Philip Hensher: The modern art of poetic licence

If you painted a picture of St Paul's at sunset, you simply couldn't get anyone to take it seriously any more
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The Independent Online

All sorts of organisations, these days, are thinking about appointing poets as "writers in residence". Tobias Hill has been writer in residence at London Zoo; Lavinia Greenlaw at both the Science Museum, and, still more enterprisingly, at a firm of solicitors; and, towards the bottom of the scale of distinction, Jane Draycott is the poet in residence at the River and Rowing Museum in Henley, a very Betjemanesque prospect.

It's a charming idea; a poet turning up from time to time, writing a lyric inspired by the employer. Some of the settings must be harder to use as subjects than others; a zoo is easy, as every serious poet since Rilke, it seems, has written a lyric about an animal. Museums, too, provide some of the favourite subjects of 1980s and 1990s poetry, with its bookish, historical interests and eye for the exotic object.

Some, however, are harder; a solicitor's firm would be wise not to expect elegant versifications on the subject of tort or tax, even from a poet as resourceful as Lavinia Greenlaw. The most impossible subject, however, is surely not the one which looks too prosaic, but rather the one too embarrassingly laden with poetic overtones.

The Peak District, the most visited and, for my money, the most beautiful of Britain's National Parks, is proposing to appoint a poet in residence, or "poet laureate", as Arts in the Peak, the organising body, puts it. Poets must be over 18, have lived in, worked in, or at least been to the Peak District.

Anything else? Well, the winner won't be paid - something which may limit the quality of the entrants, since all the poets of my acquaintance have more than the sense they were born with. And, Mr Charles Monkhouse of Arts in the Peak said forlornly, "We are looking for a contemporary voice, someone who sees the problems of the Peak as well as its pastoral beauties - a post-modern voice rather than one that is looking back."

Although "post-modern" has rather more of a specific meaning than Mr Monkhouse is prepared to grant it, his general problem is fairly clear. He doesn't want poetry about the Peak District, at least, not in ways which might suggest themselves to us non-poets. He doesn't want poems about Mam Tor's purple-brimmed majesty, or the filigree tinkle of the rill at Burbage Rocks. Nor does he want anything, I suppose, about Chatsworth House, unless it's about the chickens in the car park. All that, ladies and gentlemen, is fairly thoroughly over by now.

I guess what he does want, or thinks he wants, are poems about rural suffering, though that, too, sounds a bit vieux jeu; hang-gliding, rock-climbing, the quarry business are all a bit more like it. But though serious poets have, indeed, in the last 50 years, occasionally written poems about landscapes, it's almost always with an air of distinct bravado. It's just not what poetry really does any more.

Much as we like to think of art as having eternal and permanent subjects, in reality, the taste of audiences and the interests of creative figures moves on steadily. The other day, walking over a London Bridge in the early evening, I had the very ordinary experience of being struck by the extraordinary beauty of the city in the sunset. It was just the most magical vista.

But there was something rather shameful about admiring it so much, because with the appreciation came an awareness that this could not in any sense be an aesthetic appreciation. If you took a photograph of St Paul's at sunset from Waterloo Bridge, or painted a picture of it, even if you were the best painter in the world, you simply couldn't get anyone to take it seriously any more. The subject would more or less disqualify your efforts from the start.

In most cases, this over-sophisticated fastidiousness over subject matter is to be deplored; most great artists have a streak of vulgarity in them which will relish these well-trodden subjects. One of the reasons why John Virtue's recent exhibition at the National Gallery was so enjoyable was that he evidently didn't see why one shouldn't still paint views of the Thames, or didn't care.

And the avoidance of romantically vulgar themes does have a generally diminishing effect. The last time I published a novel, I thought I'd give my hero a happy ending, and let him say at the end that he and his wife loved each other for the rest of their lives. The very predictable response from two or three reviewers was that the ending was terribly sentimental; but personally, I feel that if you can't say that at the end of a novel, we all, readers and writers alike, might as well all give up altogether.

Alas, I don't think that the Peak District will get an impressive poet, and not just because they aren't proposing to pay him or her any money. The fact is that it would be almost impossible now to write a poem like "Tintern Abbey" or even "In Praise of Limestone"; it's not just that we can't inhabit that style, but the whole idea of evoking a landscape in verse, describing it and drawing some kind of meaning from it just seems faintly risible now. You might as well be proposing to write a formal pastoral about shepherds, or a 12-book epic in blank verse.

The most they want is someone producing lyrics about tiny aspects of this vast landscape, looking, as it were, with blinkers on. That does seem rather a shame; I'd rather like a poet who was prepared to match the beauty of Chatsworth with a sonnet, even in 2005.