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Neil Astley and Elitism

Neil Astley has been banging on about elitists, in a lecture to the Stanza 2005 festival, in Scotland. By elitists, he means people who write, publish or promote poetry which does not appeal to a mass market [sic].

Astley uses 'elitism' or 'elite' at least a dozen times in his Stanza lecture. The term 'elitism' refers to a social system whereby an elite (defined by race, creed, social status or some other attribute) have sole access to some resource, usually political power. The term is blithely used by Astley in relation to those who write difficult, demanding poetry, or poetry which has a limited audience.

But take a poet like Peter Dent, soon to be featured on this site. Dent has been quietly working, outside of the limelight, for thirty years, writing increasingly philosophical, demanding poetry, and publishing and promoting the work of others, including a range of Pakistani poets, through his own small press. He is not an academic, and not a professional poet. His poetry doesn't appeal to a mass audience, but is he elitist? In what sense is Peter Dent restricting the right of others to read what they like? His own work is available to anyone who wants to read it, and if they prefer Wendy Cope, they are free to read that.

Now take an editor like Neil Astley. He is in charge of Britain's biggest poetry publisher, and has at his disposal large amounts of public money, to publish and market Bloodaxe books. Through his position, he has access to public platforms such as the national press and lectures at events like Stanza. He is, in poetry terms, a powerful person (and, as he'd be sure to point out, a white, western, middle-class male person). Yet he uses his position to attack other poets and editors. He imagines a mafia-like world of academics refusing to let poetry out of their grasp, keeping it from the poetry-hungry masses, and using it to further their lucrative careers.

In his Stanza lecture, Astley attacks an 'establishment' consisting of people like Michael Schmidt (Carcanet), Robert Potts and David Herd (Poetry Review) and some people who work on the TLS (Times Literary Supplement) or write for the LRB (London Review of Books). Sounds like a white male publisher attacking his white male publisher rivals.

Sadly, it's just what power does to people: breeds insecurity, which leads to aggression. What we seem to be seeing here is a powerful man shoring up his position, by attacking his competitors, in an attempt to make his publishing company the only one in town. Now that's elitism.

If you're feeling masochistic, you can read Astley's lecture here