Christina Patterson: Why poetry can't be considered a joke

Some may find the organisation's in-fighting funny; I think it was sad
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The Independent Online

Perhaps bringing in Hitler was going a bit far. Perhaps suggesting that the people who were in charge of corporate governance, and who seemed to be very defensive, and who seemed to be saying things that seemed to conflict with things that other people were saying, and who seemed to be spending a lot of money on legal advice from a law firm called Harbottle & Lewis, and also a lot of money on PR, and who obviously spent quite a lot of time preparing for their public grilling, were Nazis, and that what they were doing was part of a great masterplan, was going a little bit far.

But you can see why you'd want to. You can see, for example, why you might be tempted to post a little clip of Downfall on YouTube, with subtitles you'd written, which implied that the people you were talking about were deranged. You can see why you might think that if you didn't laugh about the people behaving strangely, who kept saying they couldn't say things "for legal reasons", you might get quite cross. Particularly since their surname wasn't Murdoch, and the money they were spending on the law firm Murdoch also used wasn't actually theirs. Since it had, in fact, been supplied by taxpayers, and poets.

You can see why you might think it was quite funny that the board of a small organisation called the Poetry Society, which is funded by a grant from the Arts Council, and by grants from trusts and foundations, and by membership fees from poets, managed to turn a conflict between two members of staff into a little earthquake, and one which would lead to the director resigning, and the finance manager resigning, and the president resigning, and the chairman resigning, and a lot of poets getting very upset, and signing petitions, and calling for a special meeting, and telling the board they had to stand down.

You can see why you might think it was quite funny that an organisation people probably thought was run from a kitchen table, or maybe the backroom of a library (but which is, in fact, run from a nice, old building with a cosy café in Covent Garden) should be talked about on YouTube, and also on Twitter, and also on blogs, and also in national newspapers, and also on the news. And you can see why some people might think it was quite funny, after the director resigned, and the finance manager resigned, and the president resigned, and the chairman resigned, and then, after the noisy meeting, the whole board resigned (though the other person involved in the row didn't resign) that the Arts Council said it was going to stop its funds.

I don't think it's funny. I did think that the Downfall clip, which has now disappeared from YouTube, was funny, and I did think that the cartoon of Rebekah Brooks following the Poetry Society's extraordinary general meeting on Twitter, was funny, and I did think that one of the board member's comments, that "quite a lot of poets seem to be rather bloody unbalanced", was quite funny. But, as someone who used to run the Poetry Society, who was, in fact the first woman since Muriel Spark to run the Poetry Society, I also think that it's actually quite sad.

I think it's sad that a good director, and a good finance manager, felt they had to leave, and now don't have jobs. I think it's sad that a board that didn't seem to know much about management seems to have turned an organisation that was doing quite well and had just got an increase in its Arts Council funding, into an organisation that looks as though it was run by people who couldn't run an egg and spoon race. And I think it's sad that the whole messy, stupid business has made people think that poetry is a joke.

In Iran, where, although it's called an "Islamic Republic", only 4 per cent of the country goes to Friday prayers, but everyone recites the poems of Hafez, as if his words, written 700 years ago, were written on their hearts, people don't think poetry is a joke. In Russia, where poets were sent to rot and die in gulags, and later recited their poems in football stadia, because so many people thought the words spoke of a freedom they could only dream of, people didn't think poetry was a joke. In Egypt, and Bahrain, and Syria, where people marched, and still march, and even die, for the chance to have some say in the leadership of their country, and where they recite poems to give each other hope, and to give each other strength, they don't think poetry is a joke.

In schools, and youth clubs, where teenagers who may never have been praised by a teacher, or passed an exam, discover, with help from professional poets, that they can write and perform poems, which they sometimes go on to do in public, and at festivals, and discover that they are not stupid, and not lazy, and not, as people sometimes tell them, useless at everything, as part of a project now called Slambassadors, which I'm proud to say I started, people don't think poetry is a joke.

And in Norway, where parents are beginning to bury their children, and are searching for the right words at a time when it's almost impossible to find words, I don't think they'll think poetry is a joke. I think they might find some solace in words like these: "And did you get what/ you wanted from this life, even so?/ I did./ And what did you want?/ To call myself beloved, to feel myself/ beloved on the earth."

The words are by Raymond Carver. They're a poem called "Late fragment". I used them when I buried my sister.

Extracted from All of Us: The Collected Poems by Raymond Carver. Harvill Press, £16.99, © Tess Gallagher, 1996

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