Lines in praise of `traditional' poetry

Can `on the page' poets compete with a performance superstar? No contest, says Ruth Padell

Share
Related Topics
"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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher required, Maidstones shool

Competitive Salary: Randstad Education Group: We urgently require an experienc...

Year 2 Teachers to cover vacancies after resignation period

£110 - £130 per day + Competitve rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Yea...

Year 4 Teachers to cover vacancies after resignation period

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Ye...

Primary Float Teachers needed for various temporary roles

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Pr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: EU news, and other reasons to be cheerful

John Rentoul
The influx of hundreds of thousands of eastern European workers has significantly altered the composition of some parts of Britain  

Immigration is the issue many in Labour fear most

Nigel Morris
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker