Starting over with contemporary poetry
After years of never picking up a book of verse I decided to try one or two modern poets and immediately ran into a problem. The poetry I came across, or was recommended to, seemed difficult to enjoy or understand. Even when I was able to make some progress, by re-reading poems and looking into their hinterlands of allusion and biography, I was more often than not left with a feeling of ‘so what?’
Was I perhaps approaching contemporary poetry in the wrong way? Was I looking for the wrong thing in expecting insight, meaning, a picking of the lock of the self’s cell, a sharing of elusive experience, a memorable, musical, pleasurable use of language? Or was I too literal-minded, or in some other way not capable of appreciating contemporary verse?
This last question was not a rhetorical prelude to dismissing the idea. I have plenty of experience of books, especially in science and economics, that are beyond my capacity to truly understand. But valuing and enjoying poetry should surely not demand a degree in literature. And besides, I have one.
Reassuringly, I am not alone. A large proportion of the reading public apparently views contemporary verse as obscure, difficult, and elitist – words which recur in surveys such as the 1999 Arts Council England report which found that, of the two million poetry books sold by UK bookshops in that year, only 3% were written by living poets. Of that 3%, two thirds were works by just one poet, meaning that all other contemporary poets accounted for only 1% of the poetry books sold.
It can of course be argued that poetry has always been the preserve of a fairly narrow elite. But this does not explain why, even among those who do buy poetry, contemporary writers have so little appeal. I do not know what proportion of novels sold today are by living writers but a glance down the New York Times best-seller list for 2015 suggests that the figure might be close to 100%.
Then I came across Neil Astley. As both a recognised poet and a publisher of several anthologies of modern poetry, Astley seemed likely to be a knowledgeable guide. And I was surprised and encouraged to read his acknowledgement that “poetry has a negative image with the general public – people think it’s irrelevant and incomprehensible” and that poetry publishing is “heavily influenced by “poetry snobs who don’t really care about who reads poetry as long as it’s the kind of poetry they admire, but much of what they like is incomprehensible to anyone outside academic or poetry circles”.
Astley’s response had been to publish “Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times” (Bloodaxe Books, 2002), a new kind of anthology which attempted “to show all those people who love literature and language and traditional poetry that contemporary poetry is relevant, that much of it is lively, imaginative, versatile and accessible to intelligent readers who’ve never gave it much of a chance before”.
Despite not quite getting why the times we are living in are unreal, this seemed encouraging. Maybe I had made a false start, gone about things in the wrong way, read the wrong poets, not informed myself well enough. Whatever had gone wrong, “Staying Alive” seemed an obvious place to start over.
Off the top of your head
Like one of those musical greeting cards, the first alarm bell began to ring as soon as I opened the book. There, opposite the title page, was the following quotation from Emily Dickinson:
“If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry.
“If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”
Oh dear, I couldn’t help thinking, Isn’t this just the kind of thing that’s part of the problem? I am not sure what it is like to physically have the top of one’s head taken off but I am fairly sure that it would not be much like reading a poem.
Impatient to get to the poems themselves, I nonetheless decided to read Astley’s introduction as it seemed likely that my approach and expectations could benefit from a little guidance.
There I read that this was “a book about staying alive” in which “language is used with the primal force and feeling too often lost in the modern world”. “In these unreal times,” writes Astley, poetry “could be a great source of nourishment to many more people who are trying to make sense of a new age of information and double-speak, technology and terrorism, of war and world poverty”. Deeper into the introduction, a quotation from Seamus Heaney advises us that poetry is “an intervention into the goings on of society” and can be “instrumental in correcting and adjusting imbalances in the world”. In addition, Astley promises that poetry “gives you back that private time and space which are so much under threat in our culture”.
Before the first section of actual poems there was one more sweetener to swallow, this time a quotation from the Pulitzer Prize winning American Poet Laureate Charles Simic who urges us on with: “Poetry says more about the psychic life of an age than any other art. Poetry is a place where all the fundamental questions are asked about the human condition”.
And so, finally, to the poems themselves. Here is one of them, chosen because it is short enough to be cited in full and because it is written by a major name in modern poetry – Paul Muldoon, former Oxford Professor of Poetry and winner of both the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the T. S. Eliot Prize.
Where and when exactly did we first have sex?
Do you remember? Was it Fitzroy Avenue,
Or Cromwell Road, or Notting Hill?
Your place or mine? Marseille or Aix?
Or as long ago as that Thursday evening
When you and I climbed in through the bay window
On the ground floor of Aquinas Hall
and into the room where MacNeice wrote ‘Snow’,
or the room where they say he wrote ‘Snow’.
Readers who suspect that, at this point, I might be planting my feet to take some cheap shots are of course absolutely right. But after such a build-up it seems legitimate to ask whether the above poem is ‘asking fundamental questions about the human condition ‘or ‘using language with primal force to help us make sense of a new age of information and double-speak, technology and terrorism, of war and world poverty’, or whether it is ‘intervening in the goings on of society to correct and adjust imbalances in the world’ or ‘giving us back our private time and space’, or ‘reminding us of eternal truths’, or ‘helping us stay alive to the world and stay true to ourselves’.
A slight affair
The next section of “Staying Alive” is titled “Dead or Alive” and has a separate introduction in which we read that “poetry as strong as this helps keep us connected with our humanity.” I closed the book for a moment. On the back cover I caught sight of a recommendation by John Berger – “Staying Alive is a book which leaves those who have read it or heard a poem from it feeling less alone and more alive.”
I then read several more poems of which the following (and again I have chosen a major writer) is a further example:
Epistle on suicide – Bertolt Brecht
Is a slight affair.
You can chat about it with your washerwoman.
Elucidate the pros and cons with a friend.
A certain sense of tragedy, however attractive,
Is to be avoided.
Though there is no need to make a dogma of that.
But there is more to be said, I think
for the usual slight deception:
You’re fed up with changing your linen or, better still
Your wife was being unfaithful
(This is a draw with people who get surprised by such things
And is not too highflown.)
It should not seem
As if one had put
Too high a value on oneself.
Perhaps you would like to read this again, or maybe even read it aloud, before considering whether it leaves you feeling less alone, more alive, and more connected with your humanity?
OK, if you’re bored with this by all means skip to the conclusion. But for those who don’t have the book to hand and would like to see one or two more poems from “Staying Alive”, here are some short examples by highly regarded twentieth and twenty-first century poets. The first ‘September Song’ is by Geoffrey Hill, another former Oxford Professor of Poetry who, until his death in 2016, was often referred to as the “greatest living poet in the English language”.
September Song – Geoffrey Hill
Undesirable you may have been, untouchable
you were not. Not forgotten
or passed over at the proper time.
As estimated, you died. Things marched,
sufficient, to that end.
Just so much Zyklon and leather, patented
terror, so many routine cries.
(I have made
an elegy for myself, it
September fattens on vines. Roses
flake from the wall. The smoke
of harmless fires drifts to my eyes.
This is plenty. This is more than enough.
The second example is a poem by another of the great names of modernist verse, E. E. Cummings.
‘”next to of course god america i”’ – e. e. cummings
next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn’s early my
country ‘tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?”
He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water
Top of your head still on? Then let’s try two more short examples from lesser known but still highly-acclaimed contemporary poets featured in “Staying Alive”:
A bird – Sheila Wingfield
In the salt meadow
Lay the dead bird.
A wind was fluttering its wings.
Relationship – Janos Pilllinszky
What a silence, when you are here. What
a hellish silence.
You see it and I sit.
You lose and I lose.
Now that we’ve all reconnected with our humanity, asked the fundamental questions about the human condition, and made sense of war and world poverty, etc., etc., it may be worth reminding ourselves that these poems are taken from an anthology which specifically rejects the kind of poetry which is “incomprehensible to anyone outside academic or poetry circles” and instead aims to offer poetry that is “relevant, lively, imaginative, versatile and accessible to intelligent readers.” For the other kind, see the third essay in this series – The mind’s darkest corners.
Parting of the ways
The poems quoted above (and there are many, many more in the same vein in “Staying Alive”) obviously have their admirers, among them those who write the five-star Amazon reviews such as:
“This is the book that everyone – no exceptions – should choose to take with them to a desert island.”
“Here is poetry in modern language reminding us of eternal truths”.
Others may agree with me that poems such as those quoted above, however revered their authors, fail to live up to the extraordinary claims made for them. These are the people who write the one-star Amazon review, such as:
“I always thought that poetry was about communicating but this stuff is just incomprehensible.”
“After reading several poems I realised it was destined for the charity shop.”
“Despite the occasional gem, it was unreadable.”
“The ‘poetry’ in these books has, for the most part, absolutely nothing to communicate.”
“Most of them … could only be understood by the writer.”
It seems unlikely that there could be a middle ground between such opposing views, so perhaps it is best to part amicably: let those who enjoy and value poems like these go on their way unmolested; there can be neither right nor reason in objecting to the pleasure and benefit they derive. But for those of us who find such verses unrewarding the second of these essays – An Exclusive Development – asks why and how contemporary poetry has arrived at the point where a tiny minority think that humanity can scarcely manage without it and a large majority consider it mostly pretentious and irrelevant.
But even at this parting of the ways, it might be possible to achieve some measure of agreement on at least two points.
First, the hyperbole about contemporary poetry reconnecting us with our humanity and helping us to make sense of the complexities of the modern world etc. etc., really ought to be toned down. By indulging in such gushing exaggerations, it sets up a chasm between expectation and delivery that invites majority scorn and plays into the hands of those who feel that ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ is, down to its details, a fitting last word on the subject.
Despite hyperbole’s invitation, I think it would be a mistake to accept the analogy. The Emperor may not be entirely naked. But neither are his new robes made of the most precious and magnificent fabrics ever woven on a loom. If the hype were to be moderated; if those who write about contemporary poetry were to drop the idea that only the most refined and sensitive souls are able to appreciate it and, by implication, that everybody else is a dullard; if they were to stop claiming that poetry helps us stay alive and human and to make sense of a complex world; if they were to abandon the pretence that poetry is the place where the most fundamental questions about the human condition are asked; then perhaps it might be possible to start over. If, for example, we could agree that the pleasure and value of good poetry lies in its original and often memorable diction, in its skilful use of sound and rhythm and perhaps also with metre and rhyme, and in its ability to combine all of these in an attempt to illuminate and share thoughts and feelings and insights that that are often elusive, unarticulated, and unshared, then perhaps contemporary poetry might turn away from obscurity and the suspicion of pretension towards a more modest and more honest ambition that could persuade a wider audience to include it in their reading.
Secondly, those who have some measure of agreement with the charges against contemporary poetry can perhaps agree that today’s poets and their readers may well be neither elitist nor pretentious. The deeper fault, I would suggest, lies in the current culture of writing, publishing, and evaluating poetry. It is this culture, and how it came into being, that is the subject of the second essay – An Exclusive Development.