Some years ago, in the course of making a programme for Radio 4, I had to interview Hunter Davies, who had been commissioned to ghost-write a book to which Wayne Rooney would eventually put his signature. There was one over-riding difficulty about the project, this gentleman declared, which was that Wayne, as he put it, “hadn’t got a personality”.
This struck me as rather a harsh thing to say about anyone, let alone a professional footballer. No, Rooney’s amanuensis insisted, he hadn’t meant to be unkind. It was merely that at 20, his subject, who had done nothing with his life thus far except excel at sport, had no interest in anything beyond it.
The great fascination of tomorrow night’s BBC One tribute to England’s most prolific goal-scorer is, consequently, its promised revelation that Wayne, if not quite a Renaissance man in the Eric Cantona mould, has much more of a personality than we ever suspected and that he is, culturally speaking, a bit of a dark horse.
He may not fancy the Man Booker shortlist or tune in to Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time, but he is known to have wooed his bride-to-be by writing her love poetry, and while the rate at which these effusions are produced “may have died down a bit of late”, a recent end of season holiday with his family was enlivened by England’s number 9 placing a poem by Coleen’s bed while she slept.
If no samples from the Rooney canon are actually vouchsafed on Monday night, then this hasn’t stopped newspaper satirists from imagining what they might look like, and a columnist in the Daily Mirror produced an entirely predictable pastiche that began “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? You are well hot.” This, too, struck me as rather harsh and, in some of the assumptions that underlay it, not a little snobbish. Why shouldn’t a professional footballer write his wife poems and not think the act of writing poetry something he ought to be embarrassed by? As a book reviewer, I told myself, I should quite like to read some of Wayne’s work – not to mock it, but to see which forms it uses and the conceptual framework on which it relies.
Even more than the dimension it adds to our understanding of life on Planet Rooney, the information that this one-time amateur boxer from the back end of Croxteth not only enjoys playing back-garden football with his son but writes verse in his leisure hours has a profound symbolic importance. For like the poems to John Lennon that Sir Paul McCartney produced after his friend’s murder – see the interview with Paul Du Noyer in this month’s Mojo – it casts an unexpected light on a cultural question that has been worrying critics for nearly a century: the nature of the public’s relationship with an art-form that, as recently as the late-Victorian age, carried all before it.
“Certainly at the beginning of the 20th century the English people still liked poetry,” Penelope Fitzgerald once wrote in an encomium to Harold Monro’s famous Poetry Bookshop. It is not that poetry has disappeared from our national life – why, next Thursday is National Poetry Day with We British: An Epic in Poetry commandeering the schedules on Radio 4; no music festival is complete without a performance poet of the Kate Tempest school; Carol Ann Duffy, the current Poet Laureate, is indefatigable in her work, while the veteran Manchester punk John Cooper Clarke is making TV ads for the National Trust. On the other hand, any literary historian who weighed up the evidence would be forced to admit that a form which, a century ago, was at the heart of the arts world mainstream has drifted off into one of its remoter tributaries.
Any “In Memoriam” page in a local newspaper, for example, will usually turn up a dozen or so poems to beloved nans and departed grandads
The absolute centrality of poetry to, say, the 1920s can be seen in half-a-dozen areas of cultural life – from the cargo of novelists (George Orwell and Graham Greene among others) who began their careers in the conviction that the smart money was on verse, to the huge sales racked up by the day’s talents – the collected poems of Duffy’s predecessor John Masefield sold 80,000 copies – and, even more important, the wider educational world of popular reciters and fireside memory feats.
My grandfather (born 1903) was not at all a “bookish” man but there would come a moment, once or twice a year, when a half-way wistful look would spread across his face and, unprompted, he would start to declaim “There was an ancient mariner, he stoppeth one of three …” or “Lars Porsena of Clusium, by the nine Gods he swore …”. I don’t suppose my grandfather knew who the Ancient Mariner was, or Lars Porsena’s exact role in The Lays of Ancient Rome, but clearly something in him had been stirred by schoolroom exposure to Coleridge and Macaulay which 40 years drudging in an insurance company office had not quite been unable to dislodge.
What did for poetry’s popularity, naturally, was modernism, Eliot, Pound and the Sitwells, and the whole post-Waste Land orthodoxy that the best verse achieves its effects not by conveying traditional sentiments by way of a conventional rhyme scheme but by means of allusion, ellipsis and evasion. To read one of the conservative critics of the 1920s trying to get to grips with Eliot is a fascinating experience. He knows there is merit lurking in these fraught acrostics, even if he cannot see it, but he also understands that they have the capacity to blow the old, traditional poetry world into fragments.
Poetry – that is, the kind of poetry which ordinary people read and appreciated – did not die in the wake of “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” or Pound’s Cantos. It simply went underground, surfacing every so often in enthusiasm for recognised crowd-pleasers such as John Betjeman and Philip Larkin (the critic John Wain once suggested that Betjeman’s popularity was a mark of the general public’s fear of poetry). But it more often survives in the shape of what might be called a buried poetic sensibility – the idea, quietly shared by millions of people whose formal education stopped in their teens, that “poetry”, however conceived, is a highly desirable way to convey emotion at times when some kind of formal expression is required.
Evidence of the public’s fondness for this sort of subterranean verse lies all over the 21st-century landscape. Any “In Memoriam” page in a local newspaper, for example, will usually turn up a dozen or so poems to beloved nans and departed grandads – doggerel by the standards of the seminar hall, but at the same time passing on deeply held feelings in a form that the bereaved think suitable for the occasions. It is the same with certain forms of popular music, to the point where you sometimes wonder whether the A-grade rock lyricists of the past 30 years – the Fall’s Mark E Smith, say, Paul Weller, Howard Devoto or Cathal Coughlan – aren’t really poets manqués led by temperament into a different medium.
Or perhaps it is merely that, with one or two prominent exceptions, poetry is no longer something you can make a living out of.
Meanwhile, to go back to the spectacle of Wayne stealing silently across the bedroom carpet with a sheet of paper in his fingers (does he write them by hand, I wonder, or type them up on his computer?), the revelation that one of the England football captain’s hobbies is such a greenery-yallery occupation as writing poetry is horribly exciting. It is not in the least funny, far more important in the wider scheme of things than those 50 England goals, and as much a blow against the forces of philistinism as, I don’t know, A N Wilson and Jeanette Winterson being invited to co-host Top Gear.