Monday 2 June 2008
Johann Hari: As life flies on, don't let poetry pass you by
If we are seeking the first great laureate of the new era, I nominate Clive James
I used to think poetry was a rotting art form, waiting only for its own Eleanor Rigby funeral. In an age that gets faster and faster and faster every day – where great gallons of information are spewed all over us constantly – what place was there for these compressed, opaque little patches of words that required us to slow down and incessantly re-read?
I had only a few vague memories of decoding poems about daffodils at school, and thinking that Wordsworth could wander lonely as a cloud off a cliff for all I cared. Let it go. Let it die.
But then, four years ago, a person I had a crush on suggested going to a poetry reading. If he had suggested we go on a date in an abattoir, I would have beamed and brought a carving knife. On the night, I fidgeted and felt embarrassed by it all – but then something strange happened. Over the next week, passages from the poetry kept surging through my brain involuntarily.
So I began an experiment. I bought some books of poetry, and every day, set aside 20 minutes to read one, again and again, until I understood it. At first it was hard. We all live in a state of permanent partial attention: we check Facebook, eat breakfast, watch the TV and yell for somebody to feed the dog all at the same time. Poetry doesn't allow you to do that. Its quiet, still voice demands you listen to it slowly, alone.
I found, to my bewilderment, the poetry was changing the way I acted. There was an old woman in my grandmother's home who constantly walked woozily in circles, saying she had to clean her room quickly or she would miss her bus. Nobody ever visited her. I found that as I hurried past, I kept thinking of the passage from Byron: "What is the worst of woes that wait on age?/ What stamps the wrinkle deeper on the brow?/ To view each loved one blotted from life's page,/ And be alone on earth, as I am now." That distillation of a feeling – of being old, and abandoned – stopped me from being able to suppress my guilt and scurry away. So we would talk, and eat chocolates. When she died on her feet, I thought of Emily Dickinson: "Because I could not stop for death/ He kindly stopped for me."
After the September 11 massacres, why did so many people e-mail to each other the astonishing Auden poem "September 1st 1939"? Partly it was the eerie echoes: "I sit in one of the dives/ On Fifty-second Street/ Uncertain and afraid/ As the clever hopes expire/ Of a low dishonest decade... The unmentionable odour of death/ Offends the September night." Partly because we all wanted, like Auden, to be one of the "ironic points of light" flashing in the swooping darkness. But it was also because we suddenly saw the need to cut out the clutter and concentrate.
I have been thinking about this since Andrew Motion reminded us he was standing down soon as Britain's Poet Laureate. The institution as it currently stands represents everything that put me off poetry. It is a position in the Royal household, tasked with periodically writing dreary sycophancy about the Windsor family. Occasionally it tries to be "cool", and that is even worse. Look at Motion's "rap" about William Windsor's 21st birthday: "Better stand back/ Here's an age attack,/ But the second in line/ Is dealing with it fine." Actually, don't look at it.
Is this Motion-sickness inherent to the idea of a Poet Laureate? Two years ago, the brilliant 26-year-old performance poet Luke Wright staged a show in which he campaigned for the role to be reformed – and given to him. He showed the Poet Laureate was the first spin-doctor, created to sell the monarchy. That's why so many great poets turned it down: Thomas Gray said he had no interest in being "the queen's personal rat-catcher". It has barely evolved since: "They give him £5,000 and a butt of sherry. That's 700 bottles of sherry. Not really a great advert for the job – here's a pittance and enough to booze to drink yourself to death."
There is another way. Separate the institution from the need to write about the hereditary freak-show of monarchy. Make her write a poem a month on a national issue. (Wright's poem about the riots that broke out in the Ikea in Edmonton is a great example.) Tour the country as a national enthusiast for poems. Pay it £20,000 a year from the Arts Council budget. And – most boldly of all – make it an elected one-year job. No, I don't want Simon Cowell judging Poetry Idol; a panel of worthies can select a shortlist that we vote on. Draw as many people in as possible.
Until the early 20th century, most poets were desperate to reach a wide audience. We only have Homer's poetry because it was chanted by the masses; Shakespeare wrote for the Stratford throng. The shift to deliberately obscure poetry is actually very recent – and I blame T.S. Eliot. He was a monstrous snob, appalled that reading was no longer the preserve of a small elite. Mass education was crow-barring culture open to the "complacent, prejudiced and unthinking mass". So, as Professor John Carey puts it, literary modernism was invented to make poetry incomprehensible to most people once more. It restored Eliot's genius – which was real, and great – to a tiny cadre of the cognoscenti.
For years, this incomprehensibility defined poetry for most people. But – partly due to the rise of performance poetry – there is now a bubbling-up of accessible, clever, beautiful poets eager to be understood: Nick Laird, Sophie Hannah, the members of "poetry boyband" Aisle 16, and more.
But if we are searching for the first great Poet Laureate of this new era, I nominate Clive James. He has written both the funniest poem I have ever read – "The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered" – and one of the saddest: "Son of a Soldier", about his father, who died before James was born. It begins: "My tears came late. I was fifty-five years old/ Before I began to cry authentically: First for the hurt I had done to those I loved,/ Then for myself, for what had been done to me/ In the beginning, to make my heart so cold."
He enthuses for poets with infectious erudition – and he has even written lyrical takes on the news for the London Review of Books.
Poetry needs a great salesman, because in our whizzing speeding shoving lives, its moments of careful pause are more important, not less. Appropriately, the words of a poet – Emerson – made this point best: "For most us, there is only the unattended/ Moment, the moment in and out of time,/ The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,/ The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning/ Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply/ That it is not heard at all, but you are the music/ While the music lasts."
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