Is that all that’s left of poetry?

As a newcomer to the world of poetry, I have no right to pass judgement on its ways or its present state.  But, as you will already have guessed, that’s not going to stop me. 

I have spent many months roaming the internet, feasting on morsels from Wikipedia and imbibing the poetry of the millennia.   I began to worry, however, that this wasn’t as good as a properly structured education.  So I turned to the Open University, and found a free, online course entitled What is Poetry?  It seemed the perfect place to begin my education.

At the very beginning of the very first lesson of this Poetry 101 course, we are invited to listen to a recording of the poets Jackie Kay and W.N. Herbert as they describe what poetry means to them.  Kay says,

Poetry in my view is little moments of belief in quite intense language.

If I had been in the classroom, I would have been waving both arms in dissent from the desk at the back.   My first and mildest objection is to her choice of the word belief.   It’s surely used here in preference to the obvious alternatives of truth or feelingsTruth, in these relativistic times, would have sounded horribly presumptuous, if not downright imperialistic.  How could we possibly claim to know a truth, when it might not be the same as someone else’s truth?  Feelings, on the other hand, would be far too flimsy to express the worthiness of the modern, middle-class, poet and their readers.

So belief it must be.  But note that, for Kay, the belief is only something that happens for a moment.  It’s far too transient to be religious belief, or a belief, say, in the importance of action to counter climate change.  What’s more, it is a little moment of belief.  There’s no space in a little moment for fiery passion, or transcendent revelation, or eternal love.

Kay illustrates her view with one of her own poems, a small meditation on her father’s life through the image of his shoes.  It may, to adapt her own phrase, be worth a little moment of the reader’s time.  But her OU companion, W.N. Herbert, offers a few roughly arranged lines that describe an incident while holidaying in Crete.  He is in the sea with his young daughter, and she is momentarily dunked by a wave.  Yes, she does bob up again, no harm done, and that’s the extent of it. If poems were categorised like films, this would be described as mild jeopardy.  The language of the poem is no compensation.  It isn’t intense.  Not even quite intense.

Is that what poetry has come to?  Descriptions of banal and fleeting events?  Oh god.  Perhaps I should write a poem about an itch on my toe, or that day I thought I’d left my house keys behind, but found them in my pocket.  Then again, considering the number of people who evidently belong to the same school as Kay and Herbert, those poems have probably been written already.

I suppose I shouldn’t mind if poets want to write this stuff, provided I don’t have to read it.   Let them huddle together and tell each other trivial stories, like people exchanging boring anecdotes at a desperately tedious dinner party.  Just as long as I don’t have to attend.  And it’s true, of course, that a little tale or a small poem (a haiku, for instance, or a clerihew) can be very worthwhile; but it does need to be told supremely well.   The real offence is that, at the start of an OU course intended for impressionable novices, a lauded poet offers a definition of poetry that is outrageously inadequate.  It shouldn’t need to be said that vast territories of great poetry lie beyond the walls of Kay’s small-minded definition.  Homer’s account of the Trojan war is hardly a little moment of belief, even if the poem only covers a few days in a war that lasted a decade.   Shelley rages for much more than a little moment about the horrors of Peterloo.  And there are countless reflective sonnets that seek to find not passing beliefs, but eternal truths about love and beauty, and death.

Perhaps (let’s be charitable) Kay is only asking that poems should be attached to a time and place, in the same way that, these days, photos on our phone hold date and location in their metadata.  That’s seems a good tip, though not compulsory.  Yes, many great poems do tie down the poet/narrator to a time and place.  Donne wakes next to his lover and curses at the sun. Gray is in the churchyard. Shelley stands in the desert before the colossus of Ozymandias. Auden sits in a bar on Fifty-second Street.  But, unlike Herbert, they don’t merely relate the facts.  They go on to something to say to us about the human condition: about life, love, folly, mortality.  Even Frost, for all he may deny it, sits on his horse at the edge of the wood and talks to us softly about the seductive peace to be found in death.

I’m picking unfairly on Herbert, of course.  He just happens to be sitting conveniently next to Kay as she clutches her absurd definition.   Perhaps he came up with his dire offering solely to test the OU students.  But it doesn’t matter. The online world is full of ‘poets’ assembling ill-fitting words to say banal things about trivial subjects.  Worse, some of them are getting prizes for doing it.  Indeed, it’s unlikely that anyone these days will win a poetry prize unless they stitch their stanzas to meet to the demands of this ridiculous Emperor.

Ultimately my alarm is not about the state of poetry, but about the state of humanity – or, at any rate, the section of humanity that occupies the western industrialised nations.  In my uneducated way I have always believed that poets represented the Greek chorus of society.  They served, I had supposed, to surface the unconscious thoughts of humanity, to help ordinary folks recognise their own feelings in response both to the pains and joys to being human, and to the external realities of the age in which they live.   Now it seems, poets have abandoned that role.  There are exceptions, thank goodness, such as Kae Tempest – young people who experience their world with passion, and write poems that are true to their feelings and experiences. But their work highlights the wide swathe of older people who – though they are living in a time of pestilence, war, and potential extinction – can think of nothing better to do than write ‘poems’ that are either nonsensical or twee. 

So, do older adults no longer need poets to help them make sense of the important things?    Do people no longer rail against their own mortality?   Are they no longer blinded by romantic love and driven to great follies?  Perhaps, in this era of Love Island and Tinder, the ending of sexual love – and that’s a mere synonym for sex, these days, it would seem – no longer calls for more than a melodramatic tear.  Then again, it may be that television has assumed the role once taken by poets.  As, in Hunger Games, Katniss fought to satiate the lust for war in the hearts of the citizens of Panem, so The Crown may explain all that people want to know about power and desire.  And Strictly, with its weekly dance-off, may be received as a sufficient account of the meaning of tragedy.

I feel like the country hick who decided to move to town but chose a very bad moment.  I came looking for a vital crowd engaged in intense conversations about human experience.  Unfortunately for me, I have arrived shortly after an Invasion of the Body Snatchers – aliens who waited until the inhabitants were asleep, and then stole their humanity.  Now, as I walk through town, I’m only encountering dim-eyed zombies who shuffle along the streets while intoning mangled, meaningless phrases.

Excuse me, please, for sounding angry.  It’s my way of stopping myself from falling asleep.

2 thoughts on “Is that all that’s left of poetry?

Add yours

  1. I like that you eventually came to a woman, Kae Tempest, who indeed expresses a wild fire passion in her work. I would say there are gentler intensities of a universal quality in the work of Mary Oliver, who died more recently (an old woman) …… ‘Wild Geese’, ‘Of Love’ and ‘When Death comes’ immediately spring to mind although so many of her poems sing to me. And the very much of today, American Poet Laureate Joy Harjo …..

    Emerson in ‘Beauty’ writes ” ‘Tis curious that we only believe as deep as we live.” The invitation, it seems to me, is to live the only time there is – the present – as deeply and connected to each and every unique moment for within that is the only place we can experience the universal. Paradoxically, the universal wlll also contain the banal! Like you, I’d rather give wide berth to what I might experience in poetry of the banal!

    The language of poetry and the poet, for me, open the doorways to realms that I am able to recognise with my whole being and body via the extraordinary simple combination of words – I am frequently awestruck by that.

    Meanwhile, my attention is drawn to a raindrop slowly moving on the window against a backdrop of ancient trees and even older, ancient hills!
    What do I know, I say smiling ……


    1. Thank you Grace, for the comment. The ocean we fish with our little blog-nets is teeming yet vast, and it’s rare to get a catch of any kind – especially a plump one like yours!

      I’m smiling that you should turn for support to Emerson – hardly modern (though yes, ahead of his time) – and to a poem that has both metre and rhyme!

      Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that good poetry has to involve fiery passion, only that it has depth and authenticity. And, of course, things that are banal in themselves, such as your raindrop on the window, may lead implicitly or explicitly to worthwhile reflections on other things. I notice that as I stumble on my journey through poetry I’m increasing doing that. See ‘Stairrods’,for example.


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