Wednesday, 13 April 2011

The Ethics of Poetry

I am finding the latest book I have been given to review a challenging read. There seems to me to be a question of ethics. A few years ago when I was doing my creative writing degree someone posted a poem on the University Bulletin board about "chavs" - I can't remember much about it now except that it was quite derogatory. What I do remember though is the massive debate that ensued about the ethics of writing and posting such a poem, the uncomfortableness of humour at someone else's expense (something that is more acceptable in stand-up comedy but less so on the page), the judgement that is both made and invited when one produces such a poem. The general consensus seemed to be that it was not acceptable.

Therein lies the problem with the collection I am reading at the moment. The poet has written a series of poems about the seamier side of society but the very writing (and reading) of them feels like a judgement has either been made or is being invited. It is an uncomfortable feeling - maybe I would have feel comfortable if the poet was writing them in persona but they are observations. I would like to know how other people feel about this.

4 comments:

litrefs said...

Ventriloquising thru a persona might not be any more moral. Besides, the poet's just another persona with opinions. If poets or comedians express opinions that we disagree with (or secretly agree with) it might distract us from their primary objective, but at least it provokes a reaction (a cheap one maybe) . Should the belittled victims have a right of reply? I hope not., though some actions are considered so provocative nowadays (the N word, book burning, etc) that the actions are unwise even if they're legal.

As well as sounding off about strangers, writers reveal things about their children and family. On the Acknowledgments page of Ros Barber's "Material" she says "Finally, apologies are due to all those individuals who find themselves incorporated as 'material' when they would have chosen otherwise", which is one solution I suppose.

I tend to play safe, writing poetry about poetry when I have the chance.

Julia said...

I know as a writer myself that it's almost impossible to write without alluding to real people and real experience and in some ways this can help the writing to feel more authentic. I think what made me uncomfortable was that there was a poem that recounted an anecdote but there seemed to be no other point other than to invite a judgement from the reader - there was no magical poetic moment that redeemed the poem.

Maybe I am expecting too much but I wanted something more...

litrefs said...

I don't see anything unique to poetry about the issue though. Film-makers, novelists, an journalists encounter the same issues. Marilyn Zimmerman got into trouble for displaying photographs of her "nude" daughter in 1993 (Charges dropped, but her ex-husband used the photograph controversy to gain primary custody in court)

Julia said...

Well I can see why he wouldn't want those photos displayed I guess...I have decided not to review the book in the end...I couldn't find enough positives in it.