A WEEK IN BOOKS

Roger Whittaker once had a hit song called ''I Don't Believe In If Any More''. I know the feeling. I went off Kipling's poem around A- level time. There was a framed copy of it on the wall of our breakfast room and its ghastly, jaunty hectoring would meet my weary gaze on too many mornings. Its fans might speak of its ''moral authority'' or its worldly wisdom, but I was never fooled. It's a terrible poem. It is terrible in a variety of ways. It comes on one minute like a British version of the Ten Commandments (thou shalt be cool, modest, restrained, understated, decent, docile, dogged...) then hares off into curious, unexplainedly subversive terrritory (thou shalt also be reckless, relentless, socially flexible and pointlessly athletic).

If is full of perverse and nonsensical injunctions. ''If you can think - and not make your thoughts aim''; but why not? "Don't look too good''; can you look too good? ''If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you'' - well, if neither can, it's more likely that you're emotionally null than mature. These are the words of somebody suspicious of intellectual thought, of beauty, of ego, of passion, of tragedy - in other words, of all the highest grades of feeling available to the human spirit. It's no wonder that they struck my 14-year-old self as a pretty lousy blueprint for growing up.

One should not get all steamed about a poem which is no more to be taken seriously by modern readers than, say, the chunterings of Polonius in Hamlet or the furrowed-brow faux-seriousnes of Jeffrey Archer or the lyrics of "My Way". But we have to face the fact that "If" won the National Poetry Day phone-in. Agreed, only 7,500 people actually voted, a tiny sample given the level of flap and hype that attended it, and the farcical spectacle of the bookmakers trying to second-guess what the general public would choose from the entire canon of English verse and coming up with Auden's "Funeral Blues" because it was in Four Weddings and a Funeral. But "If" still polled more votes than its nearest rival, Tennyson's wonderful "The Lady of Shallott". Professor John Carey, the Oxford don and critic, was asked on Radio 4 how he accounted for the succes of "If". He said he was surprised that voters should go for this old-fashioned kind of poetry- as-wisdom rather than for the poetry-as-comfort which the other poems in the Top Ten represented (Yeats's "Innisfree", Wordsworth's "Daffodils"). But the whole point of the Top Ten was that it is neither. it's poetry- as-memory. The thousands of people who voted for "If", and for Walter de la Mare's "The Listeners" and Stevie Smith's "Not Waving But Drowning" are people who do not have a poetry book in the house. They are remembering the lines they learned at school ("The Listeners" was the source of a million comprehension tests) and voting for their childhoods.

The appreciation of poetry in this country is a curiously ageless process. If you had conducted yesterday's telephone poll 50 years ago, or 60, or even 70, the results would have been exactly the same, give or take Stevie Smith. No trace of modernity ripples the antique pond of British bardophilia, not even the supposedly popular Betjeman or Larkin or Wendy Cope. How curious, then, to think that while the National Poetry Day elections were taking place on Thursday evening, in another part of London, the Day's organiser, William Sieghart was presiding over the Forward Poetry Prizes, the country's most expensive prizes for serious new poetry (pounds 10,000 for the best collection, pounds 5,000 for the best individual poem). These are important awards, judged and won by serious and talented poets (the top prize this year went to Sean O'Brien's Ghost Train) and the London poetry world turns out in strong, convivial force for them. But as one congratulates the obstreperous figure of Mr O'Brien (an Irish-born Newcastle-dweller, suspicious of the effete South), one knows with an awful certainty that he will never impinge on the consciousness of British readers the way that, say, a Booker prizewinner might. Poetry's like that. One looks at "If" and at Ghost Train and then one looks at the average British reader - to whom they could be written in different languages.

John Walsh

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham
Downton

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
    Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

    How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

    'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

    Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

    Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
    Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

    Terry Venables column

    Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
    The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

    Michael Calvin's Inside Word

    Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past