Tuesday 31 May 2016

On poetry

Is there still room in our culture for great poetry? Or a great poet? The death of Seamus Heaney created a vacancy that no contemporary practitioners seem able to fill. Not that there's any shortage of fine poets, but they none of them have the weight and range and depth of Heaney. They lack form.  And, to be sure, the very idea of 'greatness' in any cultural context smacks of a patrician hierarchy of values in which Auden is indisputably better than, say, Pam Ayres, because that's just a matter of taste, and who cares what you think?

Poetry, once the preserve of an educated elite (which was a bad thing) is now valued by a mere minority (which is also a bad thing). It sometimes seems to me that poets outnumber their readers and are read only by other poets.

If sales are any guide (and they are) the number of readers of serious contemporary poetry in Britain is vanishingly small, but then it always was - one gloomy estimate back in the 1930s put the number at around a hundred. By 'serious contemporary poetry'' I don't mean J. H. Prynne, or not only him. I mean  poets such as Alice Oswald, J. O. Morgan and Jo Shapcott (to give three entirely random examples). I don't mean (to give three more) Carol Anne Duffy, Roger McGough and Kate Tempest, each of whom occupies  a well-earned place in the cultural spectrum but none of whom strike me as poets in the sense that the first three are. 

This is certainly not some snobbish distinction (and you'll simply have to believe me when I say I know next to nothing about any of these writers' lives); it's more to do with their respective public allegiances, their shared priorities, their technical competence and originality - their necessity, if you like. Most of all it's based on the assumption by the latter group that 'poetry is for everyone'. Popularisers such as McGough insist on this and however well-intentioned it strikes me that such a view is tyrannical, as only in a dictatorship can anything be for everyone. No - poetry can be, must be, for anyone.

I've said this before. Sorry to bang on. 

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