If it makes money, it's not poetry

Don Paterson, poet and musician, admits to considerable envy of Murray Lachlan Young's pounds 1m deal
Click to follow
"Do you move in poetic circles?" I was once asked during question- time at a rather posh reading in Eastbourne. "Oh yes," I replied, and couldn't resist improvising a rather fey and serious little dance to prove the point. Murray Lachlan Young - the 28-year-old frock-coated poet recently signed by MTV and EMI in a deal worth pounds 1m - on the other hand, does not hang with the crowd.

"If I ever lose any outsider status, I'm up shit creek," he says. Poetry is the least lucrative occupation in the world; winning the pounds 50 third prize in the Uig International Floral-Themed Poetry Competition is all it takes for your fellow poets to start ignoring you in the street. In this scratch-card culture, Young should find his lottery windfall a splendid guarantee of his "outsider status" for many years to come.

Let's get this bit over with first. To subject Young's work to any kind of serious critical analysis would feel like discharging the contents of your Uzi into a plate of blancmange. It would only make a mess, and only a sadist would derive any satisfaction from it. His poems are so scrupulously free of even the more easily won poetic virtues (correct spelling, for example) they attain a kind of exemplary status. The poems on his new CD Vice and Verse don't even scan well enough to be rapped; instead, Young intones his toothless satire and Nineties Struwwelpeter childhood horror stories in a sort of generic Christopher Lee camp thesp, against the now-familiar postmodern mishmash of musical genres. Young - poets everywhere should be relieved to note - is not a poet of any kind. It's as if he had once heard poetry described, but had never actually read a poem. But it's all quite fun, in a way, I suppose. If you've never actually had any fun.

To what, then, can we attribute his success? In a way, it's nothing more than good old-fashioned patronage, but of a kind so blatant that it's initially hard to spot.

Here's an out-take, for example from "Simply Everyone's Taking Cocaine":

Well I saw Aunt Milly In last season's clothes

She said car, house and yacht

Had gone straight up her nose

But she'd had the most Wonderful time

And the whole thing Seemed simply sublime

I said 'Milly my dear

You'll be dead at this rate'

'Not at all' parried she

'For I've just had a plate

Made of metal put into my nose'

Now she's hoovering it up like a hose

Young has simply taken the MTV crowd, Soho illiterati and other coke- hoovering unemployables as his subjects, in much the same way that a painter might have knocked off a few free portraits of the local dignitaries in the hope that the flattery might convince them to take him on for serious money.

These individuals are supposedly the targets of Young's satire, but since they also seem to form the larger part of his small audience, the satire can't be hurting too much. Self-recognition is often the nearest thing a bloated ego gets to the aesthetic experience, so I suppose you can forgive them mistaking Young's not-terribly-cautionary tales for poetry. And, like good old-fashioned patrons, at no time did they stop to consider the monumental irrelevance of this guff to the lives of the audience upon which it will be foisted.

"EMI," says Young, "are going for the no-hype route."

"The mujahedin," he might have added more credibly,"are taking the feminist line."

EMI will want some return on their investment, and only throw money at things they know stand a decent chance of making a whole lot more. Young has been groomed, one suspects, for the export market (predominantly as a link-man for MTV) to play the sort of Englishman Americans recognise from our principle US export, period drama.

"He's three-dimensional," says Tony Harlow of EMI, perhaps a little superfluously, the time-space continuum being one of the few things we can take for granted these days. "We could have sold him as a performer, a stand-up comedian or a poet."

Of course Young will succeed anyway, as he's clearly a charismatic man with genuine talent for engaging an audience, whatever his literary shortcomings. But what's enormously cheering is that Harlow has clearly not yet appreciated what a money-loser poetry is.

Poetry widens the gap between the truth about the world, and the warped way in which we've been trained to perceive it. Because bridging that gap demands a far greater involvement on the part of the reader, it is always going to be harder going than reading prose. Readers, in a sense, have to complete the poem themselves. There are never going to be a lot of people with the patience to do this. Conclusion: any new poet who wins a pounds 1m advance is, practically by definition, not going to be any good, since he must be doing something other than poetry.

The nearest thing the poetry world has seen to this was Craig Raine's pounds 60,000 advance for History: the Home Movie. And that, in turn, was the highest advance received by a poet since Byron. It was greeted by his peers with disbelief, a disbelief soon cheerfully converted into bile by the hordes of skint poets fighting to review it. But Raine, like him or loathe him, is the real thing.

Most real poets, I suspect, wouldn't know how to spend their million, after a lifetime lowering their sights to a few inches above the breadline. After they'd cleared their debt, they'd blow it on drink, stationery and crap oil paintings by their friends, give it away to animal charities, or indulge some hitherto embryonic obsession to the point of mania, like X-Files memorabilia or Latin percussion. You can rest assured that Young (Media Performance, University College, Salford) will have more sensible plans for it.

Of course we're jealous. Not of his talent, as his publicists would like you to believe. Nor of his clothes (his tailor, I read, makes clothes for only five people, and frankly, one can see why). It's the dosh. To the gullible, money confers an aura on art in much the same way that the beauty or death of the artist does. But it's a far more temporary sheen, and in the meantime the rest of us will just have to grit our teeth and wait for it to wear off.