TELEVISION (REVIEW): Little love lost between poetry and television

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The Independent Culture
MELVYN BRAGG was in mildly defensive mood introducing The South Bank Show's recent programme on the New Generation poets (ITV). This selection of poems, he confessed, offered 'snapshots necessarily, verse-bites even, from a number of sometimes understandably nervous writers'. None of them appeared to be visibly trembling to me but it was true that a certain skittishness was detectable, a little bit of blinking in the light. And Simon Armitage, one of the first poets to read, was in apologetic mood too. 'Just to reassure people that poetry is still the same outpouring of self-pitying slurry that it's always been,' he announced, 'I've written a poem about suicide.'

The joke was a sharp one, a recognition that the form may have suffered from an association with effete introversion, the connoisseurship of fine whines. But it also alerted you to a minor paradox about poetry on television. Both the South Bank programme and Wednesday night's Late Show special (BBC 2) were essentially constructed around unadorned performance - a filmed anthology in the case of the former, a replica poetry cafe for the latter. Analysis was vastly outweighed by simple transmission - which is unusual in arts programmes.

It's true that poetry permits this in a way that other art-forms don't - it survives its passage through the medium with fewer bruises. And it's also the case that poetry has increasingly identified itself with speaking rather than reading. Poets assert themselves more these days, they tour a circuit, do gigs, wield their poems with their voice. But I suspect that poets close off some of television's conventional escape routes from art itself. They're much less obliging about biography, for example, or about elaborating their intentions, far more insistent on the primacy of the end product.

The result is, however cheerful in its approach, a touch embattled. Adrian Mitchell may have claimed, at the end of the Late Show programme, that 'poetry and telly ended up friends' but I'm not sure that I believed him - the remark said more about past resentments than it did about present rapprochement. The generous whooping of the studio audience bought to mind the indiscriminate solidarity of a revivalist meeting or a support group, the warmth willed as well as felt. Even National Poetry Day has a flavour of charitable enterprise, a flag day for the culturally disabled, with celebrities rattling a tin at you in the gaps between the programmes.

In The South Bank Show, too, several poets talked gloomily about their incurable condition, as if there might be therapy in definition. Poetry is, among other things, 'the breast-milk of language', 'novels without the waffle', 'something that takes the top of your head off' or (a touch of dumb insolence here) 'an answer to the question of what poetry is for'. Fortunately for the less poetry- minded there was an element of truth in the last remark.

'Angleterre Underground', a film for the Critical Eye series (C4), was a tiresome exercise in documentary incompetence - a field pioneered by film-makers like Nick Broomfield and Nick Danziger. You knew you were in untrustworthy hands from the moment the director (Edward Porembny) stepped from his Volvo into ankle-deep mud and swore - given that the camera was carefully framed on his feet it was difficult to believe that he didn't know what he was getting into. Much of what followed was equally synthetic - a tedious attempt to pass off cluelessness as existential struggle. Only the mounting exasperation of the film crew delivered an authentic smack, though not to the right person.