea of reading to strengthen one’s own writing isn’t to copy or mimic but to assimilate the virtues of a diverse group of writers without sounding like any them. The most original poets have always been part of the international poetic tradition but have sounded nevertheless distinctive. More than that, they have had a vision for what poetry ought to do and be, which is singular and uncompromising in the face of fashion and ‘correctness’. Without knowledge of what previous poets had done, they wouldn’t have had anything to react against or break from, nor would they have been clear that their vision wasn’t simply a derivative repeating of what had already been achieved. Of course, most writers live in the shadow of other greater writers, but the desire to be singular ought to be there – otherwise what’s the point? Writers do need to have something they consider vital to say, but poetry isn’t just about saying it. The poetry is found, rather, in the way of saying it (I think I am quoting Kei Miller on this, but he may have been quoting someone else).

    I sympathise with the students in not wanting to conform to an established mainstream. Who would want to? Who doesn’t want to do something different and distinctive? However, and this is key, they are part of a poetic tradition whether they know or admit it or not. They will have a literary identity that will be picked up on by any experienced reader who looks at their work.

    One final point and I’ll shut up. I don’t believe that Creative Writing degrees have become the main route to publication. That’s not to devalue them. A few years to write under the guidance of skilled tutors (in the best-case scenario) is a great gift. As the number and quality of courses increase, the number of people who go on to have books published will obviously increase too, in proportion. But I’d maintain that these are generally people who would have made it in any case. I can’t remember the figures, but one sizeable independent poetry press released figures on how many of their poets had a CW degree and the figure wasn’t all that high. Certainly, much lower than I would have expected.

  16. BW Says:

    “The students did not believe in literary tradition. Unanimously, they said they felt that tradition — and the idea of fitting into the canon in any specific place — no longer existed for contemporary writers. “It’s just not something I ever think about,” said one American literature undergrad.”

    I suspect this lack of belief in literary tradition - canons, schools of thought, what have you - is less a thoughtful rejection after having engaged with it, and more the result of not bothering to uncover and read up on the various literary traditions past and present. A failure to engage can be easily dressed up as a kind of informed rejection and rebellion. Though I could be wrong, of course.

    “Indeed, the group seemed to think that if anything, identifying with a particular literary tradition or attempting to emulate literary predecessors was a bad idea. “Isn’t it just copying?” was a question that arose again and again.”

    Reminds me of Paul Valery’s warning: “Everything changes except the avant garde”. Thinking that originality can come from out of nowhere, without productive engagement with, and a consequent development of, what has gone before, is a pretty naive and ill-informed view. Which, to be honest, confirms my suspicions as outlined above.

    best, B

  17. Jim Murdoch Says:

    I was born in Scotland and have lived my entire life here but I was born to English parents and speak with an English accent; my siblings (who incidentally both live in England) have broad Scots accents – go figure. I was never embraced by my contemporaries as Scottish and so I have mixed feelings about being a Scottish writer even though it’s the first thing I mention about myself normally in my author’s bio. On applications I always list my nationality as British and take objection to being called English. On the whole my English teachers concentrated on British writers with only a couple of exceptions. The poets we all English – Larkin, Hughes and Owen being the only ones studied at any length and by that I mean about three apiece – apart from a primary school where Burns was a stable. The only person whose work I felt I wanted to continue was Larkin and it’s always surprised me that a ‘kitchen sink’ school of poetry hasn’t grown up around him.

    It has always bothered me that I have been unable to identify with any contemporary poets, the odd poem, yes, but usually not the poet and I have felt very isolated over the years. Although my initial reaction when I came online was that I had in some way come ‘home’ – it really was wonderful to be around people who thought all this poetry stuff was normal behaviour – I failed to find real connections with those I did meet (apart from marrying one and an American at that) and, to this day, I don’t feel much kinsmanship with the poets I’ve got to know not enough to want to join or form some group. In the past there were groups of poets who bonded, people like the Imagists, and I hear names being bandied about – Quietists, Precisionists – but I don’t really get the feeling that there’s anyone out there wanting to take poetry by the horns saying, “This is what poetry should be.”

    I don’t think this is something that only affects poetry. Look at music and art. In the past we had all kinds of movements and schools – Romantics, Minimalists, Expressionists, Serialists – but now it’s every man for himself. I think it’s called freedom of expression. But man is also a social animal and it’s natural to seek out like-minded individuals so I am surprised that more grouping isn’t going on. The thing about these movements is that they have generally come into existence to bring down the one that went before them and it’s only in their later years that they look around and suddenly realise they’re now the establishment and young bucks are kicking up their feet all around them. In the past geography has had a lot to do with who formed these groups – they often formed around outlets – and so I wouldn’t thought that the Web was the perfect medium. But what I don’t understand is why a common ideology isn’t drawing people together. By that I mean where are the ‘green’ poets?

    Things tend to go in cycles. Perhaps this period of loss of a need for some kind of group identity will pass.

  18. Claire Says:

    BW — You make some very interesting points, which I’m inclined to agree with. Thank you! Don’t be so shy in future ;)

    Rob — “I don’t believe that Creative Writing degrees have become the main route to publication.” I’d agree. I’m talking more about general study — the fact that most young writers (indeed, most young people!) are now taking up further education and in particular, degree level education in the Humanities. All the students I taught were still pre-MA level and had no experience of dedicated CW courses, though several are aiming for this at a later date. Also, I’m not suggesting that this study necessarily leads to success and/or publication — more that it’s contributed to young writers feeling less and less inclined to attach themselves to any movement, tradition etc.

    And thank you to everyone else for these very thoughtful comments. Glad to see so many different viewpoints on this… and to have provided such a good talking point! Keep it all coming!

  19. Stephen Nelson Says:

    Good points being made here!

    I agree with Rob that it’s important to read writers from the past, but would ask is that importance ongoing? Perhaps it’s only valuable as an introduction to poetry. I see it as more essential for a writer (and a reader) to be aware of the language that’s around us, to filter that & process something new from the results.

    I wonder too if writers in the Canon are any more “worthy” than, say, anonymous folk songs, ballads, tales passed on orally. Perhaps that’s just a matter of taste emerging as one reads or listens to more and more material. Am I right in thinking that certain writers just scrape into the Canon after a time of popular appeal & pressure - Blake, John Clare? Plenty writers “discovered” long after they’ve gone to dust.

    And BW’s observation about the failure to engage is interesting too. I think we have to ask “why?”, if that is the case. Isn’t the failure to engage just another form of rebellion born from a sense that the here and now are infinitely more meaningful & relevant than the past?

    I think as one progresses as a writer, one is able to assimilate voices from the past which resonate with one’s tastes & interests rather than engaging with an established tradition wholesale, and that the music of the times is more important in forming an identity which is relevant to our progress as poets & human beings.

    Just some scattered thought.

  20. BW Says:

    Nice to hear you think so, Claire. Though it’s not shyness that keeps me away from the blogosphere these days, I assure you. I’ve been knocking about these parts - that is, literary blogs - for a fair while now as you probably know; just don’t seem to have as much time to do it anymore. Work, writing, bouts of poor time management: all the usual suspects…

  21. Lili Says:

    I’m a novice to writing seriously, so this entire concept of “literary identity” is new to me. I understand that ALL writers are influenced by the writing they read. I am learning to recognize that influence in my own free-writing. I’m heavily influenced by the likes of Bukowski and Sedaris with quite a bit of sarcasm and sharp closes to my work. I’m influenced by Dickinson with a heavy dose of personal philosophy. Every new piece I come across worms into my own writing because I’m in the sponge stage. I’m soaking it all up and squeezing it back out with my own slant to it.

    But, if I’m understanding the concept correctly, I’d have to agree with your students. A literary identity that focuses heavily on where you are on the globe seems counter-productive to the growth of poetry as an art form. Poetry, like any art, reflects life. Life is changing. We’re no longer bound by the borders of the countries we come from. There’s talk of people living in space in the next century or so. We’re able to fly from California to Japan in just a few hours. The world has grown smaller, and we’re now able to learn more of it. We don’t need to restrict ourselves to identifying as an ‘American’ or ‘French’ or ‘Scottish’ poet to be taken seriously. That’s not to say it is wrong to do so, merely that it does not need to define our body of work.

    I can’t comment on Canon as I don’t entirely understand the concept. Something I’ll have to research further! But I can say that I understand the importance of studying, and even practicing, literary tradition while you are discovering your own artistic identity. It is the same process for any self-discovering process. You study what you came from, then work it into who you want to be. But if anything about the human condition is to move forward, we have to work to walk away from traditions that are no longer relevant; I imagine some traditions in Canon would qualify as such.

  22. Weston T. Holder Says:

    Hm. I don’t agree with the students… I feel like a poetic identity- as well as a poetic heritige- would definitly matter. The thing is… I think I lack one.
    I come from a crop of dime-a-dozen teen poets on the internet. It’s like a fad among us angsty teens here. It’s quite upsetting.
    If this was a pity party, I’d go on and ramble about how I’m not the best head of grain in the field and blah, blah, blah…

    But, honestly, only a handful of these young poets are serious (enough). Only a few can site some works that have influenced their writing, and most would likely name modern literary artists. (As for me, I’m a mixture: I’m fond of E.E. Cummings, have both my prose and poetry influenced heavily by Austrailian writer Markus Zusak (author of I Am the Messenger, a book I would force everyone to read if possible), and am also an avid reader of Dickens. (The only thing that really seperated my prose and poetry nowadays is capital letters and a more detailed plot.)

    But, in all honesty, I feel like my poetic identity is a blank space. It’s troubling, and it makes me wonder what will happen to the next generation of poets. Will they have anything there at all? Or will they just wander around, making a name for themselves?

    And, as an afterthought… did this have anything to do with the article at all?

  23. jams Says:

    It makes me angry. Western society seems to have shot itself in the foot with its emphasis on newness and originality. I actually know poets who refuse to read their predecessors as well as their contemporaries. Inconceivable! Humans learn by emulating. If we are just fumbling about in the dark, it’s going to take a lot longer and be a lot harder than starting with where others have left off. People wonder why postmodernism is a gigantic grey blob. Part of it is that everyone is exclaiming at what they themselves are doing and not paying attention to anyone else. What was that quote from “1776″? “Everyone talks very loud and very fast, and nobody listens to anyone else, with the result that nothing ever gets done.”

    On the other hand, I’m probably at the opposite end of the extreme. And maybe even a hoodwinked pessimist, at that. I don’t think that “canon” is necessarily a reason for revering certain works in and of itself. But it is certainly important to look at what other people in other times have considered pinnacle for literature. It is important to consider why they chose those particular works, too. To say that it is unimportant, to sever oneself from all of history and all of humanity, is more than just a bit self-absorbed. It’s outright conflated and ill-informed. It’s silly, all silliness and ignorance.

  24. kevin cadwallender Says:

    If CW degrees are tutored by poets who are clearly part of the literary tradition does that not mean that students who join them have joined that literary tradition? Is it also not true that the very act of rejecting the canon and distancing from literary tradition is part of literary tradition in itself?
    Which means I agree with Michael Schmidt via Rob. it isn’t really the choice of the poet, they will be assimilated anyway (now that sounds like the Borg!)

  25. Claire Says:

    Thanks, new and returning commenters! Lovely to see such a range of opinion. Kevin, I’m inclined to agree with you (and Rob, and Michael Schmidt) re: the assimilation theory. Perhaps a better title for this post would have been “can young writers ever really escape their literary identity?”

  26. Chris Emslie Says:

    I’m still an undergraduate (though only just), and from my experience, young writers who do have a strong sense of literary identity are very much the exception. But to say that they dismiss all ideas of tradition and influence straight off the bat might be taking things a little too far. I think this trend of young writers unwilling (or unable?) to identify with any established canon springs from the aforementioned ‘anxiety of influence’. It seems to me that the youth being discussed are so mollified at the thought of ‘copying’ that they want to think of themselves as wholly original; a brand-new generation self-consciously distanced from their forebears. They want to write for themselves rather than ‘riding on coat-tails’. However, I think this attitude is both unhelpful and, to an extent, a fantasy. Influence is insidious, and no matter how much young writers may strive to divorce their own writing from that of others, there will always be some discernible strain of influence, even if it’s just a matter of tone. Reading and influence are, in my view, extremely difficult to separate, and while I’m not sure I’d be comfortable identifying myself with a specific tradition or school of thought, I’m aware that what I read influences me. To try and pretend otherwise strikes me as — sorry! — immature and a little bit arrogant.

  27. Stephen Nelson Says:


    Most of the examples you cite of poetic movements were, at one time or another, part of the avant-garde. I wonder if the lack of these movements today is due to the fact that the avant-garde has peaked, rather than any move towards individualism (although this is no doubt true). I mean where can you take poetry beyond Bob Cobbing’s visual poetry or Henri Chopin’s sound poetry, where language disintegtrates into asemic marks or grunts and squeals.

    So really there only truly exists a post-avant, where progressive writers dip into the “traditions” (yes, I think Kevin has a point) of the avant-garde & use various strands which filter through from what was was once avant.

    It happened in jazz in the 60s, when Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders, Coltrane & others took the music into the realms of freedom - pure sound, free rhythms. The only place for jazz to go after that was fusion - with rock, folk, or to continue & blend those strands of free music with other ideas (world music for example).

    So poetry has perhaps “maxed out” & we are left with a post avant poly poetry, which is ok by me.

    BTW - Wouldn’t a Green Movement be a return to Romantic nature poetry (”I wandered lonely as a mushroom cloud!”).

  28. Ronald L. Kirkland Says:

    I think the young (modern) writers lack of identification with any particular ’school’ or identifiable literary style has much to do with the extremely broad range of literature that is available to a modern reader. A privilege that not many generations ago was extremely limited for those without generous resources.

    This does not mean that there are no identifiable styles or patterns in ‘modern’ writing, it just means that it has not necessarily happened intentionally. We are indeed (in part) a product of our environments. Just as accent and inflection in language is acquired unintentionally one’s ’style’ of written communication is formulated by what the writer has been exposed to.

    I suspect, as young writers mature, they will not feel intimidated by what influences them and start to become more intentional in their styles.

  29. Claire Says:

    Stephen — I’m particularly interested in your points, and wonder… would you call yourself part of any particular concrete/vispo tradition? Are ideas about tradition, influence, identity etc different for concrete and visual poets, do you think?

  30. Caitlin Says:

    As one of the referenced students, and an overbearing American one at that, I can say that none of us “didn’t read” for fear of producing copycat material. One of my points is that most young authors go through an emulating phase, where we latch on to e e (or any favorite author) and write in his style, play with syntax, use too many parenthesis, etc. Most of us just grow out of that.

    By not claiming to be an active part of a tradition, we were not trying to “reject or rebel,” but rather, since most (4 of 8) of us were young Americans, we don’t feel geography defines our identity. It has influence, of course. A North-eastern American can identify the landscape of Frost and hence visually connect to his work, but that is not to say someone in Nevada is at a complete loss. Our geographical borders come into play more so when making half-hearted stereotypes about the way people are (i.e. the Midwest is a terrifying void, or people from New Jersey can’t drive) and less so in our canon. Plus, America is large and diverse, and any writing from any part of the nation can be American. But what is American? We don’t bother to try and answer that anymore. Our heads would spin trying to include all the many cultural influences and nuances. You’re in America, lived here for a year, wrote a poem about New York… sure, that can be American. Why not? Is someone less valid for giving an impression of a place because they are non-native? Most of my generation (sure, I’ll speak for them) would say no. Is their perspective bias? Sure, but isn’t that what makes it interesting?

    On to another point: I don’t read Langston Hughes because he is black or American per se, but because I enjoy his work. This may shock some of you, but Dylan Thomas isn’t quite so big here in the States. One of my first stops in Edinburgh was to Blackwells to pick up a collected works I could not find in any local bookstore or library back home. I had been introduced to him in small bits years ago, and sought his work out myself through the internet and various other means. He is not readily taught in our classes, at least not the ones I took, and often not in depth. The canon is shifting, breaking down in some ways, and because of this there is a great deal that can be missed if you only read x British authors or y American modernists, or even become so involved in you major of study that you can’t pull yourself away from the narratives of post-colonial writers, on which you will write your thesis. Writers are seeking work that they like rather than what they are told is great, and this defies borders. That certainly effects our need to stake a national claim, especially when those we love the most and maybe emulate the most may not be from our place of origin or write in our native language. Should my friends not love and adopt the poetic style of Cortazar, Neruda, or Mistral because they are not South American? What if they have lived in South America? Why do we even need to seek validation in terms of national identity in order to write what we feel the need to write? I find such squabbling to be fruitless.

    This is not to say we lack identity. We obviously have our own voice and experiences, but we don’t necessarily draw the line at the local or familiar. There is a global culture, blame the internet if you like, but we may identify with that more strongly than the perspective of our nearest neighbors. We can write from any perspective, and if we do so effectively, why limit us to age, gender, nationality, and so forth? I think it is something we do not feel the need to reconcile, and for those who do struggle with issues of identity, it can seem totally alien. Are we affected by the writer’s of yore and influenced by them whether we acknowledge it or not, yes I would say so, but are we held captive by the Post-modern American poetic tradition, not so much. I might be a woman, but I do not intend my work to be feminist. I might be an American, but the places I establish in my work do not have to be rooted in my home nation. We are writers first, and whatever is assigned after that is in the periphery.

  31. Ross Wilson Says:

    I would relate to those students when I was around their age, so maybe this is an age thing more than anything else, a phase they might grow out off? Chris Emslie’s points ring true to me, from my own experience. Although, I must say, it’s a bit worrying to hear so many students surfing the same thought-wave.

    I never went to uni, but in my late teens I’d walk into the library in my village and order books I’d never find on the shelves: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Artaud, the Beats; typical adolescent stuff. “Experimental” “avant-garde” “original” would all have made more sense to me then than “traditional.” Only in recent years have I begun to embrace what could be said to be my own tradition (I’ll be 32 next week.) Robert Henryson, for example, who lived in the town where I was born (and, Scottish as he was, was influenced by Chaucer and Aesop, just as the “original” Rimbaud was influenced by Baudelaire etc . . .!) Oh, and my Henryson book is a Heaney translation! The Irish Heaney feels a strong bond to Scotland. Many Scots would have a problem admitting any such bond to England! I think there’s a lot of insecurity involved in that kind of nationalism though, and a childish need for an “auld enemy.”

    But, hey, tradition is alive, not dead, and it can breathe life into our writing should we offer our lips out of love and passion for it! It’s not some stale old fart trapped in a bottle some academic excavated under a library floor! This doesn’t mean we should ignore what’s happening elsewhere in the world or the contemporary scene (I’ve also been reading the New York Poets recently because Rob has mentioned them a few times.) Henryson and O’Hara! Why not? I think too many people simplify things and break things down into black and white, this and that, Scottish and English, High and Low, traditional and avant-garde, Elite and ‘street.’ Shakespeare is elitist (trans: hard work.) Bukowski is cool (trans: easy reading.) I’m not making an argument for High Culture or anything, more a willingness to be open to different things. Where I come from (former mining village, west Fife) folks would think I’m “pretentious” for reading certain books! Ha! Embrace your weirdness, I say, but you CAN’T ignore where yir fae, only try and repress it, or deny it, as a young writer might deny the influence of an older writer. The word “Individual” is in Eliot’s essay after all. Tradition needn’t be a weight crushing the life out of your individuality but something working alongside it, like a lover: only together can they bring something new into the world, but something new that’s connected to the past same way we’re all rooted in a place and a people, a genealogy linking us to ancestors well gone before we were around but living through us, in a way, through whatever characteristics or traits or mannerisms that have survived and filtered through time and genes and so on and on and on into making one off individual no one else quite like You or Me alive NOW with all the previously closed off world kicked open by the big boot of the internet opening up this debate to the wider world!

    Anyway! It would be nice to be “just be a writer,” like one of the students say, but unless you’re writing escapist commercial fiction, it’s probably impossible: where you come from marks you, for good or bad. Whether you’re a good or bad writer is another thing entirely. And where ye come fae’s goat nuchin tae dae wi that at aw! It’s what you do with what you’ve got.

    Claire: your own mixed identity could be a good thing as far you’re writing is concerned. MacNeice had that whole Irish/English thing going on and will have produced work he wouldn’t have done had he not been divided in some ways, though you probably don’t need me to tell you! I’d leave it to the silliness of others who have a problem with who they think you are.

    We all must leave our ivory towers now and again so can’t help but be influenced by what we see and hear around us. Open your eyes and ears and you’re influenced, and there’s nothing you can do about it (Dylan said that, not me: I just nicked it!) Picasso, that great “original,” was obsessed by the great artists before him. “Good artists borrow, great artists steal,” he said.

    Ha! I’m rambling on and on. Chances are I’ve added nothing new here, only regurgitated what’s been said before. But maybe I’ve said it in my own weird oddball way and, hey, maybe that’s the point!

  32. Pitch (2 of 6) | Says:

    [...] One Night Stanzas » Blog Archive » Are young poets losing their … [...]

  33. Stephen Nelson Says:

    Claire - good question!

    Visual writing is as old as hieroglyphics - older. Most visual poets identify with the idea of “mark-making”, that first attempt by the most primitive humans to communicate via written symbols; just as sound poets identify with those primal grunts & squeals of our earliest ancestors.

    So in a way our heritage is as old as time.

    Anything that leaves a mark is visual writing.

    It feels important for me to connect with that - & I can, simply by observing textual or quasi-textual markings in the street, on a wall, in nature. It’s also why the particular language of a given country is not really so important because the beauty of the script - Urdu, Arabic, ancient Hebrew, how the curl of a particular mark connects with the long tail of another, provides some sort of visual meaning. So the visual poet becomes not only timeless but universal.

    As writing progressed through civilisations it became associated with the time and the place and the particular culture it belonged to, so this primitive, timeless quality got lost (not altogether because every civilisation produced its visual writers.) Hence we have Greek tragedy, English Restoration Comedy, German Romanticism whatever, and the Canon grows and grows smothering this universality which is so key to the idea of communication and language. When we get bogged down in national identity or tradition, we lose the whole point of writing, we lose our connection to that primal urge to communicate without any set or formulated code of instruction.

    The great break and return comes with the International Concrete Poetry Movement where people from around the planet start to form ideas of what language, writing actually is, and connect with this idea of text as a visual construction. My own visual work evolves from that. Some visual poets like Andrew Topel or Nico Vassilakes have grown so much and are producing work so far ahead of what I’m doing, I’d consider it some of the most progressive art on the planet.

    Influence comes from the shape of anything, anywhere that looks like text or mark making & this idea filters into other forms of poetry. Fragments of language over-heard in the street become poetry, the tiniest word altered by the shape of a particular letter becomes poetry. The importance of the individual open to but not constrained by every movement of the body, every sound in the air, every mark on any form in nature.

    Of course we are influenced by other poets, everything in life is influence, there’s no such thing as originality, but rather than allowing the set texts of any culture to form us, the great thing for me is to be open & allow what we are as living beings to choose what moulds us - our primitive instinct to connect with whatever we experience around us through sound & symbol. This is poetry.

  34. Claire Says:

    Stephen — Thanks for that v detailed response! All really interesting stuff… thanks for bringing a vispo perspective into the mix :)

    And Caitlin — thank you so much for commenting, I was hoping one of you guys would show up.

    I(’ve) learned — from the discussions I had with the class as well as from reading people’s reactions here — a lot of new things about tradition and ideas of literary identity. Firstly, that these things mean something totally different in a huge country like the US than they do in a relatively tiny nation like the UK (I know this is obvious, but I’d never really thought about it in much depth). Sure, the UK is home to people of all walks of life, but we do have some predominant schools of thought. We’re also part of the old world, perhaps a little too concerned with history, tradition, and the idea that where we’ve come from must inform who we will go on to be. In the US, hispanic traditions are just as prevalent as Native American ones, and European ones, and so on. It’s much more of a melting pot… which, as Caitlin says, has to be a good thing.

    I also think we’re seeing a generational divide — a lot of the younger writers who’ve come to comment here have agreed with the students’ ideas about tradition and identity, whereas some of the more experienced voices are a little more wary about abandoning tradition just yet. I still don’t know which side of the fence to stand on, but seeing everyone’s perspectives has been fascinating. Hope you’ll all keep this stuff coming!

  35. Berfrois Says:

    [...] “Isn’t it just copying?” [...]

  36. Gav Says:

    Interesting post.

    I’m sorry folks because there’s just too much to read; I will apologise upfront for my laziness or if I inadvertently say something already said.


    I don’t know enough about the poetry scene to comment on the surprising story about being dropped from a panel (in retrospect) because you weren’t Scottish enough. I confess I can’t recall what your accent sounds like from the brief period we actually exchanged words over the summer, though I remember this particular lecture quite well.

    Scottish Nationalism is a peculiar thing. It’s bound up in all sorts of strangeness. I know many people who would welcome second generation Asians before they would welcome anyone with a English accent. The Scottish team for the sport I compete in is stuffed with “anglos” - and they are not ALL accepted either. There is a type of person in Scotland who tends to make first assumptions based upon accent.

    When I was a teen, I spent some time in England living with relatives. When I returned to Scotland I remember sitting in Geography class when my teacher introduced me as the new boy from Kent. I have to say that this was news to me because I was born in Glasgow, spent a few years in South Africa, before doing Primary in Livingston. I told him off afterwards and he replied, “But I thought because of your accent…”

    It was an easy mistake to make I suppose… To be honest it’s not something I would worry overly about. I personally say I am Scottish but my family has only been Scottish for a couple of generations (we’re originally from Northern Ireland). But from my point of view I am Scottish, my parents are Scottish and certainly my grandparents are as Scottish as I can imagine.

    So it’s very tricky indeed.

    Americans are interesting lot. Clearly they don’t feel the same ties to their country that we might to our own. It’s the only reason that I can think of where someone can introduce themselves as “Scottish” [or whatever] even though they’ve clearly never been to that country or any of their relatives either [for many generations]. Yet they are still “American”. This has to be because the country itself is composed of immigrants. Even so I still find it odd to hear one assert they are “Scots/American”. It makes me scratch my head because I am Scottish and any other roots are by the by.

    But then is British identity so neatly defined either?

    I don’t have an easy answer to your dilemma other than to say you are who are. That is all. And point out that I’ve probably wittered on too much now.

    PS. I don’t think that kids have lost a sense of literary identity per se. But I do think it’s a separate issue from their own sense of national identity. I think that British kids might have thought the same way back when the country was a global entity. Certainly it’s an interesting thought I’ll have to think about.

  37. Cole Powers Says:

    Thanks for the great post.

    As a 19-year-old Canadian poet and student of literature, I daily observe the trends you write about in your piece, and it seems plausible to connect them with the broader influence of post-modernism in general and of the post-war programme writing workshops that arose in American Universities’ English departments in particular.

    To repeat one of the CW workshoppers’ well-worn catchphrases, “Write what you know,” is to evoke their desire to democratise the act of writing. Everyone knows something, of course, so anyone can write something, of course.

    Writing has never been a populist pastime. To write something worth reading requires hours and hours spent alone reading expensive books not to mention hours and hours spent alone writing. Hours and hours in other words not spent earning money.

    So I think that along a broad swath of disciplines within the humanities many students feel some kind of guilt as to what they have the privilege of working on. If they are allowed the opportunity to write, why shouldn’t everyone? Why them? The response it seems is to jettison tradition in favour of “technique,” as if a book was worth reading solely for the technical flair its author displayed.

    As a jazz musician, I can liken this trend to the beginner’s desire to play fast without really playing anything worth listening to, again as if a quickly-strung arpeggio could stand in aptly for a well-sung or even a well-stumbled-over story told by someone who cared about it.

    Tradition informs us as to what writing once was and has become. We do not write in voids. Writing what you know might not be good enough. Writers today need tradition more than anything; from nothing comes nothing.