Shirley Dent: The pernicious malady jeopardizing all hope of poetic justice

Related Topics

Doctor of medicine I am not. But I still feel qualified – nay, obliged – to warn you, gentle reader, that we appear to be in the grip of a pernicious malady sweeping the country from north to south. Yet without medical classification, but real in its effects, let us call this pandemic by the name poet-oxemia.

Poet-oxemia is the condition whereby our understanding, appreciation and knowledge of poetry deteriorate, ironically self-poisoned by a proliferation of all things poetic. Poet-oxemia is characterised by outbreaks of virulent versifying in the most unexpected of places, often accompanied by rash pronouncements about what constitutes poetry today.

The condition can take several acute forms. There is the "tuning-into-trendy-to-make-poetry-less-scary" form, the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy's recent anointing of the Arctic Monkeys as "great lyric writers" being a case in point. Or there's the "dumbing-down-for-edutainment" strain of poet-oxemia. This is exemplified by Electronic Arts' video game version of Dante's Inferno, which sees Dante re-invented as an armour-clad, scythe-wielding crusader, slashing through waves of demons.

But more worrying than these acute strains of poet-oxemia is the chronic condition, whereby poetry is promoted as soma for the soul. In some quarters, poetry is now seen a soporific sop to calm dysfunctional sections of society and hush the masses. At a custody centre in Shropshire, police give prisoners poetry books to "calm them down", while the landlord of the Phoenix pub in Faversham hosts poetry readings to keep lager louts out.

While I have no problem whatsoever with poetry in either pubs or prisons, I detest the idea of poetry as a rarefied nicety, the literary equivalent of dried flowers in the toilet. We belittle poetry beyond recognition when we become victims to this passive, chronic strain of poet-oxemia. George Steiner once said in a lecture that poetry may not make you feel better. It may make you feel a hell of a lot worse. There is no cure for such poetry, poetry that makes demands of us, intellectually, emotionally. That challenges us to look again at the world as it really is. Such poetry needs no cure – long may we suffer from it.

Shirley Dent is Associate Fellow of the Institute of Ideas.

React Now

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

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page


Ed Miliband's conference speech must show Labour has a head as well as a heart

Patrick Diamond
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments