Fresh Meat’s Poetry Problem

VOD: Oggs. More poetry for you.

OREGON: Right. I’ll get the wheelbarrow.

— Fresh Meat. Series 4, Episode 4.

On Thursday night, I went to the London launch of Magma, a poetry magazine with a rotating editorship which devotes each issue to a chosen theme. The theme of Issue 64 was ‘Risk’, and guest editors Jon Stone and Dom Bury raised an interesting question: to what extent can any poetic technique or manoeuvre in the Arts Council-cosseted, privileged, decadent West be considered risky? On the other hand, doesn’t writing in a genre as maligned and mocked as contemporary poetry bring with it the inherent risk that no one gives a fuck what you have to say?

I’ve been thinking recently about something Jon wrote in response to a snide, belittling article the Sunday Times published on T. S. Eliot winner Sarah Howe, and the backlash it inspired from poets and feminists:

The crux of the problem with Oliver Thring’s condescending profile of Sarah Howe in the Sunday Times is that journalists don’t know how to approach poetry. They struggle to say anything intelligent or intelligible about it, so they mostly talk *around* it, rooting around for journalistic cliches in the life of the poet or the decor of their flat. The poetry itself has to fit a superimposed narrative template, of which there are very few: ‘Old, oblique sage-poet is national treasure’, ‘Young/black poet is introducing new generation to poetry’, ‘Young/black/female poet tackles political/personal issues’. If you’re young/black/female and aren’t transparently addressing (to the point of name-checking) personal and political issues in your poems, the journalist is all but rudderless.

And I’ve been thinking, especially, about Fresh Meat, the Channel 4 dramedy about the intellectual and emotional growing pains of six students at Manchester Medlock University whose fourth and final season is about to come to an end. A running thread of season 4 sees the establishment of the Oregon Shawcross Poetry Prize. Like the Student Union President herself, played by Charlotte Ritchie, the Shawcross Prize is a mix of blatant egotism and misguided good intentions. But it also allows Fresh Meat, much more perceptively than Oliver Thring, to talk *around* poetry for a variety of other storytelling purposes. In so doing, the Shawcross plotline is extremely revealing about the contested cultural position of poetry today.

Oregon (Charlotte Ritchie) defends her investment

Oregon initially turns to poetry, and the funding of a major prize for contemporary work, as something that will look good on a Fulbright application, making the candidate’s CV ‘basically bomb-proof.’ What kind of poetry the prize might favour or encourage isn’t clear at this stage, except that it will ‘inspire and energise all of us’: this is poetry as prestige project. This kind of blanket assertion of the value of poetry, David Clarke suggests, is what makes it so culturally suspect:

Poetry never lost its place on the school curriculum, despite a decline in its public profile, a situation which some poets have benefited from in terms of royalties and paid work with schools. However, when school is the only forum in which young people encounter poetry, the individual poem becomes a kind of test, a sort of overly-complex crossword clue which has to be decoded in order (literally) to make the grade.

The second episode of the series, scripted by Tom Basden, declares the £20,000 Shawcross prize ‘the most lucrative poetry prize in the UK.’ This is technically at least half-true: the Edwin Morgan Award also gifts its winner a cool £20,000, but this is awarded on the basis of a full collection and only Scottish writers are eligible; the T S Eliot has also recently risen to £20,000. As such, the Shawcross represents the richest pickings a single poem from the UK as a whole can reasonably hope for. This particular cash bonanza is apparently instrumental in reviving a dead form. ‘I’m bringing poetry back. Hard,’ says Oregon proudly: poetry as good cause; poetry as charity case.

Rosa (Ayda Field) is unimpressed

When the financial implications of this are revealed, however, the response of university administrator Nas is a resounding ‘Oh fuck.’ Not only can the University not fund poetry to this extent, it’s not even something it ought to countenance. Doing so would entail cuts to areas of investment which are, it is heavily implied, of far greater worth, either due to their popularity or their necessity to quality of life: these include both mainstream and disability sports, and the campus’s Nightline service. Former colleague Rosa lays out the choice in Penelope Skinner’s third episode:

You took away their special minibus. The one that takes them from the outreach programme to the disadvantaged youth centre. And you used the money to fund poems for a prize named after yourself.

Poetry is worth less than any of these things. If poetry requires defunding these activities, it undermines Oregon’s claims to be a socially progressive president: she associates rugby with ‘loaded landed toffs’, but ignores its contribution to the lives of students with disabilities. The high cultural worth of poetry, as suggested by its appeal to the Fulbright judges, does not translate into any comparable monetary value. Investing in it is self-evidently the wrong financial priority for a modern university: poetry as billionaires’ budget; poetry as elitist and reactionary; poetry as land-grab.

The situation isn’t helped by Oregon’s choice to name the prize after herself, nor by the reference to Christ (‘I won’t be the first person to be crucified for trying to do something good’) she argues is an allusion, not a comparison: ‘It’s a subtle difference, and one that, if you read more poetry, you’d understand.’ This is poetry as vanity project; poetry as snobbery; poetry in the service of a messiah complex.

Ultimately, the outrage over this misappropriation of funds leads to impeachment. ‘A majority of the student body’ are involved in a vote of no confidence in Oregon’s presidency. They’re up in arms not least over the reimbursements claimed by Tony Shales, English Literature Professor and turbot obsessive: poetry as expenses scandal. Justifying the measure she’s taken to balance the books, Oregon channels George Osborne: ‘we – I – have had a lot of tough decisions to make, and we – I – have always had the best interests of the student body at heart.’ Poetry is identified with the unjust exercise of power: it sparks a revolution, not by energising the populace as Oregon wishes, but by being exactly the last thing the students of Medlock want or need. It’s a waste of money, and one that brings about the leader’s downfall. This is poetry as political football; poetry as huge, trumpeting white elephant.

Professor Tony Shales (Tony Gardner) — would you trust this man to judge your poetry prize?

And perhaps that’s the end of the story. Oregon’s presidency is, after all, at an end, and the series has only one more episode to go. But although it seems unlikely, I’d like to hope to think this isn’t the end of the Shawcross Prize. Firstly, there are genuine plot reasons for it to play out: two housemates, Vod and JP (Zawe Ashton and Jack Whitehall) are in financial trouble £20,000 would do a lot to resolve, and both have shown some interest in poetry in previous episodes. Vod’s friend on the hippie commune in episode 3 is a ‘sand-poet’, who has written ‘over 1,000 poems in the sand’; in Jon Brown’s fourth instalment, JP attempts to enter the competition with a series of limericks which Oregon instantly rejects.

These glimpses of what poetry might mean in the Fresh Meat universe bring me to my final point, which links to Jon Stone’s question of approach. The plotline circles around and around the potential prize-winner – we see wheelbarrows full of unread entries being cremated in the house’s garden – but at no point has the show what kind of poem might win, except by negative example. JP’s limericks are too frivolous, however well-crafted (I liked the ‘Stowe/blow’ rhyme), for what seems to be an inherently weighty matter: ‘You’re not going to win with a limerick’, Oregon bluntly declares. Paz’s sand-poems, with their inbuilt transience, receive a sceptical response: ‘and that’s… good, is it?’ By the standards of the prize’s founder, we can assume that a worthy winner would offer something both serious and lasting, but beyond that, we don’t get any closer to what the show or its characters consider ‘good poetry’ to be. To get structural for a moment, ‘poetry’, and especially the implied term ‘good poetry’ becomes a shifting signifier whose signified is endlessly deferred. This allows for all of the plot points details above, but also suggests a fundamental uncertainty over what value poetry actually has in this narrative: whether ‘good poetry’ exists in this world at all, or the whole art form is only there to be mocked.

Asking Tony to sift the entries, Oregon tells the lecturer she needs someone to ‘shovel through the shit and find the gold’. So if there is gold out there, what does it look like? Presenting a poem as worthy in its own terms is something the series consistently avoids, like staring directly at the sun. Having trailered Jeanette Winterson as a judge, it would be fascinating to see Fresh Meat nail its colours to the mast and have her cameo in episode six. Would the scriptwriters commission a real poet to provide the winning entry, or put something together themselves that stays true to the voice of a familiar character? If the latter, will the poem be merely revealing of that character’s inner struggles, or presented within the world of the show as a work of actual literary value? And will we, at home, be expected to agree?

One answer might be offered by the end of Skinner’s episode three, where Josie, Vod and Oregon read through the entries on a car trip back to Manchester. In turn, the three friends dismiss as ‘Shit!’ and throw out of the window three poems: one with a run of sing-song rhymes (‘said/dead/Maidenhead’), one which is cut off almost immediately after the sentimental trigger-word ‘alone’, and one which begins ‘Whose woods these are I think I know./His house is in the village, though.’ This is, of course, the opening of Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening’, and is proclaimed unanimously ‘Shit!’ by all three students. Reading it with the same inflexion as the first shit entry, Kimberley Nixon’s Josie seems to be conveying that this, too, is doggerel.

For the viewer who doesn’t know the original, this might seem pretty accurate: the final entry in a terrible triumvirate. For one who does, it’s a fun in-joke, but also poses an interesting problem: what do the show’s creators think of this poem, and how does it fit within Fresh Meat’s discourse on the place of poetry? Assuming they don’t also think it’s shit, is this a comment on the callowness of youth, and how much less these characters know than they believe they do? While in-keeping with some of the show’s more recent developments, this seems too harsh. I wonder it’s more a comment on the fact that no poem, however powerful or canonical, can adequately convey its pleasures in a speeding car as the latest in a long, dull pile. Read in the context of the competition, Frost’s opening does sound like doggerel. But if we accept it isn’t, we also have to accept that poetry requires time to yield its benefits; that it can’t be judged at speed, and at face value. We have to accept that there is some value to poetry, even some need for it, given the right circumstances — even if the framework of cultural associations built up around it makes it very hard to know exactly what that is.

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