John Walsh: Why shouldn't newpapers print odes to Obama or about the banking crisis?

Tales of the City

Share
Related Topics

Where are the war poets now? Where are the artists who'll take a stand against the undermining of human rights under New Labour? Where the mock-heroic writers who'll put the collapse of the banking system in perspective? Where's the satirist who could destroy Sarah Palin in a few lines?

The role of the artist in political life has been debated since Celtic tribes employed a poet to write verses on the feats of the tribe's heroes, and merciless denunciations of their faint-hearted, bed-wetting rivals. Tough tribal fighters lived in terror of being singled out for belittlement. That was a high point in poetry's reputation.

It didn't last. Many people today consider poetry should remain aloof from battlefield and political pamphlet, existing only in the souls of its makers and readers: a long-gestating literary art whose truths unfold over time, and shouldn't be rushed. Like Auden's famous line in "In Memory of WB Yeats", they think "Poetry makes nothing happen", and that it shouldn't be expected to.

There was a time, though, when it seemed culture could be engaged with public matters outside the poet's mind – and change a whole body politic. In the late 1960s, when we schoolboys began to write war poetry, stirred by the example of Roger McGough, Adrian Henri and Brian Patten in the Penguin collection The Mersey Sound. When Allen Ginsberg inspired Czechs to rebellion in Prague (and was kicked out as a dangerous radical). When Robert Lowell went on anti-war marches and refused invitations to the White House.

Can we find such impulses at work today? There's an unpopular government at home, an unpopular war in the Middle East, a global financial meltdown, an environmental crisis, an American election of epochal significance – and what are artists doing about it?

These weighty matters were kicked around at a Poetry Society debate last week in London. The theme was, "Where now for political culture?" It wasn't adversarial: the speakers, Blake Morrison and I, were broadly in agreement that poetry did make things happen, but at the margins of history and society – ways of seeing, new roads to understanding, rather than quantifiable solutions to war or genocide. I banged on about the past, and how the evolution of a political conscience can be traced to the rhythms of the poetry you read at school. Blake Morrison said poetry always gives us a history or a context, whether that of Wordsworth or Heaney, and that good poets inevitably write about their time and place, but transcend them. He boldly stuck up for propaganda ("The desire for an outcome doesn't make it less than poetry") and for a kind of public verse that isn't content with being merely "right-minded".

I'd been reading Survivors' Songs, an excellent new book about war poetry by Jon Stallworthy, the biographer of Wilfred Owen and Louis MacNeice, and brought up its implicit conclusion that no good war poetry has been seen since James Fenton wrote about Cambodia in 1981. Stallworthy blames the dearth on the lack of first-hand experience of war since then.

This was a red rag to a lot of poetic bulls. You can count on the audience at a poetry debate to a) take offence and b) rise to a challenge. They brought up the names of poets who've inveighed about Iraq in the past five years; they explained the politically charged nature of rap music; and they mentioned (shyly) their own contribution to political debate in several poems they'd happily show us.

One contribution struck me. A woman said she looked forward to the day when a poem about public events could be so powerful that it could feature on a newspaper's front page. I told her journalism didn't work like that. Other voices wondered if it might be something brilliant but difficult by Geoffrey Hill, or something insultingly accessible by Seamus Heaney. You could hear them wishing it might be something by them. But as I tried to say, No, forget it, it isn't going to happen, I thought: would it be so bizarre, so unimaginable?

If Maya Angelou could recite "On the Pulse of Morning" to rapt crowds at Bill Clinton's inaugural ceremony in 1993, why shouldn't we open our papers to find a dazzling ode to Obama, or villanelle about the banking crisis? All it takes is the desire to utter. And the ability to be better than journalism.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Public Accounts Committee found widespread concern among civil servants that they would be victimised if they spoke out about wrongdoing  

Nikileaks explained: The sad thing about the Nicola Sturgeon saga is that it makes leaks less likely

Jane Merrick
New SNP MP Mhairi Black distinguished herself in Westminster straight away when she made herself a chip butty in the canteen  

The SNP adventure arrives in Westminister - but how long before these new MPs go native?

Katy Guest
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?