Thursday, 25 October 2012

Poetry - more cons than prose?

One of the issues with which literary enquiry most likes to vex itself concerns how to define poetry. The reliable answer, and that which boasted the most considerable intellectual heft, used to be: 'Writing which fails to reach the right-hand margin'.  That was before those nasty Modernist types sprang out of the bushes in the 1920's and frog-marched the arts down some decidedly continental and convoluted paths, distributing poetry all over the page in a most untidy fashion.

An inspirational English teacher at my secondary school, to whom I have before alluded in these virtual pages, used to call poetry:

 'Language in top gear'.

Shelley offered us the opinion that:

'Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world', while

Leonard Cohen opined: 

'Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash'.  

I have for some years now pondered Mr. Cohen's statement with all the mental intensity and acuity I can muster, reaching the eventual conclusion that he was, on that day, playfully testing the gullibility of his followers, or, in technical terms, 'avin' a larf'.

Regardless of how we define it or don't, I think there is a more or less (usually unspoken) consensual belief that poetry represents language being used in its most intense and concentrated way, and that, if there is a hierarchy of written creative modes, poetry occupies its pinnacle, much as, perhaps, most of us perceive the symphony to be the monarchial musical form, even if these opinions are not borne out of an anything like frequent consumption of either.  This being the case, it's perhaps surprising that poetry is - as I was discussing with somebody in the book trade today - notoriously difficult to sell through bookshops, and that there is far less of a media frenzy, and subsequent mass consumer interest - over the two major British poetry prizes than there is concerning the Booker, Orange and other prose equivalents.  Given that one of our national heroes and defining figures - Shakespeare - is as much regarded as a poet as a dramatist, and that we have produced some of the world's most highly-regarded shunners of the right-hand margin, this seems surprising.  It's not as if there isn't a flourishing poetry scene in Britain, through magazines, literary festivals, websites and the like, but this seems determined to remain a relatively clandestine phenomenon, barring the dutiful coverage of the latest Poet Laureate appointment or the occasional academic scandal.

I visited the Piccadilly Waterstones (belay that complaint of bad grammar - the chain has forsaken its apostrophe, and I am obliged to follow suit) today, and was reminded how, in a shop where there is a magnificently broad and diverse range of titles on offer in most sections, poetry is squeezed into a relatively tight, somewhat apologetic space and I could not see, for example, a display of the T.S. Eliot Prize shortlist, (which, incidentally, has long been a happy hunting ground for the many small presses for whom  publishing the best contemporary poetry is their raison d'être - Carcanet have 2 books on the list and Seren one).  Foyle's in Charing Cross Road seems to have more commitment here, but why is there not a single dedicated poetry bookshop in London?

Does the cause lie, I wonder, in how poetry is taught in schools? Do our young adults bolt down the corridors on their last day of secondary education and into adult life crying - 'Huzzah, I need never read a poem again? Excelsior!' (you can tell that I'm down with the street talk); is there an unfair perception that poetry is too challenging, recherche or just plain dull to appeal in anything like the same way as fiction?  I'm not preaching from a lofty pinnacle of disdain here, I too turn much more naturally to prose, although I have in recent months made a conscious effort to read more contemporary poetry.  Perhaps we perceive we need the comfort of a coherent, simulated world that the novel offers (a craving for a kind of literary onesie?) I'd be interested to hear your opinions.

1 comment:

  1. Theatricality and performance, you must speak it and live up to the speaking. I think something appealing to poetry is the feeling of earnesty it is an attempt to find truth, chaotic and intangible and mind shattering- it is a release of emotion into a moment of clarity-cathartic I think, it is about reaching out across the world with expressions we can all understand-poets can communicate feeling, alter it by using a sublime combination of aesthetic, and rhetoric and rhythm. You've mentioned in this article that shakespeare was a poet and playwright, Poetry should be gigantic as the stage because it is! and bigger....theatricality of the poet is where I see a solution-poetry has the potential to change the world- I tend to agree with Shelley concerning what can a longshot, though the temporality of that process may not be our own. I've rambled on here, hope I've presented something of interest. Seasons Greetings.