Some personal thoughts on the relevance of poetry

The dverse discussion yesterday evening was about poetry and its relevance today. I write poetry but I don’t consider myself a poet. What I enjoy in poetry is something elusive and beautiful that I can’t reproduce. It doesn’t stop me trying though. The world needs amateurs as well as pros. It set me thinking about the nature of poetry and why so many of us think it’s important. I don’t see writing poetry as a group activity, something that can be improved upon with group input. You’ve either got it or you haven’t. You either see/hear what needs changing or you don’t. What interests me though, is how poetry has changed or not over the thousands of years human beings have been pumping it out.

Before the invention of the Internet and more specifically Instagram with its instagratification, art forms changed slowly and painfully. It’s hard for us to look at Paolo Uccello’s Battle of San Romano or Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe or anything by the German Expressionists and see dangerous precedent, degeneracy, sapping of public morals and possibly presaging the destruction of society as we know it.

New meant, we’re in dangerous waters here. Until the Pope, the President or the local vicar had pronounced on whether a new book or artwork was morally ‘sound’ the ordinary man in the street averted his gaze.

“Is it a book that you would even want your wife or your servants to read?” The question, remember, was asked not by Sir Thomas More at the beginning of the sixteenth century but by the prosecuting council in the Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscenity trial in 1960. Conservatism had been the watchword since forever, and novelty was suspect at best, at worst a capital offence.

The tide has changed. Now, novelty is de rigueur. In poetry, anything that has a classical form is accused of emulation of another (possibly dead, but always acclaimed) poet. Poetry used to be easy to understand. It didn’t set out to be obscure, exclusive or highly personal. It was for the consumption and enjoyment of anyone who enjoyed the music of words strung together like notes in a melody. Enjoyment meant a certain knowledge of the language, familiarity with a certain vocabulary, an education of sensibility, and until recently, literacy itself was the preserve of the privileged.  But that is true of literature in general; it is supposed to inspire, to draw upwards, not wallow in the gutter with the empty fag packets and beer cans. It can be inspired by empty beer cans, but the language used ought to transcend Heineken- and Carlsberg-speak.

The trend until very recently in poetry and visual art has been for work that is so obscure nobody is really sure what it means. There are just interpretations of what it might mean, and cleverness has been accused of becoming a substitute for art. On the other hand, lyricism has become frowned upon because everyone understands that. It’s been done. It’s hackneyed.

Possibly in a backlash, the younger generations have discovered the instapoets, rap and slam. Here, the meaning is crystal clear, the words easy to understand, the message immediately recognisable. Poetry has come full circle, back to the bawdy familiarity of Chaucer and the simplicity of Shakespeare’s language but without their masterly execution. The two schools of poetry, the intellectual and obscure, and the instafix co-exist in an uneasy truce. Real poets who are poor, despise the instapoets who are coining it. The instapoets must be laughing all the way to the bank.

Whether either school produces great poetry is not an argument I’d want to get involved in, since I don’t enjoy reading either the poetry that has got lost up its own arse, or the trite, catchy, instantly forgotten stuff. I don’t know exactly what ‘relevant’ means in the context of poetry, and I’m not convinced it matters much anyway. All I’d say is it’s a shame that everybody seems to despise poems like The Highwayman or Sea Fever that we were taught in primary school, without asking themselves, why is it that after maybe forty years we can still recite them, their magic still works?

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Jane Dougherty

I used to do lots of things I didn't much enjoy. Now I am officially a writer. It's what I always wanted to be.

40 thoughts on “Some personal thoughts on the relevance of poetry”

  1. I recently read a poem that was the editor’s pick of the month, full of swearing for the sake of swearing, pretentious as hell, and I was like – you gotta be kidding me.

    You don’t consider yourself a poet? Now you’re kidding me, Jane, get serious.

    1. I think it’s a lot like visual art. The people who decide what is good and what’s not don’t have a clue. If you live in a country that’s prudish about swearing/taking the lord thy god in vain/sex/guns/abuse all you have to do is put a whole slather of it on a page and some idiot will say, wow, how courageous!
      I’m a writer. I write well, I can see that, but poetry is special. There’s a magic to a good poem that few people ever reach. I’d love to tap into it, but I have high standards and don’t think I’ve found it. I’m very critical of other people’s writing as well as my own. There’s a lot of easy praise gets flung around on the internet. It doesn’t mean much.

      1. We create. That’s all we can do. Only a few are ever going to be great. I’d be happy to be just ‘good’, but there is a lot of praise lavished on stuff that just isn’t. Either people are very undiscriminating or they’ve never read real poetry.

  2. I like The Highwayman. Well, I’m fond of ballads. 🙂 Lorena McKinnet set it to music. I’m not a fan of poetry that I can’t understand. I mean, layers of meaning is fine, and poetry is not prose, but when I read a poem, and I have no idea what it’s supposed to be saying–yeah, that’s just does seem pretentious.

    1. That kind of exclusive poetry irritates me intensely. With great poetry, we’re aware of the layers of meaning without necessarily understanding all the references. The beauty of the language and the inferred meaning is enough. When I read a poem that has a probable subtext because the literal text doesn’t mean anything, it’s a poem that’s asking, are you clever enough to understand me? Pretentious is the word

  3. Sometimes what I write comes out better in a poetry format. I often read some of my early stuff and think, Did I really write that? Sometimes it pays off, others not so much, but it is a form of expression and I’m all for that. I think your stuff is great Jane.

    1. It is a form of expression and I think it’s a human urge to be creative. I’ve got better too, and that’s what gives me hope that there’s still the possibility for improvement.
      I’m pleased you like some of my poems, Di. I’m pleased with some of them too, more often than not it’s just a handful of lines that I feel are worth something.

      1. I’ve decided that my convictions are part of me, they make me what I am. I would rather be open about them than pussy foot around smiling diplomatically when people assume (wrongly) I’m on their side of the fence. There are some things I really hate. Get me onto religion, bigotry, or misogyny and I’ll let you have the works 🙂

      2. Une force de la nature. I’d like to have that said of me. I’m not matriarch material though. Too fragile. Just too clever by half, maybe 🙂 It makes me happy that you find some strength in me. Thank you 🙂

  4. I think the rejection of classical forms is also true in fiction as well, just not as visible as with verse. It’s more about narrative structure, character archetypes, narrative style, etc. By the way, I would not call you an amateur! You’ve been published many times. Maybe not a full-time working professional, but far from a novice as well. 😀

    1. True, you just have to look at sentence length in a nineteenth century novel and compare it to a modern one. And the show not tell rule is one that we invented, to avoid all the beautiful descriptive writing that fleshed out stories but distracts easily distracted minds from the nitty gritty of who did what to whom and can I finish this before my stop?

      No, I’m not an amateur writer. I have been published and have even been paid for novels, stories and poems, and I’m okay with being called a writer, but I don’t think I’ll ever call myself a poet, not unless I get better at it.

  5. Both art and writing these days seem to be novelty for novelty’s sake. And also get-rich-quick schemes. What will catch someone’s ear or eye and get a lot of likes and/or sales. No one wants to struggle to find their voice or get better. The quality doesn’t even enter into it. And heaven forbid there should be some tradition that gives it support and depth.
    So now I’ll climb off my own soapbox and say also that I consider you a poet, even if you don’t. Just because you keep trying to get better at it doesn’t mean you are not a poet. (K)

    1. It makes me angry too. It’s the market though, and you can’t buck it, unless you’re a celeb then nobody expects you to have any talents anyway.
      Thank you for the vote of confidence 🙂

  6. I agree. Poetry should connect rather than require the reader to extract square roots to infinity attempting to unravel its meaning. It should not be obvious either. I’ve entirely given up publishing poetry for exactly your reasoning above.

    1. Poetry used to baffle me, intrigue me, make me cry or make me want to learn it by heart like a song, but it never used to irritate me. Pretentious isn’t even close—the kind of thing I can imagine being recited in a Monty Python sketch to roars of 1970s laughter.

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