Tuesday, June 3, 2014


My poor neglected blog - so long without a substantial post! And that it should be an intervention by British journalism's answer to Cyril Sneer, Jeremy Paxman, which made me want to write again. Not that I am particularly exercised by Paxman's comments. The online discussion has been lively, but I've found it hard to get hot under the collar. Whatever one may think of Paxman, he is a shrewd media operator who knows how to whip up a bit of publicity for the Forward Prize.

Cyril Sneer takes the poets to task

George Szirtes' comments on Paxman's frankly weird idea of putting poets before peoples' tribunals are spot on: It all sounds vaguely Stalinist, although perhaps more Maoist, if you ask me. Get the dunces' hats, parade the intellectuals around the village to let them feel the righteous anger of the people! What's not to like?

And yet.

There is that question of ordinariness. The very nub of Paxo's argument goes unexplored. So here are some thoughts on ordinariness, in no particular order...

1. Poetry is a marginal art. And always has been, or at least in the modern era. From time to time, individual poets or volumes of verse have achieved significant sales and caught the British popular imagination, for a whole range of contingent reasons: Tennyson's In Memoriam, Edward FitzGerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Housman's A Shropshire Lad, the Georgian anthologies, Ted Hughes' Birthday Letters... But when I say 'popular imagination', we really are only talking about sales in the tens of thousands and, for want of a better term, a predominantly middle class audience. Most poetry books, by these writers' contemporaries, have always sold far fewer copies.

2.  In the post-war period, writer-educators like Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart insisted that we should pay more attention to the culture of ordinariness, the everyday culture of newspapers, popular song, and so on. What gets forgotten is that, in their own educational practice, originally in extra-mural programmes at British universities, Williams and Hoggart believed that 'ordinary' people should aspire to appreciate the classics of English literature. They didn't believe that those classics had to modified to make them more accessible. The (implicitly working-class) ordinary reader could enjoy those works on their own terms and find their lives enriched by them.

3. In Neil Roberts' biography of Peter Redgrove, Roberts discusses J. H. Barclay, a retired biscuit-maker from Bootle, who had left school at 13. He was Redgrove's most avid reader, who would buy all of Redgrove's books, travel to attend his readings, and visit the places Redgrove wrote about. He was an ordinary man who connected very deeply with the work of a poet who is by no means 'popular' in the sense of being straightforward or undemanding.

4. Poetry is sometimes hard work. It doesn't take much effort on the part of the viewer to watch The X Factor, although clearly millions of people find it an exciting and rewarding experience. It is pure entertainment, and no the worse for that. Poetry demands to be re-read, it asks you to spend time with it - not simply to fill time with it. Even when it hits you straight in the gut on first reading (and plenty of the best poetry does do this), there are more intellectual and emotional rewards when you return to it. I don't believe that appreciating certain art forms automatically makes anyone a better, more moral, or more sensitive person (see John Carey's What Good are the Arts? on this point). However, I do believe that a better society would equip people with the cultural education, the time and the aspiration to engage with art forms which ask more of them - not as some worthy chore, but as a means to expand their perception and feeling, to become more fully alive to the world and to themselves.

5. A lot of the entertainment which pervades our lives and demands our time - on television, on-line, in the cinemas, on the library shelves - is avowedly popular. It wants to give the public what it wants, to engage desires and patterns of thought which are culturally established and commodified. That is not to say that imaginative 'ordinary' people don't do very interesting and often subversive things with the products of entertainment culture, nor is it to say that more 'difficult' cultural forms can't become commodified as part of a leisure experience (just pop along to Tate Modern and take a look). However, we can say that the chief message of much entertainment culture is essentially (to quote Bill Joel) 'don't go changing'. It says: There is no need to be anything other than ordinary. The challenge of poetry to the reader is 'be extraordinary.' Or, as Rilke succinctly put it - 'you must change your life.'

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