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?