Poetry doesn't need to be easier, Mr Paxman – it's up to us to try harder

Jeremy Paxman believes poets should make more effort to engage the public. But, says Memphis Barker, poetry shouldn't be easier

It was guilt as much as Shakespeare that brought me to a seat in the Royal Festival Hall on Sunday afternoon. A binge was in the offing. More poetry than you could probably swallow. Four hours of the sweet stuff. Every single one of Shakespeare's sonnets read out one after the other, rat-a-tat-tat.

I hadn't got around to reading them at university, when I had the time to spare, nor touched a book of poetry in the close to three years since leaving. Here was redemption. A total of 154 poems in the tank. Enough to get you through at least another three years.

"You know what you should read," I would now be able to say, if backed into a corner. "Try Sonnet 40 – it's been hideously overlooked. I'm afraid I couldn't quote you a line, you see they all came so thick and fast at this extraordinary reading I went to at…" The perfect hit and run. The poetry get-out clause. Move the conversation swiftly on to the Festival Hall audience. (One woman sitting near me fell asleep by Sonnet 18, "Shall I compare thee…", and proceeded to snore along in gentle accompaniment.)

Shakespeare the poet. Hard not to like him. In a flash of braggadocio, Will (and it is Will writing – not, I feel, a dramatis personae) swears to his love (a man) that, "Not marble, nor the gilded monuments / Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme".

The sonnets are almost half a millennium old and can nearly fill a 2,500 seat auditorium on a June evening, so on that score, the jury has probably retired.

It is Shakespeare's modern successors – in poetry, not so much in plays – who have to front up to the firing squad of public opinion. Would the top 10 poets alive today attract half so many listeners if they gave a reading at the Festival Hall?

It's a puckish question, but Paxman started it. Or at least, he has stepped into the steel-toed boots of a succession of commentators who have sought to administer a good shinning to modern poetry. It doesn't speak to ordinary people any more, says Paxo, who has perfected the art of badgering politicians in simple English. (Can you imagine Cameron or Miliband carrying around a collection of verse? They'd be laughed out of town – is there anything you can fit in your pocket that is more out-of-touch, elitist, and non-normal? An aubergine?)

Blaming the poets for their shrimpy readership is an old game. But I'm not 100 per cent inclined to disagree with Paxman when he says poets appear to write for each other. Some writers seem to overly relish an intellectual arm-wrestle.

Geoffrey Hill – often called the greatest living poet working in English – has, in recent collections, apparently been engaged in an attempt to shake the last reader off his tail. Paul Muldoon sometimes gives the impression his ideal audience would be a collection of footnotes.

Then again, much of what both these poets write is brain-spritzingly exciting, if you put in the effort (in the right collection). And the point Paxman seems to miss is that effort is always required, even with less abstruse poets: Don Paterson, Rosemary Tonks, Kay Ryan etc.

All of these writers can speak very plainly indeed. But that's not the right way to judge them. Poetry isn't advertising. You don't always have to get it. Or at least not straight away. The reason not so many people try any more is the pleasure's a hard one, and a slow one, and we tend to go for the opposite – except in dire straits of love or grief.

And of course, these writers aren't as good as Shakespeare. But one other thing I'd say is that, after four hours of him, you start to crave some new imagery (he's working with 16th-century materials). A bit of neon, or plastic. You can't be wholly sated by the poetry of the past.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
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.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions