You can have too much of anything, even poetry

Too much exposure to poetry turns the head and lets sentimentality gush free
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The Independent Online

A rather effective pick-up line was occasionally deployed by a friend of mine, a writer and traveller of the world, when on the lookout for female company. Seeing a young woman, alone and absorbed in some serious book, he would sit down beside her and say, with appropriate seriousness: "You're a poet, aren't you?"

Apparently it worked. During my friend's pulling days, there were few girls of sensitivity and intelligence who would not like to be mistaken for a poet, particularly when it turned out that the person who had made the assumption was a published poet himself. The fact that she may or may not have written a few lines of verse herself mattered less than the knowledge that she had the potential within her, that her poetical soul was there for all to see.

Such is the lure of poetry, and the ruthlessness of those who practise it. Sooner or later, the heady mixture of unworldliness, ambition, competitiveness, rage and randiness that is the world of modern poetry was bound to be subjected to humorous treatment and Sylvia, a film to be released later this week, fits the bill perfectly.

Some people will assume that a film tracing the doomed relationship between Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes must be some kind of tragedy, speaking eloquently of the terrible price in happiness and normality that those visited by the muse have to pay, and it is even possible that the makers of the film were under that impression too. But the opening scenes are simply too hilarious to be treated as anything but a spoof, which will do for poetry what This Is Spinal Tap did for heavy metal rock.

Students spout verse at one another in their college rooms at Cambridge. Sylvia and Ted, having become lovers after some sexy literary small talk, recite poetry as they go punting on the Cam. Sylvia, all wild and poetical, declaims from The Wife of Bath's Tale to a herd of Charolais cattle. It is the sort of nonsense which Ken Russell used to direct with a certain camp flair, presenting eccentricity and personality dysfunction as necessary by-products of artistic genius, but here it is served up with dogged seriousness. Only a rather moving performance by Gwyneth Paltrow as the suicidally inclined Plath saves Sylvia from being an unintentional comic classic.

Although the film is set half a century ago, and indeed captures the dreariness of 1950s England all too well, its release is well timed, for poetry has been undergoing something of resurgence. We have a dynamic and proactive poet laureate who, while he may not have the allure of his predecessor Hughes - said to be so desirable as a young man that women would be physically sick when he walked into a room - has put himself and poetry at the heart of national life.

Reading the stuff has become terrifically fashionable, too. This weekend Josephine Hart, the author of Damage, was promoting a monthly event at which well-known thespians declaim their favourite verse and declared that, as a "word child", she had learnt that "the words of the god-poet should, like admonitions from the catechism, be known by heart".

This is what too much exposure to poetry does to people: it turns the head and lets sentimentality gush free. It is not only writers and actors who suffer from the weakness. As I have recently discovered, it can afflict ordinary people who dream of becoming god-poets themselves.

As part of something called the Skelton Festival, which takes place throughout 2004 in my local town, Diss, in Norfolk, local residents were invited to participate in a poetry competition, to be judged by the poet and critic Anthony Thwaite and myself.

A small number of entries were excellent, a few were profoundly embarrassing; most were gentle, unexceptional outpourings of emotion which belonged squarely to the Fotherington-Thomas "Hullo birds, hullo trees" school of poetry. The required subject of the poems, "Diss", had potential: a market town, once a byword for rural obscurity, now a commuter centre threatened by an infestation of vast supermarkets and a setting for startling outbreaks of bad behaviour after closing time at weekends.

John Skelton, the first poet laureate, whose arrival in Diss as its rector 500 years ago the festival celebrates, was a fascinating and paradoxical character - a scholar and tutor to the future Henry VIII, a clergyman who threw himself into local affairs and a poet whose mixture of the demotic and the learned, the religious and profane was utterly original.

Half a millennium later, the poetry of the Skelton festival revealed that most of his descendants lack his sense of danger and engagement. Most of them emoted in a vague, unfocused, nostalgic way. Feeling was all; thought the province of prose.

A trip to the cinema to watch Sylvia and chortle at the excesses of those caught up in the world of poetry would do these contemporary versifiers the world of good.