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.
On a handsome spring morning, we're sitting in the cafe at Colchester's Firstsite Gallery, when I ask the singer-guitarist Adrian Nation about his unusual surname. He says he discovered that there was a branch of the family in Exeter several generations ago and that they, at some point, decamped to America. There, one of them made an honest woman of the famous temperance campaigner, Carrie Nation* Carrie, a strapping six-footer, 'of stern countenance' took the fight to the enemy. Referring to alcohol as the “destroyer of mens' souls” she, along with a group of hymn-singing women, stormed liquor halls, smashing the fixtures and stock with a large hatchet. Adrian bursts out laughing: “She described herself as 'a bulldog at the feet of God, barking at all the people he didn't like.'”
Her utterly distant relative, now sitting opposite me in Firstsite's posh works canteen is similarly tall, if rather more sane. He does, it's true, frequently go into bars with his 'axe'. But here, when we say 'axe' we're using ghastly old musicians' slang for the guitar with which he makes his living.
Adrian Nation for the past few weeks,has been touring the UK to promote his new album, Live At The Crossroads. In a music world turned upside down in recent years by the digital revolution, Adrian is his own successful manager, tour manager and record company.
From Holland-on-Sea, originally a builder by trade, Nation turned professional some years ago. He'll finish the current two-month tour with a concert at Colchester's Firstsite on Saturday May 3rd. But first, he'll play two nights at the Gosport Festival followed by concerts in Oban, Stornaway, Perthshire and County Durham.
Adrian's music falls somewhere between acoustic rock and folk. I dislike making comparisons – he's his own man – but there are hints of both Richard Thompson and Gordon Lightfoot in his work.
Adrian is known in the UK on both the acoustic rock and the festival circuits. Increasingly, too, he's working the near-continent especially the Netherlands. Germany, he says, is next.
We compare our experiences of English folk clubs, which vary enormously in their attitude to the types of music which they'll accept.
Folk music, like live poetry, will sometimes attract an audience some of whose members are most tactfully described as 'differently-wired'. At one club, Adrian recounts, he was playing a gentle number requiring some quiet concentration. Seated, eyes closed, he was performing the piece, when he became aware of a low droning sound somewhere underneath the song. Opening his eyes slightly, he observed a woman in the audience three rows back, accompanying him on kazoo. This story had your correspondent laughing like a hyena. Some folk clubs may be very purist, rejecting any notion that certain acoustic guitar songs, are 'proper' folk. Adrian mentioned one particular club in... let's just say, a trendy part of north London. The person compering the evening had seemingly been just about to introduce the next act, when, inexplicably, he burst spontaneously into song and began doing a strange little dance in the aisle between the seats. This is a cue for further hysteria.
In London and its wealthy home counties satellites, you may find that unaccompanied Victorian folk songs concerning beaten children and badly-treated scullery maids will be the platte-de-jour. Adrian told me that in one such club where he played, a man singing a particularly dire threnody, broke off in order to rub some onion halves in his eyes, so that his tears might spring forth anew. More laughter. At times, it almost seems as if the revival and redefining of folk music, is echoing wider social change in the countryside – as I sometimes say of new ruralists: “Some of these people have been here so long now, that they can remember the villagers moving out.”
In most points north of the Trent however and especially in Scotland, folk music gives itself a wider brief, where most types of acoustic music along with a certain amount of spoken word is accepted. It's worth remembering too that as well as musicians of every stripe, certain poets and comedians, people such as Billy Connolly and Jasper Carrott, also started out in folk clubs. When Adrian's Nation's tour ends at Firstsite next Saturday, there'll be a break of a fortnight or so followed by a handful of gigs, before the festival season proper starts. For a man with a guitar, a trusty old landrover to drive and a new album to promote, it's a pretty good prospect for the summer.
Adrian's new Live at the Crossroads, album was made at Bergen op Zoom in Holland. His gig just happened to be captured on a night, where, so far as he knows, there was hardly a glitch in the whole performance. The immaculate recording was mastered by the engineer on the mixing desk who then offered it to the singer. “How much?” asked Adrian. He was asked for 100 Euros. More famous artistes have paid far greater sums for far worse recordings. The music contained within the Crossroads session possesses a depth, tonal quality and a general integrity which is striking. Much as Adrian Nation occasionally questions whether he might fare better with the standard management / agency / record company triumvirate behind him, it seems to me that, for now, he's doing perfectly well without them.
* Carrie Nation worth Googling. U S readers may know of her, UK readers may not.