Saturday, February 05, 2011

Memorable Poetry?

I've come a little late to Philip Hensher's piece in the Telegraph about the current state of poetry. It's worth reading, for its more nuanced than a summary of it might make out.

In response to the Costa being won again by a poet, (Jo Shapcott's "Of Mutability" following on from Christopher Reid's "A Scattering") he wonders why, when poetry receives praise and profile, it still garners little interest, few sales. He makes the point that whilst Sean O'Brien's "The Drowned Book" won many prizes, (and earned much from those awards), it sold "sod all." Moreover, he makes the point that when poetry is elevated in our discourse, it is for its backstory rather than the words itself. Shapcott's book was written following her cancer treatment, Reid's was an elegy. Its a valid point, but whenever people talk about what poetry is for, then weddings and funerals are often given as an answer. Although he's right that the Booker doesn't tend to be awarded based on a writer's sufferings; perhaps that's the wrong tree he's barking up. The "misery memoir" and its fictional equivalent (and I'd include Anne Enright's dyspeptic "The Gathering" in that list) have been a phenomenon in recent years - with books like "The Lovely Bones" outselling many others. "Poetry as a highly wrought expression of a complex emotion, or as an exquisite opportunity for verbal play and wit, seems to struggle for a readership," and I don't think anyone involced in contemporary poetry would think any different. I'm relaxed about this. We live in a world of films, games, television and the internet, and poetry has to compete with those as well as others. It seems that poetry is addressing issues relating to the environment with vigour; though may find it more difficult to respond to the deficit - after all, poetry has always been more comfortable describing nature than money.

Hensher seems to be struggling with the problem, and I'd say its at least partly because he doesn't seem to be aware (or certainly doesn't mention) many poets other than those, such as Duffy, Armitage and Paterson, who are as famous for their poetic presence as their poetry. You may well find all human life in poetry, but possibly not in any particular poet. Every week it seems that a different poet wins a prize, here or in America, and half the time, they are a name new to me, never mind to the general public. But I'd say the same is true for contemporary art, or theatre.

Although Hensher doesn't seem to be wanting to open a debate on that old chestnut of whether poetry should rhyme or not, the Telegraph readership takes up the cudgel for him. Strangest of all is Sophie Hannah's comment (I'm reliably informed it is the Carcanet poet writing) "Contemporary poetry does not sell because it doesn't offer enough pleasure/enjoyment to the reader. Rhyme and metre - the things that make poetry musical and memorable* are hardly ever used these days in the way that they were by Housman, Larkin, Tennyson, etc, and so much of contemporary poetry does not stick in the mind in the way that pieces of music we love do." *(MY EMPHASIS)

Should poetry stick in the mind? When I think of poetry I love, it is not the simple lyric poem, but the more complex ideas of "The Wasteland" or Ezra Pound's "Cantos". There is nothing wrong with memorising verse, but clearly that though a regular rhyme and metre makes that easier, it doesn't make it better. There are memorable poems by contemporary writers - Ian Duhig's "Fundamentals" or Edwin Morgan's "The Coals", or Luke Kennard's "The Murderer" would be in my list - and probably no less than in previous ages. The dreadful Victoriana that Pound wanted rid of, (which inevitably rhymed, and followed meter) is as unmemorable as a random shard of the least memorable L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet.

To my mind, a poet should be less convinced about their formalism, and more concerned with having something to say. "The Wasteland" remains the most convincing piece of English language art from the devastated world immediately following the First World War, even though it remains notoriously difficult art. Clearly, there was an audience for this great work, at the moment the "audience" for poetry may well be at those times when we need it most, when in love, when we suffer, when we lose someone we care about; the world we live in is unlikey to be so kind as to leave us with only these fundamentals for long. Poetry, will, I have no doubt, respond. And it probably won't be in pentameters.


Tim Love said...

It's a tricky competition. How many of the judges would feel qualified to judge a poetry competition? How many of the judges don't want to look poetically-challenged? If none of the prose entries is outstanding, poetry might get the nod because people feel sorry for the genre, or as a sort of "lifetime achievement" prize, or because judges thought it would benefit from the prize more than the other entries would. The judges might not be able to defend their choice, but they can present quotes to prove that the winning poems deal with big subjects and are understated. People are unlikely to challenge the judgement.

As for memory - well mine's terrible. Perhaps poets who want to be popular could try to offer more memorisable poetry, even the odd sound-byte.

Jim Murdoch said...

Should poetry stick in the mind? Yes, but that doesn’t mean you have to be able to rattle it off parrot fashion. I can’t remember most of my own poetry and (for me) that is perfect poetry, it says exactly what I want to say the way I want to say it. My favourite poem of all time is Larkin’s ‘Mr Bleaney’ which I might just be able to recite from memory if my life depended on it. What I have never forgotten is the feeling I got when I read the poem for the first time and got it. That has stayed with me for almost forty years now. I asked my daughter recently which was her favourite poem of mine in my latest collection and without batting an eye she said, ‘Making Do,’ because you wrote it about my gran. Again, I doubt if she could recite the poem from heart but all she has to do is think about the piece and she will get this wash of memories and feelings; that is what the poem now embodies. So it’s nothing to do with rhyme or metre. As memory aids, yes, rhyme helps but I can remember the rhyme for the months of the year and you’re not telling me that’s great poetry.

Sandra Branum said...

I believe poetry should be simple and elegant -- not this flowery stuff no one understands. If more people agreed with me, poetry would be elevated to a higher level because more people would understand (and invest more time in) it. People have a tendency to invest their time and energy in something they understand and enjoy.

Steven Waling said...

What flowery stuff no-one understands? Be specific, who are these flowery poets no-one understands?

Poetry of the Day said...

memorable.. originalty perhaps

~ <3 Famous Poetry about life <3~

looby said...

The problem with evaluating poetry as a corrolary of literature, as something that can be evaluated in the same terms, is that it overlooks what for me is the fundamental pleasure of poetry: it's oral character. When I read poetry I speak it quietly to myself, and when I go to petry readings, the main pleasure is the sound of the poet's voice and the sensual character of the language which his or her speech brings to it. I think, as litfres implies, the competitions should be separate.

Adrian Slatcher said...

I like your phrase "oral character", its something we can all recognise. I don't think its the only fundamental pleasure that poetry gives - but its certainly an important one. But again, that doesn't necessarily mean traditional poetic forms. Seeing Holly Pester's vocalisations last year was remarkably pleasurable, as was a long, complex poem read by Chris McCabe.