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

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The Independent Online

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.