Why pop lyrics cannot be poetry

The real trouble with the Laureate business is not poetry itself, but the monarchy
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DO WE really need a Poet Laureate in 1998? All countries need poetry. In a dictatorship its gets banned because repressive regimes hate truth and poetry, with Keats, assumes that truth is beauty. The Russian poet Osip Mandelstam died because he believed poetry should be responsible only to language, conscience, suffering, and what the poet wants to say; and wouldn't write odes praising Stalin. Poetry became fantastically important in undercover ways as a free and hopeful thing.

In our environment, where words helter-skelter round airwaves and newsprint in promiscuous rhetoric, poetry is important in a different way. A poet's business is to be careful with words; to mean them, even when it's fashionable not to; to bring all a word's meanings into play. At moments of deepest personal or national horror, hope or celebration,people turn to poetry. To words which are careful, in every sense of that word; which focus feeling, bring release, and make the inner life matter in the outer world. Not just solemnly. The English poetic tradition has a fat and lucky legacy in humour.

But a Laureate? Part of the job - writing the "occasional" poem marking royal events - could go. Occasional poems get in the way of creativity, as occasional tables get in the way of going to bed. Producing poems on princess's birthdays seems deeply unnecessary. But a responsible poet is a moral and emotional resource in other ways: even when not writing poems. When Ireland was convulsed in despair last summer after the Omagh bomb, Seamus Heaney wrote an article in The Irish Times which drew grief- stricken minds together in some sort of shared release. He brought poetry to bear on an unbearable situation as a poet, though not in a poem, because a lifetime of reading and writing poetry means he can talk responsibly about suffering.

As well as writing poems, one thing Ted Hughes did as Laureate was start a Poetry in Translation project which helped bring to the West some of the most important poetic voices of the last 40 years. Voices from the Eastern bloc, such as Czeslaw Milosz, the Lithuanian Nobel Prize-winner who opened this week's Poetry International Festival at the South Bank last Friday. Recalling his experience of war-poisoned Poland and communism, Miloscz's book of essays, The Witness of Poetry, speaks of poetry's unique power to "witness" to things that matter to everyone.

Obviously, poetry is not the only such witness. Pop has real emotional power: Ginger Spice will make an absorbing UN Ambassador. So couldn't Paul McCartney do the Laureate job better than a poet? Isn't Bob Dylan "as good" as Keats?

Cheltenham Literary Festival hammered this hoary chestnut firmly on the head last month. Ian Dury, of "Sweet Gene Vincent" fame, shovelled scorn on it, categorically denied that his own brilliant lyrics are poetry, and quoted Keats's "Ode to Autumn" to prove it. "Wonderful," he said with gusto as he finished.

Why are pop lyrics not poetry? Try reading Dylan without hearing in your head that voice, guitar, texture, timing and phrasing. You can't. As genuine songwriter, Dylan put those things into his songs on purpose. Song gives music equal power with words, and once you've heard the lyrics with it, you cannot get rid of it. But poetry, the musical art whose words make all the melody, rhythm and cadence, does by itself what lyrics need music to achieve. That's the miracle. It's a great idea to get the Queen a Pop Musician Laureate as well as a poet. But not instead. As Dury insisted, songwriters are not poets.

The real trouble with the Laureate business is not poetry but monarchy. Many poets who might do a worthwhile job probably feel they need it like a hole in the head.

Monarchy currently means two things: the questionable royal soap - this Coronation Street, dodgem car-like slither through the media - and the real care most of the population still feel for the people who incarnate it. As an ideal, royalty is currency of massive significance. The King's Touch is the ancient belief that royal hands can heal. "Royal" suggests the deepest possible mattering. A "royal" road to somewhere is the best route there. Historically, this country is lumbered with that significance, so our current royalty should have something to do with this other deep way of mattering to people - poetry.

"Laureate" means crowning "the best poet" with "laurel". There are different kinds of "best" poet. You need someone who will be best in the sense of witnessing to poetry, reminding us what only it can do. We need poetry represented at court, not for poetry's sake, but the court's. Because through words alone, not sweetened, doctored or added to by any external music, poetry matters to the people.