Sunday, October 09, 2005

Sense and Sensibility

It is - or has been - national poetry week. I'm not sure whether it coincided with national breast cancer awareness week, or whatever next week is (Booker week? see below), but if the aim of such weeks is to raise awareness where there isn't much, or to celebrate what deserves celebration, I fear that this year, more than ever it may have failed. There was something about a "poem for space won by Adrian Mitchell, the last Manchester Poetry Festival which circumstance stopped me from attending; and the annual award of the Forward Prizes for best collection, first collection and poem. Most interesting perhaps - and the reason I'm commenting was a very measured article by John Mullan in the Guardian on "what are poets writing about?" It does a good job, I think, of explaining to poetry readers and non-readers alike what the current subject matter, or sense and sensibility of English poetry might be (for this he seems to mean written in English by the British and Irish - not Americans or elsewhere). There was the usual rapid response unit angry at his "shallowness", (his article was thoughtful and educative), his "dissing" of Alice Oswald and Carole Ann Duffy (he was respectful and positive about the qualities and popularity of both) and his failure to find anything experiential in the poetry of J.H. Prynne. Mullan's damned either way; but his point was that most of the poets on the shortlists are writing about nature, or the commonplace, sometimes with humour, sometimes not. often formally or in a way that is mostly accessible. The "having something to write about" seems to have left English poetry, unless you were Irish living through the troubles, or - like Forward winner Harsent - have recently translated someone who was living in a war zone. It seems to me that having a subject, or a sense of what you want to write, whether in prose or poetry, is a prerequisite for good work, except in the most extreme of circumstances, but also, that our so-called comfortable lives aren't necessarily that. This poet for instance lives easily without God, (something Eliot couldn't do), but he lives uneasily with that absence, with the "reality" of others' Gods (Bush, Blair, Bin Laden, Saddam), and that's one subject amongst many. I don't think the times make the poet anymore than the poet makes the times.

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