We turn to poetry in times of need, but can it really help? And why doesn’t it sell more copies?
After a policeman shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014, Maggie Smith’s poem Good Bones went viral. It wasn’t even about Ferguson, it was about life being short and often terrible — “though”, she wrote, “I keep this from my children”. It was, in its way, consoling. Poetry is the language of crisis, of profound thought and deep emotion. It may not be much read these days, but it is certainly felt.
Another poem that went viral recently was Patricia Lockwood’s response to a spate of rape jokes. Disgusted, Lockwood wrote in Rape Joke: “Who drinks wine coolers? People who get raped, according to the rape joke.” Poetry can be the very language of defiance, as when Serena Williams went on YouTube to read Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise: “You may trod me in the very dirt / But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”
We want poems when we are afflicted by, in Wordsworth’s words, “thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears”. As the Reverend Dr Jane Leach pointed out in the Thought for the Day slot on Radio 4 last week, people are turning to poetry in the wake of horrors such as the killings in Nice and Orlando, which would seem too incomprehensible for ordinary language.
Poetry provides some kind of peak experience constructed from the shabby, battered bricks of mere verbiage. The same impulse can be seen when President Obama had a poem read at his inauguration, or when he appointed a poet laureate, a person set apart to speak for all and, as TS Eliot put it, to “purify the dialect of the tribe”.
Funerals, in particular, seem to demand poetry. Look at what happened when the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral used WH Auden’s lovely Funeral Blues, which begins “Stop all the clocks”; suddenly, it was everywhere. A recent anthology, Poems That Make Grown Men Cry by Anthony and Ben Holden, spent five weeks in The Sunday Times Bestsellers list.
The healing power of poetry isn’t a cliché: it can almost be medicalised. After an experiment at a poetry festival William Sieghart, founder of the Forward Prizes for Poetry, now finds himself as a kind of poetic barefoot doctor, travelling from town to town dispensing poems as prescriptions to people who tell him their problems. “There is a sense,” he says, “of problem-sharing and understanding, expressed more elegantly than one would expect. They get out of the chair a foot taller.”
On the other side of the coin, poetry doesn’t sell many copies. It is the littlest of the big arts in terms of money and audiences. And its practitioners seem, weirdly, to suffer periodic bouts of self-loathing.
It is “hated from without and within”, it is a permanent “record of failure”, an “embarrassment”; as an art, it “isn’t hard, it’s impossible”; the avant-garde hates it and grown-ups back away from people who continue doing it beyond childhood. These are direct quotes from a recently published book-length essay, The Hatred of Poetry, by the American novelist and award-winning poet Ben Lerner. It’s a brilliant whoopee cushion placed on the throne of the poetic muse. This is a clever book, not simply a tirade of loathing, and I’ll come back to what it concludes. But first you’ve got to admit that Lerner’s introductory fireworks have a point. We may need poetry, but we don’t always accord it the veneration it deserves.
Consider the passing, on June 30, of Sir Geoffrey Hill, a poet and the greatest British writer of his time. He was a man I always expected to meet, but never did. I anticipated front-page pictures, page-length obits, a grand funeral. Poetry, I reasoned, is our national art, after all, Britain’s greatest contribution to the human world’s greatest asset, its stock of beauty.
Yeah, right. Hill’s passing went, to a rough approximation, unremarked. When Alfred, Lord Tennyson died in October 1892, the nation mourned: 11,000 people applied for the 1,000 tickets available for his funeral in Westminster Abbey. Robert Browning’s death in 1889 had produced a similar convulsion. Hill was the equal of these great artists, but today’s Britain, otherwise preoccupied, remained unconvulsed.
“The trouble is,” says the poet Ruth Padel, who whispers Tennyson to herself when facing the terrors of the dentist, “we now have pop music and so many competing things to do. Poetry did all those things in Tennyson and Browning’s day.”
The novelist John Lanchester agrees: “Poetry used to take up more space in the — ghastly expression, but it does describe something — ‘attention economy’ than it does today. The newspapers and literary magazines would have poetry roundups and would publish poems, and there was a general sense of a space for poetry that isn’t, I think, still there.”
As Eliot said, we are “distracted from distraction by distraction”, and the people want pap and pop, and short, sweet hits. Hill, whose work was constantly accused of being “difficult”, defied this. He argued that the most challenging poetry was also the most democratic, because it did not treat the people as fools and simpletons. Consider that in the light of the illiterate thuggery of both referendum campaigns. (Anyway, Hill is only difficult if you don’t first read him with what Vladimir Nabokov said was our most important literary organ, the spine. Hill first sends shivers, not easy understanding.)
Isn’t there also, though — and this is Lerner’s argument — something fundamentally wrong with the very idea of poetry? “We don’t all sing, we don’t all play music, but we all speak,” says George Szirtes, another poet. “Everybody uses language all the time — and when people are doing unusual things with language, we don’t feel it’s ours any more.”
People resent poetry for stealing what comes most naturally to everybody: words. But, Szirtes adds, we also, in ordinary speech, pay homage to the idea of higher speech. “He’s a poet and he doesn’t know it,” we used to say of an accidental rhyme, and we still say something is “sheer poetry” when words are well used. “People who never read poetry still speak of it as an experience they recognise,” Szirtes says.
So, poetry is out there, but, then again, where is it? “Discoverability” is still the art form’s big problem, according to Donald Futers, the new poetry editor at Penguin Press. We all know that sad little collection of desperately slim volumes at the back of bookshops that represents contemporary poetry. Futers is addressing this by reviving the Penguin Modern Poets series from the 1940s. Neat little thematic paperback anthologies costing £7.99, they will raise into mainstream publishing what Futers, and many others, claim is a new boom in poetry.
Well, boomlet may be more accurate. Poetry sales have done a little better than book sales in general since the turn of the century, but what has definitely boomed is an alternative poetic landscape. Poetry festivals, following the success of literary ones, are beginning to appear across Britain’s townscape. Futers, meanwhile, identifies the rise of creative-writing courses in universities, of small magazines (Clinic, Tender, Prac Crit) and small presses (Test Centre, Peepal Tree, Hi Zero) — both made much cheaper to produce by technology — and of performance poetry (see applesandsnakes.org and outspokenldn.com), which has boomed alongside rap and even stand-up.
Yet what type of poetry is this? The poets typically — they are poets, after all — don’t like to say. “Most poets,” Futers says, “probably would not recognise themselves as belonging to any specific group or configuration, rather than simply participating in it at times.”
It’s a field that has been riven, until recently, by a civil war between tough-minded poets using traditional forms and more exotic postmodern experimentalists. The first were the descendants of Philip Larkin, the second of Ezra Pound, John Ashbery and the formidable Cambridge poet and teacher JH Prynne. This war is over for the youngest generation, who seem to be tolerantly eclectic.
That said, I can detect certain all-female influences: Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop and, latterly, that great artist of the very short very high-impact poem, Kay Ryan. Indeed, it is noticeable that of the 15 shortlistees for this year’s Forward prizes, 11 are women.
There are sceptics about this poetry boomlet. Michael Schmidt, a poet who has created the Carcanet Press, thinks that creative-writing courses are all very well, but that they shouldn’t be cut off from literary and philosophical influences, as, indeed, they are. He notes that too many poems from graduates of these courses are “ekphrastic”: a wonderful word that means “about other works of art”. This suggests to Schmidt that these poets haven’t got anything else to write about. He also points out that performance poetry seldom stands up on the page.
The boomlet has increased his workload. The Carcanet magazine and press combined now get 30 submissions a day. The bright side of this, for Schmidt, is that the past two years have seen some improvements in quality. This seems to be centred on Cambridge.
“More intelligent poets are appearing, often in some kind of relationship with Geoffrey Hill, who lived just outside Cambridge, or with the impressive presence of Prynne. Poetry is becoming complex and interesting again.”
But will it ever again take its place at the centre of national life? The novelist Philip Pullman doubts it was ever there. “I wonder if it has ever been more than marginal. The English don’t give a toss for culture or education or the life of the mind and all that sort of thing — never have. The most celebrated poet ever, in his own lifetime, was Byron, and that was almost entirely for his scandalous life.”
Perhaps he is right, and perhaps it doesn’t matter. It was Auden who famously wrote (in In Memory of WB Yeats): “For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives/In the valley of its making.” Perhaps it is better left alone in a place, as Lerner startlingly suggests at the conclusion of his essay, “for possibility and present absences (like unheard melodies)”, where the contempt of its haters “might come to resemble love”.
This is an acute insight. Much as we may hate it, we do, in fact, love poetry. Its routine presence in moments of crisis, deep emotion or profound thought proves its resilience and its essential, believe it or not, popularity, even among the haters. It also proves its pre-eminence in the arts as the maker of beauty out of the most ordinary and familiar things imaginable — words.
The truth is, we turn to poetry at intense moments because we are turning to art via the art most close to hand and heart. The poet’s high obligation at such moments is, therefore, what Auden said it was at the end of that poem: “In the prison of his days,/Teach the free man how to praise.”
Geoffrey Hill did just that. Read him. Now.