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Lines in praise of `traditional' poetry

Can `on the page' poets compete with a performance superstar? No contest, says Ruth Padell
"We want you", said the Breakfast BBC producer, "to have an informal discussion with a poet who's getting a million pounds for a CD. We want a traditional poet to put another perspective. We'll be asking questions like, `Can traditional poetry survive?'"

"What do you mean by traditional?" I asked.

There was one of those deep phone silences when you hear milli-miles of wire writhing away under London. I had a guess.

"Do you mean `poetry on the page?'"

"Yes," she said. "As opposed to poetry for the young. Poetry on disc."

She was voicing an assumption which canters loose round the media every day, that poetry is "difficult", traditional and, therefore, like fox- hunting, endangered. Its habitat is the page, another traditional, endangered thing. Poetry's "way forward" must involve the two touchstones of modernity, electronics and "the young".

In fact, "the young" from 13 to 20 read and buy poetry by the ton. It gets listened to, talked about passionately, jokily, easily, all over the country, everywhere from pubs to schools to prisons to the Internet - by the young. Many of the best poets live by teaching in schools. It is hard, badly paid work; but is creating - for the country, if you're going to be grand about it - a body of "the young" who think poetry by living poets addresses issues in their own lives, can be playful as well as serious, and is out there for them.

They know some poets are more "difficult" than others, but trust them to communicate, as good pop lyrics do. After a reading by Carol Anne Duffy, Paul Durcan, Jo Shapcott, Simon Armitage or Heaney, there are signing queues a mile long, swarming with people under 20. The sorts of people who don't buy poetry may include thirtysomething mediafolk, but not "the young".

"Can poetry survive without electronics?" No question. "It survives," said WH Auden of Four Weddings and a Funeral fame in his even more famous elegy for Yeats, "in the valley of its making. A way of happening. A mouth." It survives because people need it, write it, think with it. They welcome it on the tube. Poets are economically challenged, publishers sign up cookery books to compensate money lost on a poetry list, but poetry itself is alive and saying new things in new ways; keeping in touch with its past, with what's happening in other places, eager to take new risks. Pity more people don't go for it, but that's their loss. Poetry will survive without them. Whether they survive without poetry is another question.

Poetry's into electronics already. It is huge on the Internet. But for electronics you need electricity: electronics is a parasite on the culture, as you realise when the power goes down at a supermarket. Poetry is there in a crisis, the power cut, the sudden bereavement, the dictatorship. Even pages stay around. People Blu-Tac The Independent Daily Poem to kitchen cupboards, where it yellows happily for years, meaning new things long after CDs get scratched. I like the idea of EMI putting out a poetry album, but it's not going to affect people's enduring need for and response to poetry.

The guy I was set up to meet was Murray Lachlan Young. He did a year at Media Performance College, does charismatic satire in nightclubs, and now has that million-pound deal with EMI plus a pounds 250,000 contract with MTV. Good luck to him, I felt; but he didn't seem to feel the same about me when our eyes met in the make-up mirror. I said I thought poets should be generous to each other. Murray emphatically agreed, though his idea of it seemed a bit one-way. He wasn't conspicuously generous to poets who'd said his work was crap. "Can't get published themselves," he said; which wasn't true.

I hope he sells. I think the idea's fun. One friend of mine, whose opinion I'd take over most people's, enjoys Murray's performance cabaret numbers. Her favourite is a straight man getting outed at a gay bar. But on the page, the work is - well, there's sometimes a nice tension between the Christmas cardy, traditionally predictable thump and rhyme, and the sting of the situation. He's getting money for presentation, not poetry. Kids reared on "Poetry in Schools", surfing the poetry magazines on the Internet, will want something more musically interesting, designed and generous. Maybe it wasn't very nice to say that on telly; but I wished him well, and you've got to risk people not being nice to you for a million pounds.

And it's not much of a risk compared with some. I'm reading a new book of poems called Impedimenta (retailing at pounds 3) by the Protestant Ulster poet Adrian Rice, who knows more about poetry and risk than Murray ever will. Jokey, witty, subtle, his poems have a go at the values of his particularly sensitive community, in a particularly sensitive time.

The more honour to his community, you'd say, for producing a poet who questions it from within. But not everyone agrees. A poem from his last book was about Masons giving out "jobs for the boys", and he happened to be in The Honest Ulsterman when his brother, a policeman, was having a laugh with a couple of colleagues. One suddenly asked, "Would that be your brother's poem?" "It would," he said. "Bit close to the bone, was it?" Banter about this aspect of Protestant life was standard on the housing estate where the Rice boys grew up. But things flipped at this point. "Does your brother want his house burnt down?"

Poetry on the page and in the mind - musically designed, deeply felt words, shared dangerously between audience and poet - has always mattered and always will. Whatever EMI gets up to.