Why are so many people blank about verse?

BBC One’s Why Poetry Matters was a noble idea, but it proved to be more patronising than inspiring.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

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There are but two intellectual fields of endeavour which educated people feel that it’s acceptable to admit that they don’t like, or don’t understand, or both. The first is mathematics and rudimentary arithmetic. ‘I’m crap at adding up. I’m terrible with numbers’, some high-brow people will declare, even boast, as if it’s a mark of intellectual superiority and aloofness. Consider a comparable announcement: ‘I can’t spell to save my life. I’m rubbish with words.’ Have you ever heard anyone proclaim thus with a sense of pride? No.

The second is poetry. Poetry elicits derision by serious people because it is somehow considered a bastardised, misleading version of prose. Poetry, in many people’s minds, seeks to attain eternal truths by appealing to the emotions and twisting the meaning of words to achieve a desired end. This is why I have never trusted the verse of the war poets Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon, whose poetic appeal in the 1930s tells you far more about the appeasement movement of that decade than the actual historical truths of the First World War. And never trust anyone who writes about the history of Ireland by prefacing it with some lines from WB Yeats (‘the centre cannot hold’, yadda yadda yadda). At least music is transparently and primarily aesthetical and manifestly fantastical. There is thus no shame in admitting in polite society that you don’t like poetry.

I never have really been a fan of poetry for these reasons. Poetry seems to inhabit a strange, ambiguous no-man’s land between prose and music. It’s neither overtly serious or plainly escapist. It seems to want it both ways, and I can’t read poetry without mentally trying to put it to a tune, or by trying to interpret it in a literally prosaic manner as some kind of social commentary.

What puts a lot of people off poetry is the perception that many hardened aficionados of famous poets are plainly dickheads, who often regard their gurus to be political prophets. Think of all the idiots who worshipped Allen Ginsberg and the Beat Poets as the leading spokesmen of a counter-cultural revolution, or the young fogies who saw TS Elliot as some kind of spokesman for a prelapsarian Anglo-Catholic England, or those who still regard Sylvia Plath as a feminist martyr. Poetry to my mind was inextricably linked to people you met and who you didn’t like in university: the ones who wore black turtle-neck shirts and who you always suspected talked about poetry because they were trying to impress members of the opposite sex.

More honest folk without intellectual pretensions have usually simply stated that poetry is ‘too hard’. And this was the delusion that Griff Rhys Jones sought to dispel on Wednesday night on BBC One with the documentary Why Poetry Matters (1). The show is part of the BBC’s poetry season, the slogan of which is that ‘Poetry Is For Everyone’.

I think it’s a good thing trying to inculcate we verse-morons as to the beauty and earnestness that can be transmitted by poetry. And the BBC has been doing a fine job of it in recent evenings by repeating superlative old documentaries on Philip Larkin, WH Auden and John Betjeman, whose poetry, to use a woefully bland and corny term, seemed lovely. What is more, the three poets in question came across respectively as sorrowful, spiritual and ebullient.

But the BBC documentary Why poetry matters was symptomatic of a corporation that doesn’t know what it stands for anymore. It attempted to be simultaneously didactic and ‘relevant’, and as a result it just ended up being patronising. ‘We’re hard-wired to like poetry’, said Jones. ‘We have tremendous poets’, he continued, in reference to the large number of British and Irish poets these islands have bequeathed to the world, owing, he suggested, to the sheer number of synonyms the English language has. Poetry, Jones declared, is ‘about everything’, as he went on to conclude that the verses from the King James Bible and the speeches of Barack Obama were somehow classed as poetry.

So with the references to Shakespeare, Keats, Behan and Thomas obligatorily dispensed with, Jones concluded with a visit to North London to take part in a trendy ‘poetry slam’ in Camden Town, in which poets competed in a quasi a cappella competition. This was meant to suggest that poetry is not merely the preserve of the elite or the old or the white, but was still very much vibrant and living today. Why Poetry Matters was classically symptomatic of the way in which the BBC approaches the arts today: it is lofty and yet creepily absurd. The BBC is like one of those trendy history teachers who pronounces: ‘Now, the Renaissance. It was not boring. It was very important. Just imagine it as a big rave, in which instead of everyone getting high on drugs, they were getting high on “thought”.’

But the juxtaposition, or dichotomy, between high or low, or ancient and modern art forms, needn’t be treated this way. After all, Seamus Heaney has saluted Eminem for having ‘sent a voltage around his generation’ (2), and what with the masterful return of Marshall Mathers this month, it is worth keeping in mind (even for morons like me, who used to perceive poetry as a monolithic thing in itself) that to talk of the importance of ‘poetry’ is, and perhaps always has been, a misconception.

Read out aloud, Finnegans Wake sounds like poetry. Read quietly, the lyrics of Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen resemble poetry. And it is not dumbing down if one were to agree that Eminem is one of the finest poets today, even if poetry purists insist that his rapping is too overtly rhythmical. But what’s to differentiate Betjeman’s tribute to Metro-Land (3) and Eminem’s 8 Mile Road (4), both of which are clearly influenced by the clickety-clack of the railway?

The problem with the BBC’s poetry season is that poetry has become so diffuse within our culture, that it is now everywhere, and nowhere.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist.

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) Why Poetry Matters, BBC

(2) Seamus Heaney praises Eminem, BBC News, 30 June 2003

(3) Betjeman in Metro-Land, YouTube

(4) 8 Mile Road, Eminem, YouTube

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Topics Culture


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