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Poetry matters

When poetry is sold as nothing more inspiring than literary politics, is it any surprise the poetry shelves in Waterstones are so dusty?

Artillery Row

If the first thing that strikes you about that title is its ambiguity, then I’m willing to bet someone skilled taught you about poetry. In recent years I’ve spoken at a number of cultural events, where organisers specifically ask me to enthuse and excite people who are normally averse to poetry, perhaps because they lack confidence about it. There’s even a pathological label for them: metrophobes

There’s a reason the poetry sections in major bookstores take up so little space, and it has nothing to do with the slimness of poetry volumes. Even book buyers eschew poetry, which I find profoundly worrying since poetry isn’t an innocent hobby like knitting or the allotment. It’s central to every era’s culture, because it is language used at its most artful, and the quality of any culture can never exceed the quality of its language. 

Sitting in a car park before one of these events on National Poetry Day, I was listening to BBC Radio’s Today programme, during which the poet Nikita Gill uttered these precise words: “All poetry is political. Even poems about flowers are political” a statement of such derisory nonsense that I fully expected a lively discussion to follow, but no. No less than Simon Armitage, the current English poet laureate, and the BBC’s Mishal Husain sounded entirely happy with the claim. 

When poetry is sold to the public by poets themselves, as nothing more inspiring than literary politics, as wordy activism, before being paraded like some spoilt, over-dressed child by its over indulgent parents, to perform in front of their grown-up guests outside the Whitehouse, is it any surprise the poetry shelves in Waterstones are so dusty? Politics in the arts is like rust; it dulls the edge of everything it touches. 

Instead of a cutting edge, you get rotting, crumbling flakes

This is of course, a relatively new problem; one borne out of the slow colonisation of literature and the arts by politically motivated individuals and academics, that has steadily progressed with little opposition since the 60s. Take a look, in contrast, at an old English ballad called Tom O’Bedlam’s Song, which Harold Bloom once described as “the most magnificent anonymous poem in the language”. It dates from around 1620. It is simply impossible to read this aloud and not sense the vitality behind it, or perceive that, above all, poetry has an elemental connection with sound. 

One cannot read lines like these aloud and not grasp that poets make music, with words. 

Of thirty bare years have I
Twice twenty been enragèd,
And of forty been three times fifteen
In durance soundly cagèd.

You are of course free to read the poem as political commentary on medieval poverty but you’d be spectacularly missing the point. It would be like going to an American Diner, buying a Knickerbocker Glory and only eating the wafer. Or as John Donne might have said, a woeful delight. 

When it comes to short, standalone lyrics, few poems have ever impressed me as much as John Donne’s Twickenham Garden. It is the perfect lyric. Six, staggeringly clever sentences flowing across twenty-seven lines of beautifully constructed verse. If Milton is English poetry’s Tintoretto, Donne is its Fabergé. 

He is also in a league of his own when it comes to poetic conceit. At its simplest, a conceit in poetry is an elaborate or surprising metaphor. In Twickenham Garden he compares himself to a garden fountain in a supremely strained effort to convince his lover that his tears are proof of his love. Conceits lie at the heart of so much successful poetry because they spark new meaning from cold ashes. Separately, the two participants in any metaphor are inert, dormant, but the moment a poet perceives a connection between them, they generate new life. 

Donne often does this through his courageous toying with sex and religion, which is literally breath-taking: get it wrong at the time, and there were a number of even more vital things they would take from you on the scaffold before they finally, and mercifully, got to your breath. Donne’s own brother Henry died in prison for his faith. If there is one thing I admire above all else about Donne’s poetry, it is his courage. This is a quality in desperately short supply today, when our entire literary culture feels characterised by puritanical scorn, introspective self-pity and a shameful timidity. That’s what happens to art when you let politics get above its station. Instead of a cutting edge, you get rotting, crumbling flakes.

This new, English Dark Age of self-censorship, characterised by foolish, timid notions like offence and hate crime, has only been made possible by instilling in people widespread linguistic fear. Reading work as brilliantly vital and courageous as Donne’s is the perfect antidote. 

My father was the perfect age for fighting

The colonisation of poetry by the politically-minded is symptomatic of an academic culture that finds it far easier to mimic a political stance than to articulate a genuinely personal response to poetry. The academic world is full of people who are not the least embarrassed about using their professional role as the most convenient means to exercise nothing more intellectually edifying than their personal party politics. The object of their study, whatever it may be, is then subordinated to the greater good just a pawn in a far grander power game they naively imagine themselves to be participating in. 

The personal response is all poetry really cares about. Without it, all verse is just a sprinkling of black ideograms on a white page. 

The novelist Graham Greene argued that the difference between writing a short story and a novel, was that after completing a novel, he was a different writer. The difference between poetry and prose is that after reading poetry, you are a different reader. All great poetry enhances your ability to read; as a result you become far better equipped to defend yourself against anyone who wields language as a weapon, whether scientifically, politically or in the confines of the board or bedroom. Reading poetry makes your linguistic life, and hence your lived life, richer and stronger. 

One easily overlooked Second World War poem exposes this critical fault line perfectly. The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner is a deeply disturbing lament. In only five terse lines, it describes the nightmarish vulnerability of being suspended in a tiny glass bubble, underneath a B17 bomber six miles above the ground, while enemy fighters swoop in to attack. The fate of the poem’s tragic narrator, is to be hosed out of his own turret.  

C. Levenson wrote in the Virginia Quarterly Review that The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner “establishes the matter-of-factness of flak and fight more successfully than it establishes its big generalization about airmen—and boys—as creatures of the State”. I disagree. I think one of the most powerful but least understood aspects of poetry, is how often readers respond to it on a uniquely personal level. Nelson Mandela survived decades of imprisonment with the help of what many today would regard as a trite little scrap of maudlin Victoriana, a poem called Invictus

People talk about particular poems they love or read because they associate them with particular memories, people or events, yet it’s become far more common to study poetry from feminist or psychological perspectives, than from the unashamedly personal. Over decades the overtly political has come to dominate the academic study of poetry, completely overshadowing an equally valuable critical approach that focuses on how verse relates to the individual, lived experience of its readers. 

My father was the perfect age for fighting. He joined the Household Cavalry in 1939 and left on 12 December 1945 after serving in Italy, the Middle East and North Africa. He spent much of the war in armoured cars as a radio operator. Like most soldiers with battlefield experience, he rarely ever talked about it, but occasionally, when I was very small, he would tell me a story or two. One of his stories explains why I find The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner so poignant. 

The sanctimoniousness is just excruciating

One absurdly hot afternoon in Italy, he told me how he had spent hours listening on the radio to the local US air force base, where one after another, the huge B17 bombers, ironically called flying fortresses, were coming in to land. He said it had upset him terribly because from every single plane, all afternoon, the conversation went something like this: “Coming in to land…five dead two wounded.” Or, “Coming in to land…three dead four wounded.” Et cetera, et cetera, for hours. B17s flew with ten crew. All the time he was thinking how many of them were younger than him just boys really, just creatures of the State. You are welcome to tell me how Jarrell’s poem demonstrates that “all poetry is political, even poems about flowers are political”. But if you do, then you haven’t been really listening. 

A key part of this depressing picture has been the rise of performance poetry. It has closely paralleled the evolution of the publishing industry from selling literature as a product, to selling the author as both product and celebrity. 

There is no reason whatsoever that just because you wrote a great poem, you can also read it. Ever since I first stepped cautiously into some smoky, darkened room above an obscure London pub as a student about forty years ago, to hear someone perform their own poetry, I’ve struggled. 

It’s common to hear contemporary poets adopt this bizarre, painfully unnatural kind of faux gravitas: a kind of weird, lilting monotone, oozing sincerity that sounds wholly unnatural and forces pauses onto syntax where there are none. It’s become de rigeur in advertisements featuring poetry, where the sanctimoniousness is just excruciating. 

There is also a definite clique thing, a whiff of superiority that lingers amongst contemporary poets, a deliberate effort to distance and raise themselves above the common man which the common man, unsurprisingly, doesn’t like. Coleridge and Wordsworth knew all about it. Hence, The Lyrical Ballads. Too many performance poets are clearly in it for the performance, not the poetry. 

At best, cultural vandalism and at worst, cultural suicide

For my last book on poetry, I got permission to use a poem by one of the most successful modern performance poets, Hollie McNish, called Famous for What? If you try and read Famous for What? aloud, it’s extremely difficult because the punctuation you necessarily rely on is missing or simply unreliable. McNish herself performs it in a kind of breathless, impulsive lilt which has become a conventional approach to reading widely adopted by performance poets, I suspect without themselves really knowing why, other than this is what their peers do. 

This is the best way I can describe it. The technique is to ride over the natural rhythm of individual words, ignoring what conventional poetry calls metre, while imposing a rhythm all your own, for one reason only so that you can deliver the rhyme. 

Poetry isn’t politics. To teach anyone otherwise is to steal something immensely precious from them. It robs them of the most valuable cultural tool they will ever possess: the ability to understand the astonishing complexity, nuance and beauty inherent in the English language, that so many people across the globe now share. To filter poetry through the narrow, desiccated interests of that tiny minority of human beings who have ever assumed to think they are intelligent and wise enough to tell the rest of humanity how to live or behave we call them politicians is at best, cultural vandalism and at worst, cultural suicide. 

The next time you’re in Waterstones or some other, less well branded bookshop, don’t pass by the poetry section. Pick up one of those slim volumes and sit down with it. Flick through the pages until a title catches your eye, then silently read and relish that single poem. You will be helping English culture step back from the edge.

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