Book Review

The Observances by Kate Miller

is "good" poetry bad and "bad" poetry "good"?


OK, so another post, another poetry collection. This time it is the turn of the poet Kate Miller and her 2015 book, The Observances, published by the most tasteful of the poetry presses, Carcanet Press.

Tasteful, I feel, is the watchword through the vast majority of poems in The Observances, and the writing here is often beautiful, frequently moving and regularly impressive, there is a gentle strain of English repression. Miller, as is stated in the author bio, “grew up in Hampshire and now lives in London”, and it shows. The language used and locations described in bios such as this is always a choice, things have been decided on purpose. When I’m trying to get published in ANYTHING British but non-London based, the little “grew up in the West Midlands” phrase gets included. I’d never mention that I lived in London, though as a) if you’re English and creative and don’t mention anywhere else it is PRESUMED you live in London; and b) I – like so many of us – have been “about five weeks away” from leaving London for about four years, so I’d hate to have a bio printed in error.

Kate Miller’s bio is a list of awards won, qualifications gained and these two significant places. The bio functions as a justification of Miller’s appropriateness to be located within the poetic establishment. This is not a casual, jobbing, poet, this is a writer of verse who has acclaim, who has qualifications and who has firmly grown up in the south. Does Miller have much to say to me, a new poet, from her position of power? Yes, I suppose, she does. The Observances contains some top verse, some emotive, concise, images, and much of it I really enjoyed. However, it was all a bit too “poetryish” for me, if y’know what I mean? Less immediate, less brazen, less rough, than I like. Miller’s work is polished poetry: ripe for slow contemplation and potential in-depth analysis.

Hmmm, right. Let’s look in a bit more detail at the poems within here – many of which were amazing – and try to put into words the impression it gave me, overall, of being less than the sum of its parts.

The poems are split into four sections, each of a similar size and including poems that have some thematic links. But it is these recurring motifs themselves that, for me, clarifies the book’s overt “tastefulness”. Birds are mentioned a lot, clouds are mentioned a lot, the sea is mentioned a lot, Italy is mentioned a lot, windows and visual arts and historical figures and-

I’m worried that I’m making myself sound ignorant by what I’m objecting to here, but I don’t want to pretend that I loved this collection – of tbf many great poems – when I didn’t.

A few days ago, I was asked if how I read poems has changed now that I identify as a poet. I’ve been thinking about the question a lot since, and this is my working response:

No. What changed to allow me to write poems was how I was reading poetry.

For years, I thought that poetry “had” to be complicated, complex, difficult. Every time I read poetry I didn’t understand and didn’t like, I felt it was because I was being ignorant. I took to refusing to, always, read a poem only once, entering into a more in-depth relationship with every poem I ever read. This gave me the time and the concentration to unpack every poem more rigorously, learning the value and the importance of allusion and reference and duplicity of meaning. However, while I did this and found that poetry by writers like Sharon Olds, Anne Carson and Claudia Rankine – poetry which I LOVED on the first read – opened up into something truly spectacular, I did this with poetry like [names redacted to be fucking nice] nothing new emerged. Oh, I get that you’re using an Ovid reference, I see the allusion to Henry IV, I clock the Hitchcock nod: but what does that add? Poetry can be clever-clever but that doesn’t make it good.

Poetry, I realised, can be complex and huge but still be utter shite: just because something has hidden depths doesn’t mean it isn’t shallow. Like the shit bits of Joyce: they’re clever, but so fucking what? Just because something intimidates with its intellect doesn’t mean it’s worthy of attention: just because you have to work to understand a meaning doesn’t mean that said meaning is worth the effort.

Now, don’t worry, I’m not saying that the only good poetry is poetry like the kind I write (which I will freely fucking admit is “bad” poetry #badboypoet), but I will tell you this: Poetry that doesn’t have some kind of heft behind it is dull poetry. Whether that “heft” is grief or loss (see Sharon Olds), whether that heft is institutionalised racism (see Claudia Rankine), or whether that heft is a gripping personal narrative, for example the reimagining of classical stories in a truly, truly, contemporary way (see Anne Carson, whose Float is next but one on my pile and I am so so so so so ready for it), or even the – fuck it, I’m not pretending I’m over it – weighty ability to define a developing social strata and lifestyle (Howl, Howl, fucking Howl, secret hero of my poetic soul), the poems that hit something in my body, in my mind, are poems that try to DO something, not poems that are just, like, I dunno, a collection of pleasing words and images.

Let’s be blunt about this: right now, the most successful poet in the world is a technically BAD poet, and many of the poets who defend her are also technically bad poets. But it doesn’t fucking matter, does it, because what these poets DO is create writing that actually fucking speaks to people, to – for want of a better word – normal people, not other poets. Let’s be realistic and think about which of your [social media] friends are into these kind of popular poets: they’re not the clever ones who live in big cities, are they? No, but – and this is the crucial bit – they’re the kind of people who would NEVER have bought a fucking book of poetry only like a couple of years ago.

The poetry that is most popular now is poetry that seeks a kind of universality, one that offers personal experience in return for empathy, one that champions catharsis and, I dunno, a sense of very internetty *hope*, that people have (tbh) ALWAYS looked for in verse. When I first started writing poems it was a cynical decision (also I don’t really like fiction less than 100 pages long so why would I want to write it?) based on the fact that I was seeing poetry EVERYWHERE that I knew I could write as well, if not better, than. This is one of the first poems I wrote, when I started writing verse on a near industrial scale, which sums up how – at that stage – I felt about this popular, optimistic, style of poetry:

Positivity has become a thing
People seek out in verse.
Which is 

Poetry is for the fucked.
The optimistic are cunts
And they have no fucking business reading poems.
So fuck off.
Life is shit and hard and dirty.
Go fuck ur fucking selves with ur fucking optimism and see how hard that makes u fucking cum u fucking happy go lucky fucking cloud living fucks.

It’s a bad poem, I know (I am a bad poet, a boy poet a #badboypoet), and it is an angry, pessimistic poem. I no longer stand by the vitriol against other poets and I no longer stand by the pessimism. For context, this was waaaay before valium week and thus the beginning of the end (at least for now) of my long term depression: I no longer feel like this.

Poetry that is technically unimpressive can still be successful, if what it intends to do is what it does: it doesn’t matter if writing isn’t literary, if that isn’t its intention.

Alas, I suppose the space where this argument falls apart is when one considers the overconfidence of some of these poets: just because work has cultural/emotional/political value, it doesn’t necessarily have literary value. Just because something is in words doesn’t mean it is literature, like just something that is painted is not automatically a painting.

However you express yourself is valid, however you choose to empathise with others is valid, however you seek connection is valid (provided it doesn’t injure anyone else). Because because because…

Should we redefine what we mean by poetry to allow these megaselling poets to count as “good”? Because, by all conventional measures of “good” poetry, they are not, but given their sociocultural impact, they are. Should I, more to the point, stop referring to myself as a “bad poet”? #badboypoet

Should I stop writing poetry about how boring poetry is, knowing that it doesn’t have to be? Or is it important for me to not take myself seriously? Would that damage my poetic voice and thus my tone, my style, my vibe? If I decide that being able to make people cry and make people laugh with my writing – which I have always, always, considered to be my aim in anything non-bloggy I ever write – means that I’m a good writer, a good poet, then that changes the way I see myself, the way I hold myself, the way I am.

I’m going through a lot of internal change and the moment. And I fucking love it. I hope you’re enjoying my personal development too. Right, let’s do a rapid fire actual blog about The Observances.


OK, right, here we go. I liked:

  • This stanza from a poem called ‘Longest Day’:

    And still we speak of journeying and home
    in port and starboard words
    until the pilot buoys and off-shore lights
    begin to roll the estuary tar-sleek,
    a metalled road beneath first stars.

    I liked this because it reminded me of a stunningly beautiful sea I saw a couple of weeks ago off the coast of north Cornwall, the sunset and the cross currents of a strange-shaped bay sucking the colour and the speed out of the water, making it look like liquid metal against the cliffs;
  • ‘Every Book is a Long Walk’ I enjoyed, about reading outside and the depth of literature;
  • ‘Against This Light’ is a phenomenal piece of travel poetry, sells Rome incredibly well;
  • ‘The Deposition’ is a simple, striking, short poem about objects and mortality;
  • ‘Life Class’ is a beautiful piece about life modelling while heavily pregnant, in fact all the poems about pregnancy in The Observances are great – I wish there had been more about this and less about the sea tbh;
  • ‘And now you’ is about giving birth, and ends with this final, very strong, image:
    about the cord that tied you
    being cut,
    the tying-off, your separate knot.
  • ‘Minding the Antiquarian Bookseller’s House’ is a cracking piece about sexuality and desire and distance and love, very much my kinda thing, as too was;
  • ‘From the Sleeping Car’, all about dissipated lust, great, cracking, yes yes yes;
  • ‘At the Dew Pond, West Dale’ and ‘The Shift’ are beautiful pieces on ageing;
  • There was a poem in here, ‘No Place’, that I really didn’t like, backing up the theory I’m espousing in a forthcoming article over at Open Pen about how nature writing is anti-human; however:
  • ‘The Hoopoes Have Come Home’ flips this, a nature poem that works very well due to the insertion and expansion of a human angle.

So, yes, to conclude, my criticism of this collection would be its tastefulness: birds, plants, Italy, the sea: so middle class, so unthreatening, so “meh”. In isolation none of these poems would necessarily strike one as problematic, but in a full length collection there is only really a single note touched, and it’s not a very exciting one. I suppose it’s sad, because the poems about pregnancy and birth are strong, are more atypical, but these poems are a minority, and once the collection passes them it reverts to loads of poems about the fucking sea, which I really don’t think the world needs more of.

Other than ‘No Place’, there was no one poem in here I didn’t like, and several that I thought were great, however the topics for poetry in The Observances mostly felt a little risk-averse. Nothing bad here, but very few meaty poems.

Miller’s poems are fine, I suppose. But I want MORE than fine. I want something new, something big, something wild. So so so so so so so excited for Float.

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1 comment on “The Observances by Kate Miller

  1. Pingback: The Commons by Stephen Collis – Triumph of the Now

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