So long as we don’t have to wear silly hats

The Observer reports that Daisy Goodwin, the UK TV presenter dubbed the “Nigella Lawson of poetry” (why oh why hasn’t she made it onto our TV screens yet?), warns that poetry is dying and will soon be as quaint as morris dancing: “really interesting to people who do it, and incomprehensible and slightly annoying to people who don’t.”
“Twenty years ago everyone could name a Larkin or a Betjeman poem and had read them. I think you’d be very hard pressed to find anybody who could name a poem by any of the top 10 poets today. It’s an endangered species.”
Really. Why could that be?
If Larkin and Betjeman were still writing today would anyone buy their poems? Of course. People still do. Betjeman might have dated, but let’s say Frost or Auden. Still selling.
Frankly I’d be hard pressed to name the current top ten poets, let alone any of their work. Name the top ten Victorian poets. Or at least five. Easy. Name a few Romantics. Even easier. (Spandau Ballet doesn’t count.) War poets? Forties and fifties? How about Shakespeare and co? You studied them in school. Harlem poets. Beat poets. Feminist poets.
This generation?
Well, that’s another matter. When’s the last time a new poem made your jaw drop – with insight, technique, humour, emotion – anything?
Christopher Logue’s War Music.
Thom Gunn’s Collected.
Perhaps Dorothy Porter’s Crete.
At the risk of sounding like dear departed Auberon Waugh (to whom blank verse was a greater evil than nuclear weaponry) … I don’t know what the backlist/frontlist ratio is, but I imagine that most poetry that people do read was not written in the past twenty years, with a few very specific exceptions (Seamus Heaney, perhaps – even the much-awarded and commercially successful Carol Ann Duffy doesn’t sell as many as you’d imagine: either of them can do the jaw-drop thing).
Apparently sales of poetry in Britain last year sank to 890,220 books, the worst performance in years. I’d bet that 800,000 of those at least were older collections and anthologies. The 90,000 were probably by Pam Ayres. I’m guessing the other 220 were by contemporary poets.
Few publishers consider books of poetry any more, unless they are classics or reshuffled anthologies suitable for the education sector. (Although there are still some popular and terrific books of poetry being written for children or young readers.)
So why be a poet? That way lies madness, starvation and infamy. Just ask Shelley.
The charming and erudite actor and writer Stephen Fry has (no, really) been called the Delia Smith of poetry. (I hate to think who’s going to be the Jamie Oliver.) Fry recently described, in his book The Ode Less Travelled, modern poetry as ‘arse-dribble’. It may be a little sweeping, but he’s got a point.
I can’t imagine Stephen Fry morris dancing, though, so perhaps there’s hope for us after all. I’d like to see him and the real Nigella reading the Brownings on TV. With a live studio audience.
Still, there’s progress of a sort. Says Duffy, who might have been Laureate:
“In the 1970s … older male poets, the Larkin generation, were both incredibly patronising and incredibly randy. If they weren’t patting you on the head, they were patting you on the bum”.
Just to rub salt into the wound, Roy Hattersley in The Guardian reminds us what a remarkable poet was Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and provides this fine insight:
… It is one of [Robert Browning’] “difficult” poems that provides the best, if an unintended, tribute to his wife. It is not one of the love poems from Men and Women but the much earlier Andrea del Sarto, subtitled The Faultless Painter. Andrea – said, in his time, to be a better draughtsman than Raphael – lacked the genius that produced “ardour and admiration”. Elizabeth was exactly the opposite. There are rough passages in her poetry but the quality is beyond serious dispute. The disturbingly named Sir Walter Raleigh, Oxford’s first professor of English literature, compared her to Christina Rossetti. Elizabeth, he said, often lost her footing, but – unlike Christina – never feared to leap. That is the poet whose work we ought to remember this year.
Andrea del Sarto could equally operate as a spur to would-be poets to remember vitality, drama, image and craft.
Reading it was one of those moments for me that Poet Laureate Andrew Motion would like all schoolchildren to experience.
I can still hear Mr Lewis’s voice, echoing in the stuffy portable classroom on a hot Melbourne afternoon, and still get goose-pimples when I read it now:

I do what many dream of, all their lives,
-Dream? strive to do, and agonize to do,
And fail in doing. I could count twenty such
On twice your fingers, and not leave this town,
Who strive – you don’t know how the others strive
To paint a little thing like that you smeared
Carelessly passing with your robes afloat –
Yet do much less, so much less, Someone says,
(I know his name, no matter) – so much less!
Well, less is more, Lucrezia: I am judged.
There burns a truer light of God in them,
In their vexed beating stuffed and stopped-up brain,
Heart, or whate’er else, than goes on to prompt
This low-pulsed forthright craftsman’s hand of mine.
Their works drop groundward, but themselves, I know,
Reach many a time a heaven that’s shut to me,
Enter and take their place there sure enough,
Though they come back and cannot tell the world…
My works are nearer heaven, but I sit here.
Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?

4 thoughts on “So long as we don’t have to wear silly hats

  1. When’s the last time a new poem made your jaw drop – with insight, technique, humour, emotion – anything?The last relatively new poem that did such things to me was written by Derek Walcott. Several poems, actually. But sometimes I sit and read “The Schooner Flight” aloud to myself, and the end always chokes me up.Have you read it?

  2. I hadn’t, but I have now, and am very pleased I did. Thanks. I’m embrrassed to admit I’d forgotten Walcott (and no doubt many others, but oh the joy of being proved wrong). Now I’ve got a half-baked riff about post-colonialism floating though my head. But perhaps it’s just his sea:”You ever look up from some lonely beachand see a far schooner? Well, when I writethis poem, each phrase go be soaked in salt;I go draw and knot every line as tightas ropes in this rigging; in simple speechmy common language go be the wind,my pages the sails of the schooner Flight.”

  3. Just reading that somewhere other than in my book brought chills to me, remembering other times I’d read it. I want to quote that beautiful, beautiful sad last line, but I won’t, because someone who hasn’t read all the other lines before it will read it, and it will it spoil it for them.I once heard Walcott read it in Toronto, and he read the lines you quoted, but not the end. A few weeks after that reading, I met him, even went out for lunch with him. Every second week he’d do a poetry-reading seminar for the Comparative Literature department. He was the Nobel Laureate at the time, and I remember feeling a sense of giddy vertigo afterwards — it’s silly, I know. But he was the greatest poet I’d ever met. We read poets like Robert Frost and Edward Thomas, and I was utterly amazed at how much skill it seemed to take just to read the way Walcott read. I vowed never to write another verse again.

  4. It’s a voice to induce vertigo. Solemn – like an archibishop, but always with that power. I’ve never heard him live, but you can hear him read Homecoming here: spooky in that archive is Plath reading Lady Lazarus. Weirdly, she sounds invincible. Perhaps she was.And Stevie Smith, who I never thought of as posh, has a definite plum in her mouth. Tennyson really sounds on the Edison cylinder as if he’s calling from the other side, and manages to make the Charge of the Light Brigade sound dull.One you hear a poet read well, even on the radio or web, you can hear his or her voice forever more in every line – even when it’s inappropriate.

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