A WEEK IN BOOKS
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Saturday 14 October 1995
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.
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