Life gets worse for verse

Poetry has been put through the academic wringer and obfuscated by jargon

Books Columns

This article is taken from the October issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

The most obvious problem with poetry may be apprehended by picking up a copy of an upmarket literary magazine (the London Review of Books, say, or the Times Literary Supplement) and scanning the first item in it advertised on the contents page as a “poem”. Does it rhyme? Does it scan? Is it intelligible? Is it, in fact, anything other than a piece of prose chopped up into irregular lines?

If the answers to these questions are no, no, no and no, then you can congratulate yourself on having chanced upon a thoroughly representative example of modern poetry.

But this is not the real difficulty. After all, nobody ever said that a poem had to be intelligible, or rhyme or scan or be accessible to the non-specialist to bring off its effects. And the experimental/traditionalist stand-off, which these characteristics reflect, has been going on for a couple of centuries. Just as the grammarians distrusted Keats, so Georgians and Modernists fought a series of running battles through the poetry magazines of the 1920s.

We can only pray that their authors don’t get taken up by the LRB where all the sap will be drained out of them

Meanwhile, above the literary landscapes of the Fifties could be heard the despairing cries of various neo-Romantics being chewed up and spat out by plain-man “Movement” poets such as Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin. No, the real problem with poetry lies in a) its demographic, and b) the way it gets administered.

To begin with the demographic, well, as with the contemporary novel, only even more so, fragmentation has set in. Basically, there are a whole heap of people out there identifying themselves as poets, from J.H. Prynne to Kae (formerly Kate) Tempest and Alice Oswald to Simon Armitage, Luke Wright and Barry the Bard from Brixton. Such is the multitude of approaches to which they cling and the variety of traditions they acknowledge that no framework could ever be devised capable of accommodating them all and no mainstream can ever be identified in which they do or don’t participate.

At the same time, and when set against other forms of literature, this is still a highly circumscribed world, dominated by a handful of publishing outfits (Bloodaxe, Carcanet, above all Faber & Faber) with a limited number of grey eminences to call the shots.

It would be very odd, given these tight parameters, if cliquishness weren’t endemic to the brand. As it is, no poetry competition in the UK can ever be judged, no grant awarded or bauble conferred without Private Eye jumping up to point out that three of the judges are sponsored by the same firm as the winner, or that everybody involved taught on an Arvon course six months ago and then reassembled for a debate at the Royal Society of Literature.

The late Peter Levi — a decent poet himself — once wrote a critical study entitled The Noise Made by Poems (1977). One of the other problems about poetry is the noise made by the persons charged with bringing it to public attention. Naturally, like every other branch of literature in the modern age, it has been put through the academic wringer, had MA courses devoted to it and been garlanded with obfuscating jargon that, like the poems in the highbrow magazines, is almost expressly calculated to deter readers brought up on Kipling, Betjeman and Larkin from venturing anywhere near it.

As for the individual poet on whose glittering form the practice and promotion of poetry is supposed to be focused — the Poet Laureate — he (and it has been mostly a he) has been swept up by the publicity juggernaut since the era of Ted Hughes. To function as Laureate in the twenty-first century is to have to take a very deep breath and steel yourself to write doggerel about public events for the newspapers which most serious onlookers will think ridiculous.

Nadir in this department was reached by the verses Carol Ann Duffy produced for the Guardian in the wake of the 2017 general election, and it will be interesting to see if new incumbent Simon Armitage can stave off the reputational damage which accession to the post usually implies.

Happily, there are a few green shoots surging through these fields of concrete. One of them is the work being done by the poet Kate Clanchy with disadvantaged children — many of them refugees only recently introduced to English — from the Oxford council estates (see her account of this experiment Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, which won this year’s Orwell Prize for non-fiction).

The poems, which every so often Ms Clanchy releases onto Twitter, nearly always have a genuine freshness and vitality: what distinguishes them from most of the stuff churned out by the formal poetry machine is the sense that they had to be written. We can only pray that their authors don’t get taken up by the LRB or piped onto university MA courses where all the sap will be drained out of them and the institutionalising process will start to work its effect.

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