We turn to the classical genre in times of need, but can it re­ally help hu­man­ity? And why doesn’t it sell more copies, asks Bryan Ap­p­le­yard

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Essay -

Af­ter a po­lice­man shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mis­souri, in Au­gust 2014, Mag­gie Smith’s poem Good Bones went vi­ral. It wasn’t even about Ferguson, it was about life be­ing short and of­ten ter­ri­ble — “though”, she wrote, “I keep this from my chil­dren”. It was, in its way, con­sol­ing. Poetry is the lan­guage of cri­sis, of pro­found thought and deep emo­tion. It may not be much read these days, but it is cer­tainly felt.

An­other poem that went vi­ral re­cently was Pa­tri­cia Lock­wood’s re­sponse to a spate of rape jokes. Dis­gusted, Lock­wood wrote in Rape Joke: “Who drinks wine cool­ers? Peo­ple who get raped, ac­cord­ing to the rape joke.” Poetry can be the lan­guage of de­fi­ance, as when Ser­ena Wil­liams went on YouTube to read Maya An­gelou’s Still I Rise: “You may trod me in the very dirt / But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”

We want po­ems when we are af­flicted by, in Wordsworth’s words, “thoughts that do of­ten lie too deep for tears”. As Jane Leach pointed out on Bri­tish ra­dio re­cently, peo­ple are turn­ing to poetry in the wake of hor­rors such as the killings in Nice and Or­lando, which would seem too in­com­pre­hen­si­ble for or­di­nary lan­guage.

Poetry pro­vides some kind of peak ex­pe­ri­ence con­structed from the shabby, bat­tered bricks of mere ver­biage. The same im­pulse can be seen when Pres­i­dent Barack Obama had a poem read at his in­au­gu­ra­tion, or when he ap­pointed a poet lau­re­ate, a per­son set apart to speak for all and, as TS Eliot put it, to “pu­rify the dialect of the tribe”.

Fu­ner­als, in par­tic­u­lar, seem to de­mand poetry. Look at what hap­pened when the movie Four Wed­dings and a Fu­neral used WH Au­den’s lovely Fu­neral Blues, which be­gins “Stop all the clocks”; sud­denly, it was ev­ery­where. A re­cent an­thol­ogy, Po­ems That Make Grown Men Cry by An­thony and Ben Holden, spent five weeks in The Sun­day Times best­sellers list.

The heal­ing power of poetry isn’t a cliche: it can al­most be med­i­calised.

Af­ter an ex­per­i­ment at a poetry fes­ti­val Wil­liam Sieghart, founder of the For­ward Prizes for Poetry, now finds him­self as a kind of poetic bare­foot doc­tor, trav­el­ling and dis­pens­ing po­ems as pre­scrip­tions to peo­ple who tell him their prob­lems. “There is a sense,” he says, “of prob­lem-shar­ing and un­der­stand­ing, ex­pressed more elegantly than one would ex­pect. They get out of the chair a foot taller.”

On the other side of the coin, poetry doesn’t sell. It is the lit­tlest of the big arts in terms of money and au­di­ences. And its prac­ti­tion­ers seem to suf­fer pe­ri­odic bouts of self-loathing.

Con­sider the death, on June 30, of Ge­of­frey Hill, a poet and the great­est Bri­tish writer of his time. I an­tic­i­pated front-page pic­tures, page­length obits, a grand fu­neral. Poetry, I rea­soned, is our na­tional art, af­ter all, Bri­tain’s great­est con­tri­bu­tion to the hu­man world’s great­est as­set, its stock of beauty.

Yeah, right. Hill’s death went, to a rough ap­prox­i­ma­tion, un­re­marked. When Alfred, Lord Ten­nyson died in Oc­to­ber 1892, the na­tion mourned: 11,000 peo­ple ap­plied for the 1000 tick­ets avail­able for his fu­neral in West­min­ster Abbey. Robert Brown­ing’s death in 1889 pro­duced a sim­i­lar con­vul­sion. Hill was the equal of these great artists, but to­day’s Bri­tain, oth­er­wise pre­oc­cu­pied, re­mained un­con­vulsed.

“The trou­ble is,” says poet Ruth Padel, who whis­pers Ten­nyson to her­self when fac­ing the ter­rors of the den­tist, “we now have pop music and so many com­pet­ing things to do. Poetry did all those things in Ten­nyson and Brown­ing’s day.”

Novelist John Lanch­ester agrees: “Poetry used to take up more space in the — ghastly ex­pres­sion, but it does de­scribe some­thing — ‘at­ten­tion econ­omy’ than it does to­day. The news­pa­pers and lit­er­ary mag­a­zines would have poetry roundups and would pub­lish po­ems, and there was a gen­eral sense of a space for poetry that isn’t, I think, still there.”

As Eliot said, we are “dis­tracted from dis­trac­tion by dis­trac­tion”, and the peo­ple want pap and pop, and short, sweet hits. Hill, whose work was con­stantly ac­cused of be­ing “dif­fi­cult”, de­fied this. He ar­gued that the most chal­leng­ing poetry was also the most demo­cratic be­cause it did not treat peo­ple as fools and sim­ple­tons.

Isn’t there also some­thing fun­da­men­tally wrong with the idea of poetry? “We don’t all sing, we don’t all play music, but we all speak,” says Ge­orge Szirtes, an­other poet. “Ev­ery­body uses lan­guage all the time — and when peo­ple are do­ing un­usual things with lan­guage, we don’t feel it’s ours any­more.”

Peo­ple re­sent poetry for steal­ing what comes most nat­u­rally to ev­ery­body: words. But, Szirtes adds, we also, in or­di­nary speech, pay homage to the idea of higher speech. “He’s a poet and he doesn’t know it,” we used to say of an ac­ci­den­tal rhyme, and we still say some­thing is “sheer po- etry” when words are well used. “Peo­ple who never read poetry still speak of it as an ex­pe­ri­ence they recog­nise,” Szirtes says.

So, poetry is out there, but, then again, where? “Dis­cov­er­abil­ity” is still the art form’s big prob­lem, ac­cord­ing to Don­ald Futers, new poetry edi­tor at Pen­guin Press. We all know that sad lit­tle col­lec­tion of des­per­ately slim vol­umes at the back of book­shops that rep­re­sents con­tem­po­rary poetry. Futers is ad­dress­ing this by re­viv­ing the Pen­guin Mod­ern Po­ets series from the 1940s. Neat and rea­son­ably priced the­matic pa­per­back an­tholo­gies, they will raise into main­stream pub­lish­ing what Futers, and many oth­ers, claim is a new boom in poetry.

Well, boom­let may be more ac­cu­rate. Poetry sales have done a lit­tle bet­ter than book sales in gen­eral since the turn of the cen­tury, but what has def­i­nitely boomed is an al­ter­na­tive poetic land­scape. Poetry fes­ti­vals, fol­low­ing the suc­cess of lit­er­ary ones, are ap­pear­ing across Bri­tain. Futers, mean­while, iden­ti­fies the rise of cre­ative-writ­ing cour­ses in uni­ver­si­ties, of small mag­a­zines ( Clinic, Ten­der, Prac Crit) and small presses (Test Cen­tre, Peepal Tree, Hi Zero) — both made much cheaper to pro­duce by tech­nol­ogy — and of per­for­mance poetry (see ap­ple­sand­snakes.org and out­spo­kenldn.com), which has boomed along­side rap and even stand-up.

Yet what type of poetry is this? The po­ets typ­i­cally — they are po­ets, af­ter all — don’t like to say. “Most po­ets,” Futers says, “prob­a­bly would not recog­nise them­selves as be­long­ing to any spe­cific group or con­fig­u­ra­tion, rather than sim­ply par­tic­i­pat­ing in it at times.”

It’s a field riven, un­til re­cently, by a civil war be­tween tough-minded po­ets us­ing tra­di­tional forms and more ex­otic post­mod­ern ex­per­i­men­tal­ists. The first were the de­scen­dants of Philip Larkin, the sec­ond of Ezra Pound, John Ash­bery and the for­mi­da­ble Cam­bridge poet and teacher JH Prynne. This war is over for the youngest gen­er­a­tion, who seem to be tol­er­antly eclec­tic.

That said, I can de­tect cer­tain all-fe­male in­flu­ences: Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, El­iz­a­beth Bishop and, lat­terly, that great artist of the very short, very high-im­pact poem, Kay Ryan. In­deed, of the 15 short­lis­tees for this year’s For­ward prizes, 11 are women.

There are scep­tics about this poetry boom­let. Michael Sch­midt, a poet who has cre­ated the Car­canet Press, thinks cre­ative-writ­ing cour­ses are all very well but they shouldn’t be cut off from lit­er­ary and philo­soph­i­cal in­flu­ences, as, in­deed, they are. He notes that too many po­ems from grad­u­ates of these cour­ses are “ekphras­tic”: a won­der­ful word that means “about other works of art”. This sug­gests to Sch­midt that these po­ets haven’t got any­thing else to write about. He also points out that per­for­mance poetry sel­dom stands up on the page.

The boom­let has in­creased his work­load. The Car­canet mag­a­zine and press com­bined now get 30 sub­mis­sions a day. The bright side of this, for Sch­midt, is that the past two years have seen some im­prove­ments in qual­ity. This seems to be cen­tred on Cam­bridge.

“More in­tel­li­gent po­ets are ap­pear­ing, of­ten in some kind of re­la­tion­ship with Ge­of­frey Hill, who lived just out­side Cam­bridge, or with the im­pres­sive pres­ence of Prynne. Poetry is be­com­ing com­plex and in­ter­est­ing again.”

But will it ever again take its place at the cen­tre of na­tional life? Novelist Philip Pull­man doubts it was ever there. “I won­der if it has ever been more than mar­ginal. The English don’t give a toss for cul­ture or ed­u­ca­tion or the life of the mind and all that sort of thing — never have. The most cel­e­brated poet ever, in his own life­time, was By­ron, and that was al­most en­tirely for his scan­dalous life.”

Per­haps he is right, and per­haps it doesn’t mat­ter. Au­den fa­mously wrote ( In Mem­ory of WB Yeats): “For poetry makes noth­ing hap­pen: it sur­vives / In the val­ley of its making.”

Much as we may hate it, we do, in fact, love poetry. Its rou­tine pres­ence in mo­ments of cri­sis, deep emo­tion or pro­found thought proves its re­silience and its es­sen­tial, be­lieve it or not, pop­u­lar­ity, even among the haters. It also proves its pre-em­i­nence in the arts as the maker of beauty out of the most or­di­nary and fa­mil­iar things imag­in­able — words.

The truth is, we turn to poetry at in­tense mo­ments be­cause we are turn­ing to art via the art most close to hand and heart.

The poet’s high obli­ga­tion at such mo­ments is, there­fore, what Au­den said it was at the end of that poem: “In the prison of his days, / Teach the free man how to praise.”

Hill did just that. Read him. Now.


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