Why poetry still matters, by Boyd Tonkin

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From Beowulf to Philip Larkin, poetry's past haunts its present. Below, Andrew Motion, Bonnie Greer, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Culture Secretary on the poems that changed their lives

English poetry began, for me, with Anne Boleyn's other man – or one of them, at least. At the dawn of Renaissance verse in England, and at the heart of the lethal court of Henry VIII, Sir Thomas Wyatt turned his misadventures in love and politics into lyrics that still crackle with a sinister eroticism. To a suburban teenager, the sulky sexiness of this voice that reached out from the 1530s struck like lightning – "once in special,/ in thin array, after a pleasant guise/ When her loose gown did from her shoulders fall/ And she caught me in her arms long and small..." So, almost as fiercely, did its fearful strangeness: those candlelit flickers of guilt, conspiracy and dread that hinted at state terror lurking in the shadows of the bedchamber.

Did Wyatt ever sleep with Anne Boleyn? The king, who jailed him, spared his life after her fall – and any courtier subject to royal suspicion tended to find that head and body promptly parted company. In any case, Wyatt – and the gifted teacher who brought him to me – ignited the flame of past, as well as present, poetry. "And therewithal sweetly did me kiss/ And softly said, 'Dear heart, how like you this?'"

Such electric moments can make the poetry of distant times blaze with such heat and light that it vapourises every question of history, of form and technique. All the solemn rigmarole of canons and traditions, of genres and influences, fades into a dreary background buzz. Yet the poetry that endures always shows that spontaneity needs structure. Poets who talk over the centuries about the most intimate feelings also keep up a constant dialogue with one another, and with their art. Wyatt nods to the Italian love poetry of Petrarch. And he recalls his home-grown master, Geoffrey Chaucer, too: Tom Paulin writes of this poem ("They flee from me that sometime did me seek") that "Wyatt's ear is still tuned to the alliterative rhythms of Middle English verse". Within, and behind, the throes of passion, the poetic professional hones the tools, checks the competition and refines the craft.

Tomorrow, The Independent print edition begins a series of 14 booklets devoted to "Great Classic Poets" in English. They will be written by Michael Schmidt, professor of poetry at Glasgow University and a publisher of modern and classic poetry at Carcanet Press. His ongoing books in the Story of Poetry series tell this never-ending tale of conversations between poets with unrivalled clarity and scope. Readers could not wish for a better guide.

Yet critical talk of the ways in which great poets recruit and transform their predecessors' work can deter poetry lovers. They often prefer plain text to muffled context. Besides, our ruling metaphors of poetic interchange somehow misfire. "Influence" sounds dull, or medical (too close to influenza). "Canons" seem to fit in best with medieval church law. "Tradition" and "heritage" fall like lead on modern ears. Even in 1920, when TS Eliot published his ground-breaking essay on "Tradition and the Individual Talent", he knew that the concept had set him a steep uphill task. "You can hardly make the word agreeable to English ears," he grumbled, without some "comfortable reference to the reassuring science of archaeology".

Modern variants such as "intertextuality" belong to the geeks on the rusting Star Trek bridge of academic theory. As for "classic" poetry, Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer delivered a popular verdict: "Every man with a bellyful of the classics is an enemy to the human race". When the French theorist Roland Barthes deprecated the stuffy "classic" work in favour of texts that counted as "modern", the peerless Frank Kermode nimbly riposted that what Barthes called modern, he would call "classic". And what Barthes called classic, he would call "dead".

However defined, the line of English poetry that begins with Chaucer is not dead. Even a verse epic four centuries older – Beowulf, whose sole Old English manuscript dates from around AD1000 – can still prompt a hi-tech blockbuster movie. And Hollywood's interest in the slayer of the monster Grendel (and his mama) would never have flickered into life had Seamus Heaney not published his flinty, gripping translation of the poem.

Turn to Heaney's Beowulf, though, and you find that this canonical starting-point thinks of itself as a latecomer. After our hero has despatched the monster, feasting revellers are entertained by a bard with his ear to history: "a carrier of tales/ a traditional singer deeply schooled/ in the lore of the past, linked a new theme/ to strict metre". Even within his own poem, Beowulf's feats take shape in time-honoured verse. Eliot's essay quips that "some one said: 'The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.' Precisely, and they are that which we know." More than a millennium ago, the Beowulf poet would have agreed.

So, in the classroom or at the multiplex, the canon survives. But over the past century, its creation has come under closer scrutiny than ever. Critics such as Eliot and Pound re-ordered the monuments as part of their own artistic mission: down with Shelley, up with Donne. Feminist writers and critics cleared space for women; their post-colonial counterparts for non-European authors – and so on, in a familiar tale of reclamation and renewal.

Now, the dust has in part settled on this labour of revision. Yes, many poetic monuments have shifted position. But, remarkably, almost all of them still stand. Far from ushering in the slaughter of "dead white males" feared by right-wing punditry, the new canon has spread at the pace of a boom-time metropolis. Within it, poets such as Kipling – dismissed not long ago as a tub-thumping throwback – attract more serious attention. Philip Larkin has survived his spell in the critical dock (on charges of misogyny and racism) to beguile not only poets, but novelists such as Martin Amis and Ian McEwan.

Carol Ann Duffy, surely the best-loved living British poet, keeps up an endless dialogue with the "tradition" as she grapples with the words and thoughts of Larkin, Auden and others. The title poem of her new collection for children, "The Hat", embodies the history of English verse as it trips over time from skull to skull, mouth to mouth: "Whose head, whose head, whose will I settle on next?" Duffy's game of pass-the-bardic-crown ends with Ted Hughes. Many would now place it on her head.

This stubborn persistence of the canon enrages the poetic avant-garde. In which case, these must be furious times for them. Recently, one of the poetic bestsellers V C on Faber's list has been a 600-year-old verse narrative: Simon Armitage's galloping new translation of the Arthurian myth-adventure, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Armitage writes that, within a week, the idea of transforming Sir Gawain from Middle into Modern English had gone "from a fanciful notion to a superstitious (and preposterous) conviction that I was put on the planet for no other reason than to translate the poem".

British poets don't come much cooler than Armitage. He will soon publish a memoir (Gig) about his thwarted rock-star ambitions and the happy blending of a pop sensibility with poetry in his life, and work. It has nothing to say about Sir Gawain but plenty about Ian Curtis, Mark E Smith, Morrissey and other talents that a poet of today might admire. From the "Gawain" poet to Ted Hughes and the Arctic Monkeys, Armitage can juggle inspirations and influences with even-handed glee. You might call this post-modern eclecticism, or another sign of impatience with the limits imposed by poetic schools, cliques and movements. Either way, the canon of English poetry is now visited by writers more often as a supermarket than as a shrine.

To a conservative such as Eliot, this pick-and-mix pluralism would have been anathema. His canon outlined the descent of values as well as of verses. Writing about Virgil, he could overtly link the shaping force of a "classical" poem with the sway of the Roman Empire and its marbled verities. So today's notion of the literary past as an open-all-hours superstore to be rifled and ransacked at will has few parallels in poetic history. Revisions of the poetic canon now take the form of accretion, rather than substitution. Where will it all end?

Matthew Arnold was one of the first critics to fret about the fate of a consensual tradition in a commercial, populist age. In some respects, his yearning for "sweetness and light" has triumphed. Today, 140 years after his critique of the "Philistines" in Culture and Anarchy, state endorsement and support of the arts – including poetry – has surpassed his fondest mid-Victorian dreams. Yet his own verse has grown into a temple of that hallowed past, ripe for expropriation by less reverent brands of bard.

Last year's most acclaimed poetic debut was Daljit Nagra's collection, Look We Have Coming to Dover!. The title piece quotes Arnold's great ode of doubt and foreboding, "Dover Beach", as a prelude to a clash of British modes and manners with the raucous energy of Nagra's Punjabi migrant families, "babbling our lingoes, flecked by the chalk of Britannia". Would Arnold have approved of Nagra's verse masala? By rights, he should have done. In poem after poem, Nagra frames the demotic "babble" of British Asian life and talk against the poetic tradition, ancient and modern – from George Herbert to Paul Muldoon.

If ever a poet talked back to the canon, Nagra does. Not that he's alone; John Agard's celebrated squib from the 1980s, "Listen Mr Oxford Don", put the case impeccably: "I ent have no gun/ I ent have no knife/ but mugging de Queen's English/ is the story of my life." Still, life – and even Oxford – moves on. One of the best-known Oxford English dons today, Paulin, has for years mugged the QE himself with the knobbly clubs of Ulster vernacular speech, in his own demotically enriched poetry.

Class, as well as culture, has spurred creative backchat from late arrivals to the high table of verse. Nagra has clear affinities with Tony Harrison from Leeds, who for 40 years has wittily and angrily claimed his place in a tradition that formerly could find no room for any self-raising baker's son. "So right, yer buggers, then!" snarls the sonnet "Them and [uz]" from his magisterial sequence The School of Eloquence – a poem about the sound of Keats in a Yorkshire lad's mouth, and the schoolmaster who scorned his pronunciation: "We'll occupy/ your lousy leasehold Poetry."

Yet Keats was himself a low-status, much-mocked "cockney" who laboured under the vicious snobbery of his age. In 1818, Keats expressed the hope, and wish, that "I think I shall be among the English Poets after my death". Another outsider, he felt that a true and just order of poetic merit ought to exist beyond the whims of fashion and prejudice.

This was hardly what Eliot had in mind when he claimed that the historically aware writer feels "that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order". Eliot's hierarchy of bards would constitute a canon very different to Keats's, and Harrison's, meritocracy. Yet the desire to belong with the big shots of the past seems to burn even more fiercely in authors who have suffered the pangs of exclusion.

In an early poem, from 1948, Derek Walcott – the future Nobel laureate from the island of St Lucia – gives voice to a narrator who feels that his life "must not be made public/ Until I have learnt to suffer/ in accurate iambics". A spellbinding magician when it comes to the forms of verse, Walcott moved a long way beyond mere "accurate iambics". Still, he has never stopped wrestling creatively with the giant ghosts of European poetry and art. His most spectacular embrace of the past came in 1990 with Omeros. This epic of "our wide country, the Caribbean sea" manages to swallow both Homer and Dante in its roped-together tales of fishermen in love and the colonial history of their island home.

Walcott, too, believed he had to fight to join the inner circle. A younger poet such as Vikram Seth feels he's pushing at an open door – not least because he has the key. The author of A Suitable Boy – always a poet, long before his excursion into fiction – now owns a rectory in Wiltshire once occupied by George Herbert himself. Recently, "in Delhi but thinking of Salisbury", Seth wrote a series of poems about living in Herbert's house, and his "deep affinity" with the courteous revenant from the 17th century who "stands just out of mind and sight/ That I may sit and write". "He might influence me," writes Seth, "but would not wish to wrest me from myself".

It takes a lot to wrest a strong poet from himself or herself. Yet even the strongest senses the need to shake hands across time with the best of the past – though some may fear the urge might fade. "Old Poets", from Elaine Feinstein's aptly titled new volume Talking to the Dead, reflects that "We were so sure/ The words of their poems would last,/ and that the next generation/ would be equally in love with the past". If "love" can encompass every shade of rivalry and argument, she has every right to her confidence. Poetry itself, as the imprisoned Wyatt came to know, can be the most stalwart paramour of all.



THE POEM THAT CHANGED MY LIFE

Andrew Motion, Poet Laureate

I Look into my Glass, by Thomas Hardy

I look into my glass,
And view my wasting skin,
And say, "Would God it came to pass
My heart had shrunk as thin!"

For then, I, undistrest
By hearts grown cold to me,
Could lonely wait my endless rest
With equanimity.

But Time, to make me grieve,
Part steals, lets part abide;
And shakes this fragile frame at eve
With throbbings of noontide.

I came from a very non-bookish background, in which poems had played no part whatsoever, so it was entirely down to my English teachers to light me up – or not – about poems. And it happened very spectacularly right at the start of my A-level course when there was a fantastic chance for promiscuous reading and I began to be taught by Peter Way. He is now a close friend because he pretty much gave me my life, imaginatively and intellectually speaking.

He gave us all this poem to read. It's about Hardy looking in a mirror and regretting that he has an old man's body encasing the energies of young man, the "throbbings of noontide" as he calls them. It's a slightly odd choice to give to children, but it just went into me like a spear. I'd never felt anything like it before. It made me want to read everything he had written and read other poems that were like that, Larkin, Edward Thomas and all the other people who have become so important to me over the years. And it made me want to write – and, moreover, write like that – something that looks very plain but which has a tremendous emotional resonance to it, a glass that looks like it has got water in it but then it turns out to be gin. That remains my ambition – to write things that look simple but have an emotional kick to them. It did change my life – it changed it and made it instantaneously.

Bonnie Greer, Writer

365, by Emily Dickinson

Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat?
Then crouch within the door-
Red-is the Fire's common tint-
But when the vivid Ore
Has vanquished Flame's conditions,
It quivers from the Forge
Without a color, but the light
Of anointed Blaze.
Least Village has its Blacksmith
Whose Anvil's even ring
Stands symbol for the finer forge
That soundless tugs-within-
Refining these impatient Ores
With Hammer, and with Blaze
Until the Designated Light
Repudiate the Forge-

My favourite poet, lately, is the 19th-century American Emily Dickinson. Dickinson is very mysterious to me, hard to grasp. She is that rare artist who is completely dedicated to charting and expressing her inner landscape. She is not a public poet, but a recluse, who, like Blake, invents a cosmology, a universe. I could say her own cosmology, her own universe, but of course this is not true. It is everyone's.

My favourite poem is "365". The poems have no titles. In it, the "Belle of Amherst" plunges in, leaving the rest of us behind, just as Stephen Hawking's mind does, or the music of the jazz genius Ornette Coleman does. "365" is about the soul – something that trendy, dumb books extolling atheism want us to believe does not exist. How can that be true when you read lines like this?

Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury

Love Bade Me Welcome, by George Herbert

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.

'A guest,' I answer'd, 'worthy to be here';
Love said, 'You shall be he.'
'I, the unkind, the ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on thee.'
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
'Who made the eyes but I?'
'Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.'
'And know you not,' says Love, 'who bore the blame?'
'My dear, then I will serve.'
'You must sit down,' says Love, 'and taste my meat.'
So I did sit and eat.

Poetry involves heightening the tension in words. Herbert's "Love Bade Me Welcome" is typical of him – literally conversational, but highly patterned, immensely self-aware. It's about meeting God, and our fear of being forgiven or accepted. Tension builds as the writer's stratagems are dismantled. The last line – "So I did sit and eat" – is as deliberately flat as could be: the ultimate release. It is the poem I most often revisit.

Andy Burnham, Culture Secretary

An extract from 'V', by Tony Harrison

Next millennium you'll have to search quite hard
To find my slab behind the family dead,
Butcher, publican, and baker, now me, bard
Adding poetry to their beef, beer and bread.
With Byron three graves on I'll not go short
Of company, and Wordsworth's opposite.
That's two peers already, of a sort,
And we'll all be thrown together if the pit,
Whose galleries once ran beneath this plot,
Causes the distinguished dead to drop
Into the rabblement of bone and rot,
Shored slack, crushed shale, smashed prop.

I first came across 'V' on a Channel 4 film by Richard Eyre, shot in Beeston Hill cemetery near Leeds. It had an incredible effect on me. It was directly relevant – a Northern perspective on the late Eighties, charting the decimation of jobs and the collapse of social structures through the image of a graveyard that has been vandalised.

"The Great Poets", a 14-day series of booklets looking at the lives and work of the best-loved poets in the English language is free with the Independent print edition (see www.independent.co.uk/poets for details)

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