Leading Article: Poetry breaks its public purdah

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The Independent Online
FOR much of this century, poetry has offered only a cool welcome to those making its casual acquaintance. There has not been the comfortable, warm embrace of the novel that leads readers gently to discover the secrets within. Too often the poetic form - with its reputation for earnest, intellectual and introverted sobriety - has served to obscure rather than enlighten. For this reason it has been largely confined to libraries, away from the thrill of life.

It was not always so: public passion for Tennyson and Browning was as fervent as that for the Victorian novel. Nor need it be so now. Poetry is ideally suited to the modern age. Its brevity should appeal to those overburdened with information and hard-pressed for leisure time. Its incisiveness should be attractive in an age of uncertainty. As Cyril Connolly said: 'Most people do not believe in anything very much, and our greatest poetry is given to us by those who do.'

The election at the weekend of a new Oxford Professor of Poetry is a sign that verse is rediscovering its place in British life. James Fenton takes the chair, having distinguished himself as a poet, journalist and author. Like contemporaries such as Tony Harrison, whose Gulf war poetry was as evocative as that of Wilfred Owen, Fenton's work tackles issues of public importance that are more usually the stuff of narrative prose. Its earthy reality cannot be accused, as poetry sometimes is, of being truth dressed in its Sunday clothes. The poet as priest has shed his donnish robes.

Writers are becoming more conversational in tone, reflecting the growth in live performance as poetry has been forced into pubs and other accessible venues. More people like to dabble in composition. Snatches of poetry are fast becoming part of the landscape in newspapers and public places.

Fenton's election, like that of Seamus Heaney before him, takes the revolution back into the narrow, exclusive world of Oxford, which often appears to regard poetry as the preserve of the elite. It may yet be many years before a British poet grows rich from verse or, as elsewhere, leads the country. But those who deal in the often tired language of television, journalism and political rhetoric should note that poets are once more competing with them for the public ear.