Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
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My comment piece from The Sunday Express 8th June 2014 /raw copy
Last week the outgoing Newsnight presenter, Jeremy Paxman accused the nation's poets of writing for each other, rather than engaging with the public. Further, upon announcing the shortlist for The Forward Poetry Prize, he called for poets to be subjected to an 'inquisition' where they might be asked to explain their poetry to their public. Paxo's mischievous pronouncement has caused a predictably indignant fluffing-up of feathers in the poetry henhouse.
Have poets have had it too easy for too long? It's true that most of them don't get paid. But why should they? Most of them don't do much work and even those that do rarely produce pieces of much interest to the public. Gone are the days of Tennyson and Byron, when poets stayed up all night penning great gouts of verse for people's enlightenment or entertainment
As a working poet now for almost a quarter of a century, if this matter ever goes to the barricades, I'll be with Paxman. Nobody, to paraphrase Monty Python, expects the Poetry Inquisition. Quite a few of us would probably welcome one, however. The problem is that over many decades, poetry has been subjected to an inelegant, greedy appropriation by the academic world. Nowadays, the literature departments of our universities hunch like daft neurotic dogs over the much-chewed bones of poetry. As a once-popular art form, it's never really recovered.
The end result is that poetry: soulful, boozy old balladeer that it once was, has all but fled the public arena. Poetry book sales are correspondingly down. Equally bad, is that fact that any poetry which does emerge to popular applause, is likely to be consigned by its jealous self-appointed curators to the light-verse ghetto, deemed unworthy of serious consideration.
This country's two most popular living poets are indisputably Pam Ayres and John Cooper Clarke. Ayres' books fly off the shelves, whilst Cooper Clarke fills entire arenas for his performances. Neither would win the Forward Poetry Prize, nor would either be considered for say, Oxford Professor of Poetry, which after the Laureateship is sometimes laughably described as the 'second-most important poetry post' in this country. Pam Ayres should have been made Poet Laureate years ago and everyone knows it. Not only would she have shone in the job but she would have loved it.
What we have in our current Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, is a straight-from-Central Casting organic wholemeal poet, approved as 'suitable' by our nation's over-educated, joyless bien-pensant. Can you remember one stanza of hers? Can you remember one stanza by her predecessor, Andrew Motion? What about his predecessor, Ted Hughes? Be honest now.
How about John Betjeman or John Masefield, though? If I were to begin: “I must go down to the sea...” or, “Come friendly bombs...” many would be there straight away, with the remainder of the stanza, if not the entire verse.
Two of the UK's other best-loved living poets are Roger McGough and Ian Macmillan, both of whom have weekly radio shows, Poetry Please and The Verb respectively. With these two programmes thrown as a sop to popular poetry's ever-dwindling fanbase, the BBC can cheerfully pat themselves on the back, say “Job jobbed.” and carry on giving the meatier arts slots to their rather more difficult literary darlings.
I grew up in two households where my father, a serving soldier, along with my maternal grandfather, a bus-driver, could recite poetry from memory. Mention poetry to the general public nowadays, and most, myself included, will stampede like panicked wildebeest in an effort to escape it. The bulk of the poetry with which we are confronted is dreadful. It doesn't rhyme, it doesn't scan, it's frequently self-indulgent and utterly wretched. Even where it may be comprehensible it tends to to be miserable.
Where are the poets to write humorous or nonsense verse to amuse us, in the manner that poets such as Hilaire Belloc, Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, or Spike Milligan once did? Their modern day counterparts possibly exist, but are highly unlikely to surface in today's colourless world, where any perceived levity would automatically disqualify them from winning funding.
The British Arts Council probably wouldn't even consider granting money to a poet who threatened to actually entertain the public. Jeremy Paxman, has done us all a favour with his forthrightness. Perhaps Paxo's proposed Poetry Inquisition could take the form of a weekly trial-by-TV series whereby our most pretentious poets would be asked to publicly explain their work. The show might be called, “The Incomprehensibles.” If you suspect, therefore, that a poem which you're reading is dull, difficult, or merely rubbish, the chances are that it probably is. It's not you. You should abandon it immediately and read something good.