Monday, 8 November 2010

Elitism ?

At the last meeting of the poetry reading group, somebody absent that evening was reported as having complained that the group had become too precious, the poetry too high-brow, too difficult. My manners are sadly lacking, so I jumped in, instantly, with both feet. I will allow high-brow and difficult, but I will not allow precious.

Precious in this context is a derogatory term, almost an insult.

It was a fascinating evening;  an exploration of  Seamus Heaney’s lyrical translation of ‘Beowulf’, a heroic narrative written some time between the seventh and tenth centuries, in the language which is now called Anglo-Saxon or Old English. We  soon got off the poem itself and into all sorts of literary, historical, religious and even scientific avenues.  Several people there knew their stuff, the background to pre-mediaeval, Anglo-Saxon tradition;  I love the sort of discussion where the mention of one thing inevitably leads to another, a kind of intellectual ramble; I had a great time.

As a non-native, even after decades of living here, I still have to be careful what I say, or, at least, how I say it. Impulsiveness usually gets me into trouble; so I try to choose my words carefully.

Something is ‘precious’ when it is seen as affectedly refined, a little camp.  Anyone who enjoys poetry rather than simple, popular, verse, is definitely suspect.  (Perhaps that’s another reason I like blogging: I have never come across so many people who openly admit a liking for poetry, even write it themselves! as in blogland).

There was a Tory MP several years ago, who, when discussing funding of art institutes in this country, brought up ballet and opera. Of ballet, in particular, he said,

“What is that but a lot of poofters prancing around in tights”.

He and many others  maintain that no sane person could actually care for opera, ‘a load of screeching and dramatics’, costing a lot of money and really only of interest to a small elite.

Fair enough, they don’t like it. I can accept that.

There is an atmosphere in this country, which ridicules people who openly admit a liking for a high-brow art form.  Elitism. being elitist, have come to be pejorative terms too. Mention going to the theatre and it is assumed that you saw a show, a musical, a lightweight piece where all the performers are known by their TV appearances. At best, you are permitted to go to an open-air production of say, a Shakespeare play, or a concert in the park, where the picnic before the show and during the interval is the main event.

I am very happy to watch a whodunit on TV, a populist documentary or a costume drama. I might not go for the reality or talent show formula – my arthritic toe can’t  stay curled for long -  but I really don’t mind if watching people being publicly humiliated and tortured is your favourite evening’s entertainment.

Of course, the lady who complained about the kind of poetry being read and discussed at the meetings has a point; every member should feel comfortable with what’s on offer. We’ll have to ask her to be more specific about her objections.

Perhaps a compromise is in order.

As for me? I’ll stay an unreconstructed cultural elitist,  occasionally happily slipping into the elasticated waistband of popular culture.


  1. I don't know the situation within your group so I will also try not to be too impulsive and careful with my comments.
    The discussion you had sounds fascinating as you describe it, I trust I would have enjoyed it and learnt a lot. Having never studied Beowulf myself I might have felt at a disadvantage. I know some German and take an interest in etymology so I hope that I would at least have been able to follow some of the discussion and asked some meaningful questions. What would make me sympathize with the view of your absent member would be the attitude of other members of the group to my disadvantage. A feeling of exclusion can be because of feelings of personal inadequacies fuelled by negative reactions to those inadequacies. If I felt that my questions were treated with scorn there are two ways to react: one is that I am stupid, the other is that I am in a group of snobs who want to make me look stupid. Of course I say if I "felt", my feelings may not necessarily reflect the intentions of others. This is particularly true if I go to the meeting expecting to feel that I will be made to look and feel stupid. This brings into the equation a lot of aspects of the personalities of those involved which I know nothing of.
    A case of snobbery or inverted snobbery?

  2. People are sometimes very quick to put down something they don't like ... or maybe don't understand and puts them out of their comfort zone? you chose your words here very well and I loved ... my arthritic toe can’t stay curled for long! LOL

  3. I too don't know the situation of your group or their individual reactions. I would lean toward a similar answer to Tramp, in that I am very fascinated with things such as Beowulf and opera, however, am not very cultured in these things. I also find that few of my generation have the same interest or eagerness as I in exposing myself to them. My circle of people who can 'educate me' in these things has shrivelled down, so I too feel at a loss with them. If I endeavor to go to a function of this nature, I often feel the 'uneducated outsider' which would lead me to think some attending are 'snobbish'... But this could be my perception in feeling at a loss. I would wonder if this person feels the same.

    I miss my educators who would explain things when we shared these experiences!

  4. I liked "occasionally happily slipping into the elasticated waistband of popular culture."

  5. It's hard to believe that so many people still perceive a cultural divide. Some even take pride in squatting on the patch they think defines them best. In the end, it may have more to do with self confidence rather than class. When you reach the divide, step over it. You could be in for the surprise of your life.

  6. Beowulf, precious? That's a first!
    I'm with you on this one, Friko. I hate to sound judgmental (and I know so little about fine art that it is pitiful) but there is a very strong movement, in all sectors, to work to the lowest common denominator.

  7. Another wise post from you, Friko.

    I would second all that Pondside has commented.


  8. I used to frequent a glass art on line forum almost from it's inception. The original members took classes, shared info, helped with problems, that sort of thing. then as more and more people started to teach and recommend the board the number of members swelled exponentially. finally there came a time when all sorts of wrong information was being handed out and the old-timers, the professionals they had become, would chime in. Eventually people started expecting that it was their due for us professionals to help with the simplest problems, questions that had been answered hundreds of times with the info available in the archives if they would but do a little search. At some point a whole group started accusing us (old-timers) of being elitist when we would suggest a search of the archives instead of giving them a ready answer. I'm not really sure what they meant by that other than an insult as none of us was paid for our help and expertise. One by one we dropped out and left the masses to themselves. some of us started a new, invitation only, discussion board (you can imagine the reaction when that bit of news got around the old board) and elitist we may be but at least we're not being insulted.

  9. Tramp - I knew nothing about Beowulf other than the fact of its existence as a pre-mediaeval epic. One of the members had taken the trouble to distribute information on the most important passages beforehand. I borrowed the translation from the public library, read the passages indicated and hoped for the best.

    I was not disappointed; I also learned a lot.

    Not all meetings are of such calibre, we often have subjects covered by popular contemporary poets and last century's romantics. There's something for everybody.

    The only way you could feel excluded is if your interest is purely in doggerel, verse of the simplest da-di-da-da kind and nothing else.

    My main grouse is that there are so many people who feel entitled to sneer at anything remotely out of the mainstream.

  10. Deborah - and the best defence is attack! Attack what you don't understand and you are more than half way there.

    I wasn't sure, if 'toe-curling' is a term universally understood?

  11. Reflections - I've explained the situation in my answer to Tramp.

    Otherwise I would suggest that you follow your interests; if there is something you like, do it, attend an opera, read the poetry of your choice. Nobody knows it all except the professionals. It's exposing ourselves to culture which will reap rewards. So what, if it's hard work to start with. In the company of fellow enthusiasts it'll soon be worth it.

  12. Marciamayo - well, who doesn't occasionally want to slip into something comfortable?

    MartinH - Absolutely, I am living proof! All you need is an open mind, curiosity about what's on the other side and a bit of chutzpah.

    Pondside and Frances - You used the mot juste "the lowest common denominator".

    And those that prescribe our entertainment for us must think that we are all morons.

    ellen abbott - elitist and really rather proud of it, by the sound of it.

    The dictionary definition of elite is : "a group of people regarded as superior in some way and therefore favoured", which is exactly what you are; you know your job because you have taken the trouble to master it by working at it.

    What you call 'the masses', i.e. the wannabes, were not prepared to do that and would want to reduce glass art to something far less specialised and artistic. You are well out of it. Pondside's 'lowest common denominator' isn't worth the effort of trying to lift it above

  13. Every one of these comments has a truth in it. Pondside's in particular. I don't know a lot about the subjects you mentioned, but my thing is, I wouldn't be there if I didn't want to learn. I worked in PR for many years and thankfully learned to fit in any where. I belonged to a poetry group a few years ago and sat in with professors etc and had the time of my life. We met out in the country in a log house with wisteria all around. Loved it. Just watch a movie, I know I cannot spell the name, Laughing in Lachnasa, I think, starring Meryl Strepp. Took place in Ireland. Learned a lot of new terms. LOL

  14. What you are describing is not just
    integral to your Poetry reading group,
    gosh, it is groups in general, of all
    kinds, made up of individuals who are
    stricken with their specific ignorance,
    bias, perception, attitude, and mind set.

    At the moment, after five years of
    association, I am the director of
    a local film club; about 50 core members.
    We pick and watch three films a month
    and then discuss them, kind of like a
    kinetic book club. Most of us are seniors,
    or middle-aged folks. The youngsters find
    it difficult to watch foreign films, and
    silent films, and God forbid, films in
    black and white. We are constantly having
    to face down challenges for defining
    classic movies. We have a committee of three
    who pick the films monthly, and there is
    always a lot of grousing about the choices.
    Some of us have been students of cinema
    our whole lives, and we regularly are labeled
    elitist. We try and share our knowledge of
    film criticism and film as art, but too often
    are faced with brittle indifference and
    boredom. Art does require study, of course,
    if one ever seeks a full appreciation of any
    of it. I have never studied opera, and admit
    that now it does not interest me.

  15. smiles. i never want to be thoguht of as precious...

  16. A very interesting post, Friko. I enjoyed it and read all the comments, too. I remember studying Beowulf in the old English and I think a translation would be great. Must try to find it.
    There are a few subjects I know well, and a few things I could do well, and I remember being criticized at work because I was better at some things than the critics were. Some people are just chronic complainers, and there's no pleasing them, whatever we do.
    -- Kay

    Kay, Alberta, Canada
    An Unfittie's Guide to Adventurous Travel

  17. The topics that this absent person brought up are quite relevant to any group interested in the arts, whether it be writing, visual art, dance, music, or theater. It's good that you talked about it, and I hope there was a real back-and-forth discussion among you, because that is what fuels art.

  18. daylily - Good for you; we can't all be expert. I am no expert at anything.
    But that doesn't mean that I cannot have an open mind; while I am alive, while my mind is sound, I can learn.

    Glenn Burrkus - As always, you got to the point. Nothing worthwhile is ever achieved easily. Why are there so many people who will not make an effort?

    Your film club complainers can always go and see a blockbuster!
    You stick to your guns.

    Brian Miller - neither would I. It is not understood to be a compliment.

    Kay L. Davies - The Seamus Heaney translation is excellent. One of the best ever. Try and get it, it reads beautifully.

    Kerry - We will have to discuss it at the next meeting in greater detail, when the person who complained will be present. You are right to say that there must be openness, but I would hate to remain in a group where 'dumbing down' is recommended.

  19. I am standing up applauding, Friko! Thank God that someone has said what needs to be said. Thanks for your impulsiveness. Thanks for defending poetry from the assaults of the philistines.

    The world has been turned upside down for me. In my youth, it was a virtue to develop a taste for the arts. Now, unfortunately, such aspirations are ridiculed as being too pretentious, too elitist, or even too precious. I'm with you on this, and I will proudly join you in the ranks of the "unreconstructed cultural elitists," if that is what is required to keep culture alive.

  20. Oh you struck a chord with this post, Friko.

    "Precious" indeed.

    I've read most of the commenters and can sympathize as I too, have had experience in workshops and groups.

    I so remember one in a writing workshop of 10 who stood up, pounded the table, and accused the rest of us of 'ganging up' on her and making (unfortunately me) one of the participants a favourite.

    To say we were staggered is to understate our reaction.

    Suffice to say she stormed off but the discussion afterwards was the most interesting one I've ever been at. We covered fear, jealousy, inadequacy, childhood tapes, depression, anger. Inability to depersonalize criticism: The whole gamut of human emotions that could bring one to such a point of explosion.

    Maybe your "precious" can do likewise for your group.


  21. It would be far better to raise the concern within the group, wouldn't it? But I suppose the person might have felt vulnerable, perhaps alone in her/his perspective.

    I embrace all the arts philosophically, though I don't like everything I encounter, which I just leave on the wayside. I do find it a grand challenge to attack the stuff I don't understand, as I did when George recommended Eliot's Four Quartets. If there are enough riches for me to harvest, then it is worth every drop of sweat to dry to understand.

    Hmmm, the verification word is: STALE

  22. Like bathos. We're awash in the intellectually tawdry, Friko

    Loved you Miscellany!
    Aloha from Waikiki :)

    Comfort Spiral



  23. It seems like the larger the group the more grousing there is. Perhaps it's to get attention.

    When a group degenerates into taking sides it's time to do as Ellen Abbott reported; leave the cranky ones and form a new group of compatible people. If you have one person disrupting the group someone needs to take that person aside, point out what he/she is doing and hope they change their ways.

  24. Whoo Hoo. The problem with posting on some blogs has been fixed. I am happy to be able to put my two cents worth in again.

  25. A wonderful, provocative post, Friko. So many have got there before me in commenting, it's hard to know what's left to say, but here goes: first off, I agree absolutely with what Martin H has said: "In the end, it may have more to do with self confidence rather than class. When you reach the divide, step over it. You could be in for the surprise of your life." I've witnessed so many occasions where someone, feeling fearful, responds defensively, as seems to have happened here, and slams the door on the opportunity to learn something new. I'm feeling this keenly myself as I've decided to venture into learning something about contemporary classical music. It's very hard to find anyone to show the least bit of interest, let alone join me in going to a concert. I puzzle over how to encourage folks to set their fears aside and just enjoy the process of discovering something new.

  26. When I first met you Friko I thought that, alongside your impeccable and idiomatic English, you had a European attitude to the value of the intellect. I think there is a much greater tradition in Continental Europe of valuing the idea of the intellectual and a tendency here to pretend to be a lot less intelligent than you are in order not to be accused of being somehow pretentious, precious or even up oneself. I found it refreshing. As Pondside says, we are very ready to accept the dumbing down of our culture. I would never want somebody to feel excluded though so there is a hard line to walk.
    Did Anglo Saxon very many years ago at university and love Beowulf. Quite envious of your discussion!

  27. How hope providing.

    Please have a wonderful Tuesday.

    daily athens

  28. Good for you, Friko! And long live elitism! And high brow and low brow and everything in between! As for me, I like a challenge.

  29. I would have thought it obvious that by joining a poetry group one would be putting oneself in danger of being exposed to poetry lovers and poetry of every hue .
    Do you all get the chance to propose a poet or or subject for discussion ? Perhaps the unhappy absentee can suggest something that they really love and know a lot about for another meeting .

  30. George - That's what happened to me too, when I was young we were encouraged to s-t-r-e-t-c-h in all directions, to discover the joys of learning for learning's sake, not simply to learn something that would make us a lot of money.

    Thanks for your support, we should man the barricades in the face of stupidity.

    wisewebwoman - There you are, at least she cleared the air. Getting things out and into the open its usually a good thing; what you shouldn't do, is slam the door so hard that you can't open it again afterwards.

  31. Ruth - We wall have to broach the subject, it might even do us good.
    Nobody likes 'everything', if you did, that wouldn't say much for ability to choose. But giving things a chance, exploring things, that's where the adventure come in. Like MartinH says, you might have a big surprise.

    I love the Four Quartets. Most of Eliot is really rather wonderful. Mind you, I don't understand much of it, I need to have it elucidated. But the language is like music, it's quite wonderful.

    Cloudia - thanks girl, you said it. Aloha!

    Darlene - very glad to have you back. I missed you.
    I would like to say, that it is sad when somebody has to leave a group because the others haven't been welcoming. But sometimes troublemakers have to be expelled or excluded. I hope this ins't going to happen in my group.

  32. Raining Acorns - That's never easy RA. Fear is a powerful inhibitor. Besides, there is hard work involved in learning something new, modern music is very hard to come to grips with. No fancy, hummable tunes?

    Don't forget, they probably treated a lot of the great composers like that to start with.

    Elizabethm - A lot of the English people I know share my tastes - otherwise I would probably not be very comfortable with them.
    You are right, though, being too clever for your own good, having ideas above your station, being up yourself, are frequently used expressions. It is all so very silly.
    And you do always flatter my English! Thank you very much.

    Robert - I know that your ideas run alongside mine.

    Vicki Lane - Me too. Challenge is good the keep the brain cells active apart from anything else.

    Smitonius and Sonata - We all chip in and make suggestions about subjects and then find the poems we like to go with the subject. You can read whomsoever you like. Sometimes we have just one very long poem to discuss. We even have pot luck evenings. So, really all are catered for. This particular lady is very fond of Pam Ayres.

  33. I too enjoy a touch of cultural elitism, Friko, in its place, but only when its grounded in genuine appreciation and not some fake pretentiousness, none of which I detect here. I'm new to your blog from Ruth's blog. To some degree I agree with the notion, 'each to his own' but i think it helps for people to allow themselves to explore new ideas. As I grow older I am constantly surprised by how much my own attitudes to new things including cultural activities have changed.

    Its good to meet you here.

  34. You have to admit, there's something wonderfully ironic about someone taking themselves off in a huff, flinging accusations of elitism and being too high-brow, and then using the term "precious", don't you think?

    "That's it, I'm leaving. You bunch of snobs aren't good enough for me!"

  35. Boewulf? - that takes me back...I can still smell the chalk dust in the classroom...
    Actually, your group sounds very polite and cordial - there are some meetings of my quilting guild when everyone needs to be in a suit of armor...particularly after a biennial quilt show wrap up.

  36. Friko, you've sparked such a lively and enjoyable discussion--so glad I peeked back again, particularly to read your comment about T. S. Eliot: "But the language is like music, it's quite wonderful." I think of this phrase from Burnt Norton:
    "Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
    Not that only . . ." (Hummable, even . . .)

  37. Elisabeth - Thank you for visiting. That fake pretentiousness would be the 'precious' bit, wouldn't it. I don't think that comes into it at all in my group. This is not a fashionable group, not a group where individuals show off their superior knowledge. That would be very hard to do in a rural backwater on the edge of Wales where the benchmark of high culture is a coach trip to distant Birmingham; quite an effort, believe me.

    That, however, does not mean a lack of cultural interests among the inhabitants, with or without straw in their hair.

    Land of shimp - precious is a word that can means different things to different people. In this context, precious is pejorative.

    taylorsoutback - we are cordial and polite, and the lady will be given every opportunity to voice her complaints in person, nicely, caringly and all the rest of the buzzword brigade.

    So what do you do at the quilting guild, slap each other in the fact with quilts? Surely they are too precious (in the proper sense of the word) for that?

    RA - thanks for popping back in, glad to see that we have another T.S. Eliot fan amongst us. You are an elitist!

  38. Elitism? Here in Georgia I think it is a synonym with “intellectualism” and it’s a no no. We are in the area of Tea Baggers where many feel a plumber would make a good president and poetry, art, literature, opera, symphonies are for the few, not the good old boys and dames. If you lived here, you would be very suspect.

  39. Vagabonde - Frankly, Vagabonde, if I could, I'd get out of there pronto. Life is too short to be unhappy with one's surroundings. There must be others like you in hiding; like you they don't come out in case they get shot down by a teabag.

  40. Precious may also mean a group one could never possibly attain. Think back to school and the interminable grades and hierarchy. Some at the poetry club may sigh, "Here we go again."

  41. Wow, I hardly know where to begin. Sign me up as another lover of Eliot's music, first off. I used to get very angry at the casual attitude many folks take to the arts - one taste, pass judgment and move on to the next. But some things do require work to appreciate and sometimes that effort is richly rewarded. I don't care for the "precious" attitude either, as you've described it. There are those who, for whatever reason, affect a knowledge and a taste for the arts that they don't actually feel, and then there are those who love art but make a fetish of it. Both types can be precious in an overbearing way. But they're just two more ways that people can be annoying. I look for the people who are open-minded, positive, want to share, and don't think they know everything.

    I don't mind the word elitism, in the positive sense, or picking favorites, or singling out what one deems to be excellent. I'm very grateful when someone exposes me to an artist who speaks to me. It can only broaden my view of the world.

    Confession: for years I thought I hated opera - it was pompous, loud, bloated, a dead art form, and only pretentious jerks liked it. Then I listened to one, really listened (Puccini's Turandot) and heard extraordinary music. Then I saw one. There's been no turning back.


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