Poetry cornered

Goodbye, sweet Calliope, farewell Erato? In a consumerist world where speed and image rule, poetry's emotional meanings are being lost. Neil McBride muses, partly through verse, on the future of this embattled art

December 3, 2009

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the renowned astrophysicist, hid her love for poetry from the world until she retired, out of fear of what people would think. Only when she was beyond attack could she write and talk about it.

Of Science, a 2001 anthology of poetry by scientists, co-edited by David Morley, director of the Warwick Writing Programme at the University of Warwick, was published with the writers remaining anonymous. Good, intelligent men and women, clothed in cold rationality, considered it professional suicide to admit to any literary emotions.

In his lab he's hid Whitsun Weddings behind the sink,

The latest volume of Fuller sandwiched between reagent catalogues.

Shakespeare's sonnets encoded in the lab book

Rossetti pasted to the wall behind the periodic table.

Amongst the chaotic dishes and tubes, there cannot be anything poetic at all

Rhythm and language must be neutralised, the third person

Is the wash of objectivity, the veneer of scientific discipline:

Verse is hidden at the back of a drawer covered with Millipore.

The poets of science have no names, clothed in the shame

Of irrationality, the atrocity of the literary mind is unspoken

Words must be disguised, sanitised. Any evidence of life

Outside the rational, the objective, must be denied.

The observatory is cold, dark, starless. Pulsars blip

The steady drip, drip of numbers stripped of spirit

The poetry of the stars is a dark matter

Planets are mathematical objects swimming in an emotional vacuum.

Do not suggest that patterns, laws, and the aesthetics of structure

Hold anything of the spirit. Don't speak poetry to me:

We silence our critics, mute emotions, declare ourselves "observers".

There is no soul, nothing but a rotting body of clockwork chemicals.

Perhaps the power of poetry is its downfall. It addresses uncertainty. It questions, it leaves frayed edges and loose wires. It draws out the hidden, the spiritual, the underlying rhythms of life that we swamp with information, noise and news channels. We reject poetry because we shun its emotional engagement.

In the eyes of the general public, poetry is reduced to ditties. On BBC Radio 4, no less, poet and publisher Felix Dennis commented on swine flu in the form of a nursery rhyme. The only established poet to get anywhere near the dizzy heights of WH Smith's top 100 bestsellers is Pam Ayres.

As for the established poets, only Seamus Heaney makes it on to the coffee table, displayed with picture books of coral reefs and unread books on quantum physics. The rest are nowhere to be seen. Hiding behind the prizes - T.S. Eliot, Forward, Costa - their work is held to the camera as yet another "slim volume". Their message is limited to a narrow band of aficionados, and their sales are held up by the mercenary study of the likes of Gillian Clarke, Simon Armitage and the ubiquitous Heaney in A-level English.

Nobody would deny the genius of poets such as Sean O'Brien, Paul Muldoon and Ruth Padel, but the level of academic achievement needed to appreciate them reaches doctoral standards. Even O'Brien's jokes in The Drowned Book (2007) require a good grounding in English literature: "The lady is a trope" raises laughs in English lit classes, but not from the uneducated.

So what are we to do? Do we leave poetry to the literary clique, with the occasional escape like a spurt from a sleeping volcano? Do we descend to the level of limerick and nursery rhyme? Do we leave the hard, thankless task of connecting people with poetry to the laureates, to the efforts of Andrew Motion through the Poetry Archive, or to the work of Carol Ann Duffy? Or do we look for a middle way that connects at one level and challenges at another?

This is an age-old concern, what Padel calls the "2,000-year-old problem": the battle between obscurity and popularity, between depth and superficiality; the flight to comfort and familiarity, the story with the happy ending; the light ditty, entertaining for a moment and then forgotten. Poetry needs to challenge, to connect with deep emotions - to threaten, even. But if there is no hook, no connection with readers' world view to what Jurgen Habermas calls their "lifeworld", poems remain sterile and nobody will get anywhere.

For Motion, part of the problem is dissemination. Poets aren't on the news, in soap operas or featured in the pages of OK!, Heat or TV Times. They aren't connecting with social networks; they don't have a high profile in the marketplace.

The efforts of the BBC's recent "Poetry Season" must help, but even then it was the intellectual heavyweights, academics such as Simon Schama, who were hauled on to BBC Two and BBC Four while the rest of the population watched Britain's Got Talent five nights a week.

On Newsnight, Armitage said that poetry and war are specialised. Afghanistan is hidden away and sanitised: distant, foreign, somewhat incomprehensible, with a language of its own and an obscure purpose, important but far removed from domestic economic realities. And what is an insurgent, anyway?

And there is quite a parallel with information and communications technology (ICT) and computing. They are seen as hard, boring, for a clique of aficionados and geeks, not to be pursued. There is a social and perceptual barrier to overcome. The social importance of ICT and poetry, the excitement of engagement, the novelty, their range of ideas and their potential for the enrichment of life are ignored. And yet poetry is at the heart of our lives. The Bible, the Koran and the Bhagavadgita are full of poetry. The great myths and stories, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and The Odyssey, are framed in poetic terms. Has poetry been hijacked by academics who compete with one another to be the most obscure? Is it merely an academic feat of snobbery left out to cure in the sun?

There was no snobbery in William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe or Ben Jonson. Shakespeare's audience was no academic clique. The unwashed - shouting, drinking, farting, walking in and out - turned up in their droves to the Globe. The political classes engaged with his material and showed it off to the diplomats, yet Shakespeare did not talk down to the masses, nor demand the purity of language and the preservation of its past. He wrote to entertain, but he wove together meaning and language on many levels. He took words out of people's mouths, transformed them and pitched them back.

Much of Shakespeare's work beyond the stories and bawdy jokes must have gone straight over the heads of people in the audience, but they went away with new cadences and words ringing in their ears.

So the Bard engaged with the people and yet pulled them into new realms. By doing so, he evolved language and struck emotional connections.

Perhaps it is the scaffold of his dramatic storytelling, poetic relationships and their relentless narrative drive that provides the framework for deep emotion and deep language. Or perhaps Shakespeare's audience was more attuned to life, death and strong emotions. Perhaps it's time for a return to the ballad, to rooting poetry in strong storylines, to riding on the back of Hollywood. Can there be poetry in the language of the screen, in cuts, in short and long shots, in tight dialogue?

Poetry connects with life and emotion and existence and the reasons for living. Perhaps today's superficiality has suffocated it. The reduction of life to money and consumerism, love to sex and orgasms, and death to sanitised crematoriums and renditions of My Way muffles the spiritual, deflects reflection and reduces debate to a social faux pas.

We have found meaning, desire and creativity in the shopping mall rather than the book, the word, the verse. My desires are heightened by neon lights, coffee houses, designer shops and John Lewis. Inner meaning and spirituality are lost amid the consumerism, accumulation and buying that constitutes the new religion. Is it any wonder that poetry is banished to the classroom when the solution to the economic crisis is seen to be more rampant consumerism? Because poetry demands spiritual connection, its currency is all but exhausted.

My first encounter with poetry was through Ted Hughes' 1960s work Poetry in the Making, a book for children that challenges them to think, to imagine. The images conjured up by his poems The Thought Fox and Pike challenged me to imagine and write my own descriptions of the natural world. With the spoken word, with radio, with written text, there is a demand for engagement. We must imagine. The work of creating the image, of imagining, must be done by the audience. Even in plays, the limited stage design and props are merely scaffolding for the audience to build an imaginative world. But our reliance on the moving image makes us passive recipients of someone else's imagination. As our imaginative muscles weaken, reading poetry becomes harder and harder work.

If poetry requires thought and reflection, a pause, staying with an image or a line of inquiry instead of moving on to the next stimulus, how can it survive in a world where instant gratification is the norm, where we switch off if the next fix, shock or flash doesn't appear on the screen? We will not linger long enough with one image, one thought, one sentence for the picture to come into focus.

Are we to be defeated by superficial engagement with life, consumerism, the atrophy of imagination and attention? Are we to paint over the walls with rationalism?

Perhaps poetry is too slow. The late Mick Imlah's The Lost Leader (2008) took 25 years to appear. Where was the urgency, the currency? The gestation period, the writing and rewriting, leaves poetry discarded, stillborn as life and media press on. Perhaps poets should write quickly, producing to express the moment, realising that while today's poem may not (for hygiene reasons) wrap fish and chips, it will quickly end up in the recycling box or lining the guinea-pig cage.

The poetry of the laureate is remaindered;

A bargain amongst the romances and obscure biographies.

The emotions expressed are put out to recycle;

The sharp insights bleached by sun, browned by age.

I might have written my heart out, explored tender wounds;

But what remains is rendered basic,

Unfit for fish and chips and buried

In the detritus of a consumed life.

Those who find it hidden amongst the Wordsworth and Coleridge

Wonder if I ever lived or breathed or felt

The tenderness of love, the frustration of queues

The emptiness of crowds.

This poetry captures an emotion,

Projects my hologram hung briefly in the air,

An image from the past, I reach out and call

Before dissolving into the white steel wall.

If hardly any word will be absorbed,

If whole sermons are reduced to a single image,

If hidden words remain ignored, lost in flight,

The fleeting image must be written light.

The whole poem executed by a pointillist's brush,

Leaves some impression after the detail fades

A whole interpretation requires a thousand words

And an image picked out at a distance.

I might as well write for Heat and Hello

Endless words paraded by without recognition.

You will only pick out the familiar phrase

The comforting message heard too often.

Or that which is so horrific, the image will stay

The deflowered maiden, hands sliced, tongue stopped

The shocking, the revolting, when the ground gives way

And the landmarks are left behind.

You may be drawn in by the simple verse, the easy idea

A quick point, a joke, a simple message.

Beyond the blue-mirrored shallows

A deeper message awaits.

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