Why I ...believe poetry deserves more than one day

October 6, 2000

Peter McDonald Tutor in poetry Christ Church, Oxford

As National Poetry Day passes for another year, anyone whose business is the teaching of poetry might be forgiven for feeling a little jaded. In English departments, too many of the teaching staff wish poetry away into the realms of theory or history. At the same time, the promoters of contemporary poetry pretend that it is something arresting, up-to-date and unrelentingly accessible.

If pressed, a good many of us can name a "favourite poem" - it will generally be Rudyard Kipling's If - but most people don't actually like poetry. It is true that liking poetry will not make you a better person or teach you much of any practical use. Nor will its performers give you as many laughs as Eddie Izzard. The trouble with poetry as entertainment is that it makes lousy entertainment.

The last thing the Poetry Day promoters would want is for poetry to be "academic". Yet within the academy, poetry has two aspects: the academic subject and the creative activity - although there are signs of the two reaching an accommodation, especially as "creative writing" edges into English degrees as a market force.

For a poet who has been for many years a practising lecturer in English, my mixed job description makes sense, although initially I retained some scepticism about the "creative writing" side of things: would the students want nothing but creative uplift and the provision of feelgood feedback?

My apprehensions were misplaced. The students are serious about what they are beginning to do and rightly try to hold themselves to daunting standards. These aspiring writers are impressed by neither the promotion of contemporary poetry, nor the evasion of poetry in much academic discourse. For them, poetry is more important than popularity and more immediate than the protocols of the critical industry. This has got to be good news.

Learning to write is part of learning to read, and not all readers are the straightforward consumers hoped for by the accessibility-fetishists on the one hand, or academics on the other.

There is a future for poetry beyond an annual day of public relations: the real thing will happen without promotion and some experts probably will not notice or understand.

* Interview by by Helen Hague

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