So yesterday was National Poetry Day. This delighted me as there was a lot of interesting stuff about it in various medias and people actually dared to voice an opinion on it. However my ire was somewhat fanned today when I read an article by a Jane Simons of the Daily Mirror (I am NOT a regular reader, a colleague buys it at lunch) and a few comments on the radio were somewhat less than encouraging of Poetry in general. The article in question was regarding the dramatisation of Christopher Reid’s poem The Song of Lunch (which, incidentally, is wonderful). Ms. Simons states in the introduction that “if your instinctive gut reaction to poetry is boredom or fear, then relax. You probably wouldn’t even realise that it was a poem at all if I hadn’t told you,” This, though moronic is, I suppose, fair – most people would . She did however end it by making the idiotic, asinine and frankly ignorant statement; “Poetry that’s modern, relevant, witty and absorbing? Who’d have thought it?” If you had ever read any poetry written in the last 20 years, love, MOST PEOPLE!
Flash back a few days – The Forward Poetry Prize has been heating up for a few weeks and finally the winners are announced. And who should win the coveted ‘Best Collection’? Seamus – fucking – Heaney. Let me state here and now if I could write like Heaney I would die happy. The man is undoubtedly a real talent in literature and is justly deserves his Nobel prize. HOWEVER, I do have a problem with people who win the Whitbread Prize for a translation, a good translation but nonetheless not an original work, of the most boring tale in history and writers who release a lavish, Faber-published, hard-backed collection the same weekend the shortlist is announced. I often describe films released near awards season as Oscar Bait and this is much the same. An ‘elder statesmen’ releases a collection just before the most prestigious award for poetry is announced? Convenient. And sure enough, guess who bloody wins? No, not the wonderfully, visceral, modern, bleak, haunting and fascinating Robin Robertson for the Wrecking Light. Or the abrasive, feminine, lyrical, barb-tongued Jo Shapcott or the moving Through the Square Window by Sinead Morrissey. No, it’s the guy who has won everything except the Forward and decides he wants that one this year so knocks out a collection. How were they NOT going to give it to him?
And this is my point.
I am a fairly recent convert to Poetry, yet I now fly the flag, wave the banner and wear the armband. I am fully prepared to admit 3 years ago I would spit contempt on Poetry and most of its practitioners and do you know why? For the reasons cited above. Because modern society seems diametrically opposed to the whole notion of current, interesting, fun, exciting, contemporary and GOOD Poetry. Especially English society. Ireland, Scotland and Wales tend to have a fine lyrical tradition bred into the schools, England gives you a dry functional appraisal and tells you to read Heaney. Or whatever. Again I will say Seamus is not a bad writer by any stretch, great in fact but you are not going to sell an art form to a newbie by going “Here’s Death of a Naturalist and Electric Light. That’s 20th century poetry. Enjoy.” I got into Poetry because my friend (currently studying literature for a PhD) and another friend, hooked me up with the good shit and sent me on an upward spiral of appreciation. I continue to read and learn more about this fascinating and enjoyable art form every day and as most of you know I even write my own. However, the preconception is that there are only two types of poetry lovers; teenage girls reading Sylvia Plath and stuffy pretentious older types who sit down with Keats of an evening. WRONG!
Poetry could not be more contemporary. Don’t believe me? Find some Don Patterson, Luke Kennard, Matthew Welton, Jo Shapcott or Jack Underwood collections and tell me they are not slap bang in the middle of now. Poetry is even more exciting than most of the detritus published in the mainstream today. Quality control is much higher with poetry collections or pamphlets. You get more bang for your buck too. Poems can be revisited yet tell whole stories and are so dense it takes a life time to decipher, you get 50 to 80 poems in one collection too and the publishing/printing quality is almost uniformly sumptuous and beautiful. Poetry jacket design and page layout is almost always stylish and contemporary. The subjects tackled are mostly current, in the collection Rain by Don Patterson he uses a very modern form to express his love for a modern electronica band and their software they use.
It is the kind of idiocy and ignorance typified by Jane Simons in the media or ‘commentators’ in general, that disabuse the belief that poetry is for everyone and anyone not just stuffy tweed wearing old pensioners, in-the-closet gay men or angsty teenagers. Poems and Poetry are as important, relevant, contemporary and enjoyable an art form as any today it’s just the good stuff is buried and the less relevant and stereotypically ‘Poetic’ stuff is lauded above the rest. There is a poet in everyone and there is a poet publishing out there for everyone you just have to look and looking is so much fun.
So, Happy National Poetry Day for yesterday and if you need suggestions for where to start looking, check this out.
“Poetry is nearer to vital truth than History” Plato said. And it’s true. No matter when you’re alive.